Sunday, June 23, 2013

WHIRLED WAR Z


Sorry, Virginia... despite the swell concept art that was all over the 'net at the beginning of the process, we don't get our Battle of Yonkers. Actually, there’s no trace of Max Brooks’ clever zombie novel World War Z to be found here, other than some echoes in the dialogue. And the name. They could have just labeled it Brad Pitt vs. The Zombies

Of course, I doubt that anyone who enjoyed the book expected even a rudimentary adaptation. It's not the kind of thing that lends itself to a summer tentpole. Written as a pastiche of Studs Turkel's oral histories, the novel obviously calls out for a HBO project in the style of Ken Burns. That wouldn't pull in the teenagers, though. Although contemporary teens are probably more inclined to stream episodes of The Walking Dead or play some Left4Dead instead of wasting ten bucks on what's essentially a tweener movie with zombie sprinkles.

The Bradster here is a retired UN spook (and pancake-flippin’ all- around family guy) who has his loved ones put on hold by a former boss unless he re-ups and does something about all these damned zombies. Which he does in a handful of noisy set-pieces loosely linked together to serve as story, all of which are just variations of “Shit! Someone just made a noise and here come the zombies! Run!”

"At least I'm running manlier than Leonardo DiCaprio would have!"

And here the infected come a’running, as director Marc Forster emphasizes the swarming aspect of insects or even the disease itself. Or Teapartiers. It’s a neat approach, although pretty much just a cranked-up version of 28 Days Later that aims for adrenaline over the dread. There's not much in the way of suspense, because that would slow down the action. But as established with that one really bad James Bond flick, Forster still doesn't have a good eye for action either. 

So what we get instead is a barely capable thriller in zombie drag, with shaky-cam and muddy editing to keep you confused when the shit hits the fan... ‘cause that’s the way it’d look in real life, man.

But not too much blood ‘cause it’s PG-13. 

So the running time is mostly that, with Pitt and other folks just run- ning about dodging zombies, screaming or shooting. Or just talking and reiterating in between the running about what they were talking over earlier so that no one in Beijing gets confused by the already very basic story. Because this is the new brand of multiplex filler, any complexity is homogenized into a simple noisy package calculated for mass international consumption.

 "Don't fire until you see the pixels of their eyes!"

But World War Z isn’t as epic as the title promises. A few flashes of promise, but not 200m worth of promise. But it isn’t boring... it’s just not compelling. Things keep moving but there's no one home. If the best zombie films are about the subtext, the closest WWZ gets is as a metaphor for the current Hollywood paradigm. The industry is getting radioed and the suits are eating anything that gets in the way on their mad dash to the final cashout.

In the darkest hour of the civil rights movement and Vietnam, out- sider George Romero used Night of the Living Dead as a howl of outrage over the spilled blood of good people and a society bent on autocannibalism.  While Romero's allegory isn't all that subtle, it is still tone perfect. Even adjusted to today's dollar, NOTLD cost less than a million to make, but still held the allegorical power to make the horror film grow up overnight and along the way established the zombie genre as a vehicle for sociopolitical commentary and even philosophy. We have met the undead and they are us.

45 Years Later... 

...and we have Hollywood dropping almost a quarter of a billion dollars into the genre to shill how refreshing an ice cold Pepsi can be after the hero saves his family — oh, and the humanity — from the zombie apocalypse. Pop will eat itself, given that Romero’s Dawn of the Dead used the genre as a pitch black send-up of consumerism.

Which I suppose makes WWZ the first meta-zombie movie, made by zombies for zombies.

WWZ has been an openly troubled production, with things going further south as Damon "I Haz Keyboard" Lindelof was brought in to double-tap the ending. Here Pitt wears the resigned air of wanting to finish already with the grief and just get to the wrap party. Maybe the breaking point came after reading one of his co-producers explain WWZ to Vanity Fair: “It’s a zombie movie,” said Ian Bryce. “They go around and bite people.”

 "Okay... maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all..."

