Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Mythica: A Quest for Heroes (2015)

This is another release from Arrowstorm Entertainment, who made Survivor.  Like that film, it was partly financed through Kickstarter, and I was a backer.  As I always do with new indie films, I've prioritised viewing it so I can post a timely review.  In this case that practice also worked out for me, as the kickstarter for the sequel starts today and I wanted to see this to decide whether I would back it.  The answer to that, by the by, is "Yes, I will", which probably tells you that I enjoyed this film, if you hadn't worked that out already from the Qualified Recommendation tag.

Mythica had a much larger target than Survivor, and it is easy to see why.  The production is considerably more ambitious: a larger central cast, more effects shots, more crowd shots, and more complex sets.  The CGI monsters are a little obviously CGI (nice designs, but they have that 'not quite real' look to them), and the action sequences could do with a little tightening up, but I definitely got the sense that the money was up there on the screen.

Arrowstorm have a trilogy of Mythica films planned, and this first one introduces us to the characters and sends them on their first quest together.  Evil-doers (black clad, of course) leading orcs have attacked the temple of the Goddess.  Heroes are needed to seek out and free the captives who were taken.  Unfortunately, the world is short of heroes.  It has mercenaries aplenty, but they want rather more gold than is promised for completing the task.

The only ones willing to take on the task - for varying definitions of "willing" - are our heroes.  The most central of these is Marek, a runaway slave with a club foot, but a sharp mind.  She's picked up some magical skill from a local wizard.  The wizard is played by Kevin Sorbo in a very brief cameo: Arrowstorm made a fairly big deal of his involvement in the Kickstarter, and while it wasn't a factor in my deciding to back, it may have been for others.  I hope those folks weren't too disappointed by the brevity of this role (though maybe he returns in the second and third films).

Back to Marek.  In addition to the skills she has learned, she also demonstrates an inborn necromantic talent, very similar to that used by the villains.  Doubtless, this will be a Major Plot Point in the last part of the trilogy.

Joining Marek are Teela, the only Priestess to escape the attack on the temple; Thane, a world-weary but honourable warrior; and Dagen, a "charming" rogue.  Gamers reading this review are probably thinking "sounds like an archetypical D&D party", and I don't think that's an accident.  It's pretty clear that there were tabletop gamers involved in this, as the call-outs to role-playing games are obvious: heck, the script has a tavern where adventurers go to find quests.

A strong central cast really helps the film.  All four heroes are well-depicted.  While I didn't much like Dagen as a character, that was not through any fault in the actor's performance.  Probably the highlight for me was the way the attraction between Teela and Thane was portrayed.  Good work.

Script-wise, it's very much "villains want maguffin, heroes must save maguffin", though sensibly doesn't throw the heroes up against the real big bad.  I think it was smart to save him for later films and focus on his minions and hirelings this time around.

Mythica: A Quest for Heroes doesn't really break any new ground in the fantasy genre (though it is a much better D&D movie than the actual Dungeons & Dragons film), but it tells a solid enough story, and it even passes the Bechdel test in the process.  If you're looking for an adventure tale with a bit of humour, or just for an adventure tale with a female lead who's not dressed like a stripper, then you should check it out.

I'm looking forward to part 2.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Godzilla vs Biollante (1989)

When Toho returned to the Godzilla franchise on its 30th anniversary, they more or less did a reboot of the series.  Acknowledging only the original 1954 film, Return of Godzilla (known as Godzilla 1985 in the US) scrapped everything else that had come since and returned Big G to his city-smashing roots.

Due to legal malarkey, that film is not currently available on DVD, so we turn instead to 1989's Godzilla vs Biollante, which is widely regarded as one of the better entries in the series.

I'm afraid I have to disagree.

I mean, yes, Biollante's final battle form looks pretty cool.

But we see it for maybe five minutes of a 100+ minute film, and before that Big G rips through Biollante's original (much less interesting) incarnation in about 14 seconds.  The near absence of Godzilla vs Biollante action in a movie called Godzilla vs Bilollante is frankly rather baffling.

What we get a lot of instead is humans running around and fighting over samples of Godzilla's cells from his previous rampage.  Among other things, these cells can be used to produce "Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria", which consume nuclear energy and waste.  They'd also potentially consume every nuclear weapon on the planet, vastly changing the balance of power.

The cells can also be used to create new, hyper-resilient strains of plants - that's what gives us Biollante, of course - but the film's going to spend an inordinate amount of time on the bacteria angle, with shootings and chasings and inexplicably comedic fistfights over them occupying way, way too much of the run time.

Thankfully Big G eventually makes an appearance.  This livens things up a little, at least, though again way, way to much time is devoted to the tedious activity of the tiresome human characters.  Tip to filmmakers: when Godzilla drops a building on one of your 'heroes', I should probably not be cheering.

Ultimately, this is dull stuff.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Deadly Embrace (1989)

Akira Kurosawa came to the attention of English-speaking audiences with the 1950 film Rashomon.  The main feature of that film is that it presents several different accounts of the same event, none of which - not even the last and seemingly most impartial - can be relied upon to be wholly true.

This film isn't a remake of Rashomon at all - not even close, in fact - but it does feature that same concept of an unreliable narrator.  Only one, rather than four, though.  Whether that was a more-ambitious-than-they're-really-capable-of reference to the earlier film, or an excuse for the big holes in the plot, I couldn't say for certain.  But if I had to put money on it, I wouldn't wager on the former.

