Friday, 27 February 2015

Day of the Warrior (1996)

For his second last film, Andy Sidaris brings in professional wrestler Marcus "Buff" Bagwell to play the villain.  It says something about Sidaris's usual casting priorities that Bagwell - playing secret agent turned pro wrestler turned international criminal mastermind "The Warrior" - is easily the most convincing performer in every scene he's in.

Sidaris has by now abandoned the wacky credit sequences of his early films and goes to the obvious well to kick off this movie: naked ladies.  One of the agents, you see, is in "deep cover" as an exotic dancer.

There are four undercover agents in fact, all of them attempting to infiltrate the Warrior's operations, and as the movie begins we discover that their covers are in jeopardy.  Someone inside the agency has sold their data to Warrior.  It'll take the bad guys some time to crack the encryption on the information, but once they do, those agents are dead.  The agency must therefore find and warn their agents before that happens, and without exposing them to Warrior in the process.

Exciting stuff eh?  Well, not really, since Sidaris is much more interested in lame jokes and boobies.  The boobies I expected, but the lame jokes are something new.  Or at least their frequency is.  You'd expect the odd "witty" one-liner in an early Sidaris film, but here we have characters stiltedly flirting via jokes.

"It's not like this back home.  Back home it's real flat."
"How flat is it?"
"It's so flat, that when your dog runs away, you can still see him three days later."

I mean, it got a laugh, but I was laughing at the movie, not with it.

So basically there's lots of running around, frequent breaks for the women to get naked, and then a climactic shoot-out rages while Warrior tries to kill two of the agents in hand to hand combat.  I've seen Bagwell in worse wrestling matches, frankly.

Anyway, apart from the amusement factor of seeing this sort of nonsense --

-- this is all par for the course Andy Sidaris stuff.  Either you're one of the wacky few who find his nonsense strangely entertaining, or you're one of the far larger group who are not.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

The opening text scrawl of this film refers to "the World War", which was accurate enough at the time it was made but is a little jarring to read now.  Less accurate, to the best of my knowledge, is the film's reference to the "Franco-Austrian front".  France and Austria-Hungary did not share a border.  Perhaps they mean the Italian front, where French troops did support the Italians against the Austrians.

In any case, on the probably non-existent Franco-Austrian front is a French Cambodian unit.  A mere handful of soldiers from this unit prove able to overrun an entire Austrian trench.  You'd think that would be cause for celebration on the Allied side, but it is not.  The troops in question, you see, are zombies, under the control of a Cambodian priest. They are not actual undead, but living men under voodoo style domination that makes them fearless and immune to pain, but without will of their own.

The priest's unnatural powers seem like a threat to white domination, and so the French conspire with their Austrian enemies (!) to imprison him.

Before they can, however, he is murdered.  Without any way to be sure if the zombification rituals died with him, the supposed enemies set off to Angkor Wat (clearly actually a soundstage) to see if any other knowledge of the process exists.

You're probably thinking that the collaboration between enemies will break down, with the Austrians (as enemies of the US during the war) wickedly trying to gain control of the process to shore up their faltering armies.  But that would be far too obvious - and sensible - for this film.

Instead, one of the French officers - who has more or less appeared to be the protagonist so far - loses the woman he loves to someone else.  So he turns zombie master, enslaving everyone around him: including the man his romantic fixation chose instead of him.

Eventually, hoping to finally win over the girl of his dreams with a dramatic gesture, he relinquishes his control on all this slaves.  I'm not sure that "Sorry about zombifying the guy you love.  Wanna bang?" is actually going to work out too well as a seduction technique, but he won't live long enough to find out - the folks he enslaved wreak fatal revenge upon him instead.

And then the movie ends, thankfully, sparing me from having to watch it any longer.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

I had mixed feelings when I first learned they were remaking Flight of the Phoenix.  On the one hand, the new cast looked good and I felt that there was room to improve on the original, which I consider solid but not exceptional.  On the other hand, the addition of a single female role felt like tokenism, and well, it was a remake.  I've seen Gus Van Sant's version of Psycho, so I know how wrong that can go.

Overall though I was curious enough that when the film became cheaply available on DVD I was willing to give it a try.  So how do I feel about it now I've watched it?

I have mixed feelings.

In broad strokes, the movie follows the same basic outline as the first: a plane crashes in a remote location, hundreds of miles off course.  The chances of being found are utterly astronomical and so a fractious group of individuals must learn to work together as a team and - guided by an abrasive outsider who is either brilliant or mad (or both) - construct a new aircraft from the wreckage if they want to survive.

In addition to the plot, the remake has kept many of the same character arcs, and this is one area in which I wish they'd made more changes.  Both versions of Flight of the Phoenix lack a strong, sympathetic character for much of their length.  It might be formulaic to juxtapose the abrasive but indispensable designer with a warmer and more sympathetic character, but it's a formula that works.  By instead juxtaposing him with an dour and defeatist character (albeit one who slowly overcomes his own shortcomings), it's a long time before you have anyone you really want to root for.

