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May 31, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #178 - The Oblong Box

Every year, on May 27th, I celebrate three birthdays. One is my sister's, which is inconsequential here unless we are speaking of Clownhouse.  The others belong to Sir Christopher Lee - who turned 91 AND released a heavy metal album on Monday - and his late companion in horror villainy, Vincent Price.  So this week, I celebrated another year of love for two of horror's greatest stars with a viewing of their first on-screen collaboration, The Oblong Box. (I celebrated with the sister too, sadly without Clownhouse.)
The film is an adaption-in-name-only of an Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, which tells of an ill-fated sea voyage and the dark secret locked away in one piece of cargo.  The film, on the other hand, dabbles in voodoo, grave robbing, revenge, and madness with Price starring as a man whose brother is disfigured thanks to a curse by an African tribe and condemned to live locked up in one room on the family estate. Driven mad by circumstance, the brother - played by the primarily masked and character actor Alister Williamson - is made to appear dead by another witch doctor, and escapes from his brother's reign after being buried alive in a coffin that is - you guessed it - oblong in shape.  (By the way, this guy gets my respect for trusting a witch doctor AFTER he's already been cursed and deformed by a witch doctor. That's some surprising trust.)
What follows is a neat horror story that lives somewhere between Frankenstein and the modern slasher film that may have drawn some inspiration from the German "krimi" films of the 1960s. The devious and disfigured brother, Edward, is risen from the grave by his co-conspirators and then dons a red mask and goes on a spree of madness against those who wronged him (and the occasional shifty prostitute who tries to overcharge him for ripping her breast from her gown).  He's actually a pretty fantastic villain, spouting rage-filled dialogue from behind the hood and showing off his imposing size as he moves through the film. Lee co-stars as the doctor who unwillingly takes in Edward and provides him a home, and perhaps the most lasting image of the film is how it manages to make us think Edward is towering over and dominating the 6'3" man who made Dracula seem taller than Godzilla.
The Oblong Box is directed by Gordon Hessler, who would make two more films with Price the following year - Scream and Scream Again and Cry of the Banshee being the others, and the director brings a vision that seems more in tune with the pulse of its era than many other Gothic horror films of the time. The film is not exceedingly violent, even by the standards of 1969, but the masked killer is something quite different for the time period. And the fact that he is made to look stronger than both Lee - who spends much of the movie trying to sound tough but never really threatening Edward - and Price - who is in that "tortured soul who would be good if it weren't for his secret" role that he does so well - does wonders for the film. We don't expect to see Christopher Lee and Vincent Price both losing out to one villain in a horror film, and the fact that Hessler offers that for much of this film is a bold and kind of brilliant twist on the viewer's expectations.
Though the film was produced on a low budget for American International Pictures, there's definitely a grand feeling to the story at times. The script is attributed to two writers: Lawrence Huntington, who died at the age of 68 in the year before the film's release, and Christopher Wicking, a twenty-six year old writer who re-wrote the script that Huntington and original director Michael Reeves (who also died during production) had put together. Despite the number of contributors and the unfortunate circumstance around the film, it still offers some interesting twists. There's a bit of psychological play - led by the strange sexual relationship between the killer and pretty young servant and some late film showdowns between Price's character and his brother - and I definitely felt like the film was turning toward the new breed of horror that had been started by films like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby in 1968. I am a big fan of Price/Poe films like those made by Roger Corman, of course, but it's easy to see that The Oblong Box was conceived from a different mindset than those films.
The end result is a macabre piece of horror that manages to create something new without wasting the talents of its two iconic stars. It's funny to me that the thing that drew me to this film was the pairing of Lee and Price, and yet it's probably the thing I'm least interested in talking about right now. If you're a fan of these icons you know what you're getting from them (Repeated Warning: it's not the dominating villain role for either, so check your expectations accordingly), which makes it important to know that most of the things around them - particularly Williamson and whoever provided his character's voice - are fantastic on their own. The Oblong Box is not what you might expect, but if you expect good horror cinema you could do a whole lot worse.

