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January 31, 2012

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Some Guy Who Kills People

(2011, Dir. by Jack Perez.)

It's time for us to talk about another one of those movies that will turn you and your expectations upside down and shake you like a Yahtzee tumbler.  The film? Some Guy Who Kills People.  That's a pretty simple title.  Sounds like your average horror movie, right? WRONG.

In fact, Some Guy Who Kills People has more in common with a film like Rushmore than it does with a film like Saw.  The film follows Ken Boyd, a 34 year old man who's just been released from a mental institution - or, as he calls it, a loony bin.  The film establishes quickly that there are many factors that led to Ken's institutionalization, but focuses primarily on one instance of bullying that evolved into torture, a scene that still haunts the rehabilitated ice cream vendor.

Ken is played by Kevin Corrigan, who's been bouncing around big budget and indie films since the early '90s, a recognizable face who has never quite been as personable as he is here.  Sure, he's playing a character who is deeply disturbed, but it's incredibly easy for the viewer to relate with the man, particularly in the current social climate which condemns bullying as a cardinal sin.  Most of us have dealt with bullies at some point in our life - aggressors who truly seem to be one-dimensional pains in our collective asses - so we can feel part of what Ken is going through as he tries to keep his life in order despite the troubles he deals with every day. 

When Ken's life isn't filled with the pain of his past it is filled with the awkwardness of his daily routine.  His estranged 11 year old daughter (Ariel Gade, of the American remake of Dark Water) walks into his life with desires to reconnect, while his mother (horror legend Karen Black) has a relationship with the Sheriff (Barry Bostwick) and he starts to see a woman himself (Shaun of the Dead's Lucy Davis).  This is the stuff of post-Y2K independent drama, except for the fact that some guy is killing people.

While the film offers plenty of character development and a few gruesome murders, everything hinges on Corrigan's marvelous performance in the lead.  The actor gives a simple performance as the everyman lead character, and makes it incredibly easy for viewers to relate to the lead character.  His uneasy performance offers a lot of laughs, and - most importantly - they're the good kind of laughs that come when the viewer recognizes that the jokes are focusing on some good old fashioned human truths.  No, there's not always a guy running around killing people in reality, but people who struggle with their lack of direction in life and their ability to be a father and all that stuff is incredibly real.  Corrigan and Wade do a fantastic job of creating two incredibly real characters, which gives a lot of power to the film.

In the meantime, the murderous side of the story features some more blatant comedy, mostly thanks to the bitter performance by Black as the mother/grandmother who has to deal with everything around her and Bostwick's hammy turn as the Sheriff.  Bostwick provides plenty of comic relief as the bumbling lawman, but late in the film he seems to hold the key to building power in the final act.  In fact, it was one of his revelations during an interrogation scene late in the film that had me clapping my hands and nodding my head, because it was then that I realized just how well Some Guy Who Kills People really understands what it's doing.

And that's what makes Some Guy Who Kills People one of the best movies I've seen in a long time.  The film - as scripted by Ryan Levin, who cut his teeth on Scrubs, and as directed by Jack Perez, whose last "big" movie was Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus - really gets it.  It gets what makes a victim of bullying so mad.  It gets what goes on inside the mind of someone who can't deal with the difficulties in their life, and who has to find a way to deal with these issues.

Of course, it might not "get it" in the way you expect it too, and the final act just might surprise you.  And that just adds to why I love the heck out of Some Guy Who Kills People.  It's a truly one of a kind indie horror film that doubles as a commentary on how we all deal with those who keep us down in our life.  It sounds like I'm condoning violence here, which is not my intention.  Unfortunately, I can't really explain just what happens to take Some Guy Who Kills - which was already an interesting character study and a wonderful dark comedy - to the next level in the final act.

But the point is that you need to find a way to see Some Guy Who Kills People. I'm running out of ways to say it, but it's been the only thing going through my head all day.  This really rules, people.  I absolutely can not wait to see where the film goes from here.

If you want to keep up with the film, make sure you head on over to the official site, which is full of links to Twitter and Facebook and a trailer and all that good stuff.  And if you don't want to keep up with the film at this point....well, then I obviously suck at my job here.  Because I'm really serious when I say this is an incredible piece of genre-bending cinematic awesomeness.  Just see it already.

January 30, 2012

The Grey

(2012, Dir. by Joe Carnahan.)

Almost three years to the day after Taken opened in the US and made us all turn our heads in surprise, Liam Neeson is still laying claim to his new found role as a bonafide action hero.  Though his 60th birthday is coming up this summer, Neeson has re-established himself as a star through a series of tough guy roles, a trend that continued with this weekend's release of The Grey.

Re-uniting Neeson with The A-Team director, Joe Carnahan, The Grey lets Neeson take charge as a hired gun whose job is to eliminate wolves at an Alaskan outpost.  That job lasts for about two scenes - long enough to establish via voice over and a shot of him preparing to kill himself - setting up the character's depressed mental state just before he's involved in a freak plane explosion/crash that leaves him and a handful of less hero-esque survivors stranded in the middle of a frozen wasteland.

The biggest problem that Neeson and his followers have to deal with? Wolves, naturally.  Many will argue about the use of wolves in the film - some think the director and his crew were abusive toward animals, some think it's silly to assume that wolves would hunt a pack of humans who stand up to them repeatedly - but there are wolves in the movie nonetheless.  I'm not an animalologist or a crazy PETA person (You guys: MEAT TASTES AWESOME!), so I'm not gonna comment on any of those speculations.  I'll just say that the wolves look incredibly real and are pretty intimidating foes, and they serve their purpose as a plot device in Carnahan's film.

You see, the movie isn't about the wolves.  It's about the men and their struggle to survive.  You're probably groaning at how cliche that comment is, and you have every right to - most every movie ever made is about the characters' struggle, and a focused "survival" movie like this is nothing new.  The most interesting thing about the struggle is the mental state of Neeson's character, whose depression at times makes the viewer wonder if he's a liability to the others on this journey. 