I'll give them points for making a larger proportion of the subsidiary characters more likable than the original, though.  I especially liked the subversion of the usual "pompous jerk" paradigm with Hugh Laurie's character.  It neatly sidesteps the standard trope of him being a pain in the butt for the whole film and then ultimately getting killed off or learning an important lesson about humility.

I also liked - at least in theory - the decision to add a bit more action to the film's mix.  The original didn't have anything of that ilk, being focused on the survival and character elements.  I'm less convinced by the actual execution of that idea, though.  The two action sequences don't really feel meshed into the script all that well.

Overall, the 2004 version of Flight of the Phoenix is much like the original: a strong cast produces a solid but not exceptional product.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

Oh my.

I've watched some pretty bad films for this blog, but this one (the title of which it sometimes prefixed with "Atomic Monster:") is something special in the badness stakes.

Let's start with the overdubbing of the dialogue.  You'll not see a line actually delivered by an actor in this entire film.  When a character speaks, it is always from off-screen, or in a shot where we only see them from the neck down, or from so far away we can't make out their face.  I can only assume the film-makers lacked both the equipment to record dialogue as it was spoken, and the patience to synch up the post-produced sound with the actors' lips.

Then there's the narrator, who is almost omnipresent, and offers insights such as "Vacation.  People go east.  West.  North and south.".  Thanks for clearing up any confusion about that, film.

And then there's the plot.  Let's talk about that, shall we?

The movie begins with a young woman drying herself after a shower.  She then gets choked to death by an off-screen attacker.  This sequence will have no bearing on the rest of the film, and smacks of a desperate attempt to sex things up.

We're then introduced (by narration) to a Russian defector named Javorsky.  He's pursued by a pair of KGB agents who engage his bodyguards in a gun battle.  Hysterically, when one of the bodyguards runs out of bullets, the KGB guys sportingly allow him to slooooowly reload his weapon and start firing again - all the while standing up in full view - before they finally plug him.

Javorsky escapes the battle but is caught in the blast of an atomic weapons test on Yucca Flats, which turns him into a "monster".  Said monster looks a lot like the actor with torn clothes and some bad makeup, but at least it's not a gorilla suit with a diving helmet.

The monster then goes on a killing spree, prompting the local cops to go after him.  Stymied in their pursuit by a towering cliff (on Yucca Flats, mind you), they take to the air and occupy themselves with shooting at an innocent passer-by for a while.  After all, he's in the general area, so he must be the murderer.  Ladies and gentleman: the heroes of this film.

Eventually they work out that they've shot the wrong guy and find the monster, but unfortunately it doesn't kill them.  A shame, that.  But at least it means the movie ends.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Godzilla vs Gigan (1972)

The bosses at Toho films weren't very pleased by Godzilla vs Hedorah and with the next film they decided to return the character to his "roots".  By which they meant "fighting alien invasions".  I'm pretty sure that Big G's actual roots were "Godzilla is a force of devastation that will annihilate all Japan", but I guess the whole alien-fighting thing has been his main schtick since he turned hero in his fifth cinematic outing.

We begin the film with a comic book artist who is trying to pitch his idea for a 'homework monster' to a publisher.  It doesn't work so well, so a woman who is probably either his sister or his girlfriend - if the film explains their relationship I missed it - sends him to Godzilla Tower to see the people there.  They like his idea, which proves pretty conclusively to me that they're the aliens in the flick.

Soon after, our not-so-intrepid hero witnesses a young woman being chased from Godzilla Tower.  She drops a tape which he recovers.  Later, she confronts him and they listen to the tape.  It doesn't make any sense to them, being just strange noises, but on distant Monster Island, Godzilla hears it and sends armadillo-like monster Anguirus to check it out.  And I do mean 'sends'.  They have a conversation in Monsterese.

The Godzilla speech bubbles actually do appear on-screen in the film

Anguirus is useless as a scout though and comes back after the Japan Defence Force shoots him with some missiles.  So Big G has to look into it in person.

Meanwhile, our human protagonists discover that the people running Godzilla Tower are cockroaches from outer space (yes, really), who plan to conquer the planet with the use of two space monsters.  These are frequent adversary King Ghidorah, and newcomer Gigan, after whom the film is named.  Gigan has a buzzsaw in his belly.  It looks as silly as it sounds.

The rampage the two space monsters go on is a pretty good one, though, and by far the most entertaining set piece of the film as they blow up and smash office blocks, refineries, and any human forces that try to stop them.

Finally Godzilla and Anguirus turn up and the kaiju-on-kaiju action starts.  By which I mean that Big G and his useless buddy get their butts stomped for a good 15 minutes.  Godzilla even bleeds for the first time in the series.  Things look bad all 'round, especially with the cockroach people firing lasers at Godzilla from Godzilla Tower.

However, when the humans manage to sneak into be building and take out the lasers, that's Big G's signal to show FIGHTING SPIRIT.  He Hulks up --

<- no, not this Hulk ... 

                          ... this Hulk ->

-- and stomps the bad guy monsters in about three minutes flat.  The end.