The film begins with a framing sequence involving a man being questioned in relation to two murders.  We only ever see the hands of either the man or his interrogator - which reinforces my suspicion this was added later, possibly when they realised they needed to pad out the film's run time.

Things then switch over to the man's version of events leading up to the two deaths.  Hired to look after the house and gardens of a wealthy businessman, the young beefcake is soon spending more time looking after the businessman's lonely wife than the premises.  When his girlfriend - Linnea Quigley, best known for being naked for pretty much the whole of Return of the Living Dead - arranges to come up for a visit, though, he calls off the fling.  The wife, whose husband has been playing around on her for years, does not take this betrayal very well.

If the above seems a very thin plot for an eighty minute film, well, it is.  The movie pads it out by inserting more of the 'interrogation' scenes, as well as a lot of nudity.  Like the framing story, some of this looks like it's been shot later and added in to bulk the run time.

The plot here is nonsensical, even if we allow that we have an unreliable narrator.  His account includes events where he was not present and could have no way of knowing what happened.  Of course, I very much doubt the plot was ever the point: this is an "erotic thriller", and those are always much more interested in the first word than the second.

This film has lots of cheesecake (and some beefcake too, if that's your thing), but little else to offer, and can safely be skipped.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Ape (1940)

A circus comes to town, putting on a tremendous show that thrills the audience.  There's one member of the cast who is not happy to be there, though: a gorilla that is either so vicious the trainer has to be brutal with it, or has become vicious because its trainer is so brutal.  The creature ultimately escapes from captivity, attacking a man as it does so, when a fire breaks out in the circus.

A local doctor is called to treat the man, but the victim dies.  The doctor then surreptitiously drains some spinal fluid from the corpse.  The doctor, you see - played by an almost unrecognisable Boris Karloff - is more interested in research than having his own practice, and he has a theory that healthy spinal fluid can be used to treat victims of the paralysis caused by childhood polio.  This is a condition which not so coincidentally afflicts a young female patient of the doctor's: one for whom he obviously feels a fatherly affection.

The treatment shows signs of working, and the doctor is fortunately able to acquire more of the spinal fluids he needs when the gorilla commits another murder.  But then the ape breaks into the doctor's own home.  He's able to kill it, but in the struggle his supply of fluids is destroyed.

And thus, in the kind of narrative decision that apparently got made 75 years ago, he decides to skin the creature and impersonate it to commit his own murders, so he can gather the ingredients he needs to complete the young woman's treatment.  Really, who can say why "blaming your murders on an escaped gorilla" ever went out of style as a plot device?  Timeless stuff, that.

Will the doctor's dastardly deception be discovered?  Or will his anthropoidal impersonation achieve success?  Honestly, you're not likely to care over-much.  The script seems to assume that "attractive young woman in a wheelchair" will be enough to win your sympathy.  And perhaps in 1940, when many in the audience might have known someone suffering from polio-afflicted paraplegia, this would have been true.  Today I think, audiences are a bit more divorced from that experience.

As Poverty Row productions go, this is a solid one with a mostly decent cast.  It is however somewhat undermined by the cheapness of its production: there's obvious stock footage in use for the circus, and of course the titular "Ape" is clearly a man in a suit even when it's not actually yet supposed to be a man in a suit.  And of course at the end of the day "solid for a Poverty Row production" isn't much of an endorsement.  There are better ways to spend an hour of your time.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

How to Make A Monster (2001)

Around the turn of the millennium, special effects guru Stan Winston (he worked on a couple of flicks you may have heard of, like Terminator and Aliens) made a trio of "Creature Feature" TV movies.  Presumably because of Winston's involvement, these flicks had much better casts than you might expect - Dan Akroyd was in one of them, for instance.  They also had solid old-school special effects, but that's probably not such a surprise.

This is the second of the three movies, and it is definitely helped by the strength of the on-screen talent.  Everyone who gets a significant speaking role has a solid resume on IMDB.  They help make the film a schlocky, trashy bit of fun for most of its run time.

A software development company has a bust on their hands.  Their scary new game isn't scary at all, and the irate owner throws out the entire development team and replaces them.  The new trio of developers are an eccentric mob to say the least, but they have the skills: a frightening new game is soon close to completion.

Well, a "frightening" new game is, anyway.  Given that 2001 was the year Silent Hill 2 was released, I think the real world video gaming scene was a lot more creepy and intense than anything the movie serves up.  The real genius of the game though, is the AI engine, which we're told will actually learn the players movies and adapt to them.  Gosh I wonder if that will be significant.

During a motion capture process - a so-gratuitous-you-almost-have-to-admire-its-audacity topless scene from skin flick veteran Julie Strain - a lightning bolt fries the systems at the company.  Someone is going to have to stay all night to reload the back-ups.  They play the game to see who has to do it, and the loser settles in for a long night.

Now, you may want to sit down for this innovative and surprising plot development, but the power surge from the lightning strike, together with the still-running AI software of the game, combine to transform the motion capture suit into a killer robot.

I know, who would have expected that?

The remaining two developers, an intern, and their boss, all end up trapped in the building the next day when the robot goes on a rampage.  Will they survive?  Well, by this point you'll probably already have worked out who is in with a shot at survival, to be honest.