The film gets a little heavy handed at times - I particularly groaned at a scene in which Neeson stands up to a challenge from a follower right after the group hears Neeson explain the idea of "Alpha and Omega" wolves to the men - but there are some really interesting moments peppered throughout the film.  Moments when the characters reflect upon what they have to live for really hit home, and the opposing viewpoints of Neeson's jaded commentary help strengthen the story.  The supporting performances are serviceable, most notably veteran character actor Dermot Mulroney in an almost unrecognizable role as one of the men, and his comments throughout the journey are a welcome addition to the film. 

(The most interesting thing I learned after reading about the film today was that the producers advertised the film directly to Christian viewers, which boggles my mind when I consider the main character's vocal disdain toward religion throughout the film.  I'd absolutely love to see the 'film companion' that was distributed to religious groups, because I seriously can't fathom what Carnahan and his producers intended to say to Christians.)

The tone of the film is most endearing to me when I look at the director, Carnahan, whose bombastic last two films (Smokin' Aces and The A-Team) lacked the focus on character that was present in his breathtaking debut film, Narc.  The fact that I'm talking about the film's attempts to carry a deeper message and to be a character-driven action film is a huge improvement on those fun-but-pointless films.  I'm just not sure I think everything about The Grey works.  The proceedings become pretty repetitive in the second act - deal with attack, philosophize, argue, repeat - and the momentum that the director and the star bring to the film kind of stalls out at times. I'm usually the last person to use the dreaded "boring" word about a film, but I can't deny that The Grey had me on the edge of sleep a few times.

In the end, I'm really not sure what I think about The Grey.  Some of what it offers is incredibly effective, and some of it had me tired and ready for more.  It's definitely not a movie for the masses like Taken was three years ago, and an ambiguous ending (Make sure you stay till after the credits!) will probably divide audiences too.  I liked the ending, I just wasn't wild about the path the film took to get there.  Is it a good film? For the most part, yes.  But I'm not ready to proclaim it a must-see addition to the new year just yet.  Perhaps you'll disagree.

January 28, 2012

The Mike's Top 11 Alien Invasion Films of 1950-2000

When my good buddy Russ of Dead End Drive-In asked me to participate in his Alien Invasion Weekend, I didn't even have to think about my response.  Russ asked me to cover some of my favorite alien invasion flicks made before the year 2000 (because we all know Y2K ended civilization back then, of course), and I did what I do: I made a list.
I'm being kind of picky on semantics here, and a couple of my very favorite sci-fi films ever - The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind - are getting the shaft due to this.  Look, Gort wasn't here to take us out, he was just forced to get a little angry.  And those Close Encounters things? Heck, they were just curious.  Yes, these might be two of my five favorite sci-fi films, but I'm looking for good old fashioned destructive invaders here.

Also, I cheated several times on this list.  There are a few cases once in a while - though most horror fans won't believe me - where both original films and their remakes were awesome.  And I've lumped them together here so I can cover more of my favorite invasion flicks.  You like more awesome, don't you?

Honorable Mentions? Yeah, we got some honorable mentions for you.

Honorable Mention: War of the Worlds (1953), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), Mars Needs Women (1967), Superman II (1980), Night of the Creeps (1986), Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), Independence Day (1996), The Faculty (1998)