If that sounds a little underwhelming, well ... it was.  Overall, I'd rather watch Godzilla vs Hedorah.  At least that was nutty enough to be fun.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Dallas Connection (1994)

This is the second and last of the not-really-Andy-Sidaris films in the Andy Sidaris collection, being once again written and directed by his son.  It's reasonably significant in the set though because it's the point where the '90s ladies' start coming together as a group.  In his early films, Sidaris had a fairly regular group of leading women: you could expect to see Dona Speir, Cynthia Brimhall, and either Hope Marie Carlton or Roberta Vasquez.  Fit to Kill was the last time we saw any of them.

Julie Strain debuted in that film, and she's the only consistent female lead across it, Enemy Gold, and today's entry.  In The Dallas Connection, however, she is joined by Julie K. Smith.  Together with Shae Marks, who'll show up next movie, they'll be the new core around which the remaining films will be structured.

Strain plays 'Black Widow', an international assassin whose trademark is to have sex with her victims before killing them.  Smith plays a member of Widow's gang named 'Cobra'.  The rest of the team are 'Scorpion', and 'Platypus', the latter of whom is the only guy on the team and who was clearly late to work on the day code-names were being handed out.

At the start of the film, Widow and her team kill three scientists (one of whom has the worst attempt at a South African accent ever committed to film).  Federal agents are immediately assigned to protect a fourth scientist, who was working with the first three on a secret project.

Alas, (a) the man they're guarding is secretly Widow's employer, and (b) they're kind of bad at their jobs.  Especially the lone female agent, who gets repeatedly punked out by the bad guys.  To be fair, the male agents get made to look like punks at times too, but not as often or as trivially.

Fortunately, the good guys do have one or two aces up their sleeves - one of which leads to the second funniest scene involving a blow-up doll in any Sidaris film ever - and a whole lot of luck as well, so they're going to save the day despite their ineptitude.

There's a fair bit of unintentional humour here, as well as some moments where they deliberately seem to be trying (not always successfully) for a laugh, so this film is not entirely without entertainment value, but it's still very much a movie where naked ladies are the principal reason for watching.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Screaming Skull (1958)

This film begins with a warning that it is so terrifying, the producers felt compelled to promise to pay the funeral expenses of anyone who died of fright while watching it.

I suspect this promise never cost them a single cent.

A couple of newlyweds arrive at their home.  Husband Eric lived on the estate with his first wife (now deceased), but has not visited in the two years since her death.  Wife Jenni meanwhile has never seen the place before, and instantly finds its almost abandoned atmosphere - it is largely empty of furniture, though the grounds are immaculate - to be quite unsettling.

Jenni is somewhat highly strung it seems, and she has good reason for that: her parents drowned in front of her eyes, despite her efforts to save them, and her new husband expects her to live in a home where his last wife also drowned, the few furnishings of which all remind her of the dead woman.

So she can be forgiven for not exactly loving the place, even before a floating, screaming skulls starts tormenting her at night.  That's the kind of thing that would have you looking for new accommodation I think.  But Eric persuades her it is just nerves and encourages her to face her fears and conquer them.

Of course, since Eric is the architect of all these skully shenanigans, his encouragement isn't all that sincere.  You see - as revealed in a 'blink and you'll miss it' plot point halfway through - Jenni has a considerable fortune to her name, and if she were dead or insane, her husband would control it.  If you read this blog regularly, that plan may sound familiar, probably because it's much the same as the one Dr Arrowsmith had in Nightmare Castle.

Eric's plan will be thwarted by two things: Jenni being more resilient than he expects, and a real ghost which ultimately intervenes, pursuing him to his death in one of those comical screen struggles where a man pretends to wrestle with a supposedly-animate inanimate object.

You're more at risk of dying of boredom than of fright while watching this film.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

House of the Dead 2 (2005)

This is a better film than the original House of the Dead.  Of course, that's praise so faint as to be invisible.

If pushed, I could probably come up with other positives.  The cast's solid, for instance.  I mean, no-one's going to win any Academy Awards or anything, but they do a pretty good job on the whole (it helps that I have a soft spot for Ed Quinn and Victoria Pratt, both of whom have major roles).  It's also a bit less blatant in being Aliens-with-Zombies than say Zombies: The Beginning was.

Those still aren't ringing endorsements, and honestly this is not a movie that deserves them.  It's mostly a functional enough zombie film, but it never aspires to be anything more than that.  We run through a lot of the same story beats and tropes as Resident Evil did: the initial infection, the failure to fully comprehend the threat, the poorly disciplined not-space marines, the countdown to an explosion, the tough lady soldier you know isn't going to make it, the traitor in the group, and the devastated city to wrap it all up.  Resident Evil, however, had a killer soundtrack, a genuinely creepy antagonist in the Red Queen, and much better staged action sequences.

The movie opens with a college panty raid.  One of the female victims storms off, only to be bludgeoned to death by her professor.  It's really not her night.  The professor needs a corpse so he can test a serum he has been working on: one he believes will restore life to the dead.  His motive for this is to restore his daughter, who is a zombie.  He's apparently an idiot though, since he doesn't restrain the dead women after injecting her and of course she Zeds up and eats his face.  Mostly this whole opening sequence seems to be an excuse to work in some gratuitous nudity.

