Jun 24 2017

Awakening the Zodiac (2017)

While the identity of the Zodiac Killer remains unknown, several popular theories connect him to men who since have passed away. But when has that ever stopped Hollywood from exploiting an exploitable concept? No stranger to other wacky “what if”s on the silver screen, San Francisco’s notorious serial killer of the late 1960s and early ’70s comes alive — with pleasure! — in Awakening the Zodiac.

Tired of living in a shitbox (their words) in a trailer park, blue-collar couple Mick and Zoe Branson (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s Shane West and Hell Baby’s Leslie Bibb) play a lottery of different sorts by bidding on the contents of storage lockers in arrears, in hopes that whatever contents are inside will exceed their investment. On their latest, they go halfsies with Mick’s buddy, Harvey (Matt Craven, Happy Birthday to Me), who owns a pawn shop. While excavating the wares, Harvey finds a box of 8mm films: homemade snuff reels, shot by none other than the Zodiac Killer. They know this because, helpfully, the madman appears in an all-black costume befitting of a superhero, complete with chest insignia.

Because the FBI’s case against the Zodiac remains unsolved, a beaucoup reward remains up for grabs. Hurting for money, our trio reasons if only they can discern the name of the locker renter, they can cash in and be able to crawl out of their miserable small-town lives. Instead of letting the law do that detective work, they stupidly attempt it themselves, starting with a couple of good ol’ B-and-Es. Who’d’ve thunk it, but in doing so, these rubes attract the ire of the actual Zodiac (Stephen McHattie, Watchmen), who emerges from retirement and hasn’t lost his thirst for bloodshed in the ensuing decades.

It goes without saying that Awakening the Zodiac packs nary a fraction of the punch of David Fincher’s 2007 true-crime masterpiece, Zodiac, and you’d be a fool to expect it to. Although inspiration is drawn from the real-life crimes, most explicitly in the time-warped prologue, historical accuracy is not on the mind of director/co-screenwriter Jonathan Wright (Nostrum), who’s more concerned with leveraging the boogeyman’s brand-name infamy into a marketable hook and letting it lie there. Marginally functional yet utterly predictable, the movie squanders its limited creepiness and becomes a victim of its own stupidity; it even takes the time — and wastes ours — to have Harvey explain the concept of ciphers to Mick and Zoe — the stuff of workbook pages geared toward third-graders. Bibb and Craven exude more energy than the film deserves, while West just does that thing he always does, which is to say he stands around with his face scrunched into what looks like a balled-up fist. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

May 29 2017

Great White (1981)

Among all the Jaws imitators to have surfaced from international waters, Italy’s Great White is unique: It is the only one to be sued out of the marketplace by the litigious Universal Studios for being too much of a carbon copy. Okay, so in hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the brightest idea to send Vic Morrow to wardrobe as if he were going to a Halloween ball as Robert Shaw’s salty shark hunter Quint.

Milking his Irish accent so hard, Morrow plays grizzled second fiddle to clean-cut James Franciscus (The Cat o’ Nine Tails) in the Roy Scheider family-man role and publicly theorizes that the toothed beast may be “crazed.” The appearance of (B-roll of) this shark threatens to ruin their coastal town’s upcoming windsurfing competition, which is such a big deal that is the radio station DJ talks about local surfers between stacks of platter the way other markets do traffic and weather. Yes, it’s That Big, and the mayor (Joshua Sinclair, Lady Frankenstein), who may as well be named Murray Hamilton, isn’t about to let a few bloody stumps disrupt the economically rewarding festivities.

The longer Great White (aka The Last Shark) goes on, the more you can sense members of the Uni legal team drooling on a draft of the injunction. Whereas Steven Spielberg had the iconic score of John Williams working in his favor, Enzo G. Castellari (Cold Eyes of Fear) is saddled with the discordant theme of what sounds like a seal choking as it passes gas. Whereas Spielberg relied upon that rarely working but terrifyingly lifelike shark, Castellari has to get by on a mix of stock footage, a rigid model and, best/worst of all, a barely moving head that might have been “borrowed” from Universal’s famed tram ride.

To be fair, Castellari does have one thing Spielberg’s classic does not: a shot of a corpse-stiff dummy rocketing into the sky as the shark bursts from the water like a geyser. So phony it’s funny, the bit dared me not to replay it thrice. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

May 9 2017

Rest Stop (2006)

With an electrical socket as its logo, Raw Feed jolted to life, kinda, in 2006 as a direct-to-DVD subsidiary of Warner Home Video and intended home for envelope-pushing horror free from MPAA meddling. Instead, Raw Feed issued product that felt overly derivative and devoid of imagination; six flicks later, the outlet ran out of juice. Its final offering was 2008’s fittingly titled Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back, a sequel to the line’s debut. That first film, plain ol’ Rest Stop, is so rote, I couldn’t submit myself to a part 2. I feel like I’ve seen it anyway.

