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November 30, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #152 - Time After Time

If we were talking about the all-time great concepts for sci-fi films, we would probably end up talking about Time After Time.  I would insist upon it. I'm sorry, but there simply can not be a conversation about the most inventive films to tackle time travel without mention of the film in which famous author H.G. Wells uses his (totally real) "time machine" and chases Jack The Ripper to San Francisco of the late 1970s.

Yes, you read that right.
The directorial debut of Nicholas Meyer - who would follow this success with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - is a one of a kind sci-fi romantic comedy. In it, The Ripper escapes from the police by slipping into Wells' most famous invention during a dinner party. Thankfully, a plot device loophole allows the machine to return to the writer, which means he can follow the killer and attempt to bring him to justice.  Because that's that a noble Englishman would do in that situation, naturally.
Malcolm McDowell stars as Wells, who doesn't exactly adjust to the twentieth century with ease.  The film takes on a very comedic tone as the distinguished gentleman tries to catch up with the times, and much of the film's first act is comprised of interactions that end with McDowell acting shocked to learn about things like McDonalds or the second World War or women's liberation. The actor, who most have come to think of in more serious roles, seems to be having a lot of fun in the role when he needs to.  At the same time, his serious side is visible when he tries on his detective skills, making this vision of H.G. Wells a memorable and loveable character.
McDowell's success as Wells is amplified by the work Mary Steenburgen does as the "modern" woman who becomes a) his love interest and b) his instructor on the ways of the 1970s.  The actress, known primarily to me for her later work in comedies and her somewhat abrasive voice, is given a lot to work with as an empowered young businesswoman who doesn't shy away from taking the lead with an "attractive" man. The character isn't an overly comical addition to the tongue in cheek film, but many of the tricks used to show her beliefs - like a comment on lesbianism that would get modern movies heckled - have an edgy side to them.
And, of course, a Jack The Ripper movie isn't complete without Jack, who is played here by the fantastic David Warner.  Warner has long been one of my favorite character actors, but his sinister turn as the killer here is easily my favorite piece of his work that I've seen.  Unlike Wells, Warner's Ripper seems instantly at home in modern society, and resumes his deadly hobby.  A greatly effective scene early in the film has Warner flipping TV channels and explaining to Wells that he belongs in this world - because there's violence on almost every channel. (The exception, of course, is the channel that featured the gentleman's game of football.)  Warner's controlled emotions and his command over every line of dialogue - I swear, the best casting ever was him as a drama professor in Scream 2 - are the perfect attributes for a modern day Ripper.
With the three fantastic characters being realized through fantastic performances, the only other thing Time After Time has to do is become a thrilling sci-fi tale. And, believe me, it soars off the screen in that regard. Meyer's film runs near two hours, but the pace is cracking and everything seems to be put into its proper place. The mystery and the romance never get in each other's way, and there's plenty of room to fit the comedy and the killing into their proper places. It's not an epic piece of drama or a technical masterpiece in any regard, but it's just a ton of fun to watch because it moves with such confidence through the story.
There simply isn't another movie that does what Time After Time does as well.  It seems that filmmakers, especially today, are always trying to find new ways to rewrite history and to make historical characters interesting in their own ways.  For my money, none of them have matched the whimsical charm of Time After Time. It's one of the most must-see science fiction tales I've ever known; packed with enough action, romance, and drama to please fans of any age.

November 28, 2012

FMWL Indie Spotlight - I Am a Ghost

(2012, Dir. by H.P. Mendoza.)

A little ghost story that could in all the right ways, I Am a Ghost brings a new flavor to the haunting film and does so with plenty of flair.  Directed by second time filmmaker H.P. Mendoza, this is a brief chiller that finds countless ways to remain fascinating as it tells its tale.

The film opens with a series of repetitive events following a woman named Emily (played by Anna Ishida), and as I watched it I started to wonder if there were times when the film had accidentally rewound itself. We see the same events several times, and each occurrence of each event seems a little stranger than the last.  We see that Emily lives in a big house, seemingly alone, and we get that her day is filled with repetition and routine.  And then we see that she's terrified of one of the rooms in the house. And then things repeat. It's a little excruciating to watch the film go through these motions early on, mostly because I kept pushing back against my chair waiting for that ghost from the title to show up.  (To be honest, I even paused the movie and ran to get a hoodie to protect me at one point. Scientific evidence that doesn't exist yet shows that you are much less likely to be scared while cozy in a hoodie.  And this movie made me feel like I needed one.)