Some notes on those Honorable Mentions:
  • A lot of people will probably balk at the exclusion of War of the Worlds, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, and Independence Day, which have a lot of great publicity and a lot of great special effects for their eras.  While each film features a pretty widespread invasion, I got a few more cerebral picks ahead of them. (And a couple that are much dumber too.)
  • Sure, any Superman film could technically be an Alien Invasion film, but General Zod and his awkward friends are pretty much the best kind of invaders.  I won't quite kneel, but I'll give him some props.
  • YOU GUYS! The Faculty is seriously underrated. There, I said it.
Now, let's see that list!
Number 11 - Bloodsuckers from Outer Space (1984)
Bloodsuckers from Outer Space is certainly one of those movies that is so bad that it's....bad.  But at the same time it's kind of not.  Heck,  the IMDB voters - who are generally the cruelest and most genre unfriendly people on our planet - even have given it a 5.2 out of ten rating.  A 5.2 on IMDB for a movie with these production values is like a Nobel Peace Prize for someone with Hitler's racial beliefs.  Anyway, Bloodsuckers from Outer Space is terribly silly, but it's got that odd feeling like this whole small town was in on the joke and everyone chipped in and made this goofy flick a ton of fun. So it's kind of awesome.
Number 10 - Not of this Earth (1957, 1988)
Speaking of silly, you won't find two filmmakers who are more open to cheese than Roger Corman and Jim Wynorski.  And the story behind Not of this Earth, featuring a nurse who works for an odd character who turns out to be an emissary from a distant land (and I don't mean Kansas), lends itself to their kind of cheese.  The former film is a black and white drive-in classic led by Paul "Marlboro Man" Birch, the latter is full of comedic turns and led by former porn star Traci Lords.  Both films are charming enough to hit this list, in their own ways.
Number 9 - The Arrival (1996)
It's probably not a good idea to put a Charlie Sheen film this close to one starring a porn star, but I'm gonna risk it.  The Arrival arrived (oof, that stung) early in the Summer of 1996 - just before Independence Day was released to much hype - and kind of fell on deaf ears throughout the world.  But director David Twohy's film is a pretty smart sci-fi chiller, with Sheen's Zane Zaminski (major bonus points for cool character name!) uncovering a secret signal and then battling wits with a dastardly Ron Silver (and you all should know just how much The Mike loves Ron Silver - it's a lot).  The action and the effects that big budget sci-fi flicks are known for aren't here, but I'll take it over its much bigger 1996 counterpart any day of the week.
Number 8 - The Hidden (1987)
I've written about The Hidden before, but it bears repeating that this might be the '80s coolest sci-fi flick.  The action packed story follows a creature that inhabits human bodies and gets a little silly when the special effects come into play, but the brisk pace keeps the film going so fast that you barely notice anything amiss.  The Hidden also capitalizes on political concerns of the '80s and seems to throw a huge middle finger at the culture of the time, particularly in ritzy Los Angeles. I can dig it.
Number 7 - Men in Black (1997)
The legendary guardians against all kinds of alien invasiony nonsense take form in Barry Sonnenfeld's summer blockbuster, and face off with a one alien wrecking crew: "The Bug", portrayed in human form by Vincent D'Onofrio.  Sure, the invasion is a secondary part of the film to Will Smith's evolution from cool dude to wise and cool dude, but it's still one of the most charming sci-fi comedies out there.  And Tommy Lee Jones' straight man opposite utter chaos is always welcome.
Number 6 - Invaders from Mars (1953, 1986)
One of the first invasion films to make a connection to the Cold War and communism, the original Invaders from Mars comes to the viewer from the perspective of a young boy who witnesses an invasion. The invasion that follows has the required amount of military involvement and parent manipulation, which helps the film overcome some problems in acting and direction.  Tobe Hooper's 1986 remake uses more comedy and more special effects, and is a good time-passer.
Number 5 - The Blob (1958)
Did you really think I wasn't gonna mention The Blob?  Sure, his (Or is it a her? Do Blobs even have genders? Are there more than one Blob? We never really know!) invasion was stopped pretty quickly by really old teenagers, but he wins plenty of style points for being one of the few amorphous invaders in film history.  And I love The Blob, so it's on the list.  NEXT.
Number 4 - Predator (1987)
I'm sure he wasn't voted "Most Likely to Blow Himself Up on Another Planet Because of an Austrian Lunkhead" when he graduated his planet's equivalent of high school, which makes the ill-fated invasion by the Predator all the more sad.  But his movie is still pretty amazing, so I'm willing to give some credit to the Predator for being the baddest humanoid one-man invasion crew ever.  He couldn't have predicted that he was going to run into Schwarzenegger, Weathers, and the rest of the bad-asses, and we can't hold that against him.
Number 3 - The Thing From Another World/The Thing (1951, 1982)
I'm probably undervaluing The Thing here, mostly because it wins almost every time I make a list.  Both versions of this story vary greatly, and both represent different kinds of invaders.  Much like the last two films, the invaders are slowed by factors outside their control - in these cases, location.  The original Thing gets bonus points for basically birthing the "watch the skies" craze of the '50s, while the remake gets bonus points for just being really awesome.
Number 2 - They Live (1988)
What if the invasion is already here?  That's the question asked - and answered by a nameless blue-collar worker - in They Live, which has has long been one of my favorite movies to talk about.  Like The Hidden, we get a look at how greed can be involved in an '80s Los Angeles invasion, but this time it's human greed taking the lead instead of alien greed.  I've spent a lot of words on how important I think They Live is before, so I'm just gonna let it tell its own story this time around.
Number 1 - Invasion of Body Snatchers/Body Snatchers (1956, 1978, 1993)
First things first - I'm not as wild about the '78 remake as everyone else is.  Yes, Sutherland and Nimoy.  No, it's not as scary as people say and the ending's kind of dumb.  And it's way too long.  It's good. It's not great.

That said, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the definitive sci-fi paranoia epic.  From Kevin McCarthy's howling lead performance to the cool pod people effects, there's plenty to love about the movie that's spawned three remakes.  My favorite of those, as evidenced above, is Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers. With a script by horror maestros Stuart Gordon and Larry Cohen, an ominous army base setting, and wonderful performances by the Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, and Forest Whitaker.

Though the flying saucers and little green men get the most headlines, it's the invaders that we can't easily see that provide the most chills and thrills for viewers.  Siegel knew that, and the story he created lives on - in many different tellings (though it's best we just don't mention The Invasion, isn't it?) - as my favorite alien invasion.

Except for maybe this one....

January 26, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #108 - The Devil's Rain

William Shatner's back for a second week in the Midnight Movie of the Week spotlight, but this time he's just a small reason I'm talking about a kooky '70s desert-based horror.  This week we're talking about The Devil's Rain, which allows one of my all-time favorite actors (and possibly one of my all-time favorite people, even though I've never met him) to lead a Satanic cult through a demented plot.
That actor is the unmistakable Ernest Borgnine, who gained my love through roles like the lead character in the Oscar winning romance Marty and the memorable Cabbie from Escape from New York.  But The Devil's Rain lets him - under the "techinical" guidance of real-world Satanist cult leader Anton LaVey - take on a heavy role as the high priest of a dangerous church.  His character, Corbis, turns out to be more than 200 years old, and is still leading in his attempts to get revenge on a family that once betrayed him.
The first antagonist from that family - at least that is shown in the film, which means that nothing too memorable must have happened in the last 200 years of him torturing the family - is Mark Preston, played by The Shat.  We meet him as the film opens, and are quickly made to know that Corbis has some kind of power over his family.  How do we know that? Well, we know that because Mark's dad's face melts.
The result is a showdown in the desert between Borgnine's Corbis and Shatner's Mark, which the satanist dubs "a battle of faith".  Using plenty of conjurer's tricks, Corbis defeats and enslaves Shatner, which leads to two things.  In the film, it leads to Tom Skerritt and his attractive young wife (Joan Prather) teaming up with an expert (Eddie Albert) to try and get to the bottom of things and stop Corbis' reign.  In the world of horror, Shatner's capture leads to him wearing a cheesy looking mask....the same mask that would be painted white and become the face of Michael Myers three years later.
The rest of the eighty-six minute film - whose plot moves swiftly and carelessly and often doesn't make a lot of sense - focuses on the trio of Skerritt, Prather, and Albert and their attempts to stop Corbis, while Corbis performs ceremonies on Shatner and a young John Travolta and turns into a horned demon.  Certain critics have stated that The Devil's Rain doesn't really have enough material in it to be a full feature film, and they're probably right - especially when you get to the end of the film and realize that the climax happens with about 12 minutes left and the rest of the film is the chaotic aftermath.
The titular Devil's Rain is a glass jar/crystal ball lookin' thing that holds the souls of Corbis' slaves, and it plays heavily into the film's final act.  At this point in the proceedings we know that everything the film offers is pretty ridiculous - as a Christian, there's a voice inside me that says "What did you expect from a movie whose technical consultant invented a Satan religion?"- but there's a kitschy charm throughout the film thanks to the cast.  Director Robert Fuest was no stranger to campy cult flicks - he'd previously directed both Dr. Phibes films with Vincent Price - so he handles things admirably when you consider the script. (I also can't believe that it took three people to write this thing.)  Unfortunately, the film's poor reception from critics and failures at the box office pretty much ended Fuest's genre feature career.
It sounds like I'm dissing The Devil's Rain a lot here, and that certainly wasn't my intention when I started typing this.  You see, despite all its silly flaws, there's certainly a one-of-a-kind charm to Fuest's film.  I attribute much of that to Borgnine, who buys in to the role and makes Corbis a menace throughout the film, and the rest of the cast, and the director's willingness to let things spiral out of control as the film goes on.  The effects might not hold up - those masks on the members of Corbis' congregation do the film no favors - and the plot may be lacking, but fans of Satanic cinema will find some great images and fun performances throughout this one.
I've just experienced The Devil's Rain for the first time this week, so the fact that I'm sitting here and talking about it right now is a pretty strong testament regarding the film.  I'm willing to give a lot of its more obvious shortcomings a pass.  The short run-time ensures that the film doesn't overstay its welcome, and the odd chain of events that we see through the film is certainly unique and interesting.  And it has Borgnine.  And that's pretty much enough to keep me interested in checking out The Devil's Rain again when I'm craving some cheesy '70s satanism and some diabolical Borgnine goodness.

