Archive for October, 2009


"Criminally Insane" Movie Poster

And so we come to the end of our little Halloween recommended viewing list, and while I’ve stressed time and again that it’s not really a “countdown” in the strictest (or any) sense (which begs the question of why I even called it one in the first place, and I’m afraid I don’t have a good — or again, any — answer), I assure you that I have indeed saved the best for last. If you’re going to take the easy (and entirely understandable) way out and only see one movie from this list, make it this one.

Why, you may ask? Is it the best flick on the list? No, of course not. It’s not even particularly “good” by any commonly understood definition of the term.

Is it, then, the scariest or most frightening? Good heavens no, it’s not even close to being scary at all.

Is it the most competent or well-executed? Are you kidding? It’s absolutely ludicrous, and down there with anything in the Ed Wood or Coleman Francis oeuvre in terms of technical accomplishment.

Then for the love of God, you may ask (again), why?????????????

That’s easy. Because this 1975 ultra-shot (61 minutes) “feature” from legendary bargain-basement auteur Nick Millard (billed here as Nick Philips — he has, according to the IMDB, no fewer than 21 aliases he worked under during his anything-but-illustrious career, seemingly changing names as often as the rest of us do underwear, usually depending on whether he was working on soft-core or on horror cheapies) is — pun absolutely intended this time — two tons of fun.

Billed as “250 Pounds of Maniacal Fury,” our protagonist here, one Ethel Jankowski (Priscilla Alder in a delicious role she really sinks her teeth into—again, both puns fully intended), actually tops the scales at well over (how much over I couldn’t say) 300, and she’s just been released from a mental institution where she was given a steady regimen of electroshock “treatment”(I’ve never understood why attaching electrodes to someone’s genitals qualifies as torture while attaching them to their temples is considered “therapy”) entirely against her will, and now she’s supposedly calm and rational enough to go back into the “care” of the community and so moves into her grandmother’s rather quaint San Francisco (Millard made almost all his films in his home Bay Area environs) Victorian.

It doesn’t take long for tensions to arise, though, as after one day of watching Ethel eat her out of house and home (and garage and shed and summer cottage and detached fallout shelter and you get the metaphor here before I strain it any further, I’m sure) Grandma decides to lock up the kitchen cabinets to prevent Ethel from gorging herself to death.

Our girl Ethel already has a damn unpleasant disposition to start with (and a nasty racist, or at least ethnocentric, streak, as evidenced by lines like “That Jew doctor tried to starve me to death” when she’s telling granny about her stay in the bughouse), and having her supply of consumables padlocked (with grandma holding the only key, of course) really sets her off. So she does what any morbidly obese and fanatically determined psychopath would do, I suppose — hack her to death with a meat cleaver, takes her key, unlocks the cabinets, and stuffs her face.

The food runs out pretty quickly, though, and it isn’t long before Ethel needs to call in a grocery order. There’s just one problem : she owes the market $80 and she won’t get more food from them until she pays up. No problem, she tells the store’s owner, just send the delivery boy over and she’ll pay up her past due balance as well as pay for the current order.The kid gets there and tells Ethel she can’t have more food until she pays the $80 she owes, to which she replies “But I don;t have $80, I only have $4.50.”

What happens next? You guessed it, the kid gets killed and Ethel takes the box of groceries he brought over. She hides his body in grandma’s bedroom (where the corpse of the elder Jankowski is rotting away) just in time, it turns out, as her good-for-very-little (alright, nothing) prostitute sister, Rosalie, drops by unannounced and informs Ethel she had to get away from her old man who’s been beating the shit out of her and has to crash with her and grandma for awhile.

In short order, Rosalie and her guy get back together (making for some truly OTT politically incorrect “relationship dynamics” in the scenes they share — I’ll say no more), but their happy reunion really starts to cramp Ethel’s style when they start bitching about the nasty smell coming from behind the locked door to grandma’s room. You’ve probably already guessed who this little scenario is going to play itself out.

To make matters even worse for our bloated psycho, the cops have come around and started to ask questions, too, since it seems the grocery delivery boy never came back from work and Ethel’s explanation that he must have taken the 80 bucks and split town isn’t going to buy her too much time. And her doctor would like to know where her grandmother is since only Ethel seems to answer the phone.

There are no surprises here. Millard/Philips displays nothing like any sort of creative directorial flourish (although in fairness, what do you want for $30,00? — and Millard claims that’s the biggest budget he’s ever hard to work with!). the gore is plentiful, but also plenty cheap (it’s generally of the “go down to the hardware store and get me some red paint” variety). What saves this movie, then, from being just another entirely-unmemorable shot-in-a-week piece of throwaway celluloid pablum?

In a word, it’s Alden. She’s so deliriously deadpan and morbidly monotonous throughout — whether she’s eating, hacking up a body, eating some more, lying to the cops, eating even more, dealing with cheap insults from Rosalie’s boyfriend, eating still even more or — well, hell, eating still even more than that, she’s so coolly detached and matter-of-fact that you’d almost swear she was, in fact, cool — even though I guess she can’t be since she’s so fat, and Hollywood has taught us for years than fat people absolutely can’t be cool under any circumstances.

There’s no flustering Ethel, though — corner her and she’ll make some shit up. Don’t believe her lies and she’ll kill you. It’s as simple as that, really. Nothing comes between her and her food.

There’s something here to offend everyone, and you’ve gotta love it for that. There’s nothing even remotely subtle or, for that matter, tasteful about “Criminally Insane.” It’s pure dreck that embraces its status as cinematic filth and absolutely wallows in it. There’s no pretense — Philips couldn’t afford any and didn’t have the time. It’s trash — pure, unadulterated, unvarnished, and unashamed, and as such, it’s one of the most refreshingly honest movies you’re ever likely to see.


Ethel in action ---

A final note about the (even by grindhouse standards absurdly) short run time — somehow, even though you wouldn’t mind if it went on longer, you don’t feel cheated, and it feels right. It’s not like this is a particularly complex story, anyway. Again, this is part and parcel of the absolute self-assuredness of this film. Granted, it’s self-assuredness borne of the fact that it had no other choice, but how damn great is that in a world where most movies spend at least half their run time trying to pretend to be more important than they really are?

“Criminally Insane,” unlike most of the uninspired navel-gazing that passes for “entertainment” these days, knows exactly what it is, and not only doesn’t care that you know, too, it states it proudly.  Quite frankly, if you’re going to crank out a $30,000 exploitation quickie about a 300-lb. female serial killer, this is the only way to do it.


--- and Ethel inaction.

The good folks at Shock-O-Rama, under their Retro Shock-O-Rama banner,  have released “Criminally Insane” on DVD as part of their “Nick Philips Horror Trilogy Collection,” triple-feature, single-disc set, along with another bizarre 1975 Millard/Philips cheapie, “Satan’s Black Wedding,”  and the shot-on-video 1987 sequel, “Criminally Insane 2,” (also known, wouldn’t’cha know it, as “Crazy Fat Ethel 2” — and we’ll note in passing that Millard made another “sequel” of sorts starring Alden called “Death Nurse,” also in 1987, and a proper sequel to that, “Death Nurse 2,” in 1988 — both of which were also shot on video). The picture boasts a nice 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is supposedly “mastered from the original 35mm film elements, but still looks pretty crummy, it must be said — which probably can’t be avoided,  and is also quite fitting given the film itself, so I’m not really complaining even though it might sound like it — and let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t expect anything better anyway. The mono sound is fine, if occasionally muffled — again, as you’d probably expect.


The "Nick Philips Horror Trilogy Collection" from Shock-O-Rama featuring "Criminally Insane"

What I will complain about a bit is the commentaries for all three films, featuring Philips and moderator 42nd Street Pete. These are dull, uninspired, and feature interminably lengthy stretches of absolute nothingness. Old Pete should have done a much better job of having some engaging lines of questioning ready for Philips, since he’s got a lot to say, as the three making-of featurettes (one for each movie) included on the disc attest to. He’s got a sharp memory and is an interesting guy, too bad these commentaries are such a snooze.

All in all, though, it’s a packed-to-the-rafters little package that delivers great value for money, and it’s worth owning just for the presence of “Criminally Insane” alone. The other stuff is just icing on the cake — pun, again, completely intended.

So that’s a wrap on our non-countdown Halloween countdown that I probably shouldn’t have called a countdown. I hope you’ll give some, or all, of these movies a try.  Hell, even one of them.  If I can convert one person somewhere over to one movie they otherwise wouldn’t have known about, much less seen, then all my harrowing struggle will have been worth it.