Max Brooks’ novel is a lot more than that. The movie... well, that’s pretty much it. But if that’s all you want out of your movie time then, hey... you might like this. Or that. Hollywood product is pretty much interchangeable at this point.

Monday, February 4, 2013

THE ROCKET MAN (1954)


A forgotten film with John Agar and Anne Francis? And written by Lenny Bruce? Well, sort of. It's before Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet and John Agar as he transitions from Shadow of The Duke to fighting monsters. And Bruce was only brought in to punch up a weary script by Jack Henley, the scribe behind some of the Ma and Pa Kettle things...

...and it shows. The world of The Rocket Man is aggressively provincial. Everyone is chirpy in that Eisenhower-era sort of way and a boy can still get away pointing a gun at a politician and no one bats an eye.

The gun is a raygun, slipped to froggy-voiced seven-year-old Timmy (George 'Foghorn' Winslow) by some teleportin' space perv. I mean, look at this guy eyeballing Timmy outside the orphanage:


No reason given why Rocket Man gives a child a raygun. Must have been bored.

Then Timmy is temporarily signed out of the orphanage by the matronly Justice of the Peace (Spring Byington) to stay over at her house in order to set up some narrative nonsense about saving the orphanage from a crooked pol's landgrab. Agar drops by on some business for the sleazy pol, but is charmed out of participating in the scheme by Anne Francis. Every rare now and then Timmy points the raygun at things, but 95% of the running time is spent on domestic matters.

A raygun in the hands of an orphan in Mayberry, RFD has some dynamite potential but the film can't be bothered. The high concept is lost in all the unrelated subplots. Basically, the MacGuffin-with-cheese just gets used to wrap things up in the end, albeit pulling double duty as a deux ex machina. And although Lenny was called in to to polish some gags, aside from occasional Daddy-O phrasing you wouldn't know it.

Granted, it's a kids film, cranked out to make a matinee dime and then discarded. But I'm guessing there were more than a few of the target demographic pretty unhappy with the bait-n-switch. The film couldn't afford even a half-assed rocket for the eponymous dude. He just appears in a puff of smoke, pulls his Smiling Bob face and then disappears. But then, its cheapness is also sort of endearing. Shot in someone's house and surrounding Bible Belt burg, it has a nice paint peeling clutter to it...


I suspect the producers were so tight they even had the actors use their own cars. I wonder how many kids they went through...

But, no...this is not some forgotten gem. It's kind of a chore, especially if you go in expecting some Bruce satire to creep in (although he might have gotten away with a stealth STD joke). But as a snapshot of 1954 and how sci-fi was still regarded, it's interesting.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

BLOOD STALKERS (1975)


Encountering the regional shocker Blood Stalkers for the first time is a little like coming across a forgotten Mason jar stuffed with a perfect chunk of preserved 1978. A lot was happening in horror that year, so it’s easy to understand why Robert Morgan’s first and only shot was drowned out in the roar. 

Admittedly another in a long line of Deliverance-as-Grand Guignol shockers, Blood Stalkers main misfortune was to arrive so late in the game to have the door slammed in their faces. If 1968 was when Romero dragged horror into adult- hood, 1978 is when Romero and Carpenter taught it to swing. 

Blood was really starting to fly, but unfortunately Blood Stalkers didn't really deliver on that promise. And its style was deceptively unpolished. So by the time horror really began to go pick up speed, Blood Stalkers was lost in the wake of blood that opened the 80s.

It surfaced briefly on home video, wearing a spoiler-y Vidmark sleeve and gathering dust on the bottom row of the video racks. It has a modest entry on IMDb and a few scattered reviews of grudging approval. Director Robert Morgan seems to have went back to the woods after this. 

The stuff out there on him is sketchy. He first pops up in 1975’s Bigfoot: Man or Beast, a documentary of questionable authenticity. I had the pleasure of catching B:MOB during its run in a rustic Ohio theater.

