Archive for October, 2010

Cover Art for the "Video Violence" DVD Release from Camp Motion Pictures

And so we come to the end of our “2010 Halloween 12-Pack” series of reviews and we’ve saved one of the best for last. 1987’s shot-on-video cheapie classic Video Violence is actually one I’ve been meaning to write about for some time, and seeing as how this gives me a great excuse to do, let’s dive right in, shall we?

First off, understand that this movie looks every bit the zero-budgeter that it is. Shot by director Gary Cohen (who co-wrote the script along with Paul Kaye) in Bayonne, New Jersey, and edited over an twelve-hour period at the local cable-access TV studio (the manager of the station screwed him over a bit when he learned what the subject matter of the movie was about, but rather than renege on his agreement with Cohen altogether he just gave him access to the studio’s editing equipment from midnight to 6:00 a.m. on a couple of evenings), it literally doesn’t have the ability to rise above its roots.

But that’s the thing — it doesn’t need to. The rank amateurishness of the acting, the low-grade feel of the home-camcorder VHS footage itself, the authentic “filming” locations and the unpretentious nature of the script all combine to give Video Violence the number one thing we value here at TFG, namely a sense of absolute authenticity, a word that regular readers of this blog (assuming that such a creature has ever been proven to exist in the wild) know we save for only the finest examples of cinematic honesty, true labors of love.

The story’s effectively simple, and equal parts creepy and funny — married couple Rick Carlson (Kevin Haver) and Rachel Emroy (Jackie Neill) move from the big city to a sleepy South Jersey town to purchase a video rental shop. The place has been operating for a few years under its previous owners. so their “rental club” (God, what a quaint term) already has quite a few members. There’s something strange about these movie-lovin’ townsfolk, though — all they seem to rent are bloody slasher flicks and the occasional triple-Xer. When a customer accidentally drops off a tape from his home collection, and Rick pops it into the store’s machine to discover a “snuff”-style movie of somebody being tortured by sadistic country bumpkins Howard (Bart Sumner) and Eli (the actor playing this part is simply credited as “Uke”), he starts to piece together that something is very wrong with their new neighbors. Plus there’s the fact that the mailman has gone missing —

In truth, this is just a (very early) video-age take on the classic “revenge-of-the-rural-folks-on-the-city-slickers” storyline, but damn, is it effective. Equal parts chilling (again, aided and abetted by its ultra-cheap production values, rather than coming across in spite of them), and downright hysterical  (Howard and Eli, bless ’em, are truly entertaining psychopaths), with some effective low-grade gore and a pleasing DIY-vibe throughout, this is the kind of movie that all backyard filmmakers wish they could make, but few actually possess the skill to.

Video Violence is available, along with its more comedy-heavy (and slightly less satisfying) sequel, Video Violence II, on DVD from Camp Motion Pictures as part of their Retro ’80s Horror Collection. It’s absolutely loaded with extras, including full-length commentary tracks from Cohen andseveral of the actors on both films, a great “making-og” documentary, trailers for all the other Retro ’80s horror titles, and lots of other goodies. The image is full-frame, as you’d of course expect, and the sound is basic, but entirely servieable, mono. Well worth a purchase, or at the very least a rental (how fitting would that be?), this is definitely one that fans of ultra-low (as in no) budget gore horror flicks don’t want to miss. The (admittedly tiny) SOV craze produced a few intriguing labors of love, but only one genuine classic — Video Violence is it.

"Halloween : The Curse Of Michael Myers" Movie Poster

Since we examined the best entry in John Carpenter’s venerable  Halloween slasher franchise a few days back, it seems only fair to take a look at what’s widely considered to be the worst of the bunch — and if there’s one thing fans of the Micheal Myers flicks seem to agree on, it’s that the sixth entry in the canon,  1995’s Halloween : The Curse of Michael Myers (also known, unsurprisingly, as Halloween 6) represents the absolute nadir of the series. The rock-bottom, absolute pit.  Now, maybe I’m just on crack or something, but much as I really should hate any movie that features the debut “starring” turn of Paul Rudd (credited here as Paul Stephen Rudd), I have to say that I really just don’t think it’s earned its lousy rap.

Don’t get me wrong, on paper the “retconning,” as the saying goes, on display here is pretty off-putting — Michael (here played by George P. Wilbur, a name that sounds more like a real-life serial killer than an actor playing one), it turns out, is not some mindless, soulless killer — well, okay, he is, but he’s a mindless, soulless killer being controlled by a modern-day druid cult who’s going after his remaining family members (and anyone else in Haddonfield, Illinois who happens to be in the vicinity) for a very particular purpose (which I won’t give away simply because, contrary to most, I don’t think seeing this movie is a total waste of your time).