We then get some time with the main characters of the film, a couple of operatives from 'AMS', an international organisation that attempts to stamp out any flare-ups of the zombie plague.  They team up with a bunch of special forces soldiers who may as well have 'cannon fodder' stencilled on their shirts and head to the now-overrun campus to check it out.  Their mission is to extract any survivors (guess how well they do on that?) and hopefully get a blood sample from the zombie 'patient zero' to use for vaccine research.  They're on a clock, though: the whole site will be flattened with missiles come morning.

That honestly sounds a bit more exciting than it actually is.  While the film does have one or two decent sequences, you'll mainly be rolling your eyes at how inept the soldiers are, and how much less funny zombie football players are than the script seems to think.

You can skip this unless you are a zombie tragic like me.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

For whatever reason, 1950s film-makers manifested fear of the cold war in general - and nuclear weapons in general - with a gamut of 'giant monster' movies.  The genre's best year was doubtless 1954, which saw the release of giant ant thriller Them!, and also Japan's iconic contribution to the form, Godzilla.

This is no Them!

Now it's true that when a movie has the minuscule budget and shooting schedule (8 days) like this one, you probably can't expect much.  On the other hand, when your titular  monsters would look at home in an early Doctor Who episode -

this episode, specifically

- then you have a problem.

A poacher encounters "something" in the swamp.  He drives it off with five shots from his gun, but the strange nature of the beast prompts him to mention it to his drinking buddies.  They, of course, don't take his tales very seriously.  They probably feel bad when he turns up dead.

One person who doesn't feel bad is the local sheriff. He writes the man's death off as the work of a 'malformed alligator', despite the strange wounds, and thinks nothing more of it.  Then when the giant leeches claim two more victims - a married woman and her lover - he happily blames the missing woman's husband.

Fortunately, other folks in town take the problem more seriously and start looking for the real culprits.  So when we finally near the end of the film's 62-minute run time we will have a brief snippet of 'action'.

This is a plodding affair on the whole. The acting's actually not too bad all things considered but the script is clunky and the monsters laughable.  I suspect the film makers knew it, too, because the movie contains a surprising amount of (PG-rated) titillation.

Not a film you need bother with.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)

This film has a controversial position in the Godzilla franchise, with some folks loving it and some - including Big G's creator - hating it.  I'm not surprised at the strong reactions.  Certain aspects of the monster he fights probably contribute, but I suspect that the main cause of the controversy is that the film is bug nuts.

Let's talk first about the villain of the piece.  Hedorah is a slimy, goopy monster, able to shift its form with considerable ease: not surprising given that it is actually comprised of billions of tadpole-like creatures combining together as a gestalt being.  It feeds off smog and pollution - "we are poisoning the world!" is an extremely unsubtle message of the film - and exhales sulfuric acid.

I think Hedorah is a great villain for Godzilla because the big lizard's massive physical strength is almost completely worthless against it.  Sure, he can punch holes through Hedorah's skin with ease, but it's about as effective as punching water.  Even his atomic breath seems of little use, and while he drives off Hedorah in their first tussle, the film makes it clear that the new monster on the block is retreating only temporarily, and will be back bigger and badder sometime soon.

I suspect that Hedorah's ability to shrug off Big G's attacks is at least a small part of the controversy of the film.  Godzilla ultimately needs to use a human weapon to defeat Hedorah.  The humans create a device to dry the creature out via massive electrical charge, making it brittle enough to be destroyed.  Even though Godzilla himself is the one who employs the device - activating it with his atomic breath when the electrical power lines go down - some people probably object to him not actually having the tools to win the battle himself.  Humans often play a role in Big G's smackdowns, but it's not usually this central, and it's the only time I can think of where Godzilla's own weapons aren't ultimately enough to get the job done.

That all pales next to the sheer wackiness of the film, though.  There's the soundtrack and party scenes, which feel like they would not be out of place in Austin Powers.  There's the weird little animated sequences dotted through the narrative.  There's the fact that Hedorah's goop will kill humans but leaves a kitten unharmed; I guess even kaiju cannot withstand the power of the keetom.  There's ... well, there is, in short, utter lunacy, but I don't want to spoil all of it for you.

If you're the kind of person who admires a truly courageously crazy film, check this out.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Enemy Gold (1993)

The ninth Andy Sidaris film is not an Andy Sidaris film at all.  Instead, it's written and directed by his son, Christian Drew Sidaris.  Don't expect that to mean that anything has changed, however.  It's still going to stick to the formula of goofy secret agent stories as a flimsy excuse for busty women taking their tops off.  Heck, it's going to stick so close to that formula that it flat-out recycles a couple of bits of dialogue from earlier movies in the series.

It also appears that Sidaris Jr has inherited his father's smooth-talking ways:

"What's up?"
"I am."

Romantic dialogue for the ages, that.

The film starts in the Civil War (clearly footage of a local reenactment group) and some Union gold being stolen and hidden by Confederate forces, who all die before they can tell anyone else the location of the loot.