B:MOB is amazing. It kicks off exactly like how you'd think a straight-up parody of an early 70's Bigfoot documentary would look. Our narrator is a stiff John Cameron Swayze-knockoff (one J. English Smith) waiting to interview a redneck as he roars up on some motorized Tonka-sorta thing. What the hell purpose did it serve? I’ve never seen such a contraption. But there it is.

The driver hops off to sputter to the camera, “Yep…I saw Bigfoot, eh? You betcha.” And what follows is twenty minutes of undiluted Canadian podunk, as all sorts of folks admit to the camera that they’ve seen Bigfoot. They seem pretty convinced. Maybe they were local actors. Maybe they were the real thing. But just when the backwoods kitsch starts to wear thin, the filmstock changes as Morgan stomps in and hijacks the film with his own bigfoot expedition.

A banty Anton LaVey lookalike in Mark Trail gear, Morgan presents himself as a Bigfoot expert, marshals his campus-hippie posse and sets off in search of the creature. Along the way they encounter a couple of other Bigfoot trackers and debate the ethics of plugging the critter if they see it. It’s actually a decent trial run for The Blair Witch Project. And there’s a certain “Heart of Darkness” satisfaction in watching Morgan start to come unglued as things get weird.

The recreation of the howl of Bigfoot is also really creepy.

But Morgan apparently really is a Bigfoot expert. He's been on Coast to Coast. His character could carry a Hollywood movie. After B:MOB, Morgan kept up his Bigfoot hunting over the next several years, right up until he stepped behind the camera himself...

Oh, and some spy stuff.

That's not a promising font.

Blood Stalkers starts off mid-70s enough with a slow-burn tour of the scenic route, as we’re introduced to our victims by their voiceover kvetching. They’re in a station wagon bound for a cabin in the woods just outside Hillbilly Haven. Pop. 32. 

It’s city guy Mike (Ken Miller), his perfect wife (Toni Crabtree) and their well-to-do friends, a clown (Jerry Albert) and a slut (Celea Ann Cole).

She’s obviously a slut ‘cause she has red hair and lots of cleavage. And spunk. And 'cause that clown she's with is sorta...off.

At least they’re refreshingly not teenagers. But they act like stupid teens and continue on up to the cabin, despite the warnings of a creepy old gas station attendant (Herb Goldstein). Tales of the eponymous creatures that stalk the swamps. Not to mention the ominous arrival of his pack of hillbilly thugs...

Yeah, there's Morgan again. Hillbillies and rich city folk don’t make for a good mixer. But heigh-ho, it’s on to the cabin. 

Structurally, Blood Stalker isn’t much more complicated than a live action Scooby Doo. If Scooby was a ratdog. There’s some skinnydipping, some toasts and then something attacks the cabin. Something furry, grabby and scary sounding. 

And then the ratdog dies...

...and then...

Holy shit...what the hell is that thing? Oh, and did I mention that Mike is also a maybe-crazy Vietnam vet? Well, he is…

Blood Stalkers isn’t brilliant. But for a regional flick shot on near nothing, there’s more than enough on display here than its obscurity warrants. Morgan makes some nice directorial choices and there’s scattered clever bits, such as a scene involving a mute that's nicely understated comedy, and sets up a callback near the end. 

While some of the drama plays out like a telenova in 70’s drag, there's still well-mounted jump scares and a climax that’s surprisingly ambitious in its execution; a montage that explodes away from the rest of the mostly static picture while delivering up the inevitable massacre with a certain amount of restraint and even dignity.

And to give the cast their due, they take the archetypes they’re handed and do their best to flesh ‘em out. Despite the initial pampered class-loathing they initially evoke, they pull off some nice character moments and end up being sort of endearing. It’s a bummer when chips get cashed in.

And Goldstein as the creepy old gas station attendant just nails it out of the park*. A couple of years later Friday the 13th would make this character a trope.

This was one well-rehearsed ship. Which is something, considering the budget. The main players all went on to have a scattering of credits. Nothing memorable. Morgan shifted his focus to writing.