May 24, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #177 - Wendigo

When I look back at the early part of the 2000s, one of the first things that comes to my mind is all the independent and/or "art house" cinema I found myself watching. I was a college kid with too little to do and too much internet to read, and I found my way to a lot of films that now seem rather drab and uninteresting to me. But this time period was not a waste by any means; I found plenty of relatively unknown films that I still love to death by spending my time at the theater and rummaging through the rental section at the video store. There were a lot of ambitious and effective low-budget winners that I found, but unfortunately very few of them came from the horror genre.
One of the primary exceptions to this rule is Wendigo, which was my first exposure to current indie horror producer/director/actor extraordinaire Larry Fessenden. Fessenden has been involved in a lot of FMWL's favorite things over the last ten years - acting in I Sell The Dead, directing former MMOTW The Last Winter, and producing things like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers under his Glass Eye Pix company - and along the way I kind of forgot how impressive Wendigo is as a dramatic, poetic piece of storytelling.
Jake Weber (Dawn of the Dead 2004) and Patricia Clarkson (lots of stuff) star as a couple who, along with their son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, aka the big ears kid from Malcolm in the Middle), head to a desolate house in the Catskills for a quiet weekend outside of the city. Anyone who watches horror movies knows quiet weekends are never quiet, but what follows here is not the cliche you might expect.
I'll get to the mythical creature from the title in a minute, but I'm going to do the same thing the film does and first mention the film's human aggressor. His name is Otis, and he's an unhinged country guy played by John Speredakos. Speredakos has shown up in a lot of films produced by Fessenden - including all four of the movies I mentioned when talking about the director - but his performance as Otis is a real standout in his career. Speredakos manages to pose a believable and realistic threat with little effort, and the conflict between his gruff character and Weber's passive aggressive father is easy to understand and incredibly tense. 
None of these characters are incredibly original, but the three adult leads are talented enough to give each of them depth. The real focal point of the film, however, is little Erik Per Sullivan as Miles. The son becomes caught up in the legend of the Wendigo, a shape-shifting deer-like creature that - according to a Native American man that only young Miles seems to see - is always hungry and generally destructive. Miles' focus on the creature blurs the line between what is real or not, and much of the film raises questions about whether Otis or the Wendigo is the bigger threat to Miles and his family. I'm rarely wild about child actors in cinema - too often have the tried to ruin an otherwise good film - but Wendigo packs a strong dramatic punch in part thanks to its youngest star.
Like he did in The Last Winter, Fessenden has a little bit of a monster problem in Wendigo. The creatures that we are shown in both films are not going to make their way into a lot of nightmares - partially due to bad special effects, partially because they're abstract and bizarre - but the director's eye for creating tension and building up concern throughout the film overshadows these flaws. As we get to know the characters there are very few moments that don't build some kind of conflict, and Fessenden's patient control over the film draws us in to the mystery. So what if he's got more "giant deer monsters" to his name than any director ever.
Fessenden's recent colleague Ti West has become the poster boy for the "slow burn" horror film, but Wendigo is a fantastic example of how to turn a family drama into a creepy thriller. If nothing else, Wendigo shows as that a strong set of characters, a moody setting and just enough conflict is all you need to create horror - and that once you've done that it won't matter if you create a monster by dangling sticks in front of the camera and chasing a child around the woods. There are still a couple of cheesy moments when the monster gets involved, but for the most part Wendigo works and the fantastic final act cements its status as as the all-too-rare perfectly mature horror film.

May 17, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #176 - The Quiet Earth