Young Midwestern lovers Nicole (Jaimie Alexander, Thor: The Dark World) and Jess (Joey Mendicino, whose only other movie role to date is the sequel) run away from home and hit the open road toward California. (In other words, like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, if the Joads headed west not for work, but the freedom to copulate.) After stopping for an open-air quickie, Nicole’s girl bladder ruins everything when she has to tinkle. Begrudgingly, Jess pulls over to — cue ominous music — a rest stop in the middle of the woods. It’s a place where no right-minded city planner would allow one to be built, lest he’s seeking to serve the body-waste needs of storybook creatures.

Surprise! The facilities are a dump! (Last Shithouse on the Left, anyone?) While Nic is squatting atop the scum-layered stool to make water, Jess mysteriously makes like a tree and leaves. You won’t pry it outta me, but his vamoose act might have something to do with the shit-kickin’ redneck in the yeller truck.

If not for the pre-existing Joy Ride and Wrong Turn franchises revving up around that time, Rest Stop might be fresher meat … except that still leaves dozens of other crazy-dude-in-a-vehicle films to contend with, notably the ’80s VHS fave The Hitcher and the granddaddy of them all, Steven Spielberg’s Duel.

Better known as a writer of nearly two dozen X-Files episodes and creator of its short-lived The Lone Gunmen spin-off, John Shiban made his feature directing debut with Rest Stop, and has yet to follow it up. He also wrote it, yet given the pedigree of the landmark X-Files series, the only thing shocking about his script is how color-by-numbers predictable it is, which allows boredom to set in faster than quick-dry cement. More about spilling blood than turning twists, it owes its brightest spots not to leading lady Alexander, who spends the back half shirtless, but to the performance by former child star Joey Lawrence (Urban Legends: Final Cut) as a cop. Whoa! —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Apr 13 2017

The Dungeon of Harrow (1962)

Before a lengthy career drawing many a Charlton Comics title, Pat Boyette tried his hand at filmmaking. Although he technically succeeded, in that he directed three movies in two years, he failed spectacularly. His best-known film, The Dungeon of Harrow, is harrowing only in trying to sit through it.

Looking not unlike Nicolas Cage dipped in Clairol Natural Instincts for Men, the weaker-than-milquetoast Russ Harvey overwhelmingly underwhelms in his starring role as Aaron Fallon, a trust-fund wimp who is one of only two shipwreck survivors stranded on the island of Count Lorente de Sade (William McNulty), our obvious madman whose requisite Gothic castle predictably includes an array of guest accommodations (read: torture chambers).

When I tell you that the shipwreck is rendered via toy boat, or crashes of lightning achieved through the flickering of light, I do so not to encourage viewing, but to testify against it. The extra spaces inserted randomly in the opening titles should be considered a bellwether — one warning of “incomprehensible dreck ahead.”

As director, co-writer, editor, composer and supporting player, Boyette was aiming for something in the snazzy style of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The result is The Terror, but on Medicaid assistance. Shot in San Antonio, The Dungeon of Harrow proves that precious few Texas-lensed terrors can be a Chain Saw Massacre. This is one of those public-domain titles that even the public domain took a gander, turned up its nose, made a shooing gesture and said, “Nah, I’m good.” —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Apr 5 2017

Minutes Past Midnight (2016)

It came from Canada! Minutes Past Midnight, that is — an indie horror anthology fashioned from nine pre-existing shorts, with no effort made toward a wraparound. Produced and presented in part by Rue Morgue magazine, the film is wildly uneven in both tone and satisfaction — as one would expect from a project with so many creative visions at work (including a killer bunny, a ghost train and a bloodthirsty floor that always wants more), yet boasts enough standouts to tip the scales toward “win.”

But you wouldn’t know it from the start, with portraits of families cannibalistic and psychotic doing more to infuriate than entertain. After these initial stumbles, Minutes finds its footing with “Crazy for You,” a rom-com parody of sorts from Severance scribe James Moran. Its lovelorn narrator (Arthur Darvill, TV’s Legends of Tomorrow) sets up the premise thusly: “It’s difficult to find love … when you’re a serial killer,” particularly one whose base impulse is triggered by polka dots. Thus, it is inevitable he falls for a cute, chipper blonde (Hannah Tointon, The Lost Future) whose home is decorated in … oh, c’mon, you knew that was coming.

Hollywood effects wizard Kevin McTurk (Galaxy Quest) delivers a spellbinding animated segment in “The Mill at Calder’s End.” Not only does this stop-motion sensation nail the trappings of the Gothic genre, but taps its undisputed queen for voice work: Black Sunday’s Barbara Steele. Next, Ryan Lightbourn (All the Devils Are Here) goes lower than lowbrow for “Roid Rage,” a satisfyingly sick-minded short about a homicidal hemorrhoid; although not everybody’s cup of crap, “Roid Rage” does in less than 15 minutes what a combined 15 Troma movies cannot.

To jump ahead to the end, ABCs of Death 2 contributor Robert Boocheck channels vintage Sam Raimi to a hilarious and “Horrific” degree. You’ll howl with delight as a Texas redneck (Mike C. Nelson, Dust Up) destroys his trailer-trash home as he does battle with a chupacabra. Giving Minutes Past Midnight its golden hour (give or take 53 minutes), this Boocheck guy needs a feature. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.