Ultimately, its biggest liability is the soundtrack. While some folks dig the 70s cheese, the climax is seriously undermined with lounge funk when no music or something subtler would have been much more efficient.

I could also call the ultimate denouncement weak, although give Morgan credit for following through with conviction. It’s a mundane reason for almost everyone to die. But they’re not in Hollywood. They’re in swampy Florida.

And that’s even worse.

*Although his reaction to dead bodies is...unique.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

BLACK DEVIL DOLL FROM HELL (1984)


This just may be the worst horror film ever unleashed on video. Yes...even worse than MANOS: HANDS OF FATE and maybe even Adam Sandler's JACK AND JILL

Clumsily shot on a camcorder and obviously edited between two VHS decks, BLACK DEVIL DOLL FROM HELL actually made it to some videostore shelves back in the 80s. I pity the fools that actually rented it and took it home as their solitary entertainment for the night.

The opening credits seem punched out with a Dymo gun, set against ragged blackground with a proto-sludge theme song. 
It takes almost seven minutes just to get to Chester N. Turner's director credit, before the movie crawls along for another hour. Including end credits. But it seems much, much longer. Unfortunately, any promise the theme song offers is replaced by a Casio-generated soundtrack that’s about as ambitious as alternating notes.

The story that follows is just as bad, gawdawful in concept and even worse in execution…


Shirley Jones (not that one) plays Helen, a god-fearin’ church lady that — after an interminable amount of churchgoin’ and talkin’ on the phone about goin’ to church and putterin’ about her lousy house packed with Christian ephemera — picks up a dreadlocked ventriloquist’s dummy at a knick-knack store run by an obvious hoodoo midget. 

The shopkeeper warns her of…something. Something bad. I think. When she opens her mouth the Casio soundtrack really starts to squeal. At first it seems like an audio howl, but eventually it begins to alternate in tone, kind of like music. But not quite. Since Helen can’t hear the warning over the feedback, she takes the dummy home and proceeds to prop it up on a toilet so that it can watch her take a shower.


Let’s just say this…Shirley Jones isn’t someone you’d expect to get naked and lather up for the camera. And she gets kind of enthusiastic about the lathering, too…fantasizing about getting some dummy action. Hoo boy. But she gets non- plussed at the direction her flush is taking her, so she throws her new li'l frien' in the closet for the night…

...and wakes up tied to the bedposts as the ol' devil doll (some unholy mash-up between Rick James and Michael Jackson) crawls up under the blanket with a “Now that you have smelled the foulness of my breath, you may now taste the sweetness of my tongue.”

Yeah. It goes there...


 ...and she likes it. Soooooooo, then…

She wakes up the next morning with the dummy gone and not even a thank-you note. But Helen's found herself a new religion and tosses bible and Chick tracts in the trashcan before trollin’ the neighborhood for some manmeat to fill that void the dummy has left twixt her nethers. After a couple of awkward couplings, she finds there ain’t no substitute for the real wood. So to speak. Fortunately she has a Casio-free flashback from the midget warning her that the devil doll likes to return to the shop on its own, so…

Yeah. It ends pretty much how you’d expect it to end.

But I have to hand it to Jones…while not a competent actor she’s at least committed when it comes down to getting naked and simulating the nasty with a foul-mouthed ventriloquist’s dummy. 

I suspect that gutter auteur Chester N. Turner was just committed. Or should have been.

Although he returned a few years later with the slightly more watchable* TALES FROM THE QUADEAD ZONE, he‘s kind of disappeared himself. Rumor has it that he died in a car crash back in the nineties, although one wouldn’t be faulted for suspecting that he faked his own death to escape whatever notoriety he’d managed to achieve.

I also suspect that if it weren’t for some dude named David Ichikawa (who supplies the theme song and is credited with re-editing) this thing would never have survived until the dawn of the internets. 

Thanks, David...I think.

*Completely arguable...but Quadead has a legitamate deranged charm to it, sorta like a Daniel Johnston song. It takes some effort to get through, but at least the surrealism seems intentional.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Okay, I'll Cop...