January 25, 2012

The Woman

(2011, Dir. by Lucky McKee.)

Trying to decide which character in The Woman is most terrifying is like trying to decide which flavor of mayonnaise you want to eat.  It's a trick question, because no sane person actually wants to eat mayonnaise...especially if it comes in different flavors that still will taste like mayonnaise.  The point is that the central conflict of The Woman is one of those situations where no one really wins, everyone really suffers, and it all comes together to form one of the most interesting horror films in years.

Over the past few years, I've occasionally wondered what was up with director Lucky McKee - who wowed me way back in 2002 with the wonderful human horror film May - who seemed to have fallen into a slump after that initial horror hit.  But The Woman - which he co-wrote with author Jack Ketchum, who seems to specialize in sadism and real-world torture - is a dramatic statement that the director still has a lot to offer film fans from all walks of life.

Pollyanna McIntosh is featured as the title character, a cannibalistic woman of the forest who is captured and "trained" by a rural family.  McIntosh is reprising a role that she originated in a less publicized and poorly-reviewed Ketchum adaptation, entitled Offspring, but it's easy to see who and what she is even if you don't know that. (I found out this was a sequel about 30 minutes into the film, and didn't consider that a drawback to this film at all.) The actress physically transforms into the terrifying character, and it's pretty near impossible for the viewer to recognize her supermodel-esque stature as she writhes through the film as the monstrous man-eater.  Silent and demonic isn't a new task for a horror antagonist, but McIntosh's woman is one of the more unique and unsettling visions I've seen in a long, long time.

I almost stopped myself when I called McIntosh the antagonist a moment ago, because - as I mentioned at the top of this review - those who oppose her are terrifying in their own way.  The main oppressor is the patriarch of the family played by Sean Bridgers, a lanky actor who seems kind of goofy by Hollywood standards and is kind of a mixture of Will Ferrell and Anthony Perkins.  Bridgers is a demanding father who rules through passive means (when he's not getting physical with his kids, wife, and captive), and the progression from kind-of-a-dick to full-fledged sociopath that his character makes is handled perfectly throughout the film.  Bridgers is such a natural in the role that I'd imagine he's one of those people who would creep me out if I ran into him on the street, even though I know he's just an actor.

(In the same vein as that last comment, I'd like to point out that I'd also never, ever, no matter how supermodel she looks, put anything near McIntosh's mouth.  Even though I know she's just an actor too.)

The father's family are made up of several scared and confused young folks, led by May star Angela Bettis as his wife and Lauren Ashley Carter and Zach Rand as their elder children.  Bettis gives a frail performance as the wife, who is the victim of a few of his assaults, while the children represent opposite ends of the spectrum of abuse.  When the father lets them all know that this beast of a woman is trapped on their property, we get to witness the varied reactions of his family - and how they deal with that knowledge in their own ways sells the film's perspective quite well.

With a terrifying physical specimen on one end of the story and an uncontrollable male with no conscience on the other, the questions that are raised by The Woman become more complex and more thought-provoking as the film goes on.  There are several details - specifically in the final act - that are left to the viewer to interpret in their own ways.  This will probably confuse and bewilder some viewers, and I admit that I had to take pause and wonder if I missed something along the way at a couple of moments, but the final conflicts of the film speak their own language to the viewer.  There's plenty of blood and guts as the arrangement between the family and the woman finally is shaken up, and it all leads to a satisfying, if not open-ended, conclusion.

When I put the events of the film together in retrospect - and I had to "sleep on it" to really get everything straight in my head - The Woman stands up as one of the more fascinating films I've seen in a long time.  There's so much said about human cruelty and nature vs. nurture and even gender roles - perhaps my first reaction to the film was to feel like my own gender has never done anything right for our female counterparts - in The Woman, and almost all of it is handled with care by Ketchum and McKee.

The Woman is surely not a popcorn horror film that viewers will want to consume often, but I didn't think it was as heavy as some of Ketchum's other works (I'm still debating whether I'll ever feel safe to watch The Girl Next Door again) and it's pretty accessible for horror fans of all types.  I can't recommend it enough.

(Oh, the trailer just reminded me of one complaint that's pretty minor.  I wasn't wild about the soundtrack.  I like that the film doesn't have your average horror movie score with all the pulsating and screaming, but the indie rock/emo thing bugged me after a while.  I'm not sure what I'd have done differently, but at times I was concerned the film was trying to dictate my emotions via music, and it took away from the film at times. 

