Mar 23 2017

Night Trap (1992)

Before toy giant Hasbro got into the blockbuster biz with the Transformers, G.I. Joe and Ouija franchises, it dipped its toes into the movie game with, well, a movie you could play as a game. Initially released for the Sega console, the CD-ROM Night Trap presented itself as a “U-Direct Film,” a rather toothless quasi-slasher that nonetheless generated enough controversy to become the subject of Senate hearings, get yanked from store shelves and result in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Viewing the footage today, one wonders why Congress got its collective panties in such a bunch.

In the prologue, Lt. Simms (William Jones, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn), the skunk-haired leader of the Special Control Attack Team — yep, S.C.A.T.! — directly addresses the player with the setup. At the home of Victor and Sheila Martin (Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s Jon Rashad Kamal and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’s Molly Starr, reminding one of the Taster’s Choice coffee couple from the ad campaign of that era), five teen girls have disappeared while staying there as guests. Now, five more are staying the night, but this time, one of them, Kelly (Dana Plato, TV’s Diff’rent Strokes), is actually an undercover S.C.A.T. agent. Because the Martins’ suburban house is wired with hidden cameras and elaborate traps, Simms instructs players to control those things in order to save the young ladies’ lives, not to mention find out who — or what — is responsible. No worries — Kelly is always breaking the fourth wall to all but hit the button for you.

The girls immediately get down to some innocent partying — you know, a little crushing cookies into bowls of ice cream here, a little tennis-racket guitar antics there. (The latter is scored to Sunny BlueSkyes’ butt-rock theme song containing lines like “You’ll be caught in the night / Night trap!”) Almost as immediately, the threat appears, and it’s not the red-herring neighbor, Weird Eddie (William Bertrand, Attack of the Baby Doll). Instead, it comes in the form of “the Augers,” which are vampires dressed in what looks like scuba gear; their weapon of choice resembles a pool skimmer retrofitted to encircle a victim’s neck to drain it of blood. There’s also a little boy present, wielding a homemade laser gun, which makes as much sense as why there’s a trapdoor at the bottom of the stairs, not to mention a bed that flings its sleepers backward and out a second-story window.

Directed by James W. Riley and Randy Field, Night Trap contains no sex, no nudity and no violence that is not cartoonish. If anything were to offend the public, it should have been not that women were preyed upon by draculian frogmen, but that they were portrayed as helpless, shrieking shrews — and moreover, the kind who spend their free time pretending to shred on a Dunlop like they’re Stevie Ray Vaughn. Hell, let’s also throw in the injustice of the one black guy (Arthur Burghardt, Network’s Great Ahmed Kahn) being forced to don a painter’s cap with upturned bill, a Hawaiian shirt and a Jamaican accent — and all while being 14th-billed to Dana Plato. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 21 2017

Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead (2013)

Trafficking in tastelessness, encompassing a comedic streak and in no danger of awards chatter, the indie-horror effort Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead is directed and co-written by Pretty Dead Things’ prolific Richard Griffin. His jacking-around movie works better than its clumsy title suggests. The plot is no great shakes, either, as some stuck-up high school students face a life-changing choice: two hours of detention or a trip to a wax museum? (Spoiler: They pick the latter.)

The site in question is where the eyepatch-sporting Charles Frank — aka Dr. Frankenstein (Griffin regular Michael Thurber, The Sins Of Dracula) — crafts his wax creations using body parts acquired from unwitting bodies, like those belonging to the unwitting teens. They’re easy to catch when they’re participating in such shenanigans as having sex in a coffin and when they’re just plain dumb: “Hey, you’re that boring museum tour guide! Well, fuck you, boring museum tour guide!” (And so it is with “fuck”: all in the delivery.)