...I have to say I like Katy Perry. She’s a nice package and she delivers well. Zooey eyes and ruby lips, swimming in a cascade of black hair. Here she’s got her sexy techno voice slithering over a throbbing groove, the kind of pop theatre safe enough to allow a mechanic or jock to admit he hates her songs, but...

I’m betting her videos get more late night hits from middle-aged men than teenaged girls. Pure flirt porn.

I also like Lady GaGa, ‘cause, well...it’s easy to like someone who unleashes firestorms of loathing at the mere drop of her name. Her and Bieber need to hook up. Make some heads pop. She’s doing New York-style avante-garde bubblegum and that shit ain’t easy. But this Kraftwork take on Barbarella is solid operatic bombast disguised as a pop song.

She’s also hot as hell in this video. I don’t care if she’s a dude.

And I like Nickleback. Buttrock, Hallelujah. This is the bar we wanted to walk into the first time we walked into a bar.

Admit it...Nickleback is on the verge of coming up hip in an anti-irony sort of way. This is the kind of rock we should be getting these days, sampling from the decades and spitting out a summation. It’s a pure aggression, selling the strutting machismo the prole wishes he could get away with. Hell, I’d be out in the bar throwing back shots with them, myself. If I wasn’t broke. And, y’know...not really into that anymore.

But I don’t like Creed. Nope.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ebert Still Rawks


Yeah, I'm a film reviewer. Note I say reviewer, not critic. Although I suppose I am. But I don't have the education, resources or drive to consider myself a critic. And calling oneself a film critic is sort of embarrassing anymore. Hard not to be. But I still get paid to watch movies, so suck it.

As an old guy, I'm gonna tell you about a time when you got your reviews from a newspaper and that was pretty much it. Sometimes pterodactyls had something to say, but nothing more. It took as long as the mid-seventies before someone's lightbulb flickered and the reviewer personality was spawned. Siskel and Ebert gave film critics that public face in the transition from print to pixel, warming us up with a literate Front Page verisimilitude. 

But that didn't last long before the field was rushed by the likes of that Hays Code populist, the bitter queen and sad-faced clowns wearing Groucho glasses to be the public perception of film critic at large. Pimped out by Hollywood to sell the product.

Yeah, easy targets. But the old school is pretty fair game these days.

Of course the advent of blogger has pretty much swept up the field and wheeled the trash out to the parking lot. Which might work as a metaphor but doesn't make it all good. As anyone that's done any dumpster diving before can and will tell you, sometimes there's some spectacular finds that make wading through the trash worth it.

Getting back to Ebert. He's one of the good guys. I wouldn't have thought it at first. He was the fat one who was always getting cut up like a Butterball turkey by the tall, sanguine guy. And he talked smack about Night of the Living Dead. I can put religion aside, though. He also wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Granted, the screenplay ran 183 pages, but still...Russ Meyer, man. And the script for the Sex Pistols movie. That also makes him a rare critic who isn't a failed screenwriter.

But aside from that he's always been reliable and accessible. No counterpointing the surrealism of the underlying metaphor for him, although you get the vibe he can. Just what he thinks about the film in a way that gives you a vibe he isn't selling product, just sitting across the aisle from you, ready to discuss. He knows his shit, and obviously loves what he's spent his whole life doing.

Which makes it weird that his only relevance anymore seems to be as a punchline to an ongoing online cancer joke. Mention Ebert and within a few posts some yahoo yells "Free Bird!" Seems weird to have to point this out so far into the 21st century, but it's just really bad form to make fun of someone's misfortune. Unless they earn it. Something really bad is going to happen to everyone at some point, and absolutely no one wants to be heckled about it. Right?

But here's the thing...the dude lost his moneymaker and he's still plugging along, still writing. Gone full circle. Obviously he's still making money, but he's making it on his own terms, despite what's been thrown at him. He throws back film festivals and probably loses money.

That seems like a good life.