Apr 26 2017

Wolves at the Door (2016)

Whereas the Manson Family’s murder spree registered as terrifyingly true in the nonfiction best seller Helter Skelter, the out-of-date dramatization Wolves at the Door is merely a welter — by definition, a confused mess. For a motion picture that barely cracks the one-hour mark, to be so mired is no mean feat.

On Aug. 9, 1969, five people were slain brutally at the L.A. home of director Roman Polanski. In depicting the events of that instantly infamous night as a horror-thriller, the polished Wolves reeks of bad taste. Characters are based on the real-life victims — most notably, pregnant sex-bomb actress Sharon Tate (Katie Cassidy, Taken), coffee heiress Abigail Folger (Elizabeth Henstridge, TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (Miles Fisher, Final Destination 5) — but minus last names, as if the omission makes all the difference in respectful distancing.

As the good guys and girls move about the Cielo Drive home like fish swimming cluelessly in a barrel, we glimpse the menacing visages and ominous stares of Manson’s minions outside as they pass windows and mirrors. The evil doll of Annabelle, director John R. Leonetti’s previous spook show, possessed more personality than these cardboard-cutout criminals who have been retrofitted with the Stock Movie Villain’s uncanny ability to be hiding in all places at all times.

Beyond exploitation of subject, the most problematic element among Wolves at the Door’s litany of them is that it offers no point, nor has reason to exist. Post-dinner, Sharon and her party enter the house to end the evening; the killers invade and slaughter them one by one; the end. No closure, no comeuppance, no courtroom drama. Leonetti does conclude his film with black-and-white footage of the real Charles Manson uttering one of his wackadoo phrases that perenially make him the least popular person in the room — specifically, the one where the parole board sees fit to hold its hearings. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Apr 6 2017

Aftermath (2017)

As far as I have surmised, Arnold Schwarzenegger does three things really well:
1. Be an unstoppable killing machine (either human or cyborg).
2. Poke fun at himself.
3. Secretly impregnate the help.

Unfortunately, only two of those relate to onscreen activity, and neither is required of him by the demands of Aftermath. Instead, the dramatic thriller finds the one-time box-office champ in Maggie mode: dour, dreary and even depressing.

In Aftermath, the near-septuagenarian Schwarzenegger portrays Roman, a blue-collar family man anxiously awaiting the return of his wife and daughter on an overseas flight. When he arrives at the airport to pick them up, he is greeted not with the joy of a reunion, but the tragic news that an accident has occurred: the midair collision of two descending planes, one of which carried his loved ones. Blame is placed on white-collar family man Jake (Scoot McNairy, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), illogically the only air traffic controller on duty at the time, although technically, faulty equipment is the real culprit.

But every tragedy needs a villain’s face, and Roman is intent on hunting Jake down to confront him and demand the apology he has received from no one. Meanwhile, the weight of reality bears heavily on Jake’s shoulders, threatening to tear his family asunder as well. (Perennial Taken victim Maggie Grace hits some nice, understated notes as his wife.)

Having successfully directed one Expendable through a more serious ringer before (Jason Statham in Blitz), Elliott Lester faces an uphill battle with Arnold in Aftermath. Schwarzenegger simply hasn’t the acting chops to pull off this kind of high-stakes drama, and his discomfort with trying appears more evident the thinner the material gets. McNairy is reliable as ever, but underserved by a script (from Javier Gullón, 2013’s unconventional Enemy) that keeps its thrills as separate as bookends and fills in all the minutes between with the maudlin processes of a grief-recovery workbook.

When our two leads finally meet toward the film’s conclusion, you may wish Schwarzenegger needn’t have bothered with knocking on the door, when the simple blast of a bazooka would have done just fine 30 years ago. That is the loss I feel. —Rod Lott

Mar 7 2017

Attack of the Morningside Monster (2014)

From the start, we’re in agreement that Attack of the Morningside Monster sounds like a sci-fi cheapie of the Atomic Age, right? Something that Roger Corman would’ve outlined (if not scripted) during a bowel movement? The actual film’s title card drops all but those last two words — not much of an improvement, yet the movie is stronger than any moniker with which it’s saddled.

Morningside is a sleepy (and fictional) town in New Jersey shaken wide awake by a mysterious murder that soon escalates into a string of them — the work of a robed serial killer, keeping Sheriff Tom Faulk (Robert Pralgo, The Collection) and Deputy Klara Austin (B-movie queen Tiffany Shepis, who doesn’t even have to remove a stitch!) busy as those proverbial bees. Said slasher wears one of the silliest costumes this subgenre has ever seen: what looks like a papier-mâché Mardi Gras mask that’s been Bedazzled and sports an overbite so pronounced, any decent orthodontist would go ahead and put a downpayment on that yacht he’s been eyeing.

