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June 28, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #182 - Hellraiser: Inferno

It feels a little like a stretch when I bring out the direct-to-video fifth film in the Hellraiser series and say this is a piece of genre cinema that you need to look out for. This series of films is one of the most maddening of all horror franchises, partially because the producers decided to abandon continuity (and numbers in the title) after the third film and partially because almost all of these sequels are really, really bad movies. But if you can sift through everything and find the right sequel - this one, which has Inferno as its subtitle and the only yellow tinted cover of the bunch (seriously, for years I would say "the yellow sequel is pretty good" because I couldn't keep track of this franchise) - you might be surprised to find a mature and sadistic horror film.
Hellraiser: Inferno tells the story of a corrupt police detective who comes into possession of the fabled Lament Configuration puzzle box and, after a trippy night with a dreadlocked prostitute, finds himself trying to unravel plenty of hellish mysteries. While most of the Hellraiser films that preceded this one - all of which had bigger budgets and theatrical releases - took their characters into hellish realities, Inferno keeps our lead character based in reality and brings hell into his world.
Compared to the rest of the series, a literal Hell comes slowly into this character's world - the iconic visage of Pinhead only appears briefly near the end and visions of some new cenobite characters are spaced out by real world drama - but Inferno always finds unique ways to surprise our shady lead character. He's played by Craig Sheffer, formerly a "future star" in films like The Program and A River Runs Through It and before that the star Hellraiser creator Clive Barker's awesome Nightbreed, who has always seemed pretty slimy to me and seems more slimy than usual as he carries this film. He's got a pretty good supporting cast around him, including Nicholas Turturro and the great James Remar, but it seems like most of the scenes in the film revolve around Sheffer looking angry and confused as he faces new and ridiculous surprises that come with the puzzle box he has opened. Does that sound like a bad thing? It does kind of sound bad, but it really isn't. Sheffer is a bit challenged in the charisma department...which is great when he's playing a doomed soul who the viewer doesn't have to like.
The film is co-written and directed by Scott Derrickson, who has gone on to make two quality Hollywood horror films, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister (and one terrible, terrible, completely terrible remake that I will not name here despite the fact that it featured Keanu Reeves speaking Chinese to James Hong). All three of Derrickson's horror films are about dudes who are actively pursuing a horror that has entered into their every day world, which makes Hellraiser: Inferno a bit interesting as a case study in how the director got where he is over the last 13 years.  Derrickson's characters are never sharp or punchy like so many modern characters in the post-Tarantino film universe, and there's something refreshing about his willingness to just make these characters feel like they came out of an older and more restrained cop drama. With the exception of their hairstyles, characters in the Hellraiser series have been best when they're normal looking, and Derrickson allows Sheffer to be average enough to keep the film feeling like it's more than just another cheap sequel.
The film feels interesting to horror fans like myself because creepy stuff and cenobites keep popping up throughout the film, but there's more to this plot than that. We don't travel into any hell dimensions like we did in the overambitious Hellraiser II, and Derrickson and Sheffer manage to keep the film feeling like a crime drama while they provide enough gory and unsettling images that make us squirm. Most of the creature makeup is top notch, and there are plenty of new and unique creations that advance the cenobites as a race and prevents the film from just rehashing what we've seen in the first four films. And, at the same time, the gritty plot could even be called "Hellraiser noir" as the seedy side of the detective's world mixes with the cenobites while the star's drab narration pushes the story forward. Like film noir, the lead character's existence seems to spiral downward rapidly through the film's finale, which attempts to push the legend of that little puzzle box and it's spike-headed friend to new places while dragging the corrupt man down into Hell. 
Hellraiser: Inferno never really manages to wow us, but at the same time it's one of those horror movies that's simply never dull. It feels unique, especially as an addition to a series that had been off the rails for a couple of films (and was about to derail once more), which helps make the blood splatter a little brighter and the grimy detective's plight a little more engaging. It might just be a case of being in the right place at the right time - this movie would be a disappointment in a better franchise but seems like a standout against some of the more awful Hellraiser sequels - but Hellraiser: Inferno has always managed to stick in my mind as one of those horror sequels that's good enough to make you not care you're watching something that's not that first thing that you loved. And that's enough for me to give this sequel a solid recommendation to horror fans.

(Usually the trailer goes here, but Dimension Films was god awful at trailers and spoiled like half the movie in their 47 second teaser for this one. Good job, doofuses.  Instead, here's a short Hellraiser "fan film" that I love which was made by special effects guru Gary Tunnicliffe...)

June 25, 2013

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Thrill Kill

I've known of Zach Shildwachter for a while on this here internet thing, and I can say in all certainty that he is one sick monkey - in the best possible way. I probably could have told you that yesterday - before I watched his directorial debut, a seven minute short film called Thrill Kill that might just kick you in the teeth. Thankfully for lovers of bloody, pulpy, grindhouse goodness - Thrill Kill proves my point about its creator.