The "last man On Earth" storyline has been played out a few times in sci-fi history, but rarely with the conviction that lies within The Quiet Earth. Produced in New Zealand in 1985, The Quiet Earth is a powerful sci-fi film that overcomes several faults thanks to an ambitious script and a fantastic performance by co-writer/star Bruno Lawrence. Modern film fans will immediately see some similarities to 28 Days Later (right down to the "guy wakes up totally naked to the camera when we meet him" aspect of each film), but The Quiet Earth is pretty much the tonal opposite of Danny Boyle's horror epic.
Lawrence is Zac Hobson, a scientist working on something called "Project Flashlight" in an underground lab - that is until he wakes up at 6:12 one morning and realizes everyone else has vanished from the world around him. What follows in the film's first act is a collection of Zac's reactions to his newfound status as "the President of the Quiet Earth" - which primarily consist of representations of his changing emotional state and a ton of interesting shots that show how small he is compared to the empty city that surrounds him.
Zac is an interesting character primarily because we can tell that there had to be plenty wrong with his mental state before "the event" that left him to fend for himself in the world. I've no doubt that most of us would go a little mad if we woke up alone in the world, but Zac seems to slip into previously untapped desires and urges very quickly. Part of his journey seems innocent - one of my favorite bits shows Zac admiring a model train set, followed immediately by a grinning Zac taking a full size locomotive for a spin - but it does not take the film long to show Zac slipping away from reality. It takes less than a half hour of screentime for us to find Zac wearing women's clothing and addressing a crowd of cardboard cutouts that includes Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon, and that's gotta be some kind of record.
The character is obviously unhinged, and that's interesting in it's own right. But Lawrence's powerhouse presence really takes the film to a new level during the first act, in which he works to come to terms with his predicament. The commanding presence should remind genre fans of actors like Klaus Kinski who dive into a role and never look back, because Lawrence never seems to waver in his portrayal of a man who is on the edge of extinction. The first 35 or so minutes of the film are gripping and bizarre, and almost all of that is thanks to the man in the lead.  It wouldn't be wise for the film to put this much of a bizarre burden on Lawrence for the entire film, however, which leads us to the film's second and third major life-changing events.
As you might ahve guessed, Zac isn't alone entirely. The film's most touching moment is possibly the one where a female survivor named Joanne (Alison Routledge) finds Zac's location. After a brief standoff, the two instinctively move into a comforting embrace, and the relief that each has to feel the presence of another seems to pour off of the screen. The film follows with a brief reprieve from insanity for Zac and Joanne, but this too is a short lived feeling of peace.
Everything changes for a third time when Api (Peter Smith), an imposing Maori man finds the duo and becomes the third member of what's left of humanity. Two guys and one girl is always a crowd - one that's been exploited by movies of all genres - and tension quickly develops. Zac is also increasingly concerned that another major change is coming thanks to his old project, which leads to a few awkward sequences where the film struggles to balance the sci-fi threat and the desires of these three characters. It seems like the easy way out for the film to go ahead and create a love triangle, but when you think of what's at stake here (the fate of humanity, for example) it makes sense that these people would get caught up in a few petty games. I don't mind the story adding this tension - it's essential in Zac's journey - but it throws a few cogs in the machine as we try to follow what's going on with the experiment that may have ended humanity.
It doesn't seem like I should say that the film goes through another major change - I think I've said enough about the plot thus far - but if there's one thing that becomes completely obvious throughout The Quiet Earth, it's that that Zac Hobson is something of a catalyst for mayhem. There are some pretty fantastic theories out there about what The Quiet Earth actually means (this is one of the rare times when I've actually found intelligent and interesting discussion on an IMDB message board, if that means anything) and the film works as a fantastic "AND THEN...." movie. (Meaning, of course, that every time the movie seems to be slowing down the screenwriters said "and then this happens!" and started the film down a new path.) At the middle of every development is Zac Hobson, and Bruno Lawrence always seems to give him the perfect response to whatever is going on now in the film's twisty universe.
It's abstract and it's bizarre, but The Quiet Earth sure knows how to keep a viewer's brain moving in the best way. It's not always profound - that love triangle and the tension that comes from it seems to fill too much of the final 40 minutes - but it always seems to have one more trick up its sleeve. If nothing else, the ambiguous ending is a jaw-dropping addition to the film, and the discussions that can be had after the credits roll are well worth the 91 minutes that precede them. The film's unpredictable nature, beautiful cinematography and fantastic lead performance are all great reasons to seek out The Quiet Earth, which still stands as one of the most unique science-fiction classics of the 1980s.

(If you're up for it, here's the full movie on YouTube. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, go watch the trailer. It spoils everything. This is a movie you must see blind.)