"The Disturbance" DVD Cover

"The Disturbance" DVD Cover

Looking back on things, 1990 was a strange year to try to make an independent exploitation film, as the landscape was shifting but had not yet settled. 42nd street was in its death throes, as were the drive-ins, but both were still up and running, if only on fumes. The home video market had cooled off a bit from its early-80s “explosion” days, and the two Shannons — Tweed and Whirry, in chronological order, had not yet established the direct-to-VHS market as being primarily the stomping grounds for “mature” T&A “mystery thrillers.” In addition, some movies were even going right to cable, with the proliferation of Skinemax and other pay channels looking for movies to fill up their schedules on the cheap. Last but not least, the independent “art house” circuit had not really come into being yet in anything like the form it is today.

Oh, sure, some of the old rules were still in play — at least a little bit of nudity was a must, for instance, but the “slasher” craze had died down a bit and heavy-duty gore was considered a bit passe at the time — as was, if we’re to be completely honest, horror itself.

Thankfully, though, not everyone got the message.

Down in south Florida, an aspiring your director named Cliff Guest had gotten ahold of a script by equally aspiring young screenwriter Laura Radford that he thought (quite rightly) had some real pop to it. He was able to secure (a laughably small amount of) financing through an outfit called A.F.T. Productions, headed by one Ron Cerasuolo, who would later go on to business success as the guy who came up with the original idea for the “Planet Hollywood” restaurant chain.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that of these three principal players, “The Disturbance” remains the only credit on the film resumes for any of them  (and the same is true for Timothy Greeson, who played the film’s troubled leading man, although that’s not particularly relevant to the point — yes, I do have one! — that I’m about to make here). That being said, however, they sure hit on a novel way to market their product.

Given that a theatrical release seemed almost impossible for a low-budget effort like this, and that much of what was assumed at the time to be horror’s last throes was headed straight to video and/ or late-night “premium” cable, it looked like “home viewing platforms,” as they say in industry lingo (although the wretched phrase had yet to be coined at the time) were going to serve as the dump-off spot for this little 10-years-too-late exploitation effort.

But what if they could expand the film’s market without the aid of even the most miniscule theatrical run?

That’s where the purely accidental genius brought about by cold, hard necessity came into play, and either Guest, Cerasuolo, or both in concert came up with the idea of actually making two films here for two completely different markets.

One would be a DTV ultra-low-budget “psychological horror” that followed the screenplay as written, namely the story of a young guy named Clay Moyer (the aforementioned Greeson), a schizophrenic guy who’s just been released from a long stretch in a mental hospital and has returned home to live with his parents. He’s prone to sleeping late and spending all damn day down at Miami beach doing nothing apart from watching the waves and trying to keep his head together. One day while indulging in this exhausting regimen, he meets a young lady named Susan (Lisa Geoffrion, since deceased, who also has only one screen credit to her name — that being this one, of course) and the two strike up a romance. Things are looking up for our guy Clay — he’s staying stable, he’s getting laid, and he even gets a job as a dishwasher in a kitchen.

Before too long, though, Susan begins to wonder why they never go to his place, only hers, and why he doesn’t talk about his past or his family very much. And when his clingy, smothering behavior starts to really cramp her style, she decides she’s had enough.

Needless to say, things spiral downwards pretty rapidly for Clay at that point. He’s been having troubling dreams about violent murder that only get worse when his ladyfriend dumps him (he even dreams about killing her). He begins to stalk her and to harass her at work. He has long periods of blacked-out or “missing” time. And just to add insult to injury, his mom catches him jerking off in the shower.

When dead bodies start turning up in the vicinity, though, Clay has to wonder if his dreams are really that, and if the fact that he can’t account for long stretches of time most nights might have a sinister explanation.

Not a bad little premise, if hardly resoundingly original. What is it, then, that sets this movie apart from so many other similar “Psycho”-type flicks?  Well, for one thing, the gore effects during the dream (or are they?) murder sequences  are good, especially given the budgetary constraints involved. But there’s much more to it than that, which is where the secondary market for this film really comes into play.

You see,  Radford’s script wasn’t just a garden-variety mentally-disturbed-killer-terrorizes-the-community story. It actually provided a rather detailed, accurate, thoroughgoing, and even sympathetic portrait of mental illness, in particular schizophrenia obviously, and those who suffer from it (and Greeson deserves credit for portraying Clay in a realistic, as well as humanistic, manner). So what did Guest and Cerasuolo (again, who gets the exact credit for this idea I couldn’t say) decide to do? They made another movie. Of the same movie. How appropriately schizophrenic is that? Which brings us to —

"What's Wrong With the Neighbor's Son?" VHS Box Cover

"What's Wrong With the Neighbor's Son?" VHS Box Cover

“What’s Wrong With the Neighbor’s Son? ” is “The Disturbance.” Minus the T&A. And the gore. It was distributed amongst the academic and clinical communities as a “realistic portrayal” of what it’s like to suffer from schizophrenia, a straight-ahead, no-frills, non-sensationalistic character study of those who suffer from this horribly debilitating from of mental illness and the challenges they face at home, in the workplace, and in their communities — a look at their internal and external struggles as they work to stay stable and find a place in a world that fears them. It’s won praise and accolades from most major psychological associations, been included as part of the curriculum in countless college courses and research and study groups, has been shown in numerous mental illness support groups, and has even been praised by Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush Junior. In short, it’s a well-respected and groundbreaking academic film.

And with about twenty minutes or so of nudity and gore thrown in, it’s “The Disturbance,” a far-better-than-average psychological horror exploitation film.

It got a little bit of buzz when Quentin Tarantino mentioned it as being among his top ten favorites of the 90s, but by and large “The Disturbance” saw very little distribution on the home video market (the original VHS release is literally impossible to find), and it only saw release on DVD last year from Media Blasters as part of volume one of its “Rareflix” box set collection (the other two movies coming with it being “Posed for Murder” and “Death Collector”). It’s not available for individual sale, but the “Rareflix” boxes are pretty cheap (they can be had new for about $15 each), and all things considered you get a decent amount for your money, given that the disc has a pretty decent-looking full-frame transfer, plenty good mono sound, and features a nice selection of Media Blasters trailers and, best of all, one of those semi-inebriated commentary tracks from Media Blasters personnel that made the (now, apparently, sadly canceled) “Rareflix” collections (there are four of them in total) such a treat for B-movie junkies.

So oo yourself a favor and check this movie out, it’s definitely several cuts above most similar fare and offers a much more realistic portrayal of serious mental illness and its consequences and effects than much more high-brow fare that tries to tackle similar material. Plus, it’s got more gore and nudity than that other purportedly “classy” — but usually in truth much more exploitative and much less authentic — stuff.  It’s well-made, absorbing, and even, dare I say it, compelling psychological horror on a shoestring budget, and you know, somehow I find it appropriate that the behind-the-scenes crew and the cast have no other credits to their name, since this film exists in a category all its own.

"The Hills Run Red" Movie Poster

"The Hills Run Red" Movie Poster

Okay, I know what you’re thinking before you even say it — and Karnak the Mystic I’m not — “looks like a cheap straight-to-video knockoff of “The Hills Have Eyes.'” And you know what? You’re right. And wrong. Be patient for the briefest of moments and all shall be explained.

Director Dave Parker (“The Dead Hate the Living”) has indeed lensed a relatively low-budget horror flick here that treads on some — I repeat, some — similar thematic ground as Wes Craven’s — ummmm— similarly-titled classic, namely that city folks should not leave the concrete jungle because rural America is populated by psychos out to kill you for the hell of it (a fact which the movie itself even acknowledges in one of its many self-referential dialogue sequences) , and the name itself is a way-obvious —again with the ummmm —-  “homage,” shall we say. Hell, if you take a look at the DVD cover pictured below, you’ll see that they even rip off the logo of Alexandre Aja’s HHE remake exactly:

"The Hills Run Red" DVD Cover

"The Hills Run Red" DVD Cover

And while we’re (briefly) on the subject of the DVD (which contains a nice 16:9 letterboxed picture, a first-class 5.1 surround mix, a feature-length generally thorough and scene-specific commentary from Parker, co-writer David J. Schow, and producer Robert Meyer Burnett, and a just-under-30-minute “making of” featurette, for those of you who get into the extras), whatever you don’t — I repeat, absolutely do not — read the back of the box before you see watch this film, it gives away waaaaayyyy too much. And yes, this is a lesser-budgeted picture shot in Bulgaria (where Steve Miner’s deplorable “Day of the Dead” remake was also made for budgetary reasons) that, while it got the occasional screening at some recent horror conventions, was destined for DTV release from the get-go by Warner Premiere and Dark Castle Entertainment (the credits even list the script as being a “teleplay”).

So that’s where you’re right — but before you pat yourself on the back too hard, this is the point at which your preconceived notions about “The Hills Run Red” get left in the dust, because in truth, while it “borrows” these elements from HHE, Parker’s film is actually an equal-opportunity thief that also swipes elements liberally from countless other horror staples.