In the modern day, three government agents bust a cocaine smuggling ring.  They then get chewed out by their boss for entering the property without a warrant and starting a gunfight.  That whole "you didn't have a warrant" thing is probably a reasonable enough complaint, but Boss McGrumpypants just oozes jerk, so you know he's going to turn out to be in cahoots with the villain.

Said villain is the long-suffering Rodrigo Obregon, back to get ignominiously killed once more.  Tired of the interference of these agents, he gets his "man on the inside" to put them on suspension.  While they're off on a camping trip (and incidentally stumbling across that lost Civil War gold), he hires assassin Jewell Panther (Julie Strain, again playing a villain with a silly name) to help him kill them off.

He manages to fail in this task, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider that he has the agents helpless and at gunpoint for a good ten minutes at one point.  But competence has never exactly been a strong point of Sidaris villains.

If this was the first film from this boxed set that you saw, you might find it amusingly tacky nonsense.  And honestly, it is.  It's just not as amusingly tacky as some of the others.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

One Body Too Many (1944)

An insurance salesman (Jack Haley, best known for playing the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz) is excited to have finally secured a meeting with a prospective client for a big life insurance policy.

Unfortunately - or possibly fortunately, from an insurance company perspective - said client has already shuffled off this mortal coil, as we discover when the movie switches to his estate.  There, the estate lawyer is reading a preamble to the man's Will.  You probably won't be surprised to hear that the deceased has one of those wacky stipulation-filled Wills found only in movies.  Specifically:

  • some of the heirs will get lots of money and some will get almost none
  • who gets what won't be revealed until the dead man has been buried
  • if he isn't buried exactly per his stipulations, who gets what gets flipped
  • no-one can leave the estate until he is buried

It's almost like he designed things to ensure shenanigans.

Fearing skulduggery, the lawyer hires a private investigator to guard the body, but the PI gets nobbled before he can reach the front door.  Thus, when our insurance agent turns up, he initially is mistaken for the PI.

So this is another film that really doesn't merit being in a 'Horror' collection.  It's true there are a couple of murders, and Bela Lugosi is in it (as the dead man's butler), but this never intends to be scary and in fact is very much a farce.  We follow the insurance salesman - who has been cajoled into taking the missing PI's place - as he pratfalls and nincompoops his way through the mystery.

Honestly, I think the film's only significant flaw is its failure to really give Jack Haley's character a 'moment of glory'.  He doesn't really ever rise above his ineptitude: the eventual unmasking of the villain, and the villain's defeat, are the (accidental) accomplishments of other characters.  It would have been nice if our "hero" finally got to succeed at something.

That complaint aside, this is a very slight but mildly amusing bit of fluff - probably exactly the kind of thing war-weary audiences were looking for in 1944.  If you fancy a bit of old-fashioned farce, you could certainly do worse.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Veronica Mars (2014)

As someone who was a big fan of the Veronica Mars TV show (well, the first season, anyway), I tried hard to find reasons to at least give this a qualified recommendation.  "If you were a fan of the show, it's not bad." I told myself. "Not good ... the script feels kind of clumsy and heavy handed and trying to do too many things ... but not bad."

Ultimately though, I decided that the narrowness of the prospective audience - because this is very much a movie for fans of the show, which goes a long why to explaining why it didn't succeed at the box office - and the fact that my reactions to the film were so lukewarm, meant that I couldn't really recommend it.  It helps that I suspect that at the end of the day if you were a fan of the show you've probably already decided whether or not you're going to see it, and if you weren't a fan ... well, I'd recommend you hunt down the first season of it, because it is excellent.  But this movie?  No.

Fair warning, there be spoilers here.  So if you are a fan of the show, and you want to see the flick unspoiled, you might want to close this tab of your browser now.

Still here?  Okay ...

It's been nine years since Veronica Mars, former teenage private eye, got out of Neptune, the venal, corrupt seaside town in which she grew up.  She stands now on the verge of a job at a prestigious law firm in New York, and also on the verge of meeting her long-time boyfriend's parents for the first time.  And then Logan Echolls, her bad boy former lover, calls.  He's on the hook for a murder charge, and he needs her help.

To no-one's surprise, Veronica flies across the country.  "To help Logan choose a lawyer", she says.  But the purpose of the stay - and its length - keeps growing and growing as she finds herself drawn back into her old haunts and habits.

Can Veronica prove Logan's innocence, despite the corrupt sheriff's complete disinterest in anything but a quick, high profile conviction?  Well of course she can.  Frankly, the movie never really makes that seem like it is in doubt.  It's too busy wedging in three seasons of background from the TV show and making sure as many former cast members get cameos as possible.  Which is touching loyalty, but a detriment to the film, both in terms of the roles those cast members get to play (mostly very minor) and the plot (Veronica's investigation relies a whole lot on happenstance, and a couple of times the film makes her look pretty darn clueless, frankly).