When our story gets underway, six years have passed since the last Halloween movie, and Micheal and his niece, Jamie, have disappeared. Jamie is in the process of giving birth to a child (strongly hinted, but never explicitly stated, to be Michael’s), Laurie Strode’s family have moved into the old Myers home (!), Tommy Doyle, the kid Laurie was babysitting in the first movie, Tommy Doyle (Rudd),  is all grown up and living in a crummy boarding house across the street from the Strodes,  and when Jamie escapes the clutches of the evil druid cult that are protecting and controlling Michael, she flees to Haddonfield with her baby and calls into a late-night radio talk show pleading for help from the one and only Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence, whose health was obviously failing when this film was made). The host assumes the call is some crank and wants to get back to the main subject of that evening’s program, the banning of the Halloween holiday in the town of Haddonfield, but a couple of the people listening — namely Tommy and Dr. Loomis himself — know better, and realize that a deadly series of events is about to converge on the sleepy midwestern hamlet once again —

Look, I don’t think that’s a half-bad setup. The “druid factor” is what pisses most hardcore fans off, but for whatever reason I think it works. The direction from Joe Chappelle is a bit MTV-ish in parts for my tastes (although it’s strictly minor-league in terms of this infraction compared to, say, the truly abominable Halloween : Resurrection), but on the whole he plays things pretty straightforward.

I’m not going to tell you that this flick is an underappreciated gem or something, but it’s more intricate and complex than the couple of entries in the series which preceded it, there are some intriguing possibilities introduced in the Myers backstory, there are a couple of solid jump-out-of-your-seat moments, and I appreciate the fact that it attempted to breathe some new life into a series that had, frankly, become a little stagnant at that point, even if not all of the decisions the filmmakers made actually, you know, work.

Halloween : The Curse of Michael Myers is available on DVD from Dimension Films — it’s a bare-bones, extras-free release (apart from the inclusion of the theatrical trailer), but the widescreen anamorphic transfer looks just fine and the 2.0-channel stereo mix is perfectly acceptable as far as the audio goes, as well. It’s also available on demand on pretty much all cable systems this month (and probably next). It’s far from a classic, but just as far from the dreck it’s usually referenced as. If you haven’t seen it I’d recommend it (if you’re bored and/or curious), and if you have seen it and hated it, I think it might be worth your time to give it another look — you may just find it to be less irredeemably atrocious as you remember. There’s also apparently a producer’s (as opposed to director’s) cut floating around as a bootleg somewhere tht’s apparently quite a bit different — if anyone can turn me onto a source where I might be able to obtain it, I’d be most appreciative.

Original "Deranged" Movie Poster

America owes Ed Gein a debt of gratitude that can never fully be repaid.

Oh, sure, I’m sure the families of the infamous Wisconsin serial killer/cannibal/necrophile feel quite differently, and rightly so. But for the rest of us, well, for a time, before Manson became the brand name and image for murder, madness, and mayhem, Gein was America’s favorite bogeyman, something every society craves, if not flat-out needs. After all, we can’t show off our shiny good-guy badges and claim our superiority unless there’s someone for us to feel superior to, and frankly pretty much everyone can feel superior to ol’ Ed unless they’ve got real problems.

But,  societal implications aside, the film-going sector of the public owes Gein a lot, as well, since his story was the “inspiration,” if you will,  for movies ranging the respectability spectrum from Hitchcock’s Psycho to Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Any flick about a psychotic killer with a mommy fixation, a taste for human flesh, an irrational hatred of women, a lust for the dead, or any combination thereof  can trace its lineage back to the crimes of Gein and their subsequent ultra-sensationalized media manipulation/exploitation. Of all the films in the unofficial “Gein canon,” though, none hews closer to the actual facts of the events themselves than 1974’s Deranged, subtitled The Confessions of a Necrophile.

Written and co-directed by Alan Ormsby, who also penned the screenplay for Bob Clark’s superb Vietnam vet-turned-zombie classic Deathdream (Jeff Gillen is credited as the other co-director), this shot-in-Ontario cheapie took the novel (at the time) approach of being a faux-documentary, complete with a news anchor “host,” that stages “re-enactments” of the life and crimes of our cinematic Ed stand-in, Ezra Cobb.

And honestly, the movie begins and ends with Ez. The story is as basic as it gets — Ezra’s an old guy (he’s supposed to be 37 but looks more like 67) who still lives at home with his mom on their farm. On her deathbed, she tells her doting son not to trust any women apart from a fat friend of hers, and Ezra agrees. He won’t bring no harlots into his momma’s home, no ma’am. After she dies, though, he loses it a little bit (well, okay, a lot) and ends up digging her out of her grave just to have some company. He doesn’t stop there, though — soon he’s digging up other female corpses, since dead women are the only ones he can trust (not to mention the only ones he can get into bed). Sooner or later, though, that’s not enough, and he begins going after real, live, breathing women, to turn add them to his grisly farmhouse harem.