We’ve got the masked slasher a la Jason and Michael. The film-within-a-film (or “metafilm,” if you prefer) conceit from “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” and Fulci’s “Cat in the Brain.” We’ve got the abandoned cabin in the woods from “The Evil Dead, ” “Cabin Fever,” and too many others to mention. We’ve got a little bit of “Saw”-style torture porn. We’ve got the “movie to evil to ever be seen by human eyes” of John Carpenter’s “Masters of Horror” entry “Cigarette Burns.” And we’ve got the previously-mentioned self-referentiality-as-a-quick-means-of-purportedly-“subverting”-standard-horror-elements that made the “Scream” series, and damn near ever other teen horror that followed it, such a hit. So while there well and truly is nothing new under the sun — or in “The Hills Run Red,” for that matter — Parker and company wear their influences on their collective sleeves so obviously here that it’s obvious from the get-go that he’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, much less give you something daringly original. What HRR is attempting to do, rather, is essentially serve the horror equivalent of Irish stew — familiar ingredients blended together in a (hopefully) appetizing manner that hit the taste buds a bit differently when mixed in combination than they would if prepared individually.

And in that respect, this reviewer must say, “The Hills Run Red” succeeds admirably.

In 1982, director Wilson Wyler Concannon (portrayed in flashback by William Sadler of “The Mist,” among other credits) made his one and only film, a shockingly brutal slasher flick called “The Hills Run Red” about a countryside psycho simply known as “Babyface,” a man-child brute so disturbed that he cut his own face off and tied on a baby mask with barbed wire before going about a life of murder, mayhem, and mutilation. He even carried a baby’s rattle — billed as his “death rattle” — that he shakes before descending upon his victims just to let them know that they’re, you know, fucked. I guess he’s just courteous like that (and this reviewer must admit that the first time he heard the “death rattle” it was, in fact, pretty damn creepy). But I digress.

Anyway, “The Hills Run Red” traumatized audiences so much that it was pulled from theaters in just a few days and all prints of the film were recalled and, presumably, destroyed. The actors who played in it have never been found, and Concannon himself has even vanished. All that exists to prove this film was ever made is a trailer and a handful of still photos.

Now, what the hell do you think would happen if such a scenario existed in reality? Needless to say, a small but fanatical cult has formed around the film, and they’re willing to go to great lengths to try to track down an actual print of the movie itself.

One such devotee is our erstwhile protagonist Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrinck of, dare I even mention it, “The Lost Boys 2”), a film student who’s determined to do what all others have so far failed to accomplish, namely get ahold of “The Hills Run Red” by any means necessary, and to document his quest for this bit of celluloid legend in a movie of his own. Succeed or fail, he’s got his trust high-def video camera with him and is going to record his exploits for posterity — or maybe just for his fellow “Hills” fans, whatever.

Along for the journey are his girlfriend, Serina (Janet Montgomery) and his best friend and roommate Lalo (Alex Wyndham), who have been screwing around on Tyler behind his back while his unhealthy “Hills” obsession has taken over every aspect of his life.

When we join the story, though, Tyler’s finally gotten a lucky break —a-never-seen-on-screen fellow HRR aficionado has leaves a message on his answering machine (guess he blew all his spending money on his film gear) saying that he’s found Concannon’s daughter, Alexa (Sophie Monk), who actually starred in the film as a child,  working at a strip club about 20 minutes outside of the never-named city they live in. And here’s where the movie asks you to suspend disbelief maybe just a little too much.

First off, Tyler goes into said strip club and asks for Alexa by her first and last name — and the manager points her out to him! Try that at a tittie bar in your hometown and see how you fare. Ask for  a girl by her stage name — “Sherri,” “Honey,” “Cassidy,” “Vanity,” whatever — and you might have some luck. Ask for her by the name on her birth certificate — “Mary Jones, ” “Sally Smith,” you name it — and the best you’ll probably get is a blank stare in return because the manager or bouncer or bartender or whoever probably doesn’t even know her real name since she’s paid in cash and those establishments tend not to bother with a whole lot of paperwork if you look like you’re over 18. Tyler asks for “Alexa Concannon” and the boss-man points her right out.

Next up, Tyler finds she’s a hopeless heroin junkie living out of a motel. So what does he do? Ties her up to her bed, flushes her drugs and hardware down the toilet, and stays with her until goes through painful withdrawals on the way to getting clean from her smack habit — all of which takes a grand total of three days! Dear God, there are people who spend three years getting that stuff out of their system, and going “cold turkey” almost never works! That’s why they invented a little something called methadone.

Anyway, with a newly-clear-headed Alexa in tow, he, Lalo, and Serina all head off into the woods to find the legendary cabin of Wilson Wyler Concannon, where Alexa thinks there might actually be a print of the film that her father stashed away — oh, and apparently he shot the film itself in the nearby environs, so Tyler’s got a major documentarian’s wet dream on his hands here since he can record his search for the lost movie and his pilgimage to its filming locations all in one go.

On their very fist night on the woods, though, about halfway to where Alexa thinks she remembers the cabin is (and we get a lot of nice interplay along the way between present-day “reality” and “archival” footage of the” film itself,”particularly when they stumble upon spots where some of the grislier kill scenes were recorded), they run into trouble of the local variety when a pack of hillbilly hooligans descends upon them while they sleep with the intention of — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — and before that — and before that — and before that — stealing all their shit and raping the women and recording it for sale to the ever-nefarious “porno industry.”

Things don’t go quite as planned for the redneck rapists, though, when they hear the sound of a rattle in the cold night air and come face to face (or face to  mask, as the case may be) with none other than “Babyface” himself, who apparently is much more than just a slice (pun intended or not? I leave it for you to decide)  of celluloid fiction.

Babyface --- you've got the cutest little babyface ---

Babyface --- you've got the cutest little babyface ---

What follows next are a series of usually-downright-surprising-and-often-quite-nauseatingly-revolting plot twists as our merry band of wilderness wanderers run for their lives, find Concannon’s cabin, hide wherever they can when they need to, and generally try to discern fact from fiction in their attempt to unravel the legend of “The Hills Have Eyes.” The kill scenes are terrific, suitably gruesome, and uniformly well-shot. The musical score nicely complements — and yes, okay, at times foreshadows — the action on-screen, and the “aren’t’-we-so-very-clever”ness of the film’s opening acts gives way to some good old-fashioned stomach-churning horror and seriously brual violence.

“Babyface” himself (Raicho Vasilev, not that it really matters — a guy who, I’m guessing by the name, must be a Bulgarian local, as were much of the cast and crew) is one of the downright more awesome slashers to hit the scene in a long time, and his backstory unfolds at a nicely deliberate pace, as does the story of whatever happened to Concannon and his film. Simply put, “The Hills Run Red” will leave you guessing most of the way through its our-and-twenty-minutes-or-so run. Okay, there’s one extra little “gotcha!” moment at the end, as the credits are rolling, that’s not all that exciting or, for that matter, even necessary, but I’ll forgive Parker and his cohorts that one extra exclamation point and I understand why they overplayed their hand since they really are on a pretty solid roll with the surprises for the last 20-30 minutes and probably figured they had one more trick up their sleeve when, in actuality, they didn’t. Certainly a forgivable sin.

As are most of  the others in “The Hills Run Red.” Hilgenbrinck, for his part, doesn’t have nearly the acting chops to carry a lead role, but the other players, particularly Monk, who’s asked to go through a lot of sudden character changes as the story unfolds, acquit themselves pretty well, and as “final girls” go, Janet Montgomery does a pretty nice job of things.

To be honest, I think that Warner Premiere could have had a little bit of luck with this in theaters. It’s certainly a damn sight better than most of this year’s slasher fare (like the wretched “Friday the 13th” remake), or even that of most recent years. “Babyface” is downright iconic, and the story, while openly derivative as hell, certainly is less so than any of the remakes clogging up theater screens these days, and to answer the question your humble reviewer posed earlier, yes, the various overly-familiar ingredients are indeed blended together in such a way as to make the individual, and admittedly instantly-recognizable, parts come across in a unique new combination of flavors (just to bring back the food metaphor). It’s not the work of a master chef (although Parker has certainly honed his craft beyween the year 2000 , when “The Dead Hate the Living” was released, and 2009 — I gather he’s mostly been doing featurette/DVD extra-type “making of” shorts on various films and filmmakers in the lengthy interim), but it’s a better meal than most you’ve had lately, and if Parker tinkers with his ingredients a bit more and shows a little more daring in terms of being willing to add his own seasoning, he may just cook up a classic yet.

Now it’s time for dinner, but before I go I — what’s that you say? Really? What clued you in that I was hungry?