I'm glad this film was made: it does provide a sense of closure that the TV show lacked, and it is less disappointing than the show's 3rd season was ... but that's ultimately rather faint praise.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Black Dragons (1942)

It didn't take long for Hollywood's poverty row film makers to respond to the changed political landscape after Pearl Harbor.  This film - and I doubt it was the first - appeared on screens less than three months later.

Because make no mistake, despite being in a "Horror Classics" set, this is a war time spy thriller (for certain very loose definitions of "thriller"), without a hint of actual horror to be seen.  Mill Creek's attention to detail remains as good as ever.

A group of American businessmen are having a convivial meeting in which they discuss their mutual efforts to sabotage the war effort: engineering strikes at their factories, producing faulty parts, misspending research grants, and so forth.

Why do these men hate their country so much?  Why, because they are not who they appear to be!  They are Japanese agents, surgically altered by a Nazi plastic surgeon to exactly resemble murdered American businessmen.  This nefarious plan is the work of the Black Dragon Society, hence the movie's title.

The Society got a little too clever for their own good, though.  They double-crossed the plastic surgeon and threw him in their dungeon.  This is a poor way to treat one's allies, but the film waves this off with the claim that the best way to keep the mission secret is to kill everyone who knows of it.  But they don't kill him outright: first they throw him in a dungeon with another prisoner, who they just happen to mention will soon be released.

Magically, the plastic surgeon then switches appearances with the other prisoner, and makes his escape.  He then travels to the US to wreak his revenge by murdering all the Japanese agents.

That synopsis might make the Nazi sound like the protagonist, but that would not have been a smart idea in 1942 (or now, for that matter).  The structure of the film ensures that this isn't the case - all that info I gave you is basically exposition we get in the last five minutes, after he's done a-murderin'.  To be honest, the film really doesn't have a protagonist.  Stuff just kind of happens on screen, and then we get exposition to explain it (or explain the motivations, anyway - how the plastic surgeon can perform surgery in a prison cell, or disappear at a moment's notice whenever the script requires it, is never explained).

This is very much a product of its time, and a second-rate product at that.  You can safely skip it.

Monday, 9 February 2015

All Monsters Attack (1969)

The Godzilla franchise as had any highs and lows over its long history.  This film - originally known as Godzilla's Revenge in its English dub - is definitely one of the lows.

Excessive use of recycled footage is part of the problem: most of Big G's numerous monsters brawls in this film are chopped out of previous entries in the series: only one of the monsters he faces is original to the film, and it is frankly a pretty sorry excuse for a foe.

The core problem of the film, however, is made abundantly clear in its first minute, as the camera follows two young children on their way home.  I've never known a kid-centered kaiju film to be anything but dire.

The kid in question is small, and constantly victimised by a bully named Gabara.  He copes with this bullying by imagining himself on Monster Island, hanging out with Godzilla's "son" Minilla (Godzuki, in English versions) and watching Godzilla fight monsters.

Because yeah, Big G's fights in this aren't just recycled footage, they're imaginary even in the fictional world of the film.  Yay?

It turns out that Minilla also has issues with a bully - a new monster not very subtly also named Gabara.  Eventually, however, our human "hero" will help Minilla stand up to the bigger Gabara and thus overcome his fear.  Which in turn, of course, leads to the protagonist overcoming the bully in his own life.

Yep, it's a frickin' Godzilla movie about standing up to bullies.  One in which the "hero" celebrates his new-found self-confidence by making himself a public nuisance (specifically, causing a sign-painter to fall off his ladder and cover himself in paint).  Now there's a good lesson for kids, right?

This is dreadful.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

House of the Dead (2003)

Puppies poop all over the place, and chew all your stuff.  Neither is a very attractive trait, but dog people don't seem to care.  They see the little critter's unabashed enthusiasm for everything, and unconditional affection for its pack, and accept that enjoying those things sometimes means stepping in feces at three in the morning.

This movie is my puppy.

Because make no mistake, this is a terrible, terrible film.  Even if we ignore some of its more commonly derided quirks, like the interspersing of footage from the arcade game into the movie, we're still left with the nonsensical script, absurd narrative digressions, and awful acting.  And yet, there is - to me at least - that same sense of unabashed enthusiasm.  It feels like it is terrible film not because the people involved didn't care about the product, but because they sincerely had no idea it was bad.

The film takes place on an island in the Pacific North-West, where the world's worst rave is taking place.  And it gets that dubious distinction even before the zombies turn up to eat everyone.

Arriving late to the rave are a group of five would-be party goers who have hitched a ride with a local trawler captain named Kirk (yes, really).  Kirk is played by Jurgen Prochnow, who looks like he is dying a little every time he utters one of the film's turgid lines.

The kids, Kirk, some survivors they meet on the island, and a coast guard official named Caspar soon end up on the menu for the zombies, but oh hey Kirk is smuggling guns, so everyone gets to load up on shooty things and have an extended action sequence.  And I do mean extended.  It goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on.  It's completely absurd and ludicrous and it is of course the director's favorite part of the film (I have his word for it - he says as much in the commentary track, which is another thing of terrible beauty, let me tell you).