But, that doesn't change the fact that this is a must-see horror film. So see it!)

January 23, 2012

The Last Circus (or, Balada Triste de Trompeta)

(2010, Dir. by Alex de la Iglesia.)

Any reference to horror's early years - the times when Lon Chaney ruled the world and led to the era of Karloff and Lugosi - is welcome in Mike's world, but I didn't really expect a connection between these horror icons and The Last Circus, which was promoted as a bombastic onslaught of violence that might have been the Spanish answer to violent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino.  In fact, there are some loose parallels between this film and Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, both in theme and in execution, though I'm not entirely sure the similar tone was intentional.

The fact that I'm talking about Chaney and Karloff and Tarantino while talking about a flick I didn't really care to see speaks volumes about how surprised I was to find myself caught up in The Last Circus - or, as the Spanish title says, A Sad Trumpet Ballad - as it unfolded before me.  I expected it to be a film about sadistic disfigured clowns who run around with high-powered weapons - and, for the most part, it is - but that literal Spanish title is a lot more telling than the American advertisements would have you believe.

Director Alex de la Iglesias may not directly reference his contemporaries, but the opening credit montage - a montage of images that follows the events of the twentieth century and focuses heavily on war imagery - spends several moments featuring Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and even Charles B. Middleton (and his portrayal of the diabolical Ming the Merciless in the initial Flash Gordon serials).  This isn't just a cute homage, it's a warning of things to come, because the director's story clearly draws from the tortured-soul-turned-monster themes that filled early horror films.

The plot follows the doomed existence of Javier, the son of a clown who is destined to be a "sad clown" after witnessing his father's involvement in World War II.  The father leads the first action-packed sequence - one of the countless moments in the film which feature dudes in clown makeup killing efficiently - before being imprisoned and eventually killed by a vicious general.  Before his death, he gets a chance to remind his son of his fate and the one thing that can save him - revenge.

Javier grows up and accepts his circus job as sad clown - destined to be the butt of all jokes and the recipient of much abuse - and meets the two people who seal his tortured fate.  One is the funny clown he works for - an abusive and violent drunk named Sergio - and the other is that clown's beautiful girlfriend, the circus' trapeze artist named Natalia.  Despite their vast differences, Natalia quickly becomes interested in the portly sad clown - because he's the one person who stands up to Sergio when he tells a dead baby joke.  Unfortunately, Natalia is still interested in Sergio too, due to his violent and sexual nature, which creates the conflict that carries the film.

Throughout the film, all three characters are victims in countless ways.  Both clowns end up with facial disfigurements and mental maladies, while Natalia is stuck in the middle to witness their madness.  All three characters are drawn really well, and the actors that portray them - Carlos Areces as Javier, Antonio de la Torre as Sergio, and Carolina Bang (who is a) incredibly stunning and b) despite her name, NOT a porn star) as Natalia - do a fantastic job of physically throwing themselves into the film.  The disconnect between the timid sad clown and the unhinged funny clown is tested as Javier becomes increasingly demented, but continues to be a key to the film through the impressive cliffhanger of a finale.

The least interesting thing about the film is its violence and carnage - which were one of the main selling points of the film in the first place - but that's not saying the brutality is a distraction from the psychological drama on screen.  These scenes of bloodshed are the ones that will remind American audiences of people like Tarantino or Rob Zombie, but I got a little distracted from the main story through them.  A mid film sequence that brings Javier back into contact with his father's killer seems especially odd as I look back at the film, as this sequence might only be remembered because it blatantly refuses to put clothes on Areces.  It's not a bad sequence in total, but when it's compared to the tragic love triangle that unfolds in the first and third acts it seems like filler.

Tragedy, not brutality, is the key word when it comes to The Last Circus for me.  Sure, you get a huge, ugly clown running around with machine guns and threatening children, but it's the dramatic turns that mimic the earliest days of horror that sold The Last Circus to me.  I'm not sure the end result is really a great film, but I put a lot more thought into this one than I expected to when i saw the first advertisements, and that alone has me excited to experience The Last Circus - or, should I say, A Sad Trumpet Ballad - again.  It's a deviously interesting little film.

January 21, 2012


(2012, Dir. by Steven Soderbergh.)

Steven Soderbergh has been one of Hollywood's most reliable directors throughout his career, with hits like Traffic, Ocean's Eleven, and last year's Contagion to his credit.  But he's also reserved a reputation as a director who loves to experiment with other ideas.  For example, he cast small-town workers as small-town workers in 2005's Bubble, and he cast pornographic actress Sasha Grey to headline his 2009 call girl drama The Girlfriend Experience.  Soderbergh's outside-the-box approach to casting has become a pattern over more than 15 years, which made it less of a surprise when he cast female MMA fighter Gina Carano as the lead in his latest thriller, Haywire.

Carano - who I first knew as "the cute one" from the American Gladiators reboot with Hulk Hogan - headlines the action-packed flick as Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine who works for a "private contractor" and does odd jobs like extracting hostages from Barcelona or investigating a shady businessman in Dublin.  She's surrounded by a cast of powerful Hollywood males - Ewen McGregor, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas as the men in power, Bill Paxton as her concerned father, Michael Fassbender as a British agent, and Channing Tatum as a coworker-turned-opponent - but I really don't think any viewer will leave this film and not realize that this is entirely Carano's film.

You've no doubt seen the plot before - skilled professional is set-up, escapes, seeks to clear name and get vindication - but the script by Lem Dobbs (who wrote one of my favorite Soderbergh flicks, The Limey) and Soderbergh's framing of the action sequences play to the strengths of the star.  That means that Carano is free to use plenty of hand-to-hand combat when faced with danger, throwing adversaries with her own momentum, using the walls as springboards when necessary, and focusing on weakening limbs and immobilizing others to control the fight.  The film isn't as action-packed as the ads would have you believe and some viewers might complain of lapses between action, but I felt Soderbergh balanced the drama of Mallory's plight with more than enough fast-paced fighting and car chases.