Like I said above, this film is a schlocky, trashy bit of fun for most of its run time.  The key word there, though, is "most".  For my money, the ending goes badly off track, ending the flick with a very mean-spirited and sour note that spoiled the experience for me.  And on that basis, I can't recommend it.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Vampire Bat (1933)

I have to admire the lengths to which Majestic Films went in order to make this cheapie cash-in movie.  There's none of that lazy "let's make a movie with a passingly similar premise and slightly different title" Asylum shonkiness, here.  Instead, seeing the buzz that Mystery of the Wax Museum was generating, Majestic hired the two leads of the bigger studio's film, rented the sets from Frankenstein, and churned out this little number fast enough to beat its big budget cousin to the cinema.

The Vampire Bat proved a success for Majestic; probably not surprising given the high profile stars (one of them was Fay Wray, who later that year would make a little movie about a big ape) and high quality sets.  These make the film appear much more slick and expensive than it really was.  Given the tawdry look and feel of most "Poverty Row" productions, that was likely a big help.

The script was probably of significantly less help.  It's by the numbers stuff: There are a series of bizarre murders (in this case vampire themed).  A local eccentric is falsely accused.  The real villain is revealed to be someone close to the hero.  The murderer's reasons even come back to Science Run Amok, which is about as generically generic a motive as you can get in 1930s genre flicks.

So what we ultimately have is a pretty standard 'cheapie chiller' with an unusual degree of gloss to it.  Frankly, the most interesting part of the film is the story of its production.  It's not bad, you understand, and fills its hour-long run time in a painless manner.  But it's also not anything special, and can safely be skipped.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996)

If you're at all a kaiju fan, go see Gamera 2: Attack of Legion.  You don't need to read any more of this review.

Still with me?  Well if you are, it either means you don't want to take my word for it, or you're not a kaiju fan.  Not really sure how to overcome the latter issue, but for the former I will point out that this was the first film of this genre to win the Japanese equivalent of the Nebula Award.  So it's not just me that thinks it is good.

A meteor shower cascades down on the Earth.  Some of them land in Japan (you are shocked, I am sure) and show worrying signs of having been able to slow down and change course.  There's no sign of any debris, either.  Various groups swing into action to investigate, and in a welcome change from how such things normally go in media, generally cooperate with each other.

Subsequent troubles in the subway lead to the discovery of hundreds of human-sized, bug-like creatures.  They attack some humans but leave others, and infest an entire building, from which begins to grow a strange plant.  The humans suspect the creatures have a life-cyle something like leafcutter ants (which have a mutual dependence with certain types of fungi).  They decide it is vital to stop the plant from flowering, but it is producing vast amounts of oxygen, which makes trying to blow it up highly dangerous.

So it's just as well that Gamera turns up.

Of course, while an 80 foot turtle monster is a good solution to a building-sized plant, it's not so effective against a swarm of human-sized beasts.  Which is useful for the script since it means he can't fix the whole problem right away, and the movie doesn't have to end.  Plus it gives the humans something to do later, which is also a plus.

Unsurprisingly, the next time Gamera shows up, the alien creatures will have their own giant-sized monster defender.  It's a pretty darn sweet design, actually, reflecting the ambition of the movie as a whole: I've seen precious few kaiju films which integrate so many scenes of human characters amid the "giant" action.  Good stuff.

The film's not perfect, it's true: the final resolution of Gamera's battle with Legion feels a bit out of left field.  But it's a fun romp with great kaiju battle scenes leading up to that, so like I said: if you're at all a fan of the genre, you should check it out.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Reform School Girl (1957)

Two things about the image above.  One, the scene above does not appear in the movie.  And two, it was used in France to advertise a Scrabble campaign.  They take their word games seriously, the French.

17-year old Donna lives with her aunt and uncle.  It's not a terribly happy home life, as her aunt constantly criticises her and her uncle is a little too complimentary, if you know what I mean.  He's expressing his appreciation one night when Donna's sort-of boyfriend comes by.  The younger man proves no help, but his friend Vince slugs the uncle good.  So Donna's predisposed to like Vince even before she sees his cool car.

Events lead to Donna and Vince being alone in the vehicle when she finally realises that the car was stolen.  This realisation happens too late, however, as the cops are soon on their tale.  Vince ploughs through a pedestrian in his efforts to escape, then runs off.  The distraught Donna remains in the car, and is arrested.

When she refuses to say who was driving the car - out of fear of what Vince will do to her if she does - Donna is sent to reform school.  It's not so terribly bad there overall, with the warden even agreeing to trial supervised dances between the inmates and some local boys.

And there the movie would end if Vince was not horribly paranoid in addition to all his other faults.  He convinces himself that Donna will spill on him, and then convinces his girl - well, one of them - to get herself committed and "deal" with Donna.  Quite why this woman is so head over heels for him that she agrees, I have no idea, but she does.

Will Donna survive the new inmate's attentions?  Will she win the heart of one of the boys at the dance?  It's doubtful you'll care all that much.  Everyone in the cast does their best with the material - and on the whole they're not bad actors - but there's only so much shine you can put on a lump of coal.  The script here is pretty weak, dragging quite a lot when Donna first gets "sent up", and then devolving into sillier and sillier situations as the anti-Donna clique goes to greater and greater extents to ensure she "gets hers".  I can only assume that the place runs on the honour system given how easy it is for the inmates to roam all over it in the middle of the night.

There's not a lot here to recommend.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Metropolis (1927)

That this film is in Mill Creek's "Horror Classics" collection but not their "Nightmare Worlds" collection is exhibit 47 that they don't actually give a damn, but since it means that I now have a copy of this highly regarded film, I'm not really going to complain too much about it.