Then we get our first major reveal, which isn't a big surprise, but is about as far as I will go in explaining the twisting and wonderful plot of I Am a Ghost.  The devil is in the details (metaphorically, this isn't that type of film), and all you need to know about I Am a Ghost is that writer/director Mendoza and his talented star know exactly what they're doing as they lead you on the film's journey.

I want to point out that the path that the filmmakers set for the viewer is non-linear, but that seems too simple of a term for what I Am a Ghost does. Non-linear, to me, signifies events that occupy different places on the same continuum, and the most intriguing aspect of I Am a Ghost is the realization that we are not dealing with a normal series of events.  A keen observer of the film should quickly realize that things aren't quite right for Emily, and much of the film's charm comes from trying to figure out just what is going on and how Emily can escape this routine that she is trapped in.  The film does a pretty good job of laying out what we can expect from it, but it never seems to jump to the place or time that we would expect to be the next logical step in Emily's journey.

Which brings me to the topic of fate, a topic that must be dealt with throughout the film. There's a moment just after the reveal that I hinted at earlier which really shook me up.  Emily explains a tragic event to another character in a shockingly vivid manner and I - wrapped in my hoodie and trying to figure out just what is going on in Emily's world - suddenly found myself shaking my head and hoping beyond hope that the events that are being explained don't end up happening on screen any time soon.  It says a lot about a horror movie when it can tell you about a horrible thing and make you never want to see it happen, and it's a testament to the writer and the actress that this dilemma is set up so wonderfully by such a simple sequence.

And then we get to the film's final act and, well....the easy thing to say is that the train goes off the rails in the best possible way.  Expected things happen, unexpected things happen, and everything adds up to a final sequence that will surely keep horror fans talking long after the credits roll.

There's very little not to like about I Am a Ghost, a one of a kind haunting tale with an excellent lead performance and all the right supports. It's also a beautiful film, with inviting settings and nice practical effects that make the unique narrative that much more engaging.  I've been thinking about I Am a Ghost for almost 24 hours now, and the more I do, the more impressed I am.  Mendoza has created a smart horror film that maintains a primal edge, and the film's ability to make me think while I'm shivering in my seat makes it a rare treat.

For more info on I Am a Ghost, be sure to check the film out on Twitter or Facebook and/or check out the official website (which, coincidentally, currently has a nice blog post that features friends of FMWL Chris and Mike from All Things Horror Online). Or, if you don't want to go anywhere else, come back in about a month and I'll probably mention it when I talk about my favorite genre films of 2012.
I AM A GHOST (Reviews Trailer #1) from H.P. Mendoza on Vimeo.

November 27, 2012

Big Three Slasher Series Bonanza! The Halloween/Elm Street/Friday the 13th Countdown

Cool image stolen from this dude because it's cool.
So it was October a bit ago and I was like "YEAAAAAAAHHHHH, HORROR!" like I was Slim Pickens riding a bomb to the DVD store. And then it ended, and things around FMWL got a little too quiet for my tastes.  And then I was like "Oh yeah, that's because I need to come up with things to write about."

And so it came to pass that I started thinking back to October and realized how often I popped in a film from one of three slasher franchises.  You know, those franchises with Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees* and/or Freddy Kreuger in them.  And then I realized that, sometimes, it wasn't even because I liked the movies.  It was just that these three killers and their films have become such a comfortable place for me to go when I'm looking for a dose of slashy horror.
* signifies the possibility of Jason Voorhees not always being Jason Voorhees.

Now, don't get me wrong - there are tons of other slashers that are better than many of these films and there are tons of franchises with iconic dudes - like Leatherface and Pinhead, to name two - that are just as awesome as some of these dudes.  But these three franchises have always been "the big three" to me, based on a) the longevity of their reigns and the multitude of films in each series, and b) the fact that they kind of feel like the three killers that are most accessible to both fanatical and casual horror fans.