Carano is naturally a little green as an actress - I kept thinking that she was overdoing it with facial expressions to denote every thought or concern - but she does a pretty wonderful job when you consider how little acting she's done.  There's a definite Kill Bill vibe to the character, but - unlike Uma Thurman - there's not even a doubt in the viewer's mind that Carano is capable of the things she does on screen.  The way she carries herself in the role goes a long way to making the film work, because you can see her confidence in herself shining through in almost every scene.

Much will be made of the fact that Haywire empowers a female action star - though I love the quote in the film that warns "You shouldn't think of her as a woman.  That would be a mistake" - and rightfully so.  This plays like a tribute to Carano and the abilities that women like her posses.  I can't think of a Hollywood actress who could have jumped into this film and brought the same combination of skill and intensity, which makes the minor quirks in her acting style irrelevant.  Haywire simply could not be what it is without a woman like Carano.

January is generally a dumping ground for movies that studios don't want, so the release of a well-made action thriller from Soderbergh and a Grade A cast is like found gold.  When you look at all the talent that surrounds her - both behind and in front of the camera - it's easy to see that Carano was set up for success here.  Her particular set of skills does a lot of the work for the film, and the polish that's provided by Soderbergh and company ensures that few will be disappointed by her or the film.  Haywire isn't gonna win Soderbergh another Oscar, but it's a completely entertaining action/thriller that signals the potential birth of a star.  If she keeps working with the right people, Carano could be the female action hero that Hollywood's craved for decades.

January 19, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #107 - Kingdom of the Spiders

The epic journey of Rack Hansen is something any man, woman, or child would want to be a part of.  After all, Rack Hansen is a one-of-a-kind cowboy vet, who's not above riding a horse and wearing a pink cowboy shirt and being awesome.  And, when you consider the fact that Rack Hansen is played by none less than William Shatner, you kind of get the idea that there should be a whole series of Rack Hansen films out there. Mostly because his name is Rack Hansen, of course.
Unfortunately, there is only one Rack Hansen film - I pray I'm wrong, but that seems to be the truth - and that film is the 1977 arachna-palooza Kingdom of the Spiders.  The Shat gets his Arizona swagger on alongside one of FMWL's three (imaginary) brides, Tiffany Bolling - who naturally plays a hot arachnologist - in the battle to save a small Arizona community from a seemingly unending wave of tarantulas.  The film is the debut feature by director John "Bud" Cardos, and it's one of those movies that is surprisingly good at what it does if you only consider what it intends to do.
I forgot to mention that the great Woody Strode - who broke the NFL's color barrier and was basically awesome - has a supporting role in the film.
No, Kingdom of the Spiders will never be confused with high art - this is the kind of movie the Criterion collection would pretend to release on April Fool's Day - and it's easy to see the film's flaws.  Y'know, flaws like the fact that tarantula venom actually doesn't do much to humans, yet kills several throughout the film.  Kingdom of the Spiders was also pretty late to the game among animals-gone-wild films of the 1970s, following plenty of films like The Food of the Gods, that covered similar territory.
Except you rarely saw a cow in the back seat of a car in other movies.
I could argue that Kingdom of the Spiders is a far more competent film than something like Food of the Gods, but I'd be missing the point.  The point is that this one has Shatner stomping the crud out of hundreds of real tarantulas.  The animal rights folks would probably have a fit if someone tried to make this movie today, because I'm willing to bet that a lot of "innocent" spiders were harmed and or killed during the making of this film.  Me, I'm OK with the film, because spiders creep me the heck out.  If it has more than 4 legs or less than 2, I kill it - that's my motto.
I don't really need to waste my time discussing what Shatner brings to the film, because the only way to describe a William Shatner performance is by saying he acts like William Shatner.  Bolling is certainly more restrained in this PG feature than she is in her other grindhouse roles (check out all my Tiffany Bolling love here), with her primary purpose in the film being that she reminds us that William Shatner is the man of the film.  She's still a sight to see, and Cardos does what he can to show her in as much undress as the MPAA will allow under a PG rating, but she's not Shatner and she's not the spiders and thus she's not really that important to the film.
As the film builds toward a final act that resembles "trapped in a house" settings like those of The Birds or Night of the Living Dead, we're treated to an increasing amount of Shatner that's sure to satisfy any cheese lover.  Moments like the one when Shatner reaches into a vent and recoils in pain or when he ventures into a cellar only to be blanketed by eight legged critters show off the kind of acting that only the Captain of the Starship Enterprise is capable of.  There are sure to be some laughs had at Shatner's expense - then again, when aren't there laughs had at Shatner's expense? - but this certainly wouldn't be as watchable a film without his thespian talents.
It probably sounds like I'm dissing Kingdom of the Spiders, but I really do love this silly little movie.  Cardos - who would later direct the odd 1979 chiller The Dark (I dig that one too!) and the 1984 Wings Hauser film Mutant  (and I have got to see that!) - keeps the film simple but never seems to be in over his head as a director.  When I compared the film to The Birds or NOTLD earlier I certainly didn't mean to compare this director to Hitchcock or Romero, but Cardos is more than capable of keeping the film moving and making the story seem more pulpy than trashy.  Though some of the scenes where the spiders meet the main cast seem a bit off - a lot of times the tarantulas don't follow direction and run AWAY from their "victims" - there are some fantastic scenes in which the spiders roam through the small town and crawl all over cast members and extras.
The film's willingness to use real spiders is sure to give anyone with even the slightest case of arachnaphobia some chills, and the director and his talented (in their own ways) stars keep Kingdom of the Spiders feeling like more than just another cheesy animal attack film.  It's hard to really explain why - maybe it's just that nerds like me put Shatner on one heckuva pedestal - but Kingdom of the Spiders is greater than the sum of its parts.  And now that Shout Factory has rescued it from the public domain and produced a fantastic DVD transfer of the film - please note that the DVD cover implies that a torch comes out of Mr. Shatner's crotch, which sadly does not really happen - there's nothing that should keep any of us from boldly visiting this Kingdom when we need a dose of late '70s cheese.
 Oh, and I can't finish this review without referencing the INCREDIBLY AWKWARD quasi-romantic relationship between Rack Hansen (I seriously haven't said Rack Hansen enough tonight) and the widow of his brother, who totally wants a dose of Rack.  That's a problem when you consider the fact that Tiffany Bolling is also in the movie, so let's just say that the film wraps up this bit of awkwardness relatively early in the film's plot.  But that doesn't make the love triangle any less awkward.
 Well done, Rack Hansen. Well done.

