Mar 14 2017

Seedpeople (1992)

Before the video store went to seed, Charles Band made a mint in the early 1990s when he shifted focus from putting his low-budget horror and sci-fi movies in theaters and instead created them directly for the VHS rental market. Under the Full Moon label, these films capitalized heavily on their own brand, cultivating a rabid fanbase and presaging the DVD experience by tacking a behind-the-scenes “VideoZone” onto the tapes. Among those early titles: Puppetmaster, Subspecies, Dollman and Seedpeople.

Containing jussssst enough of a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to not get sued, Seedpeople is told almost entirely in flashbacks by geologist Tom Baines (Sam Hennings, Indecent Behavior III) from the confines of his hospital bed to an inquisitive FBI agent (an uncredited Michael Gregory, Eraser). His story begins with a return visit to his tiny hometown of Comet Valley, where his old girlfriend (Andrea Roth, Dark Places) runs a bed-and-breakfast and dates the asshole sheriff (Dane Witherspoon, Asteroid). Tom’s arrival happens to coincide with alien plant life from outer space taking root there, the seeds of which turn people into mindless drones — Seedpeople, I propose — and sprout monsters.

Designed by John Carl Buechler (Ghoulies Go to College), three distinct creatures exist in the narrative, probably because Band loves his action figures: Sailor, a flying tick-like thing; Tumbler, a rolling ball of hair; and Shooter, a Weeble Wobble that walks on its arms. (It’s best not to ask questions.) While as chintzy-looking as any of the cut-rate critters Paul Blaisdell created for Roger Corman in the drive-in days, at least they are practical and share the frame with actors. They’re not so much scary as they are, well, leaky.

However, the most memorable scenes — both of them — involve not these beasties, but the flowering plant from which they came: When poked, it splooges all over one guy, and later covers an old farmer in Corn Pops shortly after he says, “What in the ding-dong-heck-a-muh-doodle-hell is that?” It’s Seedpeople, old timer! Witless yet harmless, it’s a patch of hydroponic hysterics tended by the fun-to-say Peter Manoogian (The Dungeonmaster), a staple of the Band payroll, such as it is. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 8 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

When Peter Jackson, flush with post-Lord of the Rings clout, finally got to birth his pet project in 2005 with his King Kong remake, the result was a trifecta of well-deserved technical Oscars … and 187 punishing, interminable minutes of a mess, suggesting a director’s self-indulgence left unchecked. Now, the big ape returns — Kong, that is — in Kong: Skull Island, in which the unlikely guiding hand of The Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts shows Jackson how to monkey around properly. Vogt-Roberts’ film nails the effects and virtually everything else, at roughly two-thirds of the running time and $17 million less (unadjusted for inflation). Less is more, and infinitely more satisfying.

In 1973, satellite photos reveal an uncharted land mass encircled within a perpetual storm in the Pacific Ocean. Crackpot scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane) pulls the necessary political strings to finagle a full military escort onto this so-called “Skull Island” for a fact-finding mission. Rand suspects what no one else does: There be monsters. Upon their unannounced arrival, the escorting U.S. Army troops, headed by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, Avengers: Age of Ultron), find this out the hard way: having their helicopters swatted from the sky — and, for most, to death below — by Kong’s prodigious paws. And Kong is hardly the only king-sized creature that calls this hellish locale home; Randa, Packard and the few survivors will encounter a spider, an octopus, lizards and more — all equally elephantine. It’s as if the entire isle has been stricken with Jurassic fever.

This action-fantasy seems to have taken more cues from that dino-mite franchise rather than any Kong entry before it. Bright and breakneck-paced, the film alternates between pulse-pounding and rib-tickling, barely letting up on one or the other in a winning bid to constantly entertain. If one ignores the final monster-vs.-monster battle, the movie also consistently surprises, admirably eschewing golden opportunities to milk the nostalgia teats of the 1933 original.