That’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell, and with any story that straightforward, there had better be something extra to draw the viewer in. Fortunately for Deranged, it gets all the extra punch it needs and then some from the performance of Roberts Blossom as Ezra, who establishes himself firmly in the upper echelon of the pantheon of cinematic psychos from the word go. He puts in such a committed, realistic, but — weird as I’m sure this sounds — fun turn in the lead role that you just can’t take your eyes off him, even though he’s one of the most relentlessly ugly looking dudes to ever get top billing in a film.

Oh, sure, there are nice touches in the script, as well — Ed — errrrr — Ezra’s friendly relationship with the neighboring Kootz family is realistically-scripted and adds a touch of humanity to the proceedings, and Ez’s lame pick-up attempt on a local floozy bar-wench is flat0out hysterical, up to the point when he shows her the company he keeps at home and she understands what his  real intentions for her are all about.

The trajectory of his downfall is fairly easy to map out — when Ez takes a shine to a teenage friend of the Kootz clan and decides that he’s just gotta have her, you know it’s only a matter of time until his only real friends find out the truth about him and play an instrumental role in his demise.  But damn, watching Blossom is such a good time that you’re essentially rooting for him to a) not fuck up and b) not get caught when he does.

That’s right, Blossom’s Cobb is not just pathetic, stupid, crazy, and gross, he’s also geekily charming in his complete lack of charm and sophistication and weirdly sympathetic in his earnestness. If you can’t admit to rooting for the guy on at least some deeply-buried level, you’re kidding yourself. Ez is a straight-up likable cannibalistic, necrophiliac loser, and if you don’t think that’s possible, then you need to see this movie, and fast.

Deranged is available on DVD from MGM as a double-bill with Motel Hell as part of the Midnite Movies series. It’s presented in a remastered, exceptionally clean- and crisp-looking anamorphic widescreen transfer with the original mono soundtrack as the only audio option. There are no extras apart from the original theatrical trailer, and while some sort of “special edition” would be nice at some point (yes, MGM, that’s a hint), this presentation at least looks great and sounds adequate.  It’s a decent release for a truly great film that is certainly the most fun title we’ve reviewed in our “Halloween 12-Pack” series. Check it out ASAP, you’ll thank me later.

Original "Halloween" Movie Poster

Well, hey, why not?

Okay, I admit, reviewing John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher classic Halloween might be the most obvious thing in the world to do at this time of year, but maybe it was so obvious you didn’t see it coming. Whatever the case may be, my point here is not to either surprise or bore you with this selection for the 2010 Halloween 12-pack, but to convince you to watch this movie again if it’s been awhile. It shouldn’t prove too difficult a task, seeing as how it’s showing on half the cable channels in the universe these days, but if you want the full, unedited, un-bleeped-out version, it’s also available on demand on most cable systems this month, and of course it’s been released on DVD several times over (this reviewer humbly suggests that you go for the Anchor Bay “Divimax” 25th Anniversary 2-disc edition — the widescreen anamorphic transfer is superb, it features either a 2.0 stereo track or a terrific 5.1 surround mix for the audio, the commentary from Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, and co-producer/co-writer Debra Hill is downright enthralling, and the second disc contains the highly informative 87-minute original documentary Halloween : A Cut Above the Rest that’s probably the most thoroughgoing look at the genesis and production of this iconic horror staple ever made, and  an awesome selection of trailers, TV spots, radio spots, and promotional and advertising artwork, to boot).

In short, there’ simply no excuse for you not to watch this masterpiece in the month of October, so if you haven’t done so yet — why not?

I’m assuming no plot recap is even remotely necessary here, the story is elegant in its simplicity and has been copied by ever slasher franchise and one-off in the thirty-plus years since its arrival on the scene. This is the earliest, and purest, distillation of the slasher-flick formula you’re ever going to find, precisely because there was no formula prior to Halloween, and this ended up being the template that everybody else has followed because, well, it’s downright flawless.

It all started here, folks — the “final girl” (Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, in this case); the “Captain Ahab” figure (Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Samuel Loomis); the silent killer (Michael Myers, of course, portrayed in this first outing by Tony Moran); the teenage cast of victims; the indestructible madman who can’t be killed; the sexually active girls getting killed (usually pretty soon after taking their shirts, at least, off) while the innocent one who maintains (we assume) her virginity survives — everything you know and love (or got sick of) vis-a-vis the slasher genre started right here.

Oh, sure, Bob Clark’s superb Black Christmas beat it into theaters by a few years, but that didn’t really set the mold that would follow and remains more a slasher precursor than an actual prototype, in my view. It may have blazed the trail for  Halloween, but this is the movie that mapped out the territory in no uncertain terms.

And what’s even more impressive than how thoroughly this film masters the big picture, so to speak, is how it hits the ball out of the park on all the smaller counts, as well — whether we’re talking about the pitch-perfect-from-start-to-finish musical score authored by Carpenter himself (the theme tune is the best in movie history with the possible exception of Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), or the chillingly basic titles sequence , or Dean Cundey’s amazingly evocative cinematography, Halloween gets all the details right.