This thriller being director Chris Ethridge’s long-form debut, seams show — sometimes because a boom mike’s reflection can be seen, sometimes because his direction calls too much attention to itself. And honestly, the killings feel almost secondary, because he and screenwriter Jayson Palmer (Idiots Are Us) do a good job of setting up Sheriff Tom’s world. Dreary though it may be, the lawman’s daily routine with the townsfolk is interesting enough — and Pralgo and Shepis’ performances that damned great — that for several minutes, I genuinely forgot a cult-worshipping killer even was involved.

In other words, if Morningside Monster were just a low-key episode of Cops dealing with nothing more than the drunk and disorderly, I wouldn’t have minded. Heck, it might even be better that way, no matter how many circular handsaws may be missed. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

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

Feb 2 2017

MurderLust (1985)

Security guard Steve Belmont (Eli Rich, The Jigsaw Murders) possesses MurderLust in his heart. The Sunday school teacher has a hobby of hiring hookers, but he only gets his rocks off by strangling them. Then he dumps their dead bodies off a desert cliff, eventually earning him the TV-news nickname of “the Mojave Murderer” — once the cops discover the spot, nine corpses (and untold vultures and flies) later. Steve seems not too terribly anxious about this development; he has bigger worries in ditching his check-seeking landlord.

From the five-time team of director Donald M. Jones and writer/producer James C. Lane (Housewife from Hell), MurderLust meanders around with little aim, yet, like Steve himself, acts like it knows what it’s doing. Steve appears to make moves toward normalcy, as he accepts a janitorial job at the grocery store run by his uptight cousin (Dennis Gannon, Jones/Lane’s Evil Acts) and romances a super-cute blonde (Rochelle Taylor) from church … but only because he was thwarted in killing her first.

While they know not of Steve-o’s predilection for prostitutes, we sure do, and the joy of the film is in seeing him somehow pull off this charade while acting like a grade-A asshole to damn near everybody. Rich gives a real performance here, if not a terribly nuanced one — certainly stronger than the average VHS shocker ever asked for or deserved. Primarily (but not exclusively) for that reason, MurderLust is an above-average example of its kind: a lumbering, semi-lovable goof of a movie that keeps most of its carnage out of sight and its purpose to entertain on the cheap thoroughly in check. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jan 30 2017

Leaving Scars (1997)

Perhaps the title Leaving Scars refers to star Lisa Boyle’s boob job? The Plasticine, pneumatic Playboy model headlines this would-be thriller as Diane, a bitchy, cocaine-snorting actress who runs for her life after goons discover she’s in possession of a computer disk. The in-demand object was given to her by a friend at a party minutes before said pal was killed for it.

At least Diane doesn’t have to play the fugitive game alone; she’s accompanied by some average Joe named Michael (Robin Downs, whose only other credit is 2004’s Retreat). They meet cute at the party when they both have to vomit. At first, they mix like vinegar and water, but well before the 90 minutes are up, they share a blue-tinted, soft-music sex scene — a given with Boyle, aka Cassandra Leigh, direct-to-video veteran of such Skinemax programming as Caged Heat 3000, I Like to Play Games and Dreammaster: The Erotic Invader. We learn that Boyle’s phony breasts are so far apart, her plastic surgeon could have fit two more breasts between them.

Leaving Scars leaves plot holes. Viewers are left not knowing exactly who’s who and what’s what, partly because director Brad Jacques (whose 2001 follow-up, Pray for Power, also stars Boyle) does us no favors by casting three eerily similar-looking guys in the supporting roles. As our lead, Boyle is unappealing on so many levels that you wish the killers would succeed; Shannon Whirry, she is not.

If you happen to catch Leaving Scars on DVD, go about nine-point-five minutes into chapter six, when the director and producer’s commentary — yes, this cheapie demanded a commentary — is interrupted by the arrival of the pizza they ordered! They spend about a minute trying to find the required $10.60 to pay for it, then proceed to make disgusting smacking noises as they attempt to simultaneously chat and chew. During one of the lengthy sex scenes, one of the filmmakers even lets out a deep belch while the other is gabbing. The moment is surreal, yet better than any of the film itself. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.