Hungry Dead’s advantage? Spirit. I’ve always been a sucker for movies set in wax museums, and if Griffin isn’t, he’s sure done a good job of designing the ruse. This pic both parodies and praises such old-school scares, not to mention your above-average episode of the original-recipe Scooby-Doo. Griffin works so often and so quickly that viewers never know whether the result will be worth a watch (The Disco Exorcist) or not (Murder University); Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead steps into the plus column. —Rod Lott

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Read the original review in Exploitation Retrospect: The Journal of Junk Culture & Fringe Media #53

Feb 28 2017

The Last Horror Film (1982)

Love it or loathe it, The Last Horror Film earns a smidgen of admiration for reportedly shooting “guerrilla style” at the Cannes Film Festival. How much of it qualifies as surreptitious is up for debate. What there is no question about is how unappealing Maniac’s Joe Spinell is in the lead role — kinda the movie’s whole point!

Looking not unlike the third Mario Brother, Spinell sweats his way through the part of Vinny, the schlubby Big Apple cabbie obsessed with actress Jana Bates — completely understandable since she is played by Caroline Munro (Jess Franco’s Faceless), here rocking truly garish blonde highlights. Vinny harbors delusions of Jana starring in his “next” film (as if upskirt and keyhole reels count as a debut). Enabled by the trades listing her whereabouts during the fest, Vinny follows — okay, stalks — the object of his unwanted affection to France, where her handlers and producers start getting murdered for responding to anonymous, cryptic messages asking for a meeting at a specific time and place. Zut alors!

Lousy black-and-white camera in hand, Vinny is able to gain entrance into the Cannes hot spots. That his amateur footage serves as a “movie” within the movie lends Last a touch of the meta. Director David Winters (Space Mutiny) still has turned in a fairly sloppy and silly slasher with all the focus of today’s internet-nutured tween.

More or less playing herself and draped on the arm of then-husband Judd Hamilton (her Starcrash co-star and this picture’s co-writer), Munro excels at being gorgeous, while Spinell is … well, something else. Greasy to the point of grotesque, he plays the lonesome loser to the hilt — not always with skill or subtlety, but nonetheless to that damn hilt. He is most entertaining in his run-and-cry reaction to being teased by surgically altered skinny-dippers. Why, it’s enough to make Vinny flee for the arms of his mama — portrayed, incidentally, by Spinell’s actual mother, Mary, who participates in the movie’s certifiably witless groaner of an ending. That said ending is more of a quick-joke button (think Laugh-In, minus any rib-tickling) reveals Winter and company to be creatively bankrupt.

If The Last Horror Film works, it does so just barely. Its existence is justified not as a movie, but as a time capsule for the movies, capturing pause-worthy glimpses of Cannes glitz, tits and hits. Future generations curious about the fest’s circus-like marketplace at the dawn of VHS domination can turn to it to learn how select titles were sold, promoted and advertised, from Superman III and For Your Eyes Only to Invaders of the Lost Gold and Emanuelle, Queen of the Desert. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 27 2017

Train to Busan (2016)

Hop aboard the Train to Busan, although I certainly can understand any hesitation on your part. After suffering through so many awful films of the undead, I had no desire to see yet another zombie movie. Especially a Korean one that is two hours long. Nothing against the Koreans — or any Asian people — but they are known for letting running times overstay their welcome, so when a film hurts, the pain is extended.

But seriously, all aboard! Because Train to Busan not only subverted my expectations, but exceeded them. It is an instant classic of zombie cinema, as well as Eastern Hemisphere horror.

Leaving the station in Seoul, the KTX 101 bullet train is bound for the port city of Busan, some 200 miles away. Fund manager Seok Woo (Gong Yoo, The Suspect) is on it, to deliver his adorable moppet daughter (Kim Soo-ahn, the 2014 omnibus Mad Sad Bad) to her mother, from whom he is divorced — and bitterly so. Just before the doors close, a very special passenger stumbles on undetected: one infected with a killer virus that … hell, you already know the symptoms and the side effects.

The resulting outbreak threatens to decimate the entire passenger list, which includes a baseball team, a lone cheerleader, an expectant couple, a selfish CEO, two elderly sisters and one stowaway hobo. Do not get too attached, because the film’s ballsy bid to play for keeps means anyone can succumb to a bite and transform into herky-jerky, convulsing meat sacks. The zombies of Busan are fast on their feet and operate with the horde mentality of those in World War Z — a solid comparison, given how action-driven both engines are. Another is the Korean/English co-production Snowpiercer, as each follows passengers making their way from the back of the train forward, but in Busan’s battle between the haves and the have-nots, the “not” refers to disease rather than dollars.