May 10, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #175 - Dracula: Prince of Darkness

Considering what I know now, it's a little bit hard for me to recommend Dracula: Prince of Darkness to people. The first sequel to Horror of Dracula that brought Christopher Lee back to the franchise is slightly infamous due to Lee's attitude toward the production. But I still kind of love the movie, and I don't really feel bad about that. I suppose I could use the term guilty pleasure, but I feel no guilt for disagreeing with one of my favorite actors on this one. Instead, I find that Dracula: Prince of Darkness works as something of a case study into how a film can succeed despite all of the troubling things that happen along its journey through production. 
(RANDOM TANGENT: By the way, I'd never use the term "guilty pleasure" anyway. It's one of those things I wish we could disinvent. There is no reason you should feel guilt over liking a movie. If you take things so seriously that you have probably have some personal problems and you might wanna talk to somebody. Life's too short, be happy about movies.)
It's widely documented - I posted an interview in which Lee confirms it just last week - that the star was so disappointed by the film's script that he refused to speak any dialogue in this film. The result is that there are some moments where we briefly forget that this is a Dracula movie, because the film is forced to spend a lot of time on other characters who vary from the very bland to the interesting-only-as-a-caricature. 
One of my favorite theories about sequels that a friend and I once came up with - and this is gonna veer in a non-horror direction, so stay with me - is that you often find sequels scrambling to replace one or two major parts of the first film's success with a larger number of smaller parts. If you saw Moneyball you can think of it as the same thing Brad Pitt did in that movie, but apply it to movies. For example, The Fast and The Furious had Vin Diesel as a criminal/cohort of Paul Walker who was undercover. Vin left and Walker became the criminal, so they had to add Tyrese as a cohort, Cole Hauser as a criminal, and Eva Mendes undercover. Simple math dictates that they needed three people to make up for the loss of Vin Diesel and for the change in Paul Walker's character's profession.
The same thing happened with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, which meant that Hammer Films' stable of writers and director Terence Fisher - who, by the way, does not get enough credit for holding together some standard horror productions and making them better than the sum of the parts (He might have been the Billy Beane of horror movies!) - had to think of new ways to make the movie go. Without Peter Cushing or the Van Helsing character (because you don't just replace Cushing!) and without Dracula as more than a silent force, Fisher and company added some unique characters to the mix and took a step even further away from Bram Stoker's novel.  (That last step might be a negative to some people - Lee particularly - but for the rest of this article I'm going to accept it. Again, life's too short.)
My favorite development in this sequel is the focus on what most vampire mythology refers to as "familiars" - the humans who serve Count Dracula for reasons unknown to most men.  At the front of this development is Klove, played by Philip Latham, a pale and grey-haired servant who maintains Dracula's castle and is responsible for the ritual that allows the previously perished Count to return and terrorize the family that wanders into his home. Klove fascinates me thanks to Latham's quiet and assured performance, and the sequence in which he carries out the blood ritual that resurrects Lee is one of the highlights of the franchise. There's a methodical, religious aspect to the character - watch how the actor pauses and slightly bows before the altar which holds Dracula's ashes - that builds up Dracula's power over the week. If nothing else, Dracula: Prince of Darkness does a really good job of making us recognize the power that Dracula can have over the weak.  (Klove would randomly return two sequels later in Scars of Dracula, but in this version the character is more desperate and pitiful while being played by The Omen's Patrick Troughton.)
Aside from the few familiars involved, this sequel offers a couple of other notable additions to the cast. Barbara Shelley does double duty, spending the first half of the film as an uptight and skeptical member of the group that enters the castle before becoming Dracula's female companion after a mid film bite.  She does a good job of selling both aspects of the character, cementing the fact that this movies is going to spend its time showing Dracula's impact on others. This is also hammered home by co-star Andrew Keir, whose addition to the film as a monk that knows all about Dracula and vampirism is clearly covering for some of the things we'd expect to hear from Van Helsing. It's a one-note character, but Keir's strong presence helps give the film a little more weight.
I probably shouldn't find Dracula: Prince of Darkness to be as interesting as it is, especially when I look at some of the obvious flaws in the production, the biggest of which is being a Dracula movie that doesn't have much Dracula in it. And yet, the way the movie has been put together and the amount of effort that appears to have been expended is somewhat infectious. I gain a lot of respect for everyone involved - even Lee, despite his objections - when I watch this movie because it's such a large challenge to replicate what Horror of Dracula did eight years earlier. Yet you can still see the wheels churning and no one seems to be resting on the name value of the film, and the final result is a vampire tale that is far from perfect but still good looking and a bit charming.