Shot in Weimar Germany, Metropolis tells of a society where the wealthy live in a lush and sumptuous world above, while the mass of workers toil like cogs in the great subterranean machines that support the society above.

Freder, the son of Metropolis's ruler, lives an idyllic lifestyle that is interrupted one day by a group of dirty children, who are brought into his beautiful gardens by a young woman.  Distressed by the children's condition - and more than a little intrigued by the beauty of the woman who led them - Freder descends into the machines and discovers the oppressive, all-consuming and dangerous conditions under which the workers toil.  He is horrified, especially when one of the machines blows up, killing many workers.  He imagines it as a great metal demon, into whose hungry maw human beings are fed.

Eventually Freder discovers the young woman, Maria.  She preaches to the workers in secret meetings, telling them that they are the hands of society, while those above are the head.  "The mediator of the head and the hands must be the heart" she says, and promises the tried and angry workers that this mediator will come.

Unfortunately, there are forces at work who want Maria's message of restraint overturned, because a bloody uprising of the workers would play into their own plans.  They set out to arrange this, bringing the lives of thousands - including Freder and Maria, of course - into danger.

Metropolis is a stylish and influential film from the German expressionist era, and its message of the need for cooperation between labour and capital is as relevant today as when it was made.  It's got some great visuals, with astonishing set design and some impressive effects (especially in light of its age).  It's certainly not flawless: for one thing, many modern viewers may find the acting style of the silent era quite jarring, as it is quite different to today's more naturalistic portrayal.  Also, there are some sequences I think could have been cut or shortened to save time.  At almost two hours exactly, this version felt about 20 minutes too long to me.  The original cut was 150 minutes: perhaps the extra half hour gave better context to some of the scenes or added extra story elements.  Perhaps it just made the movie really, really long.

If you are interested in social theory, expressionism, history, science fiction, or are just a film buff in general, then Metropolis is a film you should see at least once.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Monster Brawl (2011)

It's certainly possible to make successful films based around the concept of a fighting bout or tournament.  Whatever you think of the individual movies, producers have seen success with films like Bloodsport or Karate Kid.  Unfortunately, when folks have tried to translate it to genre movies, it hasn't gone well.  Consider The Arena, which I reviewed quite harshly about a year ago, or Robot Jox, which I would review in a heartbeat if I could find it on DVD.  I'd tell you it was terrible, because it is, but I would review it.

This movie makes Robot Jox and The Arena look good.  Which is a shame, because the basic premise - "a fighting tournament featuring classic horror monster likes zombies, vampires and werewolves" - could have been fun if done with ... well, if done with even an ounce of competence.

Let's start with the most obvious flaw: the protagonist.  Or more specifically, the fact that there isn't one.  There's no-one for the audience to hook onto, no-one with ambitions or aspirations that we can empathise with and hope to see them achieve.  Or rather, the ones that show signs of having such goals get killed or otherwise written out of the film well before the supposed "climax".

For that matter, a good half of the characters lack any motivations at all.  I mean, these creatures are in a literal 'sudden death' tournament; every fight is 'win or die'; so why are they risking their necks to take part?  In many cases the answer is "Heck if I know", because the movie never bothers to explain.

What this means is that there's no emotional investment in the film.  There's no hero we want to see triumph over the odds (or there are, but they left already), no villain we want to see get their comeuppance.  It's a truism of professional wrestling that what sells tickets is "making people want to see this guy beat that guy".  Given the number of former or current MMA and pro-wrestling folks involved in the film (at least six), someone should have pointed this out.  Though it's always possible they did, and got ignored.

In any case, what we end up with is a series of not-very-well-staged wrestling matches, featuring people in not-very-good monster makeup, for not-at-all-explained reasons.  It makes for a pretty darn tedious affair, frankly.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Maniac (1934)

This film manages to pack a whole lot of crazy into its 50 minute run time.  Which is appropriate enough in light of its title and alleged subject matter, I guess.

I say 'alleged' subject matter, because back in the thirties (that's the 1930s, for the benefit of any futuristic space people reading this in 2040 or later) there were very strict content restrictions on motion pictures made for entertainment purposes.  But for films with an educational purpose, these restrictions were relaxed.  So it took people like Dwaine Esper all of five minutes to realise that if they gussied up their flicks with some kind of informative interstices, they'd be able to release stuff with nudity and violence through 'legitimate' channels.

Thus we get this film, sometimes under the title Sex Maniac, which purports to be a treatise on psychological disorders - by which I mean it throws up a text card every ten minutes or so describing some mental malady - while dishing up topless ladies, catfights (some with actual felines), and a (simulated, I hasten to say) scene where a man pops an eyeball out of a cat's head and then eats it.

Remember folks, these things are fine because they are educational.

The story?  I guess I should discuss it.  A crazy old doctor is exploring ways to bring the dead back to life.  He's assisted in this task by a former actor who has had some trouble with the law.  The doc uses this legal trouble to browbeat the ex-thespian - who is very squeamish about corpses - into impersonating the coroner so they can steal a body from the morgue.

The process works, more or less, so the Doc wants to try further experiments, and hands his assistant a gun, suggesting that it is time for the actor to shoot himself.  "You know my process works!" after all.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the actor chooses to shoot someone other than himself, and the Doc ends up dead.  You might expect the actor to make a run for it after that, but instead he decides to impersonate the doctor for reasons that are poorly justified.  Not to worry though, the movie has a whole lot wackier stuff in store than that.