If the undead offer nothing new — and they do not — the film at least feels fresh because the major characters are not written as stock archetypes; they are fleshed out (no pun intended) like real people, flaws and all. For example, our hero? He’s a shitty father. And thank goodness, because otherwise, Soo-ahn — all of 9 or 10 at the time — would not be gifted with the same role; her performance is astonishing, judging by any age. If the final two scenes don’t strike you emotionally, that’s on you, not the movie — the brainchild of animation vet Yeon Sang-ho (including Seoul Station, something of a prequel), making a remarkably assured and accomplished directorial debut in the live-action format. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 21 2017

XX (2017)

Research suggests that more women enjoy horror movies than men, and while I have yet to encounter supporting evidence in my life, the construct of XX is well overdue: an anthology film directed by the fairer sex.

Utilizing wordless, doll-centric sequences of stop-motion animation in lieu of a wraparound, XX begins the picture proper with Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” which is not to be confused with the 2009 Richard Kelly film. Working from a short story by the uncompromising Jack Ketchum, Vuckovic (author of Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead) charts the increasing unease of a suburban wife and mother (Natalie Brown, TV’s The Strain) whose comfortable and idyllic existence is upended when her son, after glimpsing inside a stranger’s parcel on the train, loses his appetite … for good. Brown gives a strong performance built upon quiet helplessness as this mysterious, undiagnosed ailment then affects her daughter and husband in short order.

Better known as Grammy-winning art rocker St. Vincent, Annie Clark makes her directorial debut — and impressively so — with “The Birthday Party.” Shifting to a polar-opposite tone, Clark’s soiree follows Mary (Heavenly Creatures’ Melanie Lynskey, great as always) as she prepares for her little girl’s big celebration, mostly by attempting to hide the newly discovered, freshly deceased body of her husband. The tale essentially stands as a one-joke number, but since the joke is rooted in gallows humor, I dare not fault it. Also worth cheering: the ever-versatile Lindsay Burdge (The Invitation) as Mary’s stuck-up neighbor.

Next comes the intense exhortation of “Don’t Fall,” from XX ringleader and portmanteau vet Roxanne Benjamin, a contributor to Southbound (as well as producer of that project and the three V/H/S pix). In fact, this segment of two camping couples and one ferocious threat feels as if it could have made its home in Southbound. The most classically scare-rigged of the bunch, “Don’t Fall” is also the odd (wo)man out, in the sense — and this is not a negative — that it is unconcerned with exploring the inherent challenges of being a mother.

Nowhere is that concept clearer than Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” about a tired, middle-aged single mom (a wonderful Christina Kirk, Along Came Polly) forever struggling to make ends meet and do what’s right for her unappreciative teen son, Andy (Kyle Allen, TV’s The Path), even if that entails moving from town to town to keep his father from finding them.

The crux of XX can be found in “Son,” in an unassuming bit that finds Andy curiously licking a fleck of bloody yolk from an egg he’s cracked open: All at once, viewers get an acknowledgement of womanhood, a comment upon it and, this being horror, an icky act designed to elicit cringes.

I’d argue — okay, perhaps “argue” is too strong a word — that not one of the four talented ladies in charge here yet qualifies as a known-quantity director within the genre, although between the mis-sold Jennifer’s Body and the rather sly (and aforementioned) The Invitation, Kusama comes closest. But it’s not exactly as if they’ve been handed the opportunities, so XX marks a vital step toward sharing the wealth of material, and this batch is so varied from segment to segment, no story feels repetitive. Beyond spearheading the film, kudos are due to Benjamin (will someone please give her an entire feature?) for sticking to V/H/S’s indie-minded template of not explaining every detail; the beauty is that things are more memorable and unsettling and rewarding when their pieces remain a mystery — you know, just like women themselves. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.