So now that I was thinking about these movies, I figured I'd do that thing I do when I got nothing else to do - MAKE A LIST. With no further ado, here's The Mike's official countdown of how much he loves/respects/hates all 30 films/remakes/cross-overs in these three beloved - for better or worse - bunches of horrory good(or bad)ness.
The Worst of The Worst
30. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers - Rushed into production with a star who wanted too much money (Ellie Cornell, whose assets from part 4 were disposed of quickly) and a poorly written replacement for her (the annoying Tina Williams, the worst character in the history of movies), Halloween 5 is among the five or ten movies that I hate more than any movie ever. And don't talk to me about what they did to Michael. *tear*

29. Halloween 2 - Rob Zombie's sequel to his remake of Halloween is one of the most maddening films I've ever seen.  I can't talk about how much Zombie crapped all over everything I love about Halloween without wanting to punch kittens. And I gosh darn love kittens.

28. Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare - It wasn't actually the FINAL nightmare - a trend that will continue on this list - but it was Freddy at his low point. There are more awful (and now outdated) pop culture jokes than scares in this film.
27. Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday - Also not FINAL, despite being the second Final in its own series. Jason becomes a shape shifter, and things get weird and stupid. Only ranked this high(?) because it's got Erin Gray (from Buck Rodgers!) and that teasing ending.
The Very, Very Bad
26. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan - The tamest Jason film doesn't have enough of everything I enjoy about this series. And only about 15 minutes take place in Manhattan, which makes me just wish it was Jason at sea with a better director.
25. Halloween: Resurrection - Most notable for the opening sequence with a returning Jamie Lee Curtis, this film was a) years ahead of its time and b) the only film in any of these franchises to rely on Tyra Banks and Busta Rhymes. And, despite all that, it's still incredibly silly and boring.
24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Master - I just saw this one for the first time during October, and the opening sequence really had me hooked for a few minutes.  Then it became an average Freddy sequel, thanks to bad jokes and annoying characters, and I lost all interest.
23. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) - A pointless remake that wastes a good cast and some decent dream sequences.  The fact that Robert Englund was replaced by Jackie Earle Haley has been lamented by many fans, but the awful CGI kills are what really lost my interest.
The Just Simply Bad
22. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge - This might be the most bizarre film on this list, and there are a few moments that are kind of great.  But the decline of Freddy was visible with every joke and one-liner, and the whole film ends up weird in a bad way.
(RANDOM TANGENT: I used to complain that the Friday the 13th movies were so repetitive and that I couldn't remember which was which when they all basically did the same things. I still believe that to an extent, but they have nothing on the Elm Street sequels. You could show me images from any of them (save 3, which we'll get to in a bit) and I'd probably guess wrong about what movie it was.  If you've seen Freddy pop out of one item and say something stupid before killing someone, you don't really need to watch anything after Part 3.)

21. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers - I've always really wanted to like the sixth film in the Halloween series. Many dismiss it because it tries to explain away Michael Myers in an unconventional way, but I love the fact that it's trying. The "Producer's Cut", which has become a thing of legend to Halloweenaholics like myself, could have been a fresh new twist on the series if given a proper release. But even that version can't overcome some neutering by new distributor Dimension Films, who didn't have their Scream-based swagger yet.

20. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood - This is the most forgettable film on this list. I've watched it a bunch of times, and I never hate it when I watch it, but then it's just gone. It's like lettuce. There's no benefit from eating, but at least it doesn't do any harm.
The Enigma
19. Halloween (2007) - I don't hate Rob Zombie's Halloween! But, at the same time - I REALLY HATE ROB ZOMBIE'S HALLOWEEN! I know I don't like Rob Zombie's Halloween. But I kind of feel like I could like Rob Zombie's Halloween. Except that it's called Halloween. And it shows no interest in representing what I love about Halloween. And that drives me absolutely crazy. But, if it wasn't called Halloween, I might kind of like it. Then again, maybe I wouldn't.
My brain hurts.
The Average Ones
18. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master - This one gets a slight bump because it's directed by the amazing Renny Harlin. It's a little less annoying than the two films that would follow it and not as ridiculous as Part 2, and the teen cast is actually pretty good.
17. Friday the 13th Part III - The mask! The mask! We finally get the mask!  Aside from that, this one and I go either way. At some points in time, I've said it was my favorite F13. At other points in time, I've thought it was excruciatingly dull. It is one of the better F13 movies for party viewing, if only for the 3D gimmick.
(RANDOM TANGENT: There's no debate on one thing - the Friday the 13th series plays better with a group than the Halloween or Elm Street films do. There's less plot and less ambition, and lots and lots of silliness with kills and sex. You can not lose with Jason at a horror movie party.)
16. Halloween H20: 20 Years Later - An attempt to reboot the series after Scream's success (which ignores the events of Halloweens 4-6, creating what I like to view as alternate timelines for Michael Myers (which I also sometimes argue can be branched back together). The return of Jamie Lee Curtis is welcome, but the mood isn't right - partially because the guy they got to play Michael never watched a Halloween movie and partially because it just doesn't work as well without Donald Pleasence as "the Ahab".
15. Wes Craven's New Nightmare - Wes Craven is a major league slugger when he directs horror movies - meaning that he usually hits a home run or swings and misses wildly. New Nightmare is basically a fly ball that gets caught a few feet before it crosses the fence. Bringing Freddy to the "real world" could have worked - but the film runs about a half hour too long and features a terrible child performance. What could have been.
14. Friday the 13th (2009) - I'm not gonna lie. I almost ranked this one ahead of the original. I thought it was a lot of fun, even if it took liberties with the material and featured incredibly bouts of dumbness.  Heck, I might watch this one again before I watch the original again.  Then again....
13. Friday the 13th - The original "shocker" has never been one of my favorite movies, and I often have to be reminded that I do think there are good things about it. There are some good sequences, but there's so much about the film that is just plain average. I think people like this movie more than they should because they like the sequels, which are often better. There, I said it.
The Ones I Always Have Fun With
12. Freddy vs. Jason - The 2003 crossover hit had been talked about since Jason went to hell, and I've always been pleased with the end result.  There's a ton of self-aware comedy, but there aren't sharp contrasts in tone like their were in many late Freddy films. Jason gets to do his Jason thing, and the joke never gets old.
11. Friday the 13th Part 2 - Amy Steel, you guys. There's no way I'm saying this isn't better than the original when Amy Steel is running point. Final girl extraordinaire, you guys.
10. Jason X - Yes, I love it. I know it's terrible. But it's one of the funniest movies ever. Never. Gets. Old.
9. Halloween II - Rick Rosenthal's sequel makes a lot of mistakes and I always get really annoyed by that one twist that changed the series forever. But there are some great moments, and Michael Myers is as creepy as he was in the original - even when he hides underneath the camera waiting to pounce.
8. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning -  When the topic is F13, I go straight to the Tommy Jarvis trilogy. This one gets the short straw tonight, but it's still got some of the better surprises in the series.
7. Halloween III: Season of the Witch - The outlier in the Halloween series is a love-it-or-hate-it horror film. I've done both in my life, but this one of a kind horror story has grown on me over the years.  It's got Tom Atkins and that ending, so once you get past the fact that there's no Michael Myers you'll probably have fun too.
The Darn Good Ones
6. Jason Lives! Friday the 13th Part VI - A reanimated Jason and a 20-something Tommy Jarvis (played by the great Thom Mathews) square off in the most interesting F13 film.  There's a strong focus on the story behind the battle and Tommy's quest to find peace, and the pace is fantastic.
5. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter - My favorite F13 film today. Is it just because of the nostalgia value of Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover? Nah. It's because of Banana Girl.
4. Halloween 4: The Curse of Michael Myers - I've lauded this as one of my favorite sequels ever for a long, long time. Heck, I used it for a lecture in a college course once. Pleasence gives a fantastically hammy performance, and Ellie Cornell and Danielle Harris are great additions to the series.  Myers would never be this scary again.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street - Search this blog for mentions of this movie and you'll find out how mad I get about the ending. I just hate it. It's so bad. I can't forgive it. You've got 80 minutes of a truly great horror movie...and then THAT. Boo.
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors - DOKKEN! OK, it's not all about Dokken. But man, there are few horror movies from the 1980s that scream 1980s like this one. It's the perfect balance of comedy and horror that Freddy would never match again, and the kills are fantastic.
The Great One
1. Halloween - Doesn't even belong on the same list as the rest of these movies. They range from terrible to fun, but it's my favorite horror movie ever.
Here endeth the list. Agree? Disagree? Hit up the comments! In the meantime, I'm gonna watch a horror movie. Adios!