January 16, 2012

Two on a Guillotine

(1965, Dir. by William Conrad.)

Assisted by its attention grabbing title, Two on a Guillotine is one of those movies that just sounds really cool from the minute you know it exists.  The black-and-white film (framed well in a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect) follows a young woman who is required to spend seven nights in the home of her deceased father, a macabre magician played by TV's The Joker, Cesar Romero.  (And, in case I forget to mention it for the rest of the review, Romero's brief performance is flat out fantastic.)

Any horror fan worth their weight in jumpscares should know that "spend a night in this awful place" is one of the oldest tricks the genre has to offer, and due to this there are times when it appears that our film might fall into cliches we've already seen.  Thankfully, there are plenty of moments in the film that had my eyes attached to the screen, and I think a lot of that is owed to the unique vision of director William Conrad.

In an odd twist, Two on the Guillotine was the third movie directed by Conrad to be released in the first five months of 1965.  (All three films - Brainstorm, My Blood Runs Cold, and this one - are available via the Warner Archive Collection.) Conrad is best known for his career as a character actor - which led to late career popularity when he starred as title characters on TV shows Cannon and Jake and the Fatman - but now that I've seen two of these films (Brainstorm is one helluva psycho-noir, folks) his work as a director has completely caught my eye. 

Perhaps the greatest gift that Conrad brings to the film is his willingness to linger on certain moments.  Like Brainstorm, one sequence pumps up a jazzy musical number while the characters share an awkward romantic moment, and there's something kind of hypnotic about the director's willingness to overplay this moment completely.  More in tone with the horror genre, Conrad utilizes this patience late in the film as the magician's daughter - played adequately by Connie Stevens - finally is moved to terror by the house and the camera settles in on a doorknob that we just know is going to move at any moment.  The camera waits....and waits...and waits...and the tension skyrockets through the roof.

From that moment forward, the film powers through the final act to an interesting conclusion.  Screams are screamed, secrets are revealed, and hammy acting is used in the best possible way.  The cliches of the script are pretty easily forgotten as the film turns psychological at the end, and the result is an incredibly fascinating thriller.  It's not quite a full-fledged horror movie - to quote a famous dude, the biggest thing the characters have to fear at times is probably fear itself - but it's got real tension, a few surprises, and that guillotine that the title hangs over the viewer's head.  Two on a Guillotine isn't quite William Castle at his best, but it hits a lot of the same notes and should please anyone who loves a good old fashioned creepy house picture. 

January 15, 2012

NERD ALERT: The Post In Which I Discuss the Horrors of Skyrim

I'm not the world's biggest gamer, but I - like a whole host of folks across the globe - have recently been caught up in the world of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  Most of my life I've been a sports/wrestling games kind of guy, so when I first heard of Skyrim I wasn't sure there was anything for me in this open-world, dragon-slaying, fantasy epic.  After a few too many hours in the game's world, I realized just how wrong I was.

In fact, I've kind of ignored the main story that I'm supposed to be playing in the game, because I quickly learned that the side quests in the game are pretty much full of horror movie staples.  Let's take a look at just how much horrory goodness is hidden inside this ginormous video game universe.

(I suppose some of the things I'm about to say could be considered SPOILERS, but I'll do my best to keep things vague for the sake of the folks who haven't experienced this addiction....errr, game....yet.)
The Universal Monsters are well represented.
After finding vampires, werewolves, invisibility and mummies throughout the game, I'll pretty shocked if I don't stumble upon a case of grave digging and a mad scientist trying to reanimate tissue any day now.

The first of these you'll probably encounter are the mummies, skeleton-looking fellas that the game calls "Dragur".  You're gonna run into these guys ALL THE TIME during this game.  Any time you walk into a cave or dungeon or whatever in the middle of Skyrim, you're gonna get draugred up.  They come in lots of different shapes - some are Draugr Wights and some are Draugr Overlords and some are Restless Draugrs.  I like to just call them all Ivan Draugr and laugh at them and say "I must break you" before I bash them into pieces with a warhammer.
Vampires are still a bit of a mystery in the game for me.  I've encountered a few, which are basically normal looking people who come out at night and can be killed just like any other creature in the game - so (as far as I can tell) there's no wooden stakes needed.  There's one pretty cool quest that unveils a bit of vampirism that I've been involved with, but it was really short and left me wanting more. Now they just happen upon me at night in the wild sometimes, and I hammer them. Allegedly you can be turned into a vampire in the game, I haven't seen this yet.

I mentioned invisibility up there too, but - so far- there's no real Invisible Man story I've encountered.  There are potions that can make your character invisible, but - like everything else - I mostly prefer smashing things with the last warhammer I found over being sneaky.
But really, the werewolves are where it's at.
I've been a werewolf fan ever since I grew my first fur, so the first time I encountered a werewolf in Skyrim was one of the first moments I started screaming OMG and texting my gamer friends.  It was part of one of the primary side quests in the game, and I thought I'd screwed up completely when the moment began.  Turned out I was stuck in a cutscene - which can sometimes be a bad thing - but this one provided a wolfy reveal that had me fist-pumping and immediately canceling all plans so I could keep playing and see what happens next. (Ah, who am I kidding? I didn't have any plans, I'm a nerd who's blogging about Skyrim.