This is the movie horror fans in the years prior to 1978 had been waiting their whole lives for, they just didn’t know it yet, and frankly we’re still waiting for anyone to come along and do it better. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you  — my bet is that it won’t be happening anytime soon. The original is still the best, as the old saying goes, and it always will be.

"The Hamiltons" Movie Poster

An old college buddy I’ve recently re-connected with through the auspices of facebook (he now lives in Spain, a fact of which I’m officially envious) recently turned me onto this 2006 indie horror feature from the pseudonymous writer-director team of “The Butcher Brothers” (in reality Michell Altieri and Phil Flores, who would go on to helm the dismal April Fool’s Day remake) in a rather roundabout fashion — he’d seen a chunk of it on TV and didn’t know the name of it, gave me a rundown of the premise, and asked me if it rang a bell with me. I had to admit that it didn’t and thanks, I’m guessing, to the modern miracle of Google he was  able to figure out what it was and let me know. So he sort of answered his own question, I was just a (useless, as it turns out) intermediary.

In any case, I was sufficiently intrigued by the brief run-down he was able to give me about it to add it to the ol’ Netflix queue and give it a go. I don’t know whether my friend has been able to catch The Hamiltons in its entirety yet, but he seemed drawn enough into its quietly menacing vibe that I hope for his sake he’ll be able to see the whole thing one of these days if he hasn’t yet.

Not that it’s some unrecognized masterpiece or anything. In truth, it’s got some pretty serious flaws that almost wrecked the whole thing for me (and for some viewers they may indeed prove to be insurmountable), but it’s got a mood and atmosphere all its own and, though it drags (and drags, and drags, and drags) in spots, the payoff at the end is solid enough to make sitting through the film in its well entirety worth it.

It’s something of a tricky movie to review because the less you know about it, the better, so while there are, in fact, a couple of big-time “spoilers” in the short synopsis I’ll provide, I’ve left the biggest one out entirely so as not to spoil the aforementioned strongly surprising, and entirely logical, ending.

The titular Hamiltons are a family of four who have lost their mom and dad under circumstances that are never explained, and we learn that since their passing they have moved from town to town with no small degree of frequency.  The de facto head of the family is older brother David (Samuel Child), who’s struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality while trying to keep a leash on the rest of the brood, particularly twin siblings Wendell(Joseph McKelheer), who we learn early on just got out of jail, and Darlene (Mackenzie Firgis), a goth-chick femme fatale. When these two get together, they have a way of causing a lot of trouble, to put it mildly.

Rounding out the family unit is 15-year-old Francis (Cory Knauf), an alienated teenager who’s like a horror-movie version of the boyfriend in American Beauty in that he doesn’t really have any roots in his community, doesn’t really have any friends, doesn’t get along with the rest of his family, and carries a hand-held high-def video camera with him everywhere (there’s plenty of POV-style handheld shots in this flick, and the entire movie was shot on HD video, but it’s not strictly a “hand-held/YouTube horror” in that the main action is shot in a typical third-party  perspective, with Francis’ video camera shots just providing the occasional break from the norm). Francis is our narrative point of entry into the family and serves as, for all intents and purposes, the film’s central character, but he’s a tough nut to crack in that Knauf’s performance (the only one in the film that could probably honestly be called “good” by generally accepted standards) is withdrawn and isolated not only from the fictitious world around him, but from the audience itself. You don’t empathize with him so much as wonder what the fuck is up with the guy, which works when you’re trying to convey a sense of alienation and isolation, but a more professional actor would have found some way to allow the audience “in,” so to speak — even just ever-so-slightly.

It doesn’t take long to learn that the reason Francis is so troubled by the rest of his family is that they have a habit of picking up stray late-teens/early-20s youths and keeping them prisoner in the cellar for reasons not made clear until about halfway through the film, when it’s revealed that the Hamiltons are a clan of vampires who are bleeding their victims out over time so as to maximize their — uhhhmmm — nutritional value. Or something.

The twins, though, as I mentioned a moment ago, have a habit of getting out of hand, and aren’t above luring in a “snack” for the two of them to gorge on privately (by the time this particular aspect of their relationship is revealed it’s no big surprise because we’ve already learned that they’re not above engaging in some incestuous foreplay, if not out-and-out incestuous intercourse — a revelation which oughtta be a biggie but feels pretty natural given the way the two of them behave from the outset of the movie).

As the story progresses, Francis’ dilemma moves from the realm of the abstract to the concrete as he attempts to forge a friendship (or something) with one of their caged-up female victims and struggles with whether or not to rat out the rest of his family to their clueless social worker. It makes for a pretty interesting situation rife with tension, but therein lies the problem.