What comes after the gunplay scene of interminable gunplay?  Why, more shootiness of course.  And then some explosions and a swordfight for a change of pace.  It is transcendentally trashy.

Now much as I enjoy the film, I can't recommend it - you need to have a true and abiding love of bad movies to get anything out of House of the Dead.  Of course, if "a true and abiding love of bad movies" does describe you, then this just might be the best thing this side of Hawk the Slayer.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Fit to Kill (1993)

Julie Strain makes her first appearance in an Andy Sidaris film with this movie.  She'll be in all the rest; first as a bunch of villains with goofy names (in this one, she is "Blu Steel"), then as a hero.

You know the drill by now with these films: there's a cheestastically dumb "secret agent" plot and a whole lot of naked ladies.  Sidaris had a formula, and he stuck to it.  The usual menagerie - sorry, I mean "cast" - turn up (plus Strain), and deliver their dreadful lines with their usual poor to middling ability.

Actually, I'm being a teensy bit unfair, there.  Dona Speir, now on her 7th appearance in a lead role, has actually improved.  She's not good, you understand, but she is definitely better than she was in earlier films: you can actually tell what emotion she's trying to convey in most scenes.  So of course, this is her last appearance in a Sidaris film.  Well at least she won't be showing everyone else up, I guess.

The plot has a Chinese businessman named Chang wanting to return a diamond to the Russian authorities.  It seems the jewel was stolen by a Nazi general during the siege of Leningrad (an excuse for Sidaris to throw in some WW2 stock footage).  Chang met the Nazi officer years later, was given the diamond when the other man died, and now wants to return it to the original owners.  The agents are brought in to protect the diamond until it can be handed over.

Of course, their perennial enemy Kane (Roger Moore's son again) wants to get his hands on the jewel.  Not just because of how valuable it is, but because the dead Nazi officer was his father.

Remember that Kane is a character who was played by Pat Morita originally, and boggle at that idea.

Anyway, there are more plots going on than might be expected, and lots of shenanigans, happenstance, and general goofiness.  "Wacky" assassins "Wiley" and "Coyote" are back again, this time calling themselves "Evel" and "Knieval", and the climax of the movie?  Involves a dogfight between two model helicopters armed with real weapons.  Because of course it does.

For me, this is probably in the top five of Sidaris's films.  It's not Hard Ticket to Hawaii, but it's gonzo and zany enough that I had fun.  Will you?  Well honestly, you need to be a fan of terrible movies to really appreciate nonsense like this, so don't bother with it unless you have a taste for schlock.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Nightmare Castle (1965)

I'll get this out of the way first: the qualification on my qualified recommendation is "if you're into gothic fiction (and don't care over much about plot)".  This is a stylish film with evocative black and white visuals, and it works in all the tropes of the gothic genre - wickedness, forbidden loves, strange dreams, ghosts, murder, and so on - pretty liberally.  It's just not big on making sense.

Dr Stephen Arrowsmith is the kind of scientist that we tend to find in gothic works: that is, the kind that meddles in things best left untouched.  He's also a proud and covetous man who married his wife for her money and is violently enraged when he discovers her frolicking with her lover in the greenhouse.

Tip for would-be adulterers: buildings with transparent walls are a bad choice for secret assignations.

The "good" Doctor is not the sort to merely kill his wife and her lover, though.  He tortures them instead, swearing to kill them with pain alone.  This he eventually does.  Then he drains his wife of her blood and uses it to restore his loyal female servant to youth.  As you do.  Oh, and he keeps the lovers' hearts and seals them in a secret compartment in the house.  Because gothic fiction.

Unfortunately for Arrowsmith, his wife left her fortune to her sister.  Fortunately, said sister is not in the best of mental health.  Oh, and she's apparently pretty easy to woo, since in the very next scene, he's married her off screen.  His plan: to dose her with drugs, make her go completely nuts, and then gain control of the estate as a result of her incapacity.

Because you know, it would be impossible to make money off that whole "restore people to youth" thing.  Sure the process requires doing some icky things, but Arrowsmith clearly isn't the squeamish type.

On the other hand, things are going to go wrong with his plan pretty fast, firstly because the psychiatrist he brings in to declare his wife incompetent would rather cure her, and secondly because his wife may be dead, but that doesn't mean she is gone ...

This film, whether you see it under the title above, or one the several others it sports (Night of the Doomed, The Faceless Monster or - my favorite - Lovers Beyond the Grave), is an entertaining little snippet of gothic-themed nonsense, if such things to your taste.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Key Largo (1948)

It's interesting to see a film where the smouldering chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is not the most memorable relationship in the film.  That chemistry is still there, of course, but it is the interaction between Bogart and his on-screen nemesis Edward G. Robinson that really drives this film.

Bogart plays Frank, a disillusioned WW2 veteran who has come to the Florida Keys to visit the father of a deceased comrade.  He's considering settling in the area - a consideration that might well be reinforced when he meets his dead friend's widow.