"Grace" Movie Poster

"Grace" Movie Poster

We promised — or threatened, depending on how you look at it — to take a look at first-time writer-director Paul Solet’s rather disturbing little indie horror “Grace” in a previous entry in our not-really-a-countdown,  and now seems as good a time as any to engage in a critical overview of this film that’s got a pretty solid little “buzz” going for itself thanks to a largely well-received run on the horror convention and indie festival circuit last year being that it’s just been a couple of weeks since Anchor Bay released it in the form of a very nicely-done DVD that includes (just to get the specs out of the way) a great 5.1 sound mix, stellar 16:9 picture, and extras galore including a nice little “making-of” featurette and an exhaustive feature-length commentary track from Solet and company detailing just about everything you’d want to know about the movie’s origins and its various production stages. Clearly Anchor Bay have pulled out all the stops in providing a first-class package to showcase this film, something of a rarity for a flick that barely saw any theatrical play and marks an untested filmmaker’s debut effort. In short, they clearly believe they have a winner on their hands with “Grace,” but the question is — do they?

The answer, I’m pleased to say, is “yes” — although it’s a “yes” with a few reservations, which we’ll get to in due course.

Madeline and Michael Matheson (Jordan Ladd and Stephen Park, respectively), are a very well-to-do yuppie couple (he’s a lawyer — I think, and she’s essentially a bored rich housewife — again, I think) who have been trying desperately to conceive after Madeline’s last pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage. She’s now happily eight months pregnant again, and despite the reservations of stereotypical mother-in-law-from-hell Vivian (Gabrielle Rose), a judge who seems to have connections in the medical as well as legal professions, they’re forgoing the typical hospital-birth route and employing the services of a very pricey midwife, one Patricia Lang (Samantha Ferris), a woman who Madeline was friends (at least, perhaps more than that) with in college who’s steered them in the direction of one of those water-births that are all the rage among the holistic/natural set these days. This is rather more in keeping with the couple’s vegan/health-conscious lifestyle, and despite humoring Vivian by paying a visit to her personal physician, Dr. Richard Sohn (Malcolm Stewart), their minds are made up.

And then, tragedy strikes. On the way home from an appointment at Patricia’s office, they’re involved in a horrible car crash that Madeline survives, but Michael and their unborn child do not.

In a move that Sarah Palin would no doubt approve of, Madeline decides to carry the baby to full term and give birth to a stillborn child. She even goes ahead with the whole water-birth scenario just as planned. And that’s when things start to get pretty damn nuts, because within moments after delivering the supposedly dead baby, Madeline puts the little girl right up to her breast and wouldn’t you know, it start feeding—and feeding—and feeding—and the little tyke’s not after her mother’s milk, it’s after her blood.

I don’t know what you’d do in a situation like that, but our girl Madeline names the baby Grace and brings her home.

The rather gorgeous Jordan Ladd as Madeline with her monster-baby, Grace

The rather gorgeous Jordan Ladd as Madeline with her monster-baby, Grace

And you know? I can sort of understand this admittedly warped decision. Imagine you’ve been trying for years to have a baby and nothing’s worked out. Then, when things are finally looking up, both the baby and your husband are lost to you in an instant. You have the kid anyway, and damn if it isn’t — at least seemingly — alive. Bloodthirsty little shit or not, you’d probably think it’s very existence was a miracle, which Madeline clearly does.

Sure, there are signs something’s not quite right almost immediately. Flies buzz around the infant’s crib like crazy.  The child has a foul odor. And then there’s all that blood-drinking.

But this baby is not only the answer to all Madeline’s prayers, it’s also a living connection to her now-dead husband. And of course, for Vivian, that also means it’s a living connection to her son.

There’s a problem, though — Madeline knows something’s wrong and she won’t let Vivian — or anyone else, for that matter — inside the house to see little Grace. After all,  how do you explain hanging roll after roll of fly paper from the ceiling in the baby’s room? Okay, maybe she just plain doesn’t want the old bitch-on-wheels anywhere near her kid, but in truth, practically speaking, she can’t let her see Grace because it would take a completely blinded fool — which Madeline surely knows she’s become but frankly doesn’t care — not to see that there’s a serious problem with the kid.

As Madeline’s mental health deteriorates, her physical health does, as well. The little tyke’s draining way too much of her blood and she’s become badly anemic as a result, so in order to satiate the six-pound bundle of evil (and by the way, is Grace more a zombie or a vampire? I’m going with vampire given the whole blood-drinking thing, but you could make an argument for her being a zombie-baby, as well, given that she is, quite literally, the living dead, as opposed to the “undead” status vampires “enjoy” — but I digress, the kid’s a monster any way you slice it, which camp it belongs to is a purely academic question) she turns to killing others since she can’t keep up with its constant demand for the red stuff and stay alive herself — and who doesn’t want the privilege of being around to watch a demon-child grow up?

There’s some seriously authentic drama between Madeline and Vivian as the elder, sensing something is seriously wrong, hatches a plot with the previously-mentioned Dr. Sohn to get Grace away from her mother. Hell, she even dusts off her old breast pump, not knowing that the baby will have other plans for her mammaries if she ever does manage to wrest it away from Madeline.

Our erstwhile blinded-by-motherly-love heroine, however, has an ally, too, in the form of Patricia, who evidently still harbors some feelings for her, much to the chagrin of her current lady-love who works as her clinical assistant.

Now, from what I’m told, this kind of shit is pretty common when a husband dies during his wife’s pregnancy. The mother-in-law become seriously unhealthily attached to the infant — but in this case, whoever ends up with the kid is the real loser, so by the time Madeline and Vivian do have their inevitable confrontation, you’re not quite sure who to root for, since neither of them seem particularly great candidates for raising a child by this point, both consumed as they are more with the need to be needed by the baby  than anything resembling love any longer, yet whoever does end up with the kiddo is essentially as good as dead.

I’ve probably given away more than enough at this point, but hopefully not too much. Suffice to say, “Grace” works as both a horror and slice of realistic (well, as realistic as can be given the circumstances) fucked-up psychodrama. It take an unbelievable-on-its-face situation and makes it believable, thus succeeding in being a truly domestic horror.

As I said earlier, though, there are some flaws. A scene where Dr. Sohn pays Madeline an unexpected visit, diagnoses her anemic condition, and then gives her a thoroughly sadistic tutorial on the proper use of a breast pump despite her weakened state is so over-the-top sadistic that it borders on being darkly humorous in a film that, frankly, has no sense of humor whatsoever. It’s jarring and incongruous and thoroughly disrupts the flow of the film. Then we’ve got the whole rather disturbing subtext of female breast mutilation that runs throughout the film. I mean, for a movie where you never see any boob at all (unusual enough for a horror flick), this is the most creepily breast-obsessed movie you could imagine. Whether it’s Grace getting at her mom’s blood through her bosom, or Vivian getting out her dusty old pump, or the doc giving Madeline an altogether inappropriate, very hands-on lesson in pump use, or the really warped and cringeworthy scene at the very end that I won’t say anything about, this is the most mammary-fixated non-porno movie you’re ever likely to see, and after awhile it stops feeling integral to the plot and starts feeling downright prurient. Suffice to say, the abused-boob theme gets taken way too far.

On the technical side,  my only gripe is that the camerawork of Zoran Popovic (“War, Inc.”), along with the lighting and set design, while very professionally executed in all respects, is seriously clinical and antiseptic, in much the same way “Deadgirl” is. The overly-orchestrated visual aesthetic works a lot better in “Deadgirl,” though, since it’s so incongruous to absolutely repulsively dingy subject matter that the dichotomy really strikes a chord. Here, though, I’d have to say that “Grace” would benefit from a little more chaos and dischord in terms of its overall aesthetics, especially in later scenes, as it would really serve to drive home the trainwreck that Madeline’s life has become thanks to her little hellspawn.

That’s pretty much it as far as the complaint department goes, though. On the whole, “Grace” explores territory few other films can, let alone should. Paul Solet has proven himself to be a new, and rather daring, voice to be reckoned with in the horror genre, even if he does sometimes let his own unhealthy fixations get in the way of telling a good story. He knows how to bring horror down to a human level we can all understand and all be both frightened and sickened by in equal measure, and he creates characters that are both hopelessly fucked up and all too real at the same time.  And regardless of whether or not you can forgive its flaws or stomach its morbid obsessions, “Grace”  is undoubtedly a film you have a very hard time shaking out of your head, because at its core is a dark truth that we can all relate to — our children need us for a time, but ultimately, they’re here to take our place after we’re gone. Every parent that has ever told their kid “you’re going to be the death of me” wasn’t just tossing out a throwaway guilt-trip line, they were giving voice, whether conscious of it or not, to a primal fear that lies at the heart of parenthood.

Fortunately for most of us, however, we won’t actually meet our end at our son’s and/ or daughter’s  hands. Or their mouths.