Dramatic tension, you see, is not exactly the Butcher Brothers’ strong suit. The whole movie is presented in a low-key, almost monotonous tone, and everything, even the occasional flash of humor, is presented in such a straightforward and deadpan manner that it almost feels like all they’re doing with  their HD camcorder is pointing and shooting. The uniformly amateurish quality of the acting (apart from Knauf’s believable, but in no way involving, turn as Francis) doesn’t help matters much, either.

All that being said, amateurism has never been a strike against a flick here at TFG, and the whole student-movie feel does create a strangely lulling vibe that draws you in if it doesn’t turn you off within the first few minutes. Simply put, The Hamiltons ends up with a pace and mood all its own that demands you meet it on its terms because the filmmakers don’t know how to do anything else.

The script is talky and short on the blood and gore (don’t let that grisly poster art fool you), but what carnage there is does, in fact, work, not only because it’s effectively done for such a low-budget effort, but because it breaks the almost droning type of rhythm the movie has established and really comes as a shock to the system. Imagine long stretches of style-free dialogue scenes all shot in the same sterile suburban house punctuated by a bloodbath three or four times before returning to bland nonchalance and you’ll get the idea.

Incongruity both of subject matter and settings (the house and the cellar look like they’re in entirely different parts of the country, even though the narrative establishes that one is, as you’d expect, right on top of the other) is one of the strengths of The Hamiltons, and whether or not this juxtaposition is achieved by intent, by accident, or just by low-budget necessity (I’m betting on the latter) really doesn’t matter, the fact is that is just plain works.

As I said, though, this movie is a tough, slow slog if you don’t find yourself drawn in by its singularly droll style and can’t get past the student-film feel of the semi-pro acting (the only face you might recognize is Brittany Daniel in a cameo as one of the victims) combined with the always-cheap look (in my view, at least) of HD video. Even then, though, you might find it worth your while to stick it out for that slam-dunk of an ending I mentioned a few paragraphs back. Altieri and Flores really pull out the stops with that one, and manage to wrap things up in a way that makes both perfect sense, yet also surprises the hell out of you at the same time. The one burning unanswered question that nags in the viewer’s mind throughout the film — one which I won’t even spell out for fear of dimming the surprise conclusion — is answered in the only way that makes any kind of sense once you think about it, but trust me when I say you still won’t see it coming.

The Hamiltons was part of the After Dark Horror Fest of 2006, which sports the tag line “8 Films To Die For,” and frankly I’m glad I didn’t know that going in because all the other After Dark flicks I’ve seen, both from that year and all years subsequent,  have pretty much sucked and I probably would have passed on it. Like the other movies in the series it’s been picked up for DVD distribution by Lionsgate, and the disc contains a pretty nice selection of extras that includes a smattering of deleted scenes (most of which were excised because they would have given away the ending early), some typically inane bloopers, a really solidd commentary track from The Butcher Brothers and Cory Knauf that really gets into the guts of the movie’s production, and a bunch of trailers for other After Dark films. The picture is presented in a nice-looking anamorphic widescreen transfer and the audio can be checked out in either a very solid 5.1 surround mix or standard two-channel stereo.  So it’s a pretty solid presentation for a low-budget indie that’s only going to appeal to a pretty small audience.

If you’re willing to make allowances for The Hamiltons being — well, what it is  — namely an ultra-cheap, obviously crude first effort from a couple of filmmakers who are learning on the job filled with a cast of actors doing much the same — and you can appreciate the work of people whose heart is obviously in the right place but whose ambition exceeds their technical ability, then you’re in for a pretty enjoyable ride. And even if you can’t forgive its shortcomings, you’ll still probably find the ending ultimately both startling and extremely satisfying, since it’s good enough in and of itself  to salvage the rest of the flick even if you’ve found it to be excruciatingly dull.

For my part I found it more weirdly listless and sterile than actually boring, and its (probably unintentional, but so what?) mellow atmosphere really drew me in after awhile —then I got walloped good and solid a couple times by the visceral-but-quick gore scenes and really pleasantly thrown for a loop by the last few minutes. The Hamiltons has a weird but ultimately satisfying rhythmic structure that goes mmmmmmmmm—–bump! —–mmmmmmmmmm—-bump!—–mmmmmmmmm—-bump!—-mmmmmmm—-holy shit!

It’s not a terrific viewing experience by any means, but it is a unique one. If you’re the sort of person who likes buying a candy bar or sandwich or something for $2.50, giving the cashier a 20, waiting for a damn long time while they drop the bill in the safe and count the change out slowly, then finding one of the fives they gave you back is actually two fresh, crisp bills stuck together, so they ended up giving you back more than you actually paid,  I think you’ll dig it.

"The Howling" Movie Poster

Halloween month wouldn’t be complete without watching a few bona fide horror classics, and with that in mind I decided to give Joe Dante’s 1981 werewolf cult favorite The Howling a re-viewing for the first time in — oh, about forever a few nights back. This is another one that scared the pants off me as cable-viewing kid, and I know it still maintains a pretty soild reputation to this day, but as we’ve recently seen around these parts when I checked out Visiting Hours for the first time as a jaded adult, sometimes the movies that left an indelible impression on us in our youth really aren’t all we remember them to be. Would The Howling hold up?