The acting in Maniac is bad and the writing worse, and yet I really wanted to give it a Qualified Recommendation.  Firstly because it's an interesting historical artefact, and secondly because for me the insanity more than makes up for the dodgy production.  But then I remembered that most people aren't massive film geeks and want their movies to actually be good, so I didn't.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

Following the success of Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, Toho immediately began production of a direct sequel that would see the robotic kaiju return for a rematch.  A perfectly sensible strategy let down by only one factor: the film they made was dreadful.

I don't mean dreadful in the ordinary Godzilla sense of being about a bunch of guys in rubber suits pretending to fight each other.  I mean dreadful in the sense of "ugh this is really, really boring".

The film starts with a submarine exploring the ocean in search of Mechagodzilla's remains.  Instead, they find a gigantic dinosaur.  The submarine is destroyed and the crew goes missing, prompting the authorities to begin a search to find them.  This search leads them to a disgraced scientist.  Or at least to his house: his daughter tells them the man they are looking for has been dead for five years.

She's lying, however.  Her father is alive, and conspiring with the aliens from the last film to restore Mechagodzilla and then unleash it, and his dinosaur - which is named Titanosaurus - upon Japan.  Naturally, Godzilla will have to step in to stop them.

I actually quite like the design for Titanosaurus.  Sure, it's goofy-looking, but it somehow manages to be goofy-looking in a cool, part fish part dragon kind of way.  Alas, that's the last positive thing I will have to say about the film, which fails on pretty much every front.  Firstly, because it takes way too long to get to any kind of action scene.  There's a lot of tedious talky talk that goes on before the mad scientist finally gets as bored as the audience and unleashes Titanosaurus.

Unfortunately the arrival of the "kaiju battle" parts of the film fails to enliven things.  We see a return to the cartoonish action of Godzilla vs Megalon, which drains the fight of any real impact, and reduces it to just more waiting around before Big G wins the day and the movie ends.

Terror of Mechagodzilla deservedly sank at the box office - it sold fewer tickets in Japan than any other film in the series, before or since - and plunged the franchise into a nine year hiatus.  Which is only fair, since it felt nine years long when I was watching it.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Webs (2003)

If you remember when Richard Grieco was being touted as 'the new Johnny Depp', then you have my condolences.  Because like me, you are old.  If your response to the first sentence was 'who is Richard Grieco?', well, you don't need me to tell you that the whole 'new Johnny Depp' thing didn't play out so well.  Which is why we find him turning up in this SyFy original movie (though it was made back when they still called themselves SciFi).

Grieco plays Dean, the leader of a team of electricians.  The four men have been sent into a derelict building to check some anomalous energy readings.  The building is due for demolition, but the readings might mean that there are people squatting in there.

Instead of people, however, the men find a strange room with what appears to be a miniature nuclear reactor.  They accidentally activate a machine in the room, causing one of the four to disappear through a glowing portal.  Dean and the others follow, discovering themselves in what appears to be a deserted, nighttime version of the city (Chicago) they just left.

It's not as deserted as it appears, however: dangerous human-spider mutants prowl the streets.  They kill one of the four men, but then help arrives: uninfected humans armed with spears and other simple weapons.

It emerges that this is an alternate Earth, where a car-sized spider-queen overran the planet with her mutant offspring.  Now Dean and the others must try to find a way home while simultaneously preventing the spider-queen from following them through.

Like many SyFy/SciFi original movies, Webs suffers from its low budget and cheap production.  The effects are so-so, the lighting is flat and basic, and the number of locations available for use quite limited.  They make some effort to hide this with the set design, but it's not really enough.

What Webs suffers more from, however is a 'shock' ending that makes the eighty preceding minutes a complete waste of time.  Without that, I might have been tempted to give this a qualified recommendation as a better-than-average effort from the SyFy/SciFi gang.  As is though, skip it.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Mad Monster (1942)

Scientist toys with the laws of nature, and is destroyed by his own creation.

It's almost certainly a trope you've seen before.  Frankenstein is closing in on its 200th anniversary after all, and many many books and films have followed this well worn path.  The only distinction this film brings to the trope, frankly, is a sillier than usual scientific breakthrough.

Dr Lorenzo Cameron, you see, has spent many years attempting to distill the primal nature of animals - specifically wolves - into a serum that he can then inject into a man.  His plan, he explains to an imaginary set of colleagues, is to create a stronger, more deadly human to fight in the current war (he doesn't directly specify which war he means, but this was made in 1942, so it's not hard to work out).

When he imagines his imaginary colleagues belittling his discovery - as the real men belittled his theories, some years earlier - he resolves instead to employ his creation in murdering those who have 'wronged' him.  So he turns his gardener into a furry man-thing and sets him on his former compatriots.

This is why, folks, if you ever find yourself talking to a mad scientist, you should be polite.  Courtesy costs nothing, and it might save you from being attacked by a wolf-man.

There's a sub-plot involving Dr Cameron's daughter and her boyfriend - who naturally is a reporter assigned to investigate one of the wolf-man's first kills - but the above revenge tale is the main (rather dull) arc of the film.

The Doctor's plans eventually bring him to a sticky end, of course.  In case you were wondering.

I think I can sum up how I feel about this movie thusly: while it was on, I kept wishing I was watching The Manster, instead.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Devil's Rock (2011)

If I recall correctly, I stumbled across this film while trawling through cheap DVDs on a mail order site.  I then googled it, learned it was a New Zealand made horror film set in WW2, and decided to order it.  On the other hand, there's every possibility that I don't recall correctly, and the opposite is true: that I read about the film first, then discovered it was cheap and ordered it.