The movie’s weakest links are two of its top-billed visitors: ostensible leads Tom Hiddleston (Crimson Peak) and Brie Larson (Trainwreck) as, respectively, a hired-hand mercenary and an acclaimed war photographer. Barely registering, their characters have no character, which is strange considering Skull Island’s own Robinson Crusoe/Col. Kurtz (The Lobster’s John C. Reilly, stealing every damn scene) has personality oozing from every pore. —Rod Lott

Mar 6 2017

Beware! The Blob (1972)

My theory on the jaw-droopingly incompetent and almost literally unwatchable Beware! The Blob? Glad you asked, and it’s a simple one: Director Larry Hagman had to be off-his-ass drunk during the entirety of its making. In support, I offer this quartet of irrefutable points:
• Then between starring on the TV series I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas, Hagman never had directed a feature film before. (And never did again, and our world is all the better for it.)
• Several characters are portrayed as not only drinking adult beverages, but drinking too many of them. Overconsumption: It’s a theme.
• One of those characters is Hagman himself, who rather believably cameos (alongside an uncredited Burgess Meredith of Burnt Offerings) as an inebriated hobo.
• And in real life, Hagman was a notorious alcoholic who owned more than one liver. So, yeah, there’s that.

Whereas 1958’s The Blob creeps and leaps and glides and slides, Beware! The Blob just bores and snores and flails and pales, what with scenes of action dropped between interminable, stretches of improvised dialogue. It is difficult to discern how seriously we are supposed to take its deafness of tone. This is not a sequel so much as an alternate personality, assuming the original Blob were schizophrenic.

Viewers of that sci-fi classic (and Steve McQueen launchpad) may recall it concluding with “THE END?” as the mighty U.S. military air-drops the killer mass of gelatin in the Arctic, where frozen-tundra temperatures keep it paralyzed and, in turn, from doing harm. Well, Beware! answers that question mark with an exclamation of disbelief as technician Chester (Godfrey Cambridge, Cotton Comes to Harlem) returns from work at the North Pole with a container of “specimen.” Too busy enjoying the tent inexplicably pitched in his living room and pouring many beers into a super-sized vase, Chester does not notice the blob immediately defrosting. It consumes a cute kitty before turning to much meatier humans, starting with poor, ignorant Chester and his poor, innocent wife (Marlene Clark, Ganja & Hess).

Other appetizers and entrees include a cop trying to bust two pot-smoking hippies (one of whom is Cindy Williams, a year before her breakout role in American Graffiti), a barber (Catskills comedian Shelley Berman, being not funny), a bowling alley worker (Fred Smoot, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat) and many a bowler (whose entertainment venue is linked all-too-conveniently to an ice rink). Despite all this mucilaginous mayhem, the film’s milquetoasted good guy (Robert Walker Jr., Easy Rider) and good girl (Fade to Black’s Gwynne Gilford, aka Chris Pine’s mom) have a tough time convincing the authorities to do something about it.

Can’t say I blame the sheriff (Richard Webb, Hillbillys in a Haunted House) for being that way; hell, after two pained viewings, I can’t even remember whether prominent cast members Carol Lynley (The Beasts Are on the Streets) and Dick Van Patten (Spaceballs) survive! However, I do remember that the latter portrays a scoutmaster with an unhealthy love for the mustard plant. I also remember that, wearing a fez in the bathtub, a Turkish man played by pro wrassler Tiger Joe Marsh manages to escape the blob’s oozing fury, but does have to run naked down the street to do so. As with Beware! The Blob as a whole, you can’t unsee it, so it’s best not to look at all. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 23 2017

Where Have All the People Gone (1974)

You can put all of the so-called masters of horror in one room, give them a $50 million budget and they still couldn’t come up with anything as effectively unsettling and downright creepy as a 1970s TV movie-of-the-week made by any random journeyman hack.

An absolute perfect storm of high concepts and low budgets, cheap film stock and sparse locations, overemotive acting and rushed finales, 1974’s Where Have All the People Gone — not based on the Peter, Paul and Mary flowers song, sadly — stars the eternally cloud-crowned Peter Graves (Airplane!) as an exceedingly levelheaded father who finds himself and his two grown kids in the middle of the cheapest apocalypse ever.