The short answer is yes — I needn’t have worried, this is one film that’s earned its “classic” reputation and can hold its head high to this very day.

For those (few) of you who are unfamiliar with the basic premise, a gutsy TV reporter named Karen White (Dee Wallace, who met her husband, Christopher Stone , while working on this flick, where he plays — go figure — her husband) sets herself up as human bait for a serial killer and very narrowly survives an encounter with him in a seedy porno joint. Fatigued and fucked-up-in-the-head from her ordeal, she and hubby take off  for a private northern California retreat known as “The Colony” that’s run by one Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee of The Avengers fame), a therapist who urges his patients to get in touch with their more “primal” side as a way of working out their problems and freeing themselves from the shackles and stresses society imposes on us all.

In short order, though, Karen and hubby Bill find that all is not as it seems at this isolated, self-contained community, as the “primal urges” the folks there indulge in really are much more primal than they could have ever imagined, and Karen may be closer to tracking down her elusive serial killer than she realizes.

Look. it’s not giving anything away — the title does that already — to let the uninitiated know that this is a werewolf movie. Furthermore, it’s a very good werewolf movie. Hollywood hadn’t given werewolves much of a shot in the modern era, but between this and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, the early 80s saw our furry friends experience something of a brief resurgence. The Howling is primarily remembered for its startling special effects, particularly the graphic transformation sequence of Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) into the bad-ass “leading wolf,” if you will, of the feature, and while that legendary scene looks a little less impressive than it did at the time, the fact is that it’s not by much. The effects team, lead by the legendary Rick Baker, did a bang-up job not only on this iconic moment in horror history, but throughout the production. I’ll certainly take their work, warts and all, over the CGI fests we get today, like last year’s thoroughly uninspiring The Wolfman.

There’s no doubt that The Howling is every bit a product of its time, but its sharp and incisive critique of est- and Primal Scream-style pop psychology fads and cults still rings extremely true even if those movements have dies down a bit. Biting (no pun intended) social commentary always stands the test of time, even if the object of said commentary has largely fallen by the wayside.

Dante draws some great performances out of his cast, as well, which isn’t too tough considering what a first-rate cast it is. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Stone and a truly chilling turn from Macnee we’ve got great performances from Elisabeth Brooks as seductive priestess-chick Marsha Quist (Eddie’s sister), Slim Pickens as befuddled local sheriff Sam Newfield, and the legendary John Carradine as local yokel Erle Kenton. Be on the lookout for cameos from John Sayles (who co-wrote the screenplay), Forrest J. Ackerman, and Roger Corman, among others, as well. Keeping a sharp eye out for quick guest appearances from cult Hollywood icons is part of the fun to be had here.

The outdoor filming locations at the Mendocino Woodlands Camp (in, as you might have guess, Mendocino) are lush and atmospheric and Dante captures them magnificently, but a good chunk of this movie was shot in a good old fashioned Hollywood studio, as well, and while the “outdoor” studio scenes are pretty noticeable to the modern eye, it’s really nothing too terribly jarring and you’ll appreciate the great care that Dante went to in order to make his indoor forest shots look like the real thing.

All in all, I’m damn pleased that I decided to give The Howling another look. I checked out the “Special Edition” DVD from MGM, which features both an anamorphic widescreen presentation as well as a full-frame option (both look damn good and have been cleaned up very nicely), a remastered 5.1 audio track (the original mono track is also included) that sounds great without being too terribly overpowering, and has a theatrical trailer and a pretty damn absorbing commentary track with Dante at the forefront and contributions from Dee Wallace Stone,  Christopher Stone,  and Robert Picardo   included among a nice selection of extras, as well as a great and highly detailed “making-of” documentary feature called “Unleashing the Beast” that’s well worth a look, as well.

It had been a long time since Hollywood did werewolves as well as The Howling did them, and frankly they haven’t been done nearly as well since. It’s a tried-and-true genre clasicc for a reason, folks, and if you haven’t senn it in awhile I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well it has stood the test of time. It’s certainly well worth a look this Halloween season — or any other time of year, for that matter.

"Swamp Devil" DVD Cover Art

If you’re like me (in which case you have my deepest and most heartfelt sympathy), sometimes nothing but cheap ‘n cheesy will do. And when you’re in one of those moods, you could do a lot worse than check out any of the made-for-SciFi (now SyFy) Channel movies now being pumped out on DVD by RHI in conjunction with Genius Entertainment under the “Maneater Series” label.