In either case, I am glad I didn't google image search the film at the time.  I did so for the first time in order to get the DVD cover image above, and discovered that a lot of the movie's advertising - and some of the other DVD covers - rely heavily on the image of a half-clothed woman in Nazi regalia.

Now that admittedly wouldn't necessarily have stopped me from buying the DVD.  But it gives the impression of a more exploitative, sleazier film than this actually is.  While there is some nudity, anyone buying this in the hope of seeing lots of skin is going to be disappointed.

Two commandos from New Zealand arrive in the Channel Islands on the eve of D-Day.  Their job is to perform acts of sabotage that will distract Nazi attention in that direction, and away from the actual landing sites.  I'm dubious about this, given that the Allies were trying to persuade the Germans that their landings would come near Calais, and the Channel Islands are (a) in the opposite direction and (b) rather too close to the actual landing sites for comfort.

The two men complete their mission to sabotage artillery guns, but before they leave they hear screams from inside the facility.  One of the two insists on investigating, which pretty quickly leads to the death of his partner and his own capture by the only living Nazi in the building.  Oops.

One doesn't get to be a commando without being resourceful, however, and our hero manages to escape: only to discover that the 'woman' he heard being tortured is a literal demon from hell.

Stuck between a Nazi and actual Hellspawn.  It's going to be a long night for this commando.  Especially since the demon has the ability to disguise itself in the form of his deceased wife.

The Devil's Rock is a decent horror film.  It's a little slow to get going, but after we finally get a big info dump about what's going on, it tightens up and the final act - one or two quibbles aside - is pretty tense and effective.  I also liked that it tied its plot into the Channel Islands' real life reputation as a place of witchcraft.

If you're a horror movie fan - especially one who likes old-school 'practical' gore effects - this is worth your time.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Dead Men Walk (1943)

It appears I am less tolerant of merely okay horror films than I am of merely okay mysteries.  Or maybe the reason that The Fatal Hour got a qualified recommendation when this one did not is that the former film actually had a female character with a role that went beyond 'victim'.

Certainly the two films share many of the same low-budget limitations: this one is more ambitious in terms of sets and action sequences, but the shortcomings of both aren't hard to pick up.  The script of this one, if anything, is more exposition-heavy ... or worse at disguising exposition as conversation, anyway.

Kindly Doctor Lloyd Clayton has been forced to kill his wicked brother Elwyn in an act of what he describes as self defence.  After the funeral, he goes to his brother's home and begins to burn the dead man's many occult books.  It seems Doctor Clayton considers all the material to be foul and unnatural.  Still, it also seems be doesn't believe if has any basis in truth: not even when his supposedly dead brother appears that night and warns of his impending vengeance.

Elwyn's revenge is focused on Lloyd's ward, Grace, whom he visits each night as a vampire and drains of blood.  As Grace sickens, Lloyd's problems are compounded by people's growing suspicion that he is behind her malady.  After all, as her guardian, he would inherit her considerable wealth if she were to die.

Lloyd will eventually become desperate enough to consider non-scientific solutions to his problem, but by the time he does, the suspicions of the locals appear to have been confirmed: Lloyd and Elwyn are identical, you see, and so when the supposedly deceased Elwyn is witnessed committing crimes, who else would they blame but Lloyd?

All this sets up a conclusion where Lloyd struggles to lay his brother to a final rest before a lynch mob can claim his own life.  Which sounds more exciting in theory than it is in actual execution.

There's nothing especially bad about this film, but also nothing especially innovative or memorable.  If you want spooky shenanigans, there are many better options.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974)

After years of lesser budgets, leading to (in my opinion) lesser films and (probably more important to the producers) lesser ticket sales, Toho decided to celebrate Godzilla's 20th anniversary by injecting more cash into the fourteenth entry in the series.  It definitely makes a difference.

This is not to say that Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla is entirely free of the flaws that have plagued the previous few films: we're still lumbered with the rounder, 'friendlier' Godzilla suit of the kid-oriented entries in the series, for one thing.  The plot has some issues, too.  But of course, no-one sits down to watch a Toho Godzilla film for the plot: it's for the kaiju action scenes.  And on that front, this film delivers.

We start on Okinawa, where we hear the legend of King Caesar: an ancient monster that protected the island from outside forces.  At some time, however, the secret of awakening this great defender was lost, and the island came under Japanese dominion.  The descendants of the former Okinawan rulers, therefore, are not exactly horrified when Godzilla appears to revert to his original, destructive ways, cutting a swathe of devastation across Japan.

Something's not quite right with Big G, though.  His roar sounds slightly off, and his atomic breath has a yellowish colour to it.  When Anguirus confronts the rampaging titan - and gets whipped like a mule in the process - we get a hint of the truth: a tear in Godzilla's skin reveals the glint of metal.

Later, the real Godzilla turns up to fight the imposter, which is revealed to be a 'cyborg' (looks more like a robot, to me) under the control of aliens intent on conquering Earth.  Big G gets the worst of this opening encounter, but damages the newly named Mechagodzilla enough that the aliens have it return to base for inprovements.  This sequence is probably the best in the film, with the battle taking place in amidst a rolling wave of explosions.

The plot ties all this into to a prophecy found in a cave in Okinawa: a monster will try to destroy the world, and two other monsters will stop it.  The phrasing of the subtitles are just that: "will stop it".  Probably not the best idea to acknowledge the inevitable victory of Big G so openly, Toho.