Eventually my miniature female character who specializes in two-handed weaponry was given a choice.  To be a lycanthrope...or not to be a lycanthrope.  I don't care if I no longer get a benefit from rest....I'm gonna be a freakin' werewolf.  So now my character can turn into a wolfman any time my Magicka's strong enough.  I still haven't figured out a time when I really need to use it - but it's incredibly awesome that it's there.  Plus, considering my character's gender and choice of marriage partner, my game is actually a lesbian werewolf story.  I'm sure that development would make plenty of sleazy Spanish and Italian horror filmmakers - and or equal rights activists - proud.
You want "real world horrors"? They're (kinda) there too.
The quest I've experienced that was probably voted "Most Likely to be Seen on Primetime Network TV" by its graduating class happens in the town of Windhelm, where a killer has been taking out young women during the night.  I kind of expected this to turn in to one of those vampire storylines, but the events that unfolded (including my investigation of the murder house that's pictured above) go in a different route.

TV crime aficionados may enjoy the CSI twists of this storyline, I was more concerned by its dark magic related aspects.  (Oh, BTW, supernatural stuff and dark magic is pretty much all over this game. I don't get too far into it though, because - you guessed it - I just really like smashing stuff.)  I've learned that the story has a few possible endings - and I'm betting I wasn't supposed to let the killer off his final victim in front of me and THEN deal with him - but it's a nice dark detective story in the middle of the otherwise fantasy-laden film.
Speaking of supernatural stuff, I should have already mentioned that there are ghosts all over this game.  So that's nice too.
And if that's not enough, there's this part where Sutter Cane meets The Cell.
Even moreso than the werewolf reveal, a side quest entitled "The Mind of Madness" - which I conveniently found a couple days after a re-watch of John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness - had me picking my jaw up off the floor.

This is one of those points where I can't really go into too many details - because this odd little story line is one of the truly "figure it out as you go" moments I've found in the game (except for those awful puzzle traps that are in so many dungeons) - but this quest is basically going to take you out of the world you've spent the rest of the film in and drop you smack dab in the middle of a nightmare.  We're not quite talking Silent Hill here, as the sequence is pretty tongue in cheek and features a voice actor who hams it up and sounds like a drunk Billy Connolly, but it's a rare devilish little twist.  And you can't get out of it until you figure it out, which gives it the same vibe as the tale of Sutter Cane in Carpenter's film.
In the end, Skyrim is first-and-foremost a game about dragons and you being the foretold Dragonborn who can mess up their return to this Middle Earthy land full of unique folks of many races and creeds (there's an article that could be written about how progressive the folks in Skyrim are, but that's a different story for a different blogger).  But my point is that the horror aspect of the game is a wonderful and unexpected twist that I didn't expect from the game, and its this unpredictable nature and completely diverse game environment that should really sell Skyrim to even the casual game nerd - because there's something inside this one for everyone with a controller.
Like the folks who want to attack a dragon as a werewolf. Like me.

January 14, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #106 - Flash Gordon

In my mind, there probably isn't a better sci-fi midnight movie than Flash Gordon.  Perhaps that's wrong to most, but I simply can not deny the 1980 cheesefest and the amount of entertainment it's offered me.  Sure, I know there are a lot of great sci-fi movies out there, but I'm just terribly partial to this kind of tongue-in-cheek intergalactic adventure.  People might think I'm crazy if I say that I'm gonna take a midnight viewing of Flash Gordon over a midnight viewing of something like....well, something like Star Wars.....but I'd make that pick every single day.  And I love Star Wars.
Of course, when I start my argument by talking about how Flash Gordon's opening sequence features a "Hot Hail" button, people think I'm crazy.  But the opening sequence, in which the diabolical Ming - played by the undeniably cool Max von Sydow and his booming voice - "plays" with the Earth and unleashes his destruction sets the tone for the rest of the pulpy adventure perfectly.  Oh, and it - like much of the film - makes me laugh hysterically at how wonderfully silly it is.
Ming the Merciless is rendered in an almost comical fashion - my last viewing of the film happened via blu-ray, which did no favors for the overuse of makeup on von Sydow - but the veteran actor is the absolute perfect choice to bring the dictator to life.  The film makes sure to show Ming's power, but also gives him a devilish sense of humor that fits perfectly opposite the hero.  My favorite moment might be the arranged wedding late in the film, in which Ming dictates the terms of his vows to the official presiding over the ceremony.
Ming's reign of terror wouldn't be complete without his Earthling adversaries, who hurl their bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out there.  They are led by the title character, accompanied by his love interest Dale Arden (the duo certainly have one of the quickest progressions from meeting to love to proposal in film history) and the scientist Hans Zarkov.  Zarkov is played by the scenery-chewing Topol, whose deep voice and beardedness are matched only by one of his co-stars.
The man I speak of is the fantastic Brian Blessed, who soars through the film as Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen.  The feud between Vultan and Prince Barin (future Bond Timothy Dalton) is an incredibly entertaining side-plot, and it ties in with our hero's journey well.  There's a Shakespearean kind of feel to this whole "feuding clans in the same kingdom" side of the plot - though I doubt Shakespeare ever intended to be tied in to something with a soundtrack by Queen.
All of this is brought together by Sam J. Jones as Flash, who's probably the least interesting member of the cast.  But something kind of amazing happens due to this.  But something kind of amazing happens because Jones is so average as a hero: the supporting folks become that much more interesting.  Heck, the fact that I'm just now getting to Jones goes a long way to pointing out how much of the charm of the film - which I've seen like three dozen times - comes from the things that are going on around the hero.  Too many films throw a hero at you and leave the rest of the film to fill in around them, while Flash Gordon makes sure that all bases are covered with characters whose antics make sus smile and who often bail out the vanilla hero with the chiseled jaw.
Flash Gordon is spectacle at its cheesiest and cheapest, but it's the kind of pulpy family friendly sci-fi movie that I just love.  It might not have the epic scope of other sci-fi franchises - but anyone who condemns it for its dialogue or silly sets or music is clearly missing the point of why those of us who love Flash Gordon love Flash Gordon.  Honestly, I'm not even sure why I love Flash Gordon at this point.  But there's something calming and exciting and just flat-out lovable about it that I can never deny.  I know it's not cool to be the guy who goes "Man, eff Star Wars, let's watch Flash Gordon!"....but I'm that guy and I admit it. Give me cheese or give me death....that's my motto.