May 5, 2013

Blu-Ray Review - Mama

(2013, Dir. by Andy Muschietti.)

The Movie:
I found Mama to be an incredibly frustrating horror experience. It's a film that I wanted to like, due to its unique supernatural story and some effective shocks, but also a film that loses its way technically and seems to stumble more often than not in its storytelling. It's easy to see that this is a small idea - originally a three minute short horror film - that has been expanded, but it's worth noting that I was surprised to find out the sequence that had the biggest impact on me was not the sequence that inspired the feature length film.

The film opens rather terrifically, following a criminal father (played by Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who kidnaps his two young daughters after a heist and takes them to an abandoned cabin in the woods. Trouble follows, and the girls end up abandoned themselves, left to survive on their own until they are found five years later, and placed in the custody of their uncle (also played by Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain). 

As you can guess, the survival of two preteen girls in the wild doesn't happen by chance, and does have some side effects. The girls are protected by an unseen force they know as "Mama," and it becomes quickly evident that this supernatural force has followed them to their new home.  Chastain becomes the focal point of the film as she struggles to keep the new family afloat while accepting that she has to leave behind her passion for being a tattooed garage band rock star. Yes, I'm as surprised as you are to see Ms. Chastain put into that role, but the actress makes it work effortlessly.

As I was saying earlier, the opening of the film was gripping and unsettling and even a little bit surprising, and the setting sequence in the cabin had me prepared to enjoy where Mama was heading. Unfortunately, the film becomes rather difficult once the girls move to their new home, partially because the story becomes extremely predictable and primarily because the film misses a lot of marks while trying to creep out the audience.

The most difficult thing for me was the representation of Mama as a character. Initial scenes were mysterious and creepy, but as we see more of Mama she becomes less intimidating. The special effects used to create the character - a mixture of one frail actor, a lot of prosthetics and a ton of CGI - were laughably bad at times, particularly during a final showdown that seems to be leftover from some kind of fairy tale. This goofy looking creature - that reminded me of a department store Halloween decoration on a stick - combined with repetitive and predictable scares to overwhelm a lot of the good things Mama had going on.

There's a lot I like about Mama - the actors, some fantastic camerawork, an eerie/ugly green-orange-brown color palette that oozes through the whole movie - and some may be more forgiving of certain flaws than I was.  The story itself is a bit forgettable - I saw it last week and I had to look up the ending to make sure I remembered it correctly today - and the ghastly title character is unimpressive, and that was enough to take me out of the picture all together. I suppose it's an OK movie for a horror night with a crowd of friends, but there's not a lot under the surface to make me want more of what Mama's offering.

The Disc:
Being a film that's merely four months removed from its theatrical release, there's little reason to complain about Universal's presentation of Mama. The blu-ray picture is very clear - perhaps drawing out the flaws in the special effects more - and the surround sound mix sounded great on my standard home system. 

The disc has a few extras, most notably the 2008 short film by director Muschetti that caught the eye of producer Guillermo Del Toro.  I wish I had watched the short before the film, but it was still effective in setting mood and creating a horror image that seems ripe for an expanded story. Unfortunately, I don't think this expanded story did it justice.  The short is introduced by Del Toro, who shows up all over the disk in interviews, and should give you an idea of what to expect from the film. This feature is also available on YouTube, so feel free to check it out if you're still wondering about the movie.

Also on the disc are a collection of six deleted scenes - mostly short filler segments about Chastain's character adapting to the kids and the kids doing creepy things in the name of Mama - each of which have a commentary by Muschetti and his co-writer/sister.  The blu-ray offers two other featurettes, one on on the inspiration for the film and one on the special effects. The latter is exclusive to the blu-ray and shows a) that a lot of interesting work was put into creating Mama and b) that I still think she looks goofy and isn't frightening.  The disc also offers commentary on the film, the short, and the deleted scenes by both Muschetti siblings, and their passion for this project does ring through. It's hard to be the guy who doesn't like the movie when the filmmakers sound so passionate about their work, and they make me want to give Mama another chance despite what my head is telling me about the movie.