Don;t get me wrong, I’d never actually buy any of these flicks, but they do make for a fun and brainless rental, and they invariably hue so closely to the formula that has been established over the years for these things that watching them play out is oftentimes an almost amazing thing to watch. I swear, it’s like they have a fucking checklist that they almost never stray from, and when they do, it’s sort of amazing — I mean, it’s almost even enough to take you aback for a minute. Don’t worry, though — any deviations from the norm are sticttly momentary in nature and soon enough things will get back on track. For that matter, they’ll get back exactly on track.

Case in point : 2008’s made-in-Quebec cheapie Swamp Devil.

Let’s have a quick look at that just-referenced checklist, shall we?

1. Rehashed idea either stolen from another film (currently-playing blockbusters are often a favorite), a popular horror or science fiction novel, or a comic book?

Yup, got that here — this idea is swiped directly from DC Comics’ Swamp Thing and Marvel’s less-successful rip-off title  Man-Thing. There’s a twist on it, to be sure, in that this is a conjured-up creature rather than a guy who falls in the bog and gets turned into a monster due to a combination of swamp gunk and chemicals, but the basic idea’s pretty damn similar, and the powers that this “Swamp Devil” possesses are remarkably similar to those introduced to the Swamp Thing during Alan Moore’s legendary run on his book (controlling surrounding vegetation, rising out of organic matter, long tendrils growing everywhere, etc.)

2. Cast “headlined” by either a supporting player from a TV series or an established “name” from Hollywood films whose “star” has fallen considerably (if it ever rose that high to begin with)?

Oh yeah, the “star” of this movie is none other than Bruce Dern.

3. Cheap, poorly-realized CGI effects, and lot of ’em?

Good gosh yes, this flick has more horseshit CGI than you can shake a stick at.

4. Trite, overwrought “morality play” -style “message” underpinning things?

We’ve got that too — this movie, to the extent that it’s actually “about” anything, is about the dangers of letting an all-consuming desire for revenge consume your life.

5. Obvious — and let’s be honest, shameless — referencing of other, far more successful, films?

No doubt about it. Look for the wanton “appropriation” oh Ah-nuld’s famous “You’re one ugly motherfucker” line from Predator, only sanitized somewhat for television.

6. No real blood, guts, or gore?

That’s covered as well. Despite the villain of the piece being a monster with supernatural powers and an insatiable need to kill, this is essentially a bloodless affair.

As for the “meat” of the story itself, it’s (as you’d expect) fairly simple — a New York City gal is lured back to her (supposed — at least they got the license plates right) Vermont hometown when a guy she doesn’t remember from her youth calls her up and informs her that her father has passed away. When she comes home, she finds the truth is miles away from what the mystery man from her past has told her, but actually far worse. Her old man (that would be Dern) is alive and well, but he’s wanted for murder!

Soon she’s shacked up in her dad’s swamp-side cabin, she’s falling in love with the guy that she still doesn’t remember, they’re both trying to find her old man before the local sheriff does, and there’s a horrible swamp creature on the loose that’s killing everyone!

Things begin to take a twist for the stranger when it’s revealed that nobody else can remember the mystery man, either — or, for that matter, even knew him in the first place. If you’re officially intrigued at this point, I genuinely feel sorry for you, but I’ll say no more just on the off chance that’s indeed the case.

About the only appreciable way in which this movie breaks the well-established mold of all these other SciFi (excuse me, SyFy) flicks is in its reveal of the creature. Most of these made-for-cable cheapies don’t play their CGI-produced hand until about the 2/3 mark, but this one shows you the monster pretty early and pretty often. It’s safe to say that the computer-generated special effects expenditures on Swamp Devil ate up more than half the film’s total budget, and that those effects, crummy as they are, really are the “star” of the film (sorry, Bruce Dern).

The DVD features an anamorphic widescreen presentation of what was no doubt a full-screen movie on original broadcast, but it looks good and may have even both shot with this aspect ratio in mind for all I know. The sound is preented in a solid, though admittedly unremarkable, Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that isn;t anything special by any means, but does the job just fine. There are no extras to speak of apart from a few previews for other RHI titles that look even less inspiring than this one.

I don’t know — I guess a commentary or something on some of these “Maneater series” titles might be interesting, but probably not too interesting unless you aspire to a career as a low-budget, made-for-TV moviemaker yourself. Laugh all you want, but there are worse ways to make a living.

Look, I don’t want to slag off Swamp Devil too badly — it’s absolutely fine for what it is. It’s a bit slow and talky for the first half, but when all (or as much as they can afford) hell breaks loose in the second half of the film, it become fast-paced, sorta-frenzied fun. There’s no pretense here and it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than what it is — cheap, cheesy fun, like I said at the outset. If you’re looking for anything more than that you’re seriously looking in the wrong place — but if you’re in that sort of mood, it does the job just fine.

And if you never get in that sort of mood — and don’t even really understand what the hell it is I’m talking about — you’re probably reading the wrong blog, anyway.