All is not well at the older man's hotel, however.  A group of men - and one hard-drinking woman - have hired the entire building for a week.  There's something not right about the strangers; a hardness and suspiciousness that gives way to too-eager friendliness when it becomes clear that Frank will be staying the night.  Who are these people, and why do they jump so quickly to the orders of the unseen Mr Brown, who almost never emerges from his room?

Frank figures he has other things to worry about, like the pretty widow (Bacall, natch), a couple of native Americans on the run from the law, and oh yeah, a hurricane.  But of course things aren't going to be that easy.  "Mr Brown" is gangster Johnny Rocco, returning from exile in Cuba to make a big score.  When Rocco's secret comes out, it will be all Frank can do to keep himself and his friends alive.

The struggle between Frank and Rocco is the core of this film.  It's a pretty one-sided struggle most of the time, of course.  Rocco has a gang of armed thugs, while Frank is alone, and Frank's no John McClane.  He's spent three grim years fighting on the Italian front and he's got no desire to be a hero (especially a dead one).

Of course, Frank's chances of getting out of all this without committing a little bit of heroism here and there are pretty slim.  It's a movie after all.  A pretty good one, I am glad to say.  The cast is solid and the script holds together well, though it is sometimes a little ham-fisted.

If you don't mind a slower pace to your thrillers than today's more action-focused fare tend to be, then this is worth a look.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Atom Age Vampire (1960)

If you wanted to get all lit crit about it, you could pretty easily put together an argument that this film is an inversion of, or response to, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  Instead of a scientist who fears his creation is a monster and tries to destroy it, we have one who loves what he has created - though most definitely not in a healthy way - and becomes a monster in order to preserve it.

But honestly, I doubt it was intended.  I mean, when a film pays this little attention to narrative sense, it's unlikely to be doing some kind of literary deconstruction, you know?

An exotic dancer's boyfriend dumps her because she won't give up her career.  Driving home in tears, she swerves off the road for little reason.  I mean sure, there's another car on the road, but no real indication they were about to crash into her or anything.  Her vehicle is apparently made of explodium, as it catches fire while rattling down a slight incline.

The woman survives, but her face ... well, one cheek and the side of her neck ... are badly burned.  She contemplates shooting herself, but is saved from her suicidal tendencies by a mysterious offer from a scientist who believes he can restore her beauty.  Figuring it can't make things worse (which shows what she knows) she ultimately accepts.

At first it seems the treatments aren't working, and the scientist decides he has to kill her to conceal his failure.  What a guy.  Fortunately, before he can do so, the injuries finally heal.  He immediately does a 180 from wanting to kill her to exhibiting a creepy sexual fascination.

Alas, the curative effect proves only temporary, and the scientist has exhausted his supply of the restorative serum he developed.  Getting more on short notice will require him to use Science! to transform himself in a cut-rate wolfman type thing and go murder some women so he can acquire the necessary materials.  Fortunately, a gorilla has recently escaped and is loose in the city, so there's a ready culprit for the police to blame for these attacks.

Uh huh.

Trust me, there's plenty more stupid in the script that I'm skipping over.  But the real problem of the film isn't the silly contrivances on which it relies, it's the way it meanders endlessly after it sets up its premise.  There's rather too much of nothing happening.  Which is a shame, because the opening twenty minutes, while not exactly cinematic art, rattle along quite well.

Ultimately, unless you want to play goofy literary criticism games with it, there's not much reason to watch this.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Primeval Season 1 (2007)

The producers of this show have always resisted comparisons with Doctor Who, pointing out the various ways in which if differs from that program.  These arguments are accurate, but I can't help feel they are a little disingenuous.  Primeval may be an ensemble show, and it may lack an alien wizard in a blue box, but it is clearly intended to scratch the same itch as Doctor Who, and to appeal to the same audience ... well, the same audience with a specific emphasis on boys in their early teens.  At least, I'm pretty sure that's the best explanation for the fact that we see Hannah Spearritt in her underwear in at least half the episodes in this season.

The premise of Primeval is simple enough: there are "anomalies" in time ... disruptions in reality that allow creatures to accidentally (or not so accidentally) stray from one historical epoch to another.  When these anomalies are discovered, the rag tag group who found them end up being tasked with the job of (a) stopping the anomalies from claiming too many lives and (b) keeping them a secret.

Said rag tag group include Professor Nick Cutter, whose wife disappeared eight years earlier (no prizes for guessing she found an anomaly back then - the show makes no secret of it), zookeeper Abby Maitland (played by Spearritt), and a geeky young man named Connor Temple, with whom I expect the average audience member is expected to identify.  There are some other folks on the team - and Cutter's wife has a bigger role in this season that I remember from when I first saw it on TV - but those are more or less the 'core' of the group.

The cast of the show is solid, but the real star is the special effects.  Produced by the same team that did Walking with Dinosaurs, they're still pretty convincing seven years later.  Impressive for a TV program.

This is a far from "serious" show, and not just in the sense that it principally involves chasing dinosaurs around southern England.  It's rambunctious adventure fun for the whole family (Spearritt may be in her underwear quite often, but it is not especially racy underwear), with a healthy dash of humour.  It's probably going to be a bit silly for some stick-in-the-muds, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.