The disc also has a selection of trailers for other Universal products, starting the disc with ads for upcoming releases Dead in Tombstone (a pulpy DTV western starring Danny Trejo, Anthony Michael Hall, and Dina Meyer that has my attention), Side Effects (an odd inclusion here, but I always accept Soderbergh), and the TV series Grimm.  From the menu you can select to view several trailers for other spooky Universal releases of the last decade - from The Unborn to White Noise to The Last House on the Left - that could be compared to Mama in genre and quality.

Closing Thoughts:
Mama is being released on Blu-Ray Combo pack (with a DVD and an Ultraviolet copy) this Tuesday, May 7th, and will also be available in a stand alone DVD package.  Fans of the movie should be very pleased with the presentation, and casual horror fans looking for some good jumps might get something out of it. I wasn't wild about the film, but it has its positives. Check out the trailer below and make up your own mind this Tuesday!

May 3, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #174 - Black Mama, White Mama

If you ever wondered what The Defiant Ones would look like with beautiful women in the Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier roles - or if you're younger and wondered the same thing about Stephen Baldwin and Larry Fishburne in Fled - then you're looking for Black Mama, White Mama. Produced in 1973 by Filipino director Eddie Romero, the film is a chance for Pam Grier - the Queen of Grindhouse herself - and blonde bombshell Margaret Markov to make the most out of a ridiculous premise and turn their island upside down.
Markov plays Karen, a revolutionary leader who's imprisoned alongside Grier's Lee, a prostitute, in a seedy woman's prison where the guards are a bit too frisky and shower time is excessively playful. The girls don't see eye to eye - Lee won't submit to the lusting head guard and Karen will - which leads to them being chained together just before they escape from work duty. Unable to shake free from one another, Karen and Lee struggle to survive while battling to meet their own needs.
If it all sounds kind of childish, that's because it is. This was a time when the Philippines became a go-to place for genre film producers, a place where rules didn't exist and labor costs were pretty darn low. As such, local "talents" fill up much of the cast and crew, and the lack of a Hollywood polish will put the movie close to "so bad it's good" territory for some viewers. Some of the actors, most notably a rotund villain who likes to torture nude women, seem like they were destined for Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. But, thankfully, the talented cast shines brighter than the flaws of the low budget deserve.
Grier is a known quantity, though it's important to note that this film was produced just before her star-making role in Coffy, which was released later in the same year. We don't get much of the Grier swagger that we've come to love in her more famous blaxploitation films here, but her strong presence still radiates, especially when the action picks up. It's not the Grier I expected, but it's easy to see what she would become and how her personality earned her a place in Hollywood.
Markov is a less known name, but her starring turn as Karen fits perfectly alongside Grier. She looks the part of a California beach bunny, but she manages to show some attitude of her own and provide a bit of humor alongside Grier. Sequences like the one in which the duo disguise themselves as nuns pop off of the screen, primarily thanks to the chemistry these two share with each other. Markov would star in a couple more grindhouse films in the following year, but after marrying a producer she - sadly for us - retired from acting.  To be honest, Markov probably steals more scenes in this film than Grier does. And that's an impressive feat.
As if the two stars weren't enough, Romero also enlisted the services of horror favorite Sid Haig to spice up the picture. Haig co-stars as a seedy fella who is hired to track the escaped women, and who does so while hooking up with women, torturing the police on the case, and sporting a pretty fantastic tropical shirt.  Haig's performance is never quite sinister, but his manic energy gives the film a boost of unpredictability that is more than welcome. Also adding a bit of odd fun to the film is Lynn Borden as the lesbian prison guard who creates the wedge between Lee and Karen, and there's a part of me that's sad that Haig and Borden don't spend more time in this flick.
Black Mama, White Mama is nothing close to high art, but it's a surprising twist on a fun premise that never settles for a dull moment. It actually probably belongs on the high end of the Filipino genre cinema spectrum - see Machete Maidens Unleashed for more on that weird subgenre - and it's a chance for a few powerful actors to showcase their talents in unique ways. If you like trashy exploitation cinema, you'll definitely have a smile on your face by the time Black Mama, White Mama's final shootout rolls around.