This little piece of foul mouthed - the f-word is said more than all other words combined, I think - and blood stained - complete with some gooey practical effects by the writer/director himself - cinema has a lot of good stuff going on for fans of old-school sleaze. The short plot has some taboo twists that might remind the viewer of bizarre drive-in flicks of the 1970s, while a love for modern gore shines through as the film tortures its two main characters, who are played with perfect grit by stars J Buckner and Agata Stasiak. At the center of it all is one gorgeous automobile, a 1977 Ford Mustang that drives this macabre little adventure to its brisk conclusion.
To give you plot details would be a disservice to the short film, so I'm going to just skip ahead to the good part. Below is a link to the film itself, released today by Cleveland based production company The Studio on Mars. Fans of bloody cinema, fast-paced carnage, and twisted humor - especially fans of twisted humor - should definitely click below and get their own taste of what Zach Shildwachter and company have to offer. It's the kind of NSFW story that only the most wonderfully disgusting people could put together, which means it's also a raw grindhouse treat for the uninhibited viewer.

June 21, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #181 - Lifeforce

Lifeforce is a movie falls into one of one of my favorite little-discussed categories of genre films. If I was classifying the movie into more widely accepted categories I might call it a sci-fi/horror space vampire apocalypse film - which is ridiculously long and kind of silly, if not awesome - but that's the second most interesting category in my book. What excites me the most about Lifeforce is that it falls into what I call the "And Then..." genre.
The And Then Film, as defined by me, has its roots in the over-excited ramblings of a child. In my case, it usually meant that I loved to explain things in one unending sentence that was consistently kept alive by the phrase "and then." For example, there was that time when my sister disappeared and then we went looking all over town and then we got the neighbors to help and then we all split up and covered the whole area shouting her name and then called the police and then got home and found out that she had fallen asleep in my parents' closet for no apparent reason. It's like that, except that this movie has less little girls falling asleep and more carnage and destruction and face melting.
The roughest estimate of the plot I can give is as follows. A crew of astronauts, led by the incredibly intense Steve Railsback (star of The Stunt Man, which is one of my very favorite films of all-time), discovers an alien spacecraft inside of Halley's Comet - which was relevant in the real world at the time, as it made its once per 75 years return to Earth's orbit in 1986 - and then (there it is!) accidentally sends the three humanoid beings on board back toward Earth. AND THEN (yep, I did it again) things get really crazy.
So then ("so then" works really well when "and then" has been played out, by the way) the film takes the next illogical step, introducing a beautiful naked female space creature played by Mathilda May who happens to suck the "lifeforce" out of people's faces. But there's good news for humanity - Railsback's super intense astronaut survived the journey back to Earth, and has a mental connection with the space vampire hottie. Which means a a game of sexual/extraterrestrial/creepy cat-and-mouse is about to begin.
Those two paragraphs sum up about 25% of the "and then..." that Lifeforce has to offer, if that. There are not many horror films - or many films in general - that provide this many dramatic shifts from one event to the next. And as the film escalates to a completely apocalyptic finale - which, by the way, should look familiar to anyone who completed the final mission of the brilliant Mass Effect video game series - it should keep most viewers on their toes. It might not make sense all of the time, and viewers who like their films to be more grounded in reason might lose interest in the film - but I'm OK with that. And when the final act is as crazy as the ravaging of London that occurs in Lifeforce, I'm more than OK with a few jumps in logic.
Lifeforce is directed by the much maligned Tobe Hooper, who helmed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and then became something of a punchline over the next 40ish years due to the awkward production of Poltergeist and a string of random and bizarre financial failures like this one. But for all their flaws, films like his remakes of Invaders from Mars and The Toolbox Murders, never skip a beat visually and are always moving to something different. Lifeforce is the director's most inventive piece of work during his post-Poltergeist career, and actually stands out as one of the more fun and bizarre pieces of '80s horror. Hooper may not always have everything together, but Lifeforce is the perfect reminder of how inventive he could be as a filmmaker.
The pieces of Lifeforce fit closely enough together to make it work well enough, just because Hooper, Railsback, May and company (including Patrick Stewart in a bizarre side performance) never blink while pursuing each twist that's coming up. And then, the movie ends...and you realize Lifeforce is truly a sight to behold.

June 18, 2013

American Mary

(2012, Dir. by Jen & Sylvia Soska.)

After their debut feature, the unmistakably titled Dead Hooker in a Trunk, I felt like big things might be in the future for twin Canadian filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska. I was a fan of that film as a raw and bombastic piece of grindhouse fluff, and I could see them continuing to push the envelope while finding fun and unique ways to present carnage.