November 22, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #151 - Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell

If you're The Mike - and, in this case, I am - and you hear about a movie about a body snatcher from hell, you take notice.  And then, when you hear that that movie is a trippy Japanese production of the late '60s that was part of its studio's response to the box office success of Big G in Japan - you stand at attention.
Which brings us to Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, which is a bizarre treat for lovers of original horror.  It's a film that blends plenty of horror staples into one unique package, and any comparisons to Godzilla (or other kaiju films) can be dismissed after the country of origin is discussed. Unlike many of the most popular sci-fi/horror films from Japan in this era, Goke focuses on a much smaller monster - but that doesn't make the scope of the film any smaller.
To simplify the film's plot is to do it an injustice, but I just have to say - yes, that is a blob.  This is a blob movie.  But not like The Blob.  It seems that Goke - short for Gokemidoro - is a parasitic entity who enjoys opening up folks' foreheads and oozing his way into their body, therein "snatching" control over them. As for the "Hell" thing, I think that's just said for effect. I don't believe Gokemidoro comes from the actual Hell, because I don't think you can get here from there in an orange spaceship. (If your religious beliefs disagree with my assessment, then I apologize for the offense. Please let me know what your Hell has to do with orange spaceships, I love learning!)
Anyway, Goke introduces us to a small group of people on an Air Japan flight - and if you think the flight looks eerily similar to something from Kill Bill you're not mistaken; Tarantino loves this flick - which flies into a red sky, sees some orange lights, and crash lands in an uninhabited valley.  The survivors survive (obviously), but that's just a convenient way to put this odd group of characters - including, but not limited to - a psychiatrist, a politician, and an American army wife - in Goke's path.
Strewn along Goke's path are scenes involving bickering and distrust, as well as some solid blobby mind-melding. The film finds several unique ways to tell us about Goke, and a lot of intrigue comes from the way this invader is portrayed.  There's a little bit of everything in this story, but none of Goke's trappings are just like something you've seen in another sci-fi film. We get a blob, we get body snatching, and we even get a bit of possession/assimilation. But they aren't the same things you know.  I kept trying and trying and trying to make the connection between the film and John Carpenter's The Thing stick in my head, but I couldn't do it. Goke is it's own animal.
I am, however, somewhat convinced that Mr. Carpenter had seen Goke, because my favorite moment in the film mimics one of my favorite moments in Carpenter's filmography.  The sequence in which the omnipresent voice of the Gokemidoro shares an ominous warning to the survivors by possessing a female survivor made me think fondly of Prince of Darkness, as the woman's hair billows in the wind and a voice - a voice that is clearly not her own - relays a message that is meant to signal the end for the people.  It's a moment that sent chills down my spine, and it really hammered home the meaning of these strange events.
Perhaps the best thing about Goke, The Body Snatcher is that it's one of the rare horror films that seems to keep escalating as it goes on.  There are a couple of minor lulls, but every time I thought I had Goke figured out it shook my pursuit and sped to a new height.  It's not going to scare anyone's socks off, but it's haunting enough to keep you interested and man, does it end with a bang.  Goke is a new favorite of mine, but I imagine I'll be going back to its odd world often, and I think y'all should experience Goke's world for yourself too.

(BTW, if you're reading this before 11/25/12, you can watch Goke, The Body Snatcher from Hell for FREE on Hulu. It's streaming for free right about HERE. So watch it!)

November 20, 2012


(2012, Dir. by Ralph Bates, Jr.)

AnnaLynne McCord is a good-looking 25 year old actress who I'd heard of and seen pictures of, but never really knew why.  The IMDB tells me she was in a refurbished 90210 (obviously, I've never seen that) and had a bit part in Transporter 2 (now you're talkin' Mike's language - but I still don't remember her). Regardless, this is an actress I never gave much of a thought, and I probably couldn't have picked her out of a line of starlets before the night last week when I watched a fresh and bizarre horror film entitled Excision.

And now that I've seen Excision, I feel really comfortable saying that this young actress - the same AnnaLynne McCord I dismissed as a dime-a-dozen blonde starlet blindly - pretty much gives the most brilliantly awkward horror performance since Sissy Spacek showed up in Carrie.