May 2, 2013

Today's Things: The "Manborgs, Vampires, and Twins" Edition

You guys, I'm tired of being boring. I feel like 2013 has been one big long boring year here at FMWL. And that sucks. I could make a bunch of excuses - work sucks, writing about horror movies four days a week exhausts a lot of topics, I'm just lazy - but none of them would actually matter. It's not why I don't do things that's important, it's that I do something about it.
Totally unrelated, yet important, checklist.
When thinking about my own writing and what the heck I'm doing, I came to a realization. I love writing reviews and being as serious as I can be (which isn't that serious, but that's beside the point), but the most fun I've ever had writing about movies - save a few of my favorite posts here at FMWL - was more than ten years ago when a friend asked me to write a DVD column on his site and I turned it into a random series of thoughts that I slapped together off the top of my head while doing what I call "winging it." It wasn't high art and it wasn't always important, but it was carefree and fun and it always put a smile on my face. And, as you might have guessed, that's what I'm doing right now.

That's not to say I plan on getting rid of reviews or the Midnight Movie of the Week or any of the other stuff I do when I'm feeling inspired. But there are so many times when I just want to put some thoughts out there and I get caught up in the how and the what and then I'm like HEY THE MIKE JUST FREAKING TYPE IT. So that will be what I do every once in a while in posts like this one, which will carry the simple title "Today's Things."

(Yes, I thought of that name all by myself. I'm a gosh darn Einstein.)

(Oh, and I might ramble on a bit here. Just roll with it. Or go read something else. Your move, creep.)

Thing I'm Loving on Blu-Ray
I'm not sure if I've said it enough over the last year, but Shout Factory's horror centric new wing, Scream Factory, is one of the best things to happen to horror fans in ages.  Case in point: This week's release of the R-rated Hammer Films offering The Vampire Lovers. Released in 1970, this Dracula-less film is a showcase for the voluptuous and talented Ingrid Pitt, a horror star who must be seen by all fans of romantic vampire tales.
While the film itself is not one of Hammer's best offerings, it stands up as a nice adaptation of the classic tale of Carmilla, which predated Bram Stoker's Dracula and pretty much invented the lesbian vampire stereotype that became a staple of European horror in this era. Pitt is the primary reason to check the film out, and its use of nudity and sexuality - while mild by modern standards - is out of character and risque for hammer. Advertising for the film that has been reproduced (twice on the blu-ray packaging and once as an on-disc disclaimer) boldly states "Not for the mentally immature!", which to me seems like a reminder that there's artful desires behind this surprising film.

(By the way, I always give a movie extra kudos if a villain uses a fake name that is an acronym of their infamous name. Here we get Carmilla pretending to be someone named Mircalla, and me smiling a lot due to this fact.)

As has been the case for most of their releases, Scream Factory put a lot of effort into this release.  The blu-ray package (unlike many of their releases, this is NOT a blu/DVD combo pack) offers plenty of extras - I'm stoked to see the commentary by director Roy Ward Baker, even though I'm pretty sure it's carried over from the old DVD release - and the price is even a bit lower than most of the other Scream Factory titles. Fans of Hammer or European vampire flicks of the '70s should definitely find this one.

Thing That's Not Horror That I'm Watching While Writing
Broken Arrow. Look, I know there's a good John Woo and a bad John Woo, and I know that this is bad John Woo. But I still find a lot of enjoyment in just how ridiculously macho this showdown between John Travolta and Christian Slater - neither of whom are often charged with being ridiculously macho - is. There was a place and a time in the '90s when this was comfort cinema to me, and it's still welcome now - it's just not welcome as often
Bonus points for Samantha Mathis. Redheads, man.
 (By the way, I dog on the '90s all the time - but I gotta admit they've grown on me. I even like a lot of '90s music now! And I even hated '90s music then. Today a teenager I know called Pearl Jam classic rock and it took every ounce of my being to stop me from shouting "WHOA YOU JUST BACK THE FRAK UP!" and going on a rant. Restraint - Thy name is Mike.)

So yeah, Bad John Woo still has its moments. Unless it's Mission Impossible II. Then it just makes me sad.