I underestimated them.

I came to this realization tonight while finally checking out their follow up feature, American Mary - which is conveniently available on DVD and blu-ray all over North America for the first time.  The sisters show a dramatic growth in their writing and their direction, and the result is a new kind of horror film that seems endlessly fascinating to me right now.

Katharine Isabelle stars as the title character, a medical student who wants to be a surgeon until her professional progress is derailed by a devastating act. Mary finds a home in the unique underground scene of body modification, working out of a seedy adult club that seems like the real world version of Hellraiser III and making new friends and enemies along the way.

Mary is a special character. Part of this is because the actress is so talented - Isabelle is hitting all the right notes and hasn't been better since her breakout performance in Ginger Snaps 13 years ago - and part of this is because the character fills such a unique dramatic role. Mary exists in the film as both a victim and a villain, allowing Isabelle to recapture the feral energy that made her so dangerous in Ginger Snaps while alternately making her a sympathetic being that is something of a fallen angel.

The film is open to plenty of interpretations when it comes to our characters, starting with Mary and trickling out to all of the souls she touches. The club's seedy manager also seems to have a sweet affection for Mary. A modified stripper with an affection for Betty Boop initially creeps Mary out, but becomes the film's most sincere and altruistic character as the story moves forward. A slew of patients come through Mary's door - including the directors, who offer a sinister cameo - but the viewer never seems to be forced to any judgment of these characters' worth.

The film's willingness to show us a strange world without pushing narrow-minded values is perhaps the most fantastic thing about American Mary. The Soskas offer plenty of blood and push plenty of visual boundaries, but the answers to questions about what is right or wrong are left up to us. I've already read a few discussions in which viewers debate what some characters deserved and what other characters did well, and I can tell that I'm going to love seeing people's reactions to each character in the film after they experience American Mary for themselves.

It's this restraint that really makes me appreciate what the filmmakers have done here. The Twisted Twins have brought back the same chaotic energy and unpredictable flair that made their first film so much fun, but they've added an artistic touch that pushes American Mary into a fascinating place. I'm not sure everything fits together perfectly as the parts of the film crash off of each other in the final act, but the events that unfold are never dull and mostly thought provoking. Combined with a powerhouse lead performance and a eerie visual style, American Mary is a must-see piece of original horror that should propel its directors and its star to greater heights.

June 14, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #180 - The Howling

I will admit that I am often far too dismissive of The Howling, which is one of the better horror movies that was released in the 1980s. The biggest faults I have with the movie - which are faults that only exist within myself - is that it doesn't work for me in the same manic and exciting way that similar films of its era do. The Howling is a great werewolf movie, but it doesn't stand above An American Werewolf in London for me; and it's a great film by director Joe Dante, but it doesn't stand above Gremlins or The 'Burbs for me. This shouldn't be a problem - there's plenty of room in the world for very good werewolf movies - but I still find myself occasionally forgetting how good The Howling is anyway.
I open with all of that because I wanted to make myself aware of it as I sat down to revisit The Howling this week. As much as I want to compare The Howling to movies I like more, there's really not a lot of reason to compare what is actually on screen to anything else made in the '80s. Dante's film, co-written by the brilliant John Sayles, pushes the boundaries of werewolf legends and manages to create a new and modern tribute to The Wolf Man without sacrificing its place as a serious horror film. All of those films I mentioned earlier offer their horror with a heavy dose of comedy, but The Howling maintains a straight face in almost every scene.
Dee Wallace stars as a television reporter who gets too deep in an investigation of a killer and finds herself face to face with a madman who doesn't seem entirely human. She is unharmed, but the trauma of the event leads her psychiatrist (named after Wolf Man director George Waggner and played by the fantastic Patrick Macnee) to recommend some time away at a secluded colony down the coast. This colony isn't exactly calming, and Wallace finds herself surrounded by odd and devious characters and deeper in legends about good old fashioned werewolves.
Dante is more well known for making his films playful about their darkness, and the biggest difference between The Howling and what we expect from the director is that the dark side of his story gets preferential treatment this time out. There are some humorous moments and a few macabre and ironic events, but The Howling is first and foremost a cruel horror film. The best example of this comes in the form of Eddie Quist, the antagonist played by a nearly unrecognizable Robert Picardo. In what might be the film's best sequence, a nosy friend of the lead, played by Belinda Balaski, is pursued by a creature that reveals itself to be Eddie and transforms before her eyes. Picardo is a Dante favorite who has been primarily used in comedic or light hearted roles, but his performance as Quist is unhinged and devilish. Sayles and co-writer Terence Winkless give him a couple of gems in the one-liner department as well - after being called crazy he snarls "Oh, I'm much more than that!", for example - which helps Eddie stand out as a neat new twist on the werewolf legend.
Picardo isn't the only shining star in the supporting cast, as the inhabitants of the colony make up one of the more memorable horror clans this side of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Elisabeth Brooks is the visual standout as Eddie's sister who seems to be in heat, while classic names like Slim Pickens and John Carradine add a little bit of fun to the community.  Perhaps the biggest treat of the film is another Dante regular, Dick Miller, reprising his "Walter Paisley" character name as the owner of a book store who happens to know as much about werewolves as his books tell him. It's a neat little twist to have Miller filling in the pseudo-Van Helsing role, and his few scenes help establish the film's balance between modern horror cynicism and classic horror reverence.