While spelunking as part of a family vacation — yep, they are those types of white people — a massive solar flare blasts the earth, causing Styrofoam rocks to bounce all over scenic Southern California and, in a startling turn of events, unleashing some sort of nonsensical virus that transmogrifies living people into decidedly non-living piles of clothes and dust. (I guess that plot point saved them a few dollars on mannequin rentals.)

As Graves’ patriarch admirably keeps it together, the only mission impossible here is trying to keep his two grating adult kids (The Evil’s George O’Hanlon Jr. and Event Horizon’s Kathleen Quinlan) from constantly suffering histrionically emotional breakdowns every time they see something that reminds them of their mom back in Malibu. With seemingly no automobiles working, he and his crew fashion a horse-and-buggy apparatus, pick up a catatonic mom and an orphaned rascal named Billy, search for groceries and fight packs of wild dogs on their way to the ’Bu, with predictably dystopian ’70s made-for-TV movie results.

From Circus of Fear director John Llewellyn Moxey — who I am willing to bet wore an ascot during production — this no-budget speculative thriller is surprisingly effective, considering it is honestly just a camera following a group of actors on a hike for an hour and 10 minutes, stopping every once and while to relay some sort of flimsy scientific theories about what’s going on, the unnatural sunshine beating down and emphasizing the desolation decently enough.

Featuring an open ending where most things are cleared up by Quinlan voice-overing about what mysteries the future might hold, this, like nearly all ’70s made-for-TV movies, felt like a pilot for a show that was never meant to be — something that probably would have been Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with a wardrobe furnished by the good people at Sears. —Louis Fowler

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 20 2017

The Great Wall (2017)

Last October, Houston Rockets point guard Bobby Brown came under fire for signing his name and jersey number on the Great Wall of China. In the department of shame, however, Brown’s thoughtless and egotistical act of vandalism pales next to the wrongheaded disaster that is The Great Wall, an epic fantasy from House of Flying Daggers auteur Zhang Yimou.

Bearing for-the-ages bad hair, Matt Damon (Jason Bourne) and Pedro Pascal (TV’s Narcos) portray William and Tovar, a couple of non-Chinese mercenaries in China, looking to finagle some newfangled “black powder.” Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the pair is imprisoned by the intimidating-sounding The Order and assumed to be not long for this world … until William’s ace archery skills strike The Order as a damn good defense against the Tao Tei.

Ah, yes, the Tao Tei: those giant, reptilian creatures that try to bust through the Great Wall (hence, the title) once every six decades. Victorious or not, at least the monsters exhibit impeccable attendance. Damon’s vaguely Irish bow-and-arrow beefcake joins an acrobatic female commander (the ever-flipping Jing Tian, Police Story: Lockdown) and other bugaboo crushers on the kind of multicultural crew that fronts so many of today’s global-minded blockbusters, from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the Magnificent Seven remake to each successive sequel in The Fast and the Furious franchise.

In all but the computer-generated threat, The Great Wall looks, well, great. But as in real life, looks aren’t everything, and indeed, this cruel mistress bores. In their color-coded armor, our heroes resemble comic-book warriors who have burst from page to screen, but Yimou has stuck them into a rote screenplay that reminded me of Reign of Fire — not a positive comparison, considering that 2002 dragon-festooned film is one of the few times I’ve exited the theater mid-movie.

Closer to Yimou’s home turf, it also brought to mind the high-flying fantasies of Tsui Hark, who rose to world-cinema fame on the strength of mystical martial-arts adventures like 1983’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain … and then missed as often as he hit. Although Yimou’s filmography is roughly half the size of Hark’s, a more definitive through line exists in Yimou’s work; whether Raise the Red Lantern, Curse of the Golden Flower or Jet Li’s Hero, he tends to stick within his comfort zone of costumed epics, more or less grounded in realism. The Great Wall retains the man’s hallmarks — an air of elegance, fluidity of movement, a love of the historical, elaborate robing as vital as weaponry — yet in poking a hole through the arthouse to get a glimpse of the more commercial fare playing next door, his hold on mastery falls to the floor. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.