"The Stepfather" Movie Poster

"The Stepfather" Movie Poster

If there’s one thing the horror community has been near-unanimous about recently, it’s that the remake of the 1987 suspense-thriller classic “The Stepfather” is bound to suck.

There’s plenty of evidence to support this preconceived notion. It’s directed by Nelson McCormick, who gave us the thoroughly uninspired reworking of “Prom Night” a couple of years ago. It’s a PG-13 teen horror. It’s thoroughly superfluous since the original still holds up terrifically. And most importantly, it doesn’t have Terry O’Quinn, whose standout performance as the titular homicidal quasi-family man was the heart and soul of the ’87 flick.

Again with the silent tyranny of expectations. I figured this movie would suck, and suck bad. I was wrong.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first — Dylan Walsh, The Stepfather himself, is no Terry O’Quinn. Not even close. The fact that O’Quinn has gone on to huge success as John Locke on “Lost” is no surprise to anyone who’s followed his career since the original “Stepfather.” He should have won the Oscar for that, no question, so it’s good to see him doing so well these days.

Walsh can’t come close to replicating that performance, but he really doesn’t even try to. His take on the idea of a guy who marries into “broken homes”  in a never-ending, thoroughly insane quest to find the perfect family to call his own, and then kills them all if things aren’t working before moving on to give the same homicidal hustle another try in another town is entirely different. As good? Hell no. It’s less subtle, less detailed, less complex, and much more overt and, frankly, two-dimensional. But it’s okay. It’s not enough to carry the film on its own, but he’s not asked to as much as O’Quinn was.

Calling himself David Harris, he moves to Portland, where he meets recently-divorced Susan Harding (Sela Ward, who the years have been very kind to) at the grocery store. In no time at all, he’s moved into her house and marriage is on the horizon. Susan’s sister gets David a job at her real estate office. Susan’s two youngest kids take to him nicely. Her ex-husband was a philandering jerk who abandoned his family and our guy David has no problem looking like the “good guy” up against “competition” like that.

Things start to go a little pear-shaped for him, though, when her oldest son, high school senior Michael (Penn Badgley), comes home from military boarding school, where he was sent for unspecified disciplinary reasons. At first, David tries to ease Michael’s concerns about him taking up with his mother and gets him readmitted to his local Portland high school so he can be closer to his girlfriend (current horror “it” girl Amber Heard, who spends most of the movie poolside in a bikini), He even asks Michael to be his best man when he takes his mother’s hand in marriage. Things seem to be off to a good start.

But Michael can’t shake the feeling in the back of his head that this guy is bad news. Soon he and, eventually, others begin to notice things about David his mother either can’t or won’t. He pays for everything in cash. He builds storage cabinets in the basement that he keeps locked. He screws up important details about his past. He doesn’t like his picture taken.

Okay, we know from the very first scene that David (or whatever name he’s going by) is a ruthless serial killer. There’s no question about that. The suspense her doesn’t come from wondering if he really is who we’re afraid he might be — we know that from the get-go. The suspense comes from wondering if he’ll be found out in time, and if everyone will survive that revelation if indeed it comes about.

Like the original, the bodycount here is low. For a serial killer flick, it’s relatively bloodless, it must be said. But it’s taut, well-paced, thoroughly suspenseful, and features some solid characterization from all the principal players. In short, it’s a believable premise, believably executed.

I confess to being somewhat disappointed that the new version has chosen to put a male character in the smart-kid role rather than the tough, independent young female we got in the original — a role which really stood out at the time because in the 1980s cinematic landscape, the job of women in horror films was to take their shirts off, scream, and get killed. But that’s my only major gripe. Apart from that, this is a pleasantly smart, well-realized updating.

If you’ve never seen the original, this movie will be all kinds of fun(and you should then take it upon yourself see the original ASAP—it’s finally out on DVD from Shout!Factory). If you have seen it, you won’t be nearly as disappointed as you expect to be. This new version of “The Stepfather”  is hardly the classic the first was, but it’s much better than any admittedly unnecessary, teen audience-marketed horror remake has any business being.  Okay — it didn’t actually need to be made by any stretch of the imagination, but since it has been, I’m glad the end product turned out to be so surprisingly enjoyable.

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

Ah, the silent tyranny of expectations. Yesterday, you host did a bit of theater-hopping at the Block E megaplex and took in both of this weekend’s big new horror releases,  the studio-engineered “viral” marketing sensation “Paranormal Activity,” and the largely-dreaded remake of “The Stepfather.” I found myself enjoying both and finding them more-than-worthy additions to our little monthlong Halloween countdown here, but didn’t rank them in the order that I expected, so let’s get started with “Paranormal Activity” and take a look at the “Blair Witch of the 21st century” before moving on to a flick that virtually everyone assumed would suck but doesn’t.

Let’s be honest here — at this point, “Paranormal Activity” — that is, the film itself — is essentially inseparable from its rather ingenious marketing campaign. Paramount has spent a whole lot of money making this look like a word-of-mouth, “because you demanded it”-type thing. In reality, while it looks like a whole new type of “internet phenomenon,” what we’ve got here is essentially a high-tech updating of Mishkin-esque 42nd street ad campaigns. It’s carnival-barking with the audience enlisted as the barkers, and you know, while seeing it for the sham it is, my hat’s still off to the folks behind it, because it follows in the grand exploitation tradition even if most people can’t see it, which is probably the best part of the trick. 1,000 demands will get this into your city? You could get 1,000 demands for just about anything these days, and the theaters were already booked in advance, with full knowledge that this “grassroots campaign” would work.

Which is not to say that first-time filmmaker Oren Peli’s little (at one point) indie horror hasn’t had a circuitous path to wide release. Completed around two years ago, it languished around a bit on the small festival circuit for quite awhile until Steven Spielberg (audible groan) started singing its praises and brought it to the attention of Hollywood execs, who threw a little bit of cash at Peli (not much, it must be said, and the total budget for the film is around $13,000) to reshoot some of the ending and got to work on coming up with a unique way of marketing the film, namely having us do a lot of their work for them. From the horror convention circuit to limited-release midnight shows to its incrementally- timed rollout expansion, this has all been planned.  But I digress.

What’s driving this studio-engineered “demand” is the promise of one of the scariest damn movies you’ll ever see. Why, everyone says so. It’s “Blair Witch” all over again — a tight little suspense shocker that’s so cheaply-made it could pass for a documentary. Some people can’t take it and have to leave the theater, it’s just too intense (so we’re told). Some people actually think it’s real (so we’re told). And it’s really harrowing stuff (so we’re told).

In truth, though, what we’ve got here is really just the latest in the DIY/YouTube-style horror genre that really got going with “Cloverfield” and continued with “REC.” and it’s later English-language reworking “Quarantine” and  then with George Romero’s criminally-underrated “Diary of the Dead,” the only qualitative difference being that this flick’s budget really is damn close to actual DIY levels.

So yes, it does feel authentic. And claustrophobic. And like it could really happen. And it is, in fact, pretty good. But about halfway through this little story of a young couple being haunted by an indefinable presence, I realized I had to divorce myself from the high expectations I had for it if I had any hope of enjoying it. Because it’s not, as the review quoted on the poster claims, one of the scariest movies ever made. It’s plenty scary, sure, but it’s not, as the kids would say, all that.

The setup is pleasingly simple — a young couple, Micah (played by Micah Sloat) and Katie (played by Katie Featherston) move into a new rental townhouse-type thing in San Diego. She’s an English major (who still says “unexplainable?” Please.), he’s a day trader. Her house burned down when she was a young child and she’s been followed by some type of malicious presence ever since. When things start going bump in the might in their new place, they decide to set up cameras all over the place, most prominently in their bedroom, and watch the footage the next day to say what happens while they’re asleep.

And that’s it. We never leave the confines of their house apart from a brief sene out at their swimming pool. The only other notable character included into the mix is a “ghost hunter”-type of guy who pays them a couple of visits. It’s really just the two of them, their place, and their uninvited guest. This minimalistic setup really works, and the conceit of having the actors play characters with their own names adds a further frisson of “everyday horror” to the proceedings. In fact, “everyday horror” is the entire modus operandi here. The fact that this film feels authentic is its greatest strength, and, in fact, it’s only real one.

It’s essentially a one-trick pony. But it’s a good enough trick to keep you glued to your seat for 90 minutes. Each successive scene ratchets up the fear factor a notch at a time. It builds to a shockingly satisfying climax that really explains nothing but feels “just right” nonetheless. But I have to admit that I’ve seen better ultra-low-budget, minimally-scripted films (a couple of which have been reviewed on this very blog — “Last House on Dead End Street” and “Combat Shock”).