Near the end of the film, Carradine's elder member of The Howling's community proclaims "You can't tame what's meant to be just ain't natural" and does a pretty great job of summing up what this movie does for the werewolf subgenre. Wallace is a perfect foil to this big bad wolf tale, and her ability to emote from opening scene to her big finale reiterates that this sect of werewolves is wild and dangerous. Horror movies that are more tame can work and work well, but there's something pretty great about The Howling's willingness to be wild and primal as it offers it's tribute to werewolves of the past.

June 7, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #179 - 10 to Midnight

Rumors of "that slasher movie with Charles Bronson" were more than enough to send me on a hunt for the 1983 thriller 10 to Midnight, and the end result does not disappoint. The slasher label (and even the label of this being a horror movie) could be debated - I would say its closest slasher comparison is to the original When A Stranger Calls - but that doesn't stop 10 to Midnight from being that perfectly half-serious/half-cheesy early '80s movie that is dripping with charisma.
The plot follows a veteran detective - Bronson, of course - who teams up with a younger and more "by the book" partner to track a serial killer who loves to get naked, run around the woods, and slice up attractive young women. The killer's identity is no secret to the viewer - he's a sexually frustrated office worker who's played with a sterile smirk by Gene Davis - which allows 10 to Midnight to skip the air of mystery that many crime movies embrace. In its place is a perverse morality tale that makes a deadly game of cat and mouse feel like a popcorn movie.
J. Lee Thompson (who had just made one of my favorite slashers, Happy Birthday to Me) also directed Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in the original Cape Fear, and there's a little bit of the same tone here. Bronson's Leo Kessler quickly deduces the killer's identity, but legal loopholes and lack of evidence allow the feud between the two men to get personal, with Kessler's daughter (Beverly Hills Cop co-star Lisa Eilbacher) becoming the killer's next target. Fans of Bronson's work in the late '70s and '80s know what to expect from the star here, and also know that getting this dedicated tough guy on your trail is a recipe for violence and carnage.
Both Bronson and Thompson seem to have been in something of a safe mode at this point in their career. Including this film in 1983, Thompson would direct six Bronson films in six years before retiring in 1989.  The star isn't doing anything out of his comfort zone either, playing off the Death Wish formula that defined his late career by once again hitting the city with a gun in his hand and a chip on his shoulder. But 10 to Midnight doesn't subscribe to the formula that you might expect from this duo, mostly due to the supporting cast and their place in the unique script.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of that script is how it seems to shift back and forth from one idea to another. The tone does not change, but the film moves from scenes like "maniac chasing naked woman in woods" to "cops arguing the ethics of the legal system" in a carefree manner. The mixture probably shouldn't work as well as it does, but the actors seem comfortable in their roles and the pacing is top notch. This is one of those movies that feels a lot shorter than it is, because there's always something different and engaging going on on the screen.
Davis' performance as the killer is probably the biggest success in the film, and this killer - whose face we know from the beginning and whose frustrations are spelled out for the viewer - gives the film something that sets it apart from more paint-by-numbers police thrillers. Most comparisons to the slasher genre certainly arise from his eerie, tortured performance in the film and the few wonderful stalking scenes that crescendo to a bloody and violent dorm room finale. The film also does a good job of keeping the killer seeming human, focusing on his frustrations with women and later teaming him with a sleazy lawyer who is wonderfully realized by the great character actor Geoffrey Lewis. This balance between knife wielding stalker and confused and repressed twentysomething is handled in a much better manner than a movie like this often deserves.
And, on the other side of the coin, fans of the star will surely be pleased with the results too. Bronson was still on top of his game when this film was made in 1983, and fans will be treated to a movie that shows off his trademark toughness while never seeming stale. Adding him to the script and pitting him against a unique villain is more than enough to lift 10 to Midnight to surprising heights, pushing the entertainment value of this one-of-a-kind crime drama/slasher movie farther than the parts of the film probably deserve. If you're looking for a pulpy thriller that's never dull, 10 to Midnight will probably entertain you from the opening scene to the final gun.