Anyway, most of the film is occupied with the human heroes trying to discover a way to awaken King Caesar, and the aliens trying to thwart them.  Given how Godzilla will actually do all the heavy lifting in the final battle against Mechagodzilla, with King Caesar achieving very little, all this activity ends up feeling a little pointless.  That's probably the film's greatest flaw, right there, with the manner of Big G's final victory being the second - it's rather contrived, to say the least.

On the whole, though, if you're at all into kaiju films, this is a solid one.  The action sequences are a big step up from the previous few, with lots of things blowing up, and the choreography of the fights is a huge improvement.  Many of the goofier elements have been eliminated, leading to fights that actually feel like, well, fights.  I approve.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Return to Savage Beach (1998)

Here's a little tip for film-makers, courtesy of this movie: having one of your characters exclaim "how many endings will this story have?" does not actually make it okay to have twenty seven different endings in your film.

So we have finally reached the last Andy Sidaris film.  He (and his son) released twelve flicks in fourteen years.  Not a bad effort in terms of quantity, though the less said about quality, the better.  I'm not sure why he stopped.  Possibly he just felt ready to retire, or maybe the budgetary needs of his action-oriented films (however weak that action was) meant he couldn't compete with the rise of the cheaper-to-film erotic 'thriller' and erotic parody.  Whatever the case, it marks the end of an era.  A trashy, schlocky era, but an era nonetheless.

The three main women from Day of the Warrior all return in this film, and are as always provided with many opportunities to remove their clothing.  Marcus 'Buff' Bagwell also returns, once more playing 'the Warrior', though in true Sidaris style he has now come over to the side of the good guys.  As he explains to Julie Strain's character, Willow Black: the 'federal agent' he slew in the previous film was actually a serial killer, and he's served three months for his thefts, so all is forgiven.

You might expect Willow to point out that Warrior attempted to kill her, too, and feel a little conflicted about this, but she seems far more interested in having awkwardly choreographed simulated sex with him instead.  It is an Andy Sidaris movie, after all.

The plot, as the title suggests, calls back to earlier Sidaris film Savage Beach.  This allows Sidaris to include a chunk of recycled footage from the earlier film as the agents narrate the events of that flick to each other.  The new parts of the plot meanwhile are all pretty standard Sidaris stuff, with lots of flashy vehicles and topless ladies sprinkled through it as normal.  He does actually manage to shoot a sex scene that approaches being sexy in this film, though, so I guess we have to give him some points for that.

I'll miss the weekly dose of cheese that has been Sidaris movie night, but I suspect my handful of readers will not!

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Fatal Hour (1940)

This is one of a series of films about a Chinese-American detective named Mr Wong.  Of course the character is not actually played by a Chinese-American actor, but by Boris Karloff.  To be fair to the film-makers, Mr Wong's own creator described him as having "the face of a foreign devil - a yankee", so the issue also seems to have been in the source material.  Still, it's nice we live in an age where such whitewashing no longer happens.

Oh, if only that last sentence were true.

But rather than ranting about the ongoing racism and sexism that plagues us all, let's just focus on this film.  First of all, I should admit that I am probably being a little generous in giving it a qualified recommendation.  This is certainly no masterpiece of cinema, or anything.  The script doesn't make a whole lot of sense - often an issue with low budget whodunnits - and the paucity of the budget is evident in the limited sets, lack of action, and absence of outdoor scenes.

On the other hand, we've got a 1940s cheapie (and the fact that they made six of these in two years should tell you how cheap it was) with a mostly solid enough cast, a change of pace performance from Boris Karloff, and an Intrepid Girl Reporter who actually manages to save the day (though they do lose points for having her faint after doing so).  Plus, the script may be pure hokum, but it at least keeps rattling along with murders and shenanigans aplenty.  Sure, they're mostly there to push the run time over the 60 minute mark and distract you from the weakness of the main actual mystery ... but they also help keep boredom from settling in, which puts this above the average for such fare.  I also liked that the film had the killer make use of then-modern technology for their crimes.  And in a way that - while very contrived - was actually plausible with said technology.

Ultimately, if you go into this with modest expectations, you'll probably be tolerably entertained for its slender run time.

Postscript: later in 1940, I am pleased to say, an actual Chinese-American actor was cast for the role of Mr Wong.  What a radical idea.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Flesh+Blood (1985)

When a nobleman betrays his oath to his mercenary soldiers, a group of them strike back by assaulting him and kidnapping his son's fiancee.  A deadly struggle emerges between the son and the mercenary leader, as each of them tries to claim the young woman, and she in turn does whatever she must to survive.

Paul Verhoeven's English-language breakthrough was Robocop, but his first film after moving to Hollywood was this one.  Flesh+Blood shares the strong violence and black sense of humor of the later film, but is quite different in some other ways.  For one thing, the humor is bleak as well as black: while Robocop is so uniformly over-the-top that it's not as horrifying as it should be, this film portrays a terrible, miserable setting in which to live.

In addition to the bleakness of the overall tone, the film continues its confronting style with strong sexual content (something Verhoeven returned to with Basic Instinct and Showgirls), and the absence of any hero.  No-one in the film has much of a moral compass, and even those who show a flicker of decency are easily bribed or blackmailed into unethical acts.