All of which is not to knock what Peli has achieved here. It’s certainly remarkable enough in its own right. He and his collaborators can hold their heads high. “Paranormal Activity” is a well-crafted, minimalist flick that wrings as much fright as it can from its contents.

But its rather unique add campaign — remember, inseparable from the film itself — is also its undoing. It’s doing its job of getting what would otherwise be an otherwise unnoticed piece of backyard filmmaking (well, okay, indoor backyard filmmaking) plenty of attention “buzz” — but it’s also setting people up for a bit of disappointment by promising one of the scariest movies ever, and “Paranormal Activity” just plain isn’t. In true exploitation style, the promise is better than the payoff.

Time will tell how this flick is eventually judged, of course. “Blair Witch” started as a huge sensation, endured something of a backlash in ensuing years, and has recently been re-evaluated as a seminal horror movie after all, which it really is, warts and all. I don’t think “Paranormal Activity” will prove to be quite as groundbreaking — or even as groundbreaking as it seems right now. But in Peli’s defense, he didn’t set out to make some trailblazing cinematic phenomenon, he set out to make the best scare film he could with limited resources. And in that respect he succeeds quite admirably.

"Deadgirl" Movie Poster

"Deadgirl" Movie Poster

Continuing with our little not-really-a-countdown-in-the-strictest-sense-but movies-that-make-good viewing-this-time-of-year-in-any-particular-order-anyway, we come to one of the more controversial indie horrors of recent years, newcomers Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s “Deadgirl” (with screenplay by Troma alum Trent Haaga).

This movie raised a lot of eyebrows (and hopefully only eyebrows) when it hit the independent and genre festival circuit this past year, and now that it’s received a (damn comprehensive, with commentary from cast and crew, an exhaustive “making-of” documentary, trailers, promo spots, and the like) DVD release from Dark Sky Films, your host gave it a look last week and found it was well worth at least a rental provided you can stomach the initial premise, which I must admit it something of a tall order.

Simply put, juvenile delinquent outcasts (think underachieving “Trench Coat Mafia” wannabes) Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan) decide to do what they do best one day, namely skip school, and go fuck around in a long-abandoned mental hospital. Not the kind of thing I usually got up to when cutting class, but hey, that’s kids these days for you. Anyway, while they’re tearing around in a tunnel underneath the main building, they become would-be prety for a vicious doberman that’s on the premises for reasons that are never even close to explained (guess it just lives there) and in their desperate bid to run away from the hungry canine they come across a gig old MF’ing metal door that they figure they can open up and slam shut behind them, then wait inside whatever sort of room lies behind it until the doberman gets bored and moves on.

There’s just one problem : the door is quite literally rusted shut. To make a short story even shorter, they do of course not-so-eventually prise the door open and get away from the dog, and inside they find a crummy, damp, disused cellar-type room with a dead naked girl wrapped in plastic laying on a table inside of it. J.T., horny teenage ne’er-do-well that he is, seems rather taken with the female corpse at his disposal and decides within a couple of minutes to fuck her, dead or not. Except she’s not. Or she is. Or she—well, hell, she’s a flesh-eating zombie.

Rickie, the closest thing that passes for a conscience in the movie, is quite rightly repulsed by the whole idea and high-tails it out of there when his efforts to talk J.T. out of his stupid idea lead to a fistfight. Besides, our guy Rickie is sweet on a real-live girl who won’t give him the time of day, anyway.

J.T. quickly becomes lost in his little depraved fantasy world, skipping even more school than usual (in fact, never going), and spending all his time with his chained-up dead —ummm—“paramour.” He also shoots his mouth off about his cool (as in absolutely frigid) find to another buddy, Wheeler (Eric Podnar), and he in starts getting his rocks off in the zombie lady, as well—and then shoots his mouth off to a couple of asshole jocks at school in order to—I shit you not—try to sound like a cool dude who’s getting some pussy.

One thing leads, of course, to another, and through the jocks we learn that our zombie chick follows the classic “Romero Rules” of the living dead and passes on her infection via biting. The preppie jock asshole who gets bit is the boyfriend on the girls that Rickie likes and pretty soon she shows up in the cellar, as well, and—well, the details at this stage are pretty unimportant since it’s the basic premise itself that is the film’s real “grabber.”

Of all the rather inventive new takes on the zombie genre that have come along in recent years — another of which we’ll be getting to on this countdown when we take a look at another recent indie horror, Paul Solet’s “Grace” — I must say that a zombie as sex slave/fucktoy is one I’d certainly never considered. Which probably says that I’m more well-adjusted than I think. Let’s be honest—if the basic premise of this film doesn’t sicken you, then you’ve got some serious issues.

If you can get over the hump (no pun, dear God, intended) of the genuinely revolting basic set-up (and if you’re like me a setup that twisted literally compels you to keep watching in an effort to, at the very least, see how much you can stomach), then what we’ve really got here is a pretty well-done coming-of-age story about throwaway kids in our modern culture. Rickie seems alright enough apart from being sullen and carrying a gun around, and J.T. is the classic “bad influence,” trying to corrupt the character the audience is meant to, at least partially and reluctantly, identify with, and basically the real dramatic tension here is seeing whether or not Rickie will come over to the dark side or, if not, just how far J.T. can push him before he pushes back. So, for all that the horror community has been buzzing over “Deadgirl,”  in truth underneath all the mega-controversy lies a rather standard story of  a confused youth trying to find his way, albeit one that’s pretty well done.

Fernandez, for his part, turns in a standout performance as Rickie, with a sort of Joaquin Phoenix-esque “dangerous cool” tempered with a believable amount of hopeless loserability. He’s the only character who’s at all multi-dimensional and he pulls off the task of making Rickie repulsively believable quite nicely. Jenny Spain as the deadgirl herself deserves special mention for even having the guts to take the part, and given that she has two — ummm — “moods,” namely absolutely docile and absolutely rabid, I have to say she nails (sorry—really, no pun intended again) both perfectly.

The cold clinical precision of the film’s atmosphere is nicely brought to life by directors Sarmiento and Harel, and its muted color palette and the intricate simplicity of its extremely precise shot selection further adds to the dirty-yet-paradoxically-antiseptic ethos of the piece, the dichotomy of which provides a constant yet not-too-heavyhanded visual representation of Rickie’s own inner dualistic struggle.

Pretentious description? Yes, guilty as charged — but accurate nonetheless.

As for the ending—you really do see it coming. But it’s still sort of quietly tragic because you want Rickie to be better than he ends up being.And no, despite how that reads, I’m really not giving much of anything away.

One thing you won’t walk away with after seeing “Deadgirl” is much hope in America’s youth. This flick paints a relentlessly grim and way-too-accurate picture of what it means to be a young outcast in today’s society, and the “accepted” type who “fit in” come off as being even worse than the losers.

I guess what I’m saying is that ultimately, as in reality itself,  there are no “good guys” in “Deadgirl.”  Just tremendously flawed human beings (and a zombie sex prisoner), some of whom are less repulsive than others—and the ultimate failing of the one who seems okay is much more sobering than witnessing the outright depravity of the kid who’s just no damn good from the start.

“Deadgirl” is short on redemption but long on honesty, and for that reason, moreso than it’s shocking premise, it’s a pretty gutsy little piece of filmmaking.

"They Live" Movie Poster

"They Live" Movie Poster

Okay, I suppose it’s not at all surprising to find a John Carpenter film on our little “Halloween countdown” list, but the fact that it’s not—well, you know—I suppose that may qualify as a bit, just a bit, of a surprise. And yes, the cinematic adventures of Michael M. are indeed great fun to watch at this—or any—time of year, especially the original. But one thing we hate to be here at TFG is too damn obvious. And truth be told, “Halloween” isn’t my favorite Carpenter film. Nor is “The Thing.”

That distinction belongs to 1988’s “They Live.”

Now, wait just a minute before heading over to my house with pitchforks, burning torches, a noose or two, and cries of “blasphemy!” on your lips.

I freely acknowledge that “Halloween,” The Thing,” “Escape from New York” and “Big Trouble in Little China” are all better movies than “They Live.” All I’m saying is that I enjoy this more than any of them.

Why, you might reasonably ask? I mean, after all, this thing stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, for Christ’s sake!

Okay, that’s a charge I can’t duck. But in his defense, Piper is pretty good as Nada (how’s that for the most unsubtle character name in movie history?) and in truth it’s the cool concepts that carry this film more than its “stars” or special effects anyway.

On paper the basic idea (adapted pseudonomously by Carpenter under the pen name “Frank Armitage” from  Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”) isn’t too terribly different from something you’d find in an old “Twilight Zone” episode — an alien race has secrety taken over the world by disguising themselves as ordinary human beings and maneuvering themselves into the top positions of power in finance, politics, and the media. Along the way they’ve allowed certain select “elite” humans into their globe-spanning secret cabal by promising them a share of the money and power at their disposal, but most of us are just livestock to them, cattle to be worked for all we’re worth before our inevitable slaughter. We are, quite literally, being farmed.