McCord stars as Pauline, an awkward teenager with facial herpes, unkempt hair, and a fetish for blood.  We're not talking a vampiric fetish for blood, we're talking about a sexual fetish for blood. When Pauline sleeps, she's whisked away into a bizarre dreamscape in which she's made up like a diva, surrounded by bizarre creatures, and sated by weird and bloody sexual acts.  In her waking hours, Pauline embraces her desires by planning to become a surgeon and attempting to lose her virginity, and we witness her entire thought process through a series of awkward prayers she sends to a God that she doesn't really believe in.

Pauline's reality is pretty messed up. She lives with her controlling, puritan mother (Traci Lords, cast against reputation) and seemingly neutered father (Roger Bart), while loving her cystic fibrosis laden sister (Ariel Winter), and she pretty much hates her life. Like most teenagers, she also hates school - the place where she is picked on by cool kids and generally accosted by a slew of teachers, including bit performances from well-known folks - Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin, and Ray Wise included - who get to flex their comedic skills.  The film is a very dark comedy as it deals with Pauline's life, which helps keep the viewer a little more comfortable with how bizarre her actions and her lust for blood are.

And, thanks to McCord's stunning performance, the bizarre ride through Pauline's mind is a fascinating one. The film shows off plenty of gore in the dream sequences that keep us on our toes, while also managing to gross us out with little interactions between the girl and the real world.  Her quest to lose her virginity ends in a twisted manner that is sure to make viewers squirm, while interactions like the one between her and a dead and bloody bird have to be seen.  The actress dominates the screen, both as a physical presence in the surreal dreams and as an unstable teen in the real world. It's a shockingly brave performance for the actress, as she goes to two extremes for the length of the film without ever relying on the trademark image that got her noticed.  She carries the film in every way.

As for the rest of Excision, it's a film I'm still kind of digesting.  Director Ralph Bates Jr. has created a visceral film with a beautiful representation of chaos that reminded me of films like Ken Russell's Altered States that push the boundaries of perception.  Characters are often framed straight on, the same way Ingmar Bergman may have focused on characters in films like Persona, and there's certainly an artistic vision to this universe as it unfolds around this teenage girl.  Bates is toying with the audience and, again, finding ways to let some dark comedy seep into the otherwise grim storyline.

I'm still not sure Excision entirely works. It's one of those films that makes you say "Ewww, I don't ever want to watch that again" as soon as it ends - but then is stuck in your head for days because you want to make sense of all its oddities.Even though the film is fairly straight forward, I still felt it took a lot of leaps from one point to another, glossing over some relationship details and character development in the name of the bizarre. But, McCord's performance - a truly inspiring case of an actress shaking free from perceptions and making everyone turn their head in awe - is more than enough reason to check out Excision and see the shocking story of Pauline and her family for yourself.

(I can't show you the trailer here, mostly because it has boobs in it (I try my hardest to keep FMWL PG) and partially because I think it kind of sucks. So I'll just link to the trailer on YouTube and let you check it out there if you like.

And I assume you will. After all, I just mentioned boobs in it.)

November 16, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #150 - First Man into Space