"Visiting Hours" Movie Poster

Ahh, memories. I remember watching the 1982 Canadian horror quickie Visiting Hours in the early days of cable and being scared out of my wits by it. It was tense, frightening, taut, and atmospheric — or so I thought at age 10 (well, okay, I was probably 12 or so by the time it was broadcast on HBO or Showtime or wherever the hell I caught it). But you know what they say — the memory cheats. Or does it?

Truth be told, in the case of Visiting Hours I just wasn’t sure. I’d never actually gone back and seen it again for whatever reason, so maybe it really didn’t leave as strong and indelible an impression as I thought. Or maybe I was just too busy leading a life (a life that, admittedly, involved watching a shitload of movies, especially horror flicks).

In any case, when I saw that Anchor Bay put this out on DVD a few years back, I thought about picking it up, but decided against it when I read that it contained essentially no extras, not even the trailer, so I decided against buying it (in its defense(sort of), now that I’ve seen the DVD I can say that while the trailer is indeed absent, it does contain three different TV spots, a radio spot, it features a generally crisp and clear (given its age) widescreen anamorphic transfer, and the mono audio track is perfectly fine, if unspectacular — but there’s nothing else included apart from a selection of trailers for other second-(at best) tier Anchor Bay releases, so I was indeed wise (for once) in bypassing this as a purchase), but recently, while re-populating (God how I hate that term, but I just used it anyway) my Netflix list, I decided to give it a go.

So, was it anywhere near as thrilling and harrowing and gut-wrenching and spine-tingling as I remembered? Or was I destined to be disappointed in learning that yet another childhood favorite is, in actuality, a pretty stupid piece of shit?

The answer, dear reader, lies somewhere in between. It certainly and most emphatically isn’t the horror masterpiece my young mind perceived it to be — but it’s hardly a waste of time and celluloid, either.

Truthfully, Visiting Hours is nothing so much as a product of its time, like so much else. It has its moments, but they’re few and far between, and you’ve seen it all done better elsewhere. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, just that it’s wholly unremarkable. There are worse moviemaking sins than that, to be sure, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of plenty of less-than-remarkable horror films over the years, and many of the reviews on this very blog can certainly attest to that fact.

And let’s be clear — Visiting Hours definitely has some things going for it. For one thing, the setup is simple but solid — crusading TV reporter Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant) has taken up the cause of a woman on convicted  of murdering her abusive husband. Deborah believes it was a case of justifiable homicide, and takes to the airwaves to try to get the woman in question a new trial. Unfortunately, this brave stance doesn’t sit well with one Colt Hawker (how’s that for a name?), a closet, deeply misogynistic psycho played by the always- awesome Michael Ironside who developed his deep-seated hatred for the female gender when, as a young boy, he witnessed his mother throw boiling oil into the face of his abusive father, and just so happens to be a member of the cleaning staff at the TV studio where our gal Deborah works.

Colt’s got a nasty habit of going around town, brutally killing women, and photographing them as they expire, and he becomes so incensed by Deborah’s on-air crusading that he goes over to her house, kills her incompetent and alocoholic maid, waits for our intrepid reporter to come home, and then brutally rapes and (he thinks) murders her, as well.

Unfortunately for ol’ Colt, Deborah survives the attack, and is admitted to the county general hospital, where between  the always- watchful eye of a regular Florence Nightingale of a nurse (Linda Purl), and occasional visits from her producer-love interest Gary (William Shatner — this movie was shot in Shatner’s hometown of Montreal), she proves to be a difficult patient to — uhhhmmm — gain access to. He’s gotta try, though, because he’s afraid she might recognize him if she sees him around the TV station and finger him out as her attacker. I guess he figures that sneaking into the hospital and killing her is easier than just quitting his job and finding a new one. Or maybe he just decides on this course of action for fun. Or something.

And that’s where Visiting Hours really gets bogged down. The first third or so of the film moves along at a pretty breakneck pace, but once Deborah’s in the hospital, it almost becomes a near-slapstick series of failed attempts by Colt to get at her and finish what he started, sort of like a cross between a slasher movie and a Three Stooges flick.

Most of the principle cast is excellent. Grant, as usual, gives a strong, believable, and 100% committed performance. The same can be said or Purl, albeit in a much smaller role. Ironside is, as you’d expect, first-class as the psycho and never anything less than chillingly authentic.  Even Shatner keeps his overacting to a reasonable minimum, although his character frankly isn’t given much to do and is basically a beefed-up and over-written version of what should be, at best, a pretty inconsequential part.

And therein lies the problem — this movie is just way too damn padded out. It clocks in at 105 minutes, but there’s only about 80 minutes’ (at best) worth of story to be told here.  Screenwriter Brian Taggert simply pads out the runtime with unnecessary appearances by minor characters and too much character development for them given their levels of overall plot significance. Director Jean-Claude Lord takes care of the rest by dragging out scenes that probably only run a page, at best, on the script for several minutes. As a kid, I’m sure that made things seem a