The economy is in ruins with a small slaveholder (not that they call themselves that publicly, mind you) class ruling over the rest of us miserable serfs and hoarding all the planet’s natural resources for their profit while dumping toxins into the atmosphere to replicate the conditions of their homeworld,  leaving for the masses a few meager table scraps on the floor for us to fight over, and keeping us in line with subliminal messages being bombarded at us in our newspapers, books, magazines, movies, and of course, television shows (examples include “obey,” “consume,” “submit,” and perhaps most ominously of all, “marry and reproduce”).

Sound familiar? It should. Except for the fact that the rulers are alien, this is more or less exactly the world we’re living in. There’s nothing too terribly alien about the whole concept apart from the aliens themselves and, as always, subtlety isn’t Carpenter’s strong suit. He’s making his point here with a sledgehammer, and you know what? It works just fine.

There’s one small kink in our Andromedan overlords’ plan, though—a small group of human resistance fighters have developed a special type of sunglasses that allow us to see these interlopes for what they are, as well as the hidden messages they’ve placed all around us and our guy Nada, a down-on-his-luck manual laborer, happens across a box full of these nifty contraptions after the cops raid a resistance meeting at a church near the shantytown where he’s “living” and don’t quite clean up all of the evidence. He puts on the shades and for the very first time (okay, here comes a cliche, sorry) his eyes are opened to the reality of the world around him.

Absurd? Absolutely. But then, is reality itself any less crazy? Think about it for a minute—in the real world we don’t need special sunglasses to tell who these folks are nor to decipher their not-so-secret messages. They operate in broad daylight and go about their business of reducing this planet to a toxic, high-tech plantation largely unmolested. One might be tempted to think, in fact,  that it would all be so much easier  if our rulers really were an evil race from another planet hellbent on our destruction and we could get everyone to rise up if we had some magic device that allowed us to see them as they really are. As it stands, we see them paraded before us every night in both “news” and “entertainment” programming on television and instead of forming angry mobs and going after them, we continue to buy their products, listen to their lies (even those most of us don’t believe them) and vote for them when the time comes.

It's all around us

It's all around us

If all this sounds a bit David Icke, it should be noted that this is one of Icke’s favorite films and personally I think all he did was swap out reptiles for aliens and has made a career out of it ever since.

But, obvious as the message Carpenter is conveying here might be, who can argue with its resonance? Hell, unlike most 1980s horror and science fiction flicks, not only has this thing not become a dated relic, it’s even more relevant now than it was then, as the tentacles of the global (I apologize for using this term, but damn if it doesn’t apply) conspiracy tighten around us all the more.

But mind-numbingly urgent and relevant as the message itself might be, that doesn’t mean this flick isn’t all kinds of fun. In fact, it’s a straight-up blast. We’ve got B-movie genre semi-legends like Keith David and Meg Foster in good supporting roles. Piper himself, as I mentioned before, is entirely (and perhaps surprisingly) adequate. The pacing is tight , the everyman-as-hero archetype just about always works, the dialogue is economical and sharp, there are plenty of good laughs along the way, and rather than roll your eyes at how simple it seems to bring the whole thing down, on the contrary you’ll be wishing it were that simple.

In short, it’s precise and unambiguous social commentary disguised as a throwaway horror/sci-fi/action flick. You can dismiss the whole thing as lightweight, superbly-crafted,  absolutely unpretentious fun while absolutely agreeing with everything it has to say at the same time. It resonates and entertains in equal measure. You don’t have to decide whether or not it’s throwaway entertainment or spot-on allegory because it’s both. I don’t know about you, but in my book that makes it a work of genius, and I don’t use that term lightly. Largely unheralded genius, to be sure, since this is often an overlooked entry in Carpenter’s lengthy oeuvre, but genius nevertheless.

Says it all, really

Says it all, really

“They Live” is available as a bare-bones bargain DVD and is also playing all this month on FearNet. Check it out if you haven’t and see it again if you have!

"Capitalism : A Love Story" Movie Poster

"Capitalism : A Love Story" Movie Poster

You might think that with a purported “progressive” in the Oval Office and both houses of Congress firmly under Democratic control, Michael Moore wouldn’t have too much to bitch about these days.

But you’d be wrong. And thank goodness for that. Because in the current political atmosphere when liberal and otherwise left-leaning voters might be tempted to assume that everything’s okay and that now’s the time to rest on their laurels and enjoy the fruits of their “victory,” Moore’s message is actually more relevant than ever, and his latest film “Capitalism : A Love Story” shows that he’s not about to sit back and give the Democrats a free pass. He’s doing exactly what everyone else should be doing, namely holding these people’s feet to the fire, and he hasn’t mellowed one bit. In fact, he’s chosen now to unleash his most uncompromising, well-realized, and comprehensive assault on the robber barons of the late 20th/early 21st century and their paid henchmen in the political and media classes. The result is a polemic (sorry, TFG doesn’t really consider Moore a documentarian in the strictest sense and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that) that’s energetic, focused, and mad as hell with a smile on its face. Moore is the happy warrior of the working class and “Capitalism : A Love Story” is his magnum opus, the natural culmination of everything he’s been working towards all these years crystallized into one seamlessly flowing, easily-communicable message : capitalism sucks, it has nothing to do with democracy (or even the US Constitution), we’ve all been played for suckers, our country has literally been swindled out from underneath us, and it’s well past time that we fought back.

And you know what? He’s absolutely right. I may disagree with many aspects of Moore’s proposed solutions, but in terms of identifying the problem he’s spot-on. Runaway Wall Street greed has resulted in a pronounced and rapid deterioration in the quality of life of average Americans, and the honest working man and woman have been left in the dust as the already-filthy rich have fattened their coffers way beyond the dreams of avarice.

Michael Moore doing what he does best

Michael Moore doing what he does best

Moore starts out his latest offering by showing us the human toll that the recent foreclosure mess has taken on people before segueing into his by-now-typical paean to life in the 1950s America he grew up in where one income was more than enough to buy a house outright, send your kids to modest private or parochial school, pay for their college when the time came, take a nice little vacation every year, and have enough left over to enjoy one’s golden years in relative comfort.

Then we go back to the modern day, and learn that pilots are only making $19,000 a year, the unions that once helped fight for our customary way of life have been decimated, whole cities lay in ruin due to factory closings, and Wall Street tycoons are laughing all the way to the bank (that they own) as their complex derivative games turn the stock market into a giant casino that the taxpayers they’ve spent the last few decades ripping off cover the losses for in the form of all these insane “bailouts” that have been rammed down our collective throat in the last year or so.

Nobody comes away from Moore’s equal-opportunity assault clean, with prominent Democrats like Chris Dodd exposed as charlatans and stooges for the predatory capitalist class every bit as much as Republicans. Coming in for special criticism is Donald Regan, secretary of the treasury and later chief of staff for Ronald Reagan (the footage where  Regan, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch,  tells his supposed boss to “speed it up” without even adding the customary “Mr. President” to the end of the command as Reagan is addressing the crowd on the Wall Street trading floor is priceless and lays bare in the most stark terms possible who’s really giving the orders in Washington these days) who slashed taxes for the wealthy while slashing regulations on the financial sector, Robert Rubin, Clinton’s former treasury secretary who deregulated the industry even further before going on to make $115,000,000 running Citibank, and Hank Paulsen, former Goldman Sachs CEO and Bush treasury secretary who arranged the current “bailout” fiasco.

Not getting in the door, as usual

Not getting in the door, as usual

Yes, there are a few honest folks in Washington who do their part in laying the scam bare and sticking up for the interests of ordinary working folks in the face of teh Wall Street juggernaut. Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, in particular, would probably be elected President if everyone saw this film. But they’re few and far between and Moore makes it clear that if we want to end this cycle of legalized theft, we need to do it ourselves.

To that end, the final third of the movie is actually a somewhat uncharacteristically optimistic portrayal of some positives that have taken place in recent months : a high-tech robotic equipment company and a bread-baking corporation that are run in truly democratic fashion where the workers all have an equal voice in how the company is run and all take home an absolutely equal share of the profits are both making money hand over fist. A group of concerned neighborhood activists in Miami banded together to prevent a family from being foreclosed on and refused to move for days, causing such a stink that the bank eventually walked away in shame. The sherriff in Wayne County, Michigan, where Detroit rests, has refused to serve any more foreclosure notices. Workers at a door and window company in Chicago locked themselves into their factory when they received three days’ notice that they were all being fired without pay, and after a six-day sit-in they all received $6,000 severance packages.