With the Midnight Movie of the Week turning a whopping 150 weeks old, I figured I had to do something big to celebrate. It's a big deal to me, so I figured I should write about something classy.  Something important. Something  that's "one of the greatest films from around the world" according to a well-renowned distribution company.  Something from the Criterion Collection. Something like - First Man into Space?
One-fourth of Criterion's Monsters and Madmen collection, First Man into Space is a 1959 b-flick that plays like the shell of a lot of other great sci-fi stories. Hotshot pilot Dan Prescott is chosen to pilot the Y-13, a state of the art Air Force shuttle, despite warnings from his Commander/older brother Chuck Prescott. The younger man seems to be primarily interested in doing things his way and cavorting with his Italian girlfriend, but he's also driven to make a name for himself by breaking new ground.
 During the inaugural voyage of the Y-13, Dan ignores warnings and pushes the craft 250 miles above the Earth. While earning the accolade that is listed in the title - two years before Yuri Gagarin would become reality's first man into space in 1961 - but also loses control and passes through some kind of contaminant. 
Anyone this side of 1960 knows that passing through some substance in space is generally a no-no - the immediate connection I made when I saw this event was the creation of the Fantastic Four (which, coincidentally, was also in 1961) - and it's shortly after this point that Dan becomes a hulking humanoid covered in a crusty space shell who thirsts for blood to replenish his damaged body.
 If that premise has you thinking that First Man into Space isn't the prototypical Criterion collection film, then you're a smart guy or gal.  At the same time, this isn't the average '50s sci-fi film either. It's set on and around a U.S. Military base, but it doesn't push the patriotic agenda like many of its genre peers. It's got a monster, but it never seems to really exploit this creature's image for the sake of shock.  Most notably, the film bucks conventions by offering a darker view of the events on screen than many films of its era.
Those who read this site often are used to my rants about The Blob and how much I love it for its innocent nature and its portrayal of a monster attacking a Leave It To Beaver-esque reality. First Man into Space could have gone this route - the premise is certainly set up for a tall hero, a blonde beauty, and a fight in the name of righteousness - but instead director Robert Day is content to let darkness seep in to most of his frames. The film doesn't build up its hero or its heroine much, nor does it even take too much time to make us feel sorry for Dan. (It does, however, have a sequence that makes me laugh; a sequence in which a blonde nurse makes her only appearance in the film presumably because they needed someone to unleash a blood-curdling scream.) It's incredibly fatalistic, playing a little bit more like a moody vampire film than a space-age thriller.
The film's final resolution also takes place in a relative darkness, as the two brothers come face to face as soldier and monster. There's no high speed chase and no squadron of troops called in, just a monster and a soldier trying to figure out what went wrong. It is one of the most restrained endings from the golden era of sci-fi, and certainly one of the most bizarre when you think of the other films of this era.
First Man into Space isn't the most profound film, even with its downbeat mood, primarily because none of the performers are really memorable and the dark lighting takes away a lot of the awe that could be inspired by the crusty creature.  But it's a nice change of pace for fans of classic sci-fi/horror, the kind of film that could be spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or could be a part of the Criterion Collection on any given day.  And it's those kinds of movies - the ones that teeter on the line between brilliance and rubbish and make me think about where they belong - that I just can't get enough of.

November 13, 2012

8 Things I Love About... Happy Birthday to Me

(Because I totally don't talk about how much I love this movie enough.)
Because not enough horror movies have static electricity special effects.
It's got a head in a tray too.
And there's Glenn Ford everybody!
Perhaps my favorite image of blood on film.
That awkwardly tense scene in the bell tower.
Unlike most slasher films, this is brain surgery.
Every good birthday needs a creepy scene lit by cake.
And it goes perfectly with a late night snack.

November 11, 2012


(2012, Dir. by Nacho Vigalando.)

What if the aliens invaded and nothing really happened? That's the conundrum posed to four characters in Extraterrestrial, a unique sci-fi comedy from Spain. The movie quickly establishes that a saucer of great size and unnatural origin is floating above the city - which is obviously not an optimal circumstance for relationship building - and then lets us watch as they try to deal with the intergalactic situation while sorting out their romantic compatibilities.

The film opens with Julio and Julia - what a coincidence! - a man and woman who have just partaken in a mostly forgotten one night stand and who now notice the TV is out and the streets are quiet and, oh yeah, there's a mile wide ship floating over their heads.  Julia seems quite embarrassed by this man being in her apartment at what might be the end of the world, which we soon learn is because of her wanting neighbor, Angel, and her long-term boyfriend, Carlos.  Julio, on the other hand, wants to stick around because Julia is hot.  A different kind of love rectangle follows.

The ensuing action is a clash of personalities and a series of standoffs between the three men; standoffs whose lunacy is amplified by the characters' place in the abandoned world.  The actors who surround Julia, who is played charmingly by Michelle Jenner - each have their own strengths and flaws that fit a different need in the situation. Julio seems to be the most reasonable of the bunch, but he's also playfully devious and does his best to manipulate the situation to keep himself close to Julia.  This is a sharp contrast to her boyfriend Carlos, who pushes forth rules about how to act in the face of the invasion while missing the obvious connection between Julio and Julia and putting himself in plenty of difficult situations.  The other problem for all three characters is Angel - played humorously by Carlos Areces, who headlined another excellent Spanish film, The Last Circus - the jealous neighbor who lusts for Julia and goes to strange lengths to call out her affair with Julio.  Areces' performance is definitely the most comical in the film, and his work solidifies the film's bizarre reality.