Given all the facts above, the film probably was probably always a little risky as a commercial proposition.  You can sell unpleasant characters with sex (Verhoeven did it in Basic Instinct after all) but it can very easily go awry.  This movie's chances were doubtless not helped by its troubled production: Verhoeven was forced to add a major new plotline at the last minute to include Jennifer Jason Leigh's character, had a quarrel with star Rutger Hauer that ended their long working relationship, and experienced considerable discipline issues with his cast as a whole.

Flesh+Blood will definitely not be to all tastes.  The lack of a hero to root for, the general unpleasantness of the time it depicts, and the graphic content will all put some people off.  The sometimes uneven tone is also problematic.  The film sensibly attempts to lighten the tone of mud, blood and misery at times, but it does so in ways that are rather discordant with the rest of the tone.  Overall however, if you're not put off by the graphic content and rather grim setting, there is an interesting film in here about the lengths people will go to in order to get what they want: whether what they want is revenge, a possession, or simply to survive.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Giant Gila Monster (1959)

"There are parts of the west that are still unexplored" this film's introduction informs us "where the gila monster dwells.  And who knows how large they could grow?".  Well, Mr Narrator Man, given the name of this movie, I'm guessing your answer is "pretty darn large".

We then switch to two teenagers necking in a car.  They don't slather themselves in BBQ sauce, but given the kind of film this is, they might as well have done.  Their vehicle is knocked down an embankment by a sudden attack.  All we see of the culprit is one large foot swatting the camera, but I am going to display my deductive reasoning skills and posit that the culprit will prove to be an uncommonly large lizard.

The film will now take a long, long, long diversion into teen soap opera.  Probably because having a bunch of kids awkwardly attempt to act is a lot cheaper and easier to film than even the embarrassingly basic "effects" on offer in this film.  We get a lot of blather that amounts to "Chase is a good kid really, but mean old Mr Wheeler keeps treating him like some kind of hoodlum".  It's probably because of that hot rod he drives.

See the way I worked in a mention of Chase's car, there?  The film will not be so subtle.

Anyway, the missing male teen is Mr Wheeler's son, and he insists the sheriff gets out and find the lad.  And the girl too, if possible.  The sheriff decides to do this by talking to Chase.  Because this movie needs to circle back to Chase every four minutes or so, apparently.

Anyway, Chase and some friends eventually find the missing car.  In the scene in question, the camera keeps cutting between the kids and a lizard, but the shots of the latter were so poorly constructed that it took me several cuts before I twigged to the fact that this was supposed to be the giant monster of the title.  There was a real need to include a model of something in the shot to establish that this was supposed to be something other than a regular lizard.

Anyway, Chase & Co somehow fail to notice the bus sized monster in the bushes.  They'll hear about it later though, when it derails a train and attacks the passengers.  By which I mean "crawls over a model railway set while screams are overdubbed into the soundtrack".

Then we get another long, long, long bout of soapy drama as Chase launches his career as a teen pop star.  Eventually the monster decides to interrupt proceedings which means we can finally get to the 'climactic' scene of Chase loading his car with nitroglycerin and blowing the lizard to pieces.  Chase himself, unfortunately, jumps clear before the explosion.

This doesn't even manage to be bad in a good way.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Godzilla vs Megalon (1973)

A nuclear weapons test in the Aleutian Islands unleashes a shockwave so massive that it rocks even Monster Island in the distant South Pacific.

... that's quite a bomb.

Anyway, in addition to sending Godzilla staggering and making Anguirus look like even more of a chump than the last film, the shockwave also unleashes devastation on the ancient, underwater civilisation of Seatopia.

The Seatopians are justifiably unhappy about this, and in an impressive display of double-think, they decide to "declare war on the surface world in order to preserve peace".  This requires them to dispatch their 'god' Megalon.  If you imagine a garishly colored, bipedal rhinoceros beetle eighty feet tall, you've got some idea of what ol' Megsy looks like.  Though I doubt most rhinoceros beetles can fire electrical blasts from their horn or spit explosive pellets from their mouths.

I actually like Megalon.  He's just the right kind of goofy to make for a fun kaiju without crossing over into eye-rolling territory.

Powerful it might be, but Megalon is apparently not too bright, so the Seatopians go to Japan to steal a robot named Jet Jaguar as a means of controlling it.  Quite why they wouldn't have their own control method already, what with Megsy being their monster, is the kind of plot point this movie is good at ignoring.

Presumably because that's where Jet Jaguar was, the Seatopians decide to send Megalon to attack Japan.  The film never says as much, so I'm making that up myself, but it's at least an in-narrative reason for the lunacy of attacking Japan to punish the world for using nuclear weapons.  Obviously the real reason Tokyo is immediately on the hit list is "this is a Japanese movie".

When the robot's inventor manages to regain control of Jet Jaguar, he sends the robot to fetch Godzilla.  The Seatopians respond by calling on the aliens from last movie to send Gigan into battle once more.  Because that worked so well for those guys.

On the other hand, a mob that use a beetle kaiju being allies of space cockroaches is almost thematically appropriate, so I will let it slide.

Jet Jaguar grows to kaiju size to battle the bad guys as well, so we have a four way scuffle on our hands.  It's pretty dire, to be honest.  Several sequences from Godzilla vs Gigan get recycled into the battle, and the new stuff is weak.  "Oh no, the bad kaiju started a fire!  Godzilla is trapped!"  Except for Big G having an ally who can fly, and being able to fly himself (though that was in Godzilla vs Hedorah, which they might have been pretending didn't exist), and you know, being frickin' Godzilla.

This is not very good.