Sure, along the way Moore serves as our guide as usual and gets up to his usual antics of trying to get into various corporate headquarters and being refused entrance (the scenes where he’s driving an armored car around Wall Street and backing up to places like Goldman Sachs and Citibank and asking for our money back are classic Moore — when no one budges he tries to get inside to make a citizen’s arrest of their boards of directors with equally predictable results), but these antics come pretty late in the game, and rather than making himself the star of the film as has been a frequent and entirely justified criticism of his previous work, in “Capitalism : A Love Story” Moore does a much better job of letting the ordinary folks involved in his portrayal of contemporary America and their stories serve as the real centerpiece of the film. He’s more a tour guide than he is a protagonist, and the movie is all the stronger for his decision to take more of a back seat to his subject matter.

How about some of that bailout money back?

How about some of that bailout money back?

The usual redundant criticism from the usual corners will certainly all be heard in the days to come — that Moore has gotten rich himself by criticizing the wealthy, that his films are one-sided, that he’s out to push an agenda, that he’s a shill for the Democratic Party. The last is refuted pretty easily throughout the course of the film (he’s even notably ambivalent about Obama, excited by the prospect that his historic election represents while fully cognizant of the fact that his largest comparing contributors were all Wall Street giants—he seems to take the pragmatic and understandable view that Obama may want to do the right thing, but that if we don’t demand it, he’ll opt for the politically easy route of pleasing the folks who paid for his ticket to the top instead), and the rest just plain don’t matter, pure and simple. If folks on the other side of these issues want to present their side of the story, they have the entire media apparatus and most of the government in their pockets and are free to do so. In fact, they do 24 hours a day , seven days a week, in what is laughably called “news” programming.

Simply put, Moore is not merely giving us one side of the story. He’s giving us the other side of the story, the one we know to be true from our daily lives but never see reported by the networks.  And he succeeds where so many other left-leaning journalists fail by actually employing a technique that the right uses very well : placing things not in cold logic and concrete numbers but in real, human, emotional terms. He speaks to the head only after he’s proven what the heart already knows to be true. It’s not about the facts and figures with Moore, in the end it’s about the people. This movie plays at the heartstrings, sure, but in the present political climate of town halls and tea parties, it’s refreshing to see purely emotional politics put in service to issues that speak to the better angels of our nature (and yes, I hate that term, too) rather than baseless, irrational, divisive fears.

Mr. Moore goes to Washington

Mr. Moore goes to Washington

As for the most lame-brained fall-back argument his critics employ against him, “If he hates America so much, why doesn’t he just leave it?, ” Moore delivers a poignantly simple rebuke at the end that is the film’s best line and maybe the best line you’ll hear in any movie this year : “I refuse to live in a country like this anymore. And I’m not going anywhere.” After over two hours of succinct and harrowing accounting of our present crisis laid out in terms anyone can understand and far too many people can relate to, it’s enough to make you want to pump your fist in the air. And then roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Given that’s exactly the reaction Moore wants, it’s only fair to conclude that “Capitalism : A Love Story” is an unqualified success —  his best and most accomplished work and a movie no one should miss.  We already know that, given the nature of our highly divided Union these days, Moore will essentially be preaching to the converted with this film and those who would benefit the most from hearing his message will be nowhere in the audience. Our task, then, is to convince others of the truth in what Moore is saying in our daily lives, to take his message to unfamiliar quarters and present it in a way they can relate to without feeling alienated and/or somehow threatened by “socialism” (a position Moore never actually advocates, instead stressing that democracy—real democracy—is the best antidote to capitalism). It’s a daunting task, to be sure, but it’s one we have to undertake if we want to bring about change we really can believe in.

Next time out, we’ll return to our little halloween countdown, but for now, we all need to get off our butts, get out and see this movie, and then get down to business.

"Header" Movie Poster

"Header" Movie Poster

What’s a header?

I’m not going to tell you. Because you don’t want to know. Really. You don’t. But you do want to see this film. If you want to know what a header is. And maybe even if you don’t. And whether you do or don’t, you won’t really like the answer. Or maybe you will. If you’re sick. I mean really sick.

Confused yet? Good. Me too.

But truth be told, first-time director Archibald Flancranstin (with a name like that, it’s got to be real)’s 2006 shot-on-high-def video indie horror  “Header,” based on the story “Redneck Greek Tragedy” by cult horror author Edward Lee later adapted into comics form by Verotik, isn’t a very confusing film at all. It’s pretty straightforward. It’s also almost incomparably OTT, at times pretty amateurish, indisputably gross, and at times it’ll make you laugh in spite of yourself. Right after it makes you puke.

In other words, it’s a perfect addition to our little unofficial “countdown” of good movies to watch in the days leading up to Halloween that you stand a pretty good chance of never even having heard of, much less seen. But bring a strong stomach, because goddamn are you going to need it.

Let’s just say that the movie won’t keep you guessing about what a header is for very long. It’s the ultimate form (in this flick at least, hopefully not in reality) of hillbilly revenge, and you have to wonder if author Lee is right in the head (okay, pun intended) for even thinking of it. But I digress.

The action here takes place somewhere below tobacco road, where ATF agent-on-the-take Stewart Cummings (Jake Suffian) is struggling to move up the federal law enforcement ladder and getting nowhere and so has resorted to a not-lucrative-enough side business of running dope and hooch for local moonshiners so that he can afford the expensive medication needed by his girlfriend, Kathy (Melody Garren), who suffers from some undisclosed illness that prevents her from working or even, apparently, getting out of the house.

Somewhere in the nearby vicinity, meanwhile, small-time white trash car thief Travis Clyde Tuckton (Elliot V. Kotek) has just gotten out of prison and given that his mammy and pappy dies while he was in stir he’s got nowhere to go but to the home of his legless grandpappy, Jake Martin (Dick Mullaney), an old-time shoe- and boot-maker who lives in a crummy lean-to and dreams of the days when he could walk around and give out headers to his heart’s content.Being that he can’t, though, he’s about to pass on this disgusting little secret family tradition to his fresh-out-of-the-joint grandson and get his jollies by watching. And that’s all I’m saying about that.

The divergent paths of these characters are about to collide in ways that give the original story’s handle of “Redneck Greek Tragedy” the “most obvious title of the year” award, and will, as I mentioned before, leave you sickened and chuckling in equal turns, if not both at once on more than one occasion.

Like just about any of the movies we tackle on this blog, “Header” is not without its problems. The acting is uniformly amateurish, with some truly unbelievable quasi-southern accents, but at the same time that can be kind of charming, too, if you don’t mind watching actors you’ve never heard of ham it up (and look for both author Lee and another cult horror literary icon, Jack Ketchum, in brief cameos). And Mullaney is great fun as the twisted old grandpa. In addition, some of the gore effects are pretty cheap, although on the whole they’re not bad considering this whole thing only cost a couple hundred grand. A lot of the pseudo-“edgy” high-def video editing is more annoyingly jarring than it is stylish. And there’s nothing particularly unusual or inventive in Flancranstin’s choice of shots and camera angles.

Still, those are pretty small gripes for a film that sets out to do one thing above all else, that being shock and repulse the hell out of you and make you feel pretty damn guilty for laughing at some of the seriously horrific shit on display, and certainly succeeds in that regard hands-down.

If you like all your horror films to frighten you, then you can safely give “Header” a pass. But if, in lieu of scares, you’ll settle for jaw-dropping “what the fuck did I just see?”-ness, then you’ll no doubt find “Header” to be a pretty engrossing little flick. The story’s pretty solid and it’s pretty damn ballsy to think anyone even committed this thing to celluloi—errr, excuse me, video. And even if you don’t like it, you will remember it. That’s a cinch-lock guarantee. Those memories won’t necessarily be pleasant, but they will be unshakable, and there’s something to be said for that in and of itself.

"Header" DVD Cover From Synapse Films

"Header" DVD Cover From Synapse Films

After languishing in indie non-distribution hell for a few years during which time it got the occasional screening at a handful of horrorand genre film festivals where it usually met with highly-qualified and sometimes even grudging praise, “Header” generated enough of a buzz in the horror underground to warrant being picked up by the always-reliable Synapse Films for DVD distribution. It’s a fairly solid little package that’s generally up to pretty high technical standards (although some of the dialogue is rather tough to pick up on in places since the “southern” accents have the effect of garbling what’s said and burying them behind the music and sound effects in the 5.1 mix doesn’t really help matters much) and  includes a thoroughly comprehensive series of behind-the-scenes interviews with most of the principal cast and crew. A commentary would have been nice, I suppose, but the interview segments cover more or less any “making-of”-type information you’d want to know.  All in all not an exhaustive selection of extras, then, but plenty good enough.

So that’s “Header.” Scary? No. But horrific?  Oh yes. Most definitely.