The invaders are barely considered, outside of speculation by the frustrated characters, and writer/director Nacho Vigalondo focuses almost all of his attention on the budding relationship between Julio and Julia as it pertains to this world turned upside down. The plot could draw some comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, but it's important to note that Vigalondo is not playing his script for big laughs in most scenes.  This is not the kind of comedy that will attack you with slapstick antics - though there are a couple of scenes involving Angel that go full out goofy - and I instead found myself caught up in the scenario and laughing at the choices made by the characters and the props they deal with.  It's the little things about the movie - like a jar of peaches that shows up in several scenes - that become running gags and remind us how ridiculous these characters' lives have become.

Extraterrestrial worked for me - worked very well, actually - because it comes off as so unique and different for both the sci-fi genre and the independent film scene. The director and the actors manage to present the confusion of an alien invasion and add boatloads of sexual tension between the leads, and they do all of this without ever getting into the specifics of the invasion or getting too graphic with the relationship.  It's a deft little film that takes what could have been a simple romantic comedy and turns it into a grand scale dramatic comedy thanks to one big idea.  That idea is the hook that got me to check out the film, but the whole of the film ends up more fun than most alien invasion films that focus on special effects and laser battles.  Extraterrestrial isn't a by the number science fiction film, but it's probably going to go down as one of my favorite entries into the genre in some time.

November 9, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #149 - Uncle Sam

It's been Election Week here in America, which means awful campaign ads, constant bickering and prognosticating, and - eventually - the re-election of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney as President of the United States.  I voted, as we're told American's should, but really only had one contest on our local ballot that I was interested in.  In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't have a horse in the Presidential race - mostly because I don't trust either candidate one bit - so I ended up voting in that race based on two factors. First, I considered who my mother would vote for, because I trust her. Second, I looked for who had the most whiny and annoying supporters on Twitter and Facebook, so I could vote against them. Is that childish? Sure, it's childish. But so is the Electoral College.
After months of hearing people complain about how ruined this country would be if either candidate won the election, plus the last 48 hours of sophomoric insults being thrown about by poor losers and gloating winners, I decided that I needed to partake in a little post-election catharsis to clean the soul.  I needed the kind of clean mind that only a pointless slasher movie can provide - and there's no better slasher movie for this situation than William Lustig's patriotic splatterfest, Uncle Sam.
The film opens with the death of Sam Turner, a US soldier who is killed by "friendly fire" during the Gulf War, and the return of his body to his hometown and his devastated nephew Jody. (What is it with horror movies and dudes named Jody? I have never met a male Jody who wasn't a character in a horror film.) As that small hometown prepares for Fourth of July festivities, Jody begins to realize how "un-American" some of the people in this town are - and the re-animated Uncle Sam takes notice (and a traditional "Uncle Sam" costume) too.  Then, the killing.
Lustig, who made a living making sleaze in the '80s (Maniac, Maniac Cop, Vigilante) and now makes a living distributing old sleaze as the founder of the fantastic Blue Underground outfit, shows a little bit of age as a filmmaker this time around.  With the script following a teenage child, there's definitely a little more restraint than you'd expect from the man who made some of the most brutal films of the slasher's heyday. Still, there are plenty of humorous kills that provide entertainment for fans of this sort of thing, including a wonderfully gruesome bit involving one of those potato sack races that used to happen before people got cool. 
Opinions on this film will probably sway based on the cheesy handling of slasher movie conventions by the director and writer Larry Cohen.  Set far from the gritty New York setting of many of these filmmakers' most known works, their transition to a small town in the middle of summer allows for a more comical tone, and the result is little tension and few chills. But I really think there's something endearing about the presentation of this hammy shocker, as over-the-top cameos from genre icons like William Smith, P.J. Soles, and Robert Forster help establish the tone and drown out the annoying fourteen year old lead actor.
I haven't said a lot of good things about the film here, which is a bad way to sell it to you all, but this is one of those weeks when I'm not too worried about deep and meaningful cinema.  Uncle Sam kind of represents how watered down horror films were in the 1990s - I mean, if you can't trust the guy behind Maniac to explode someone's head, then who can you trust? - but it's still a good time waster, and a good film to pop in with some friends if you're looking to take the edge off of your post-election drain.  If you want to laugh at a killer in patriotic garb, then this is unequivocally the movie for you.

(Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go worry about an undead soldier killing me because I voted with no real knowledge of the candidates. Thanks a lot, Uncle Sam.)