Thing I'm Not Sure About Yet, But Which Makes Me Chuckle
When a movie's called Manborg, I take notice. And production crew Astron-6 already had my attention thanks to Father's Day, one of the most obscene and ridiculous (and also fun) movies released in 2012.  But Father's Day was one of those movies that I never managed to write a review of, because it's just kind of difficult to piece together a legitimate commentary on such a random movie. You know how sometimes you see something bizarre and you're like "Well...that happened." and you know you had fun but all attempts to explain why you had fun don't make sense?  That's where I was at when I saw Father's Day.

That's kind of where I'm at after Manborg too, although it's a different kind of feeling this time. Manborg - the tale of a man who is reincarnated as a cyborg, naturally - is a more cartoonish and less vulgar animal than Astron-6's first film. It's still bloody and gory and inappropriate in its own ways, but it's more playful and maybe even more fun than Father's Day was. Maybe. I'm not really sure. Father's Day was more...ummmm....artistic? Maybe? Heck, I don't know. The point is that explanations of Astron-6 films are really pointless - if you like low-budget retro/grindhouse goofiness, these movies are for you. If you don't, you'll hate 'em. Regardless of your opinion, in ten years we'll be talking about Astron-6 the same way we talk about Troma films now.
Back to Manborg - I might review it soon, but I'm not sure that review will make much sense. I will say that Mina - the blue-haired anime-inspired heroine - and #1 Man - the poorly dubbed martial arts expert who's presumably from the far east - had me cackling all the time and made the 72 minute film worthwhile. That might be all I need to say for a review, actually. Let's move on...or you could watch the Manborg trailer and catch up with me in a minute.

Thing That's A Random Rant
Those of you who know me or follow me into the social media world probably know that I'm a pretty big sports fan at times. And I was randomly thinking about horror movies today and how lots of horror movies promote lots of stereotypes and I was surprised by how I never thought a lot about athletes in horror movies.

The catch, of course, is that horror movies don't often give us much to think about when a character is written as an athlete. For starters, "idiot male who womanizes often" is often synonymous with "football player" in horror scripts, a distinction that is occasionally deserved but a bit of an oversimplification. I mean, I was a teenage football player, but I still learned how to read and write and how to not treat women like objects and how to never have a girlfriend - all of which are completely the opposite of what we see from "athletes" in horror movies.  I am not the norm, and I'm proud of that, but I really don't think that the type of football guy shown in these movies is the norm either.
I always assumed this guy died because of his hairstyle.
But hey, let's leave football out of this right now. Why is that always the example? Where's the hockey players and the basketball players and the golfers? And where are all the female athletes? American schools have laws which require equal amounts of sports programs for males and females, but how often does a female character in a horror movie mention their sports experience? Now, there are naturally some outliers - would you believe that PIECES, which features a character who's a female tennis star, is one of the more progressive horror movies in this regard???? - but I'm struggling to pull them off the top of my head.  In fact, this topic might require more thought and its own post.

What say you, dear readers? Got any examples of athletes in horror that stick out to you? Have similar complaints about this stereotype or similar stereotypes in horror films? I know it's one of the least important ones out there - we should probably deal with how terrible women get treated in slasher films before we focus on football stars - but it's something that caught my attention and inspired me to ponder.  What do you think?

Thing That's A Random Shout Out
Belated happy birthday to Jen and Sylvia Soska, better known as the Twisted Twins, who celebrated a birthday on Monday. They were the team behind Dead Hooker in a Trunk, which was one of the first indie horror films I reviewed for this site and a goofy favorite that still makes me laugh.  Their follow-up, American Mary, will make its US debut on home video in June, and if you don't think I've got that pre-ordered than you don't think my name is The Mike. Can't wait to see what these talented ladies have up their sleeve next!
Thing At The End
Coming soon to FMWL - William Friedkin's new memoir, a yet-to-be-named Midnight Movie of the Week, and a review of the Guillermo Del Toro produced Mama on blu-ray. Plus I've got a stack of Pam Grier DVDs sitting next to me that are just begging for some one on one time.  So, until next time, here's a thing from YouTube. Be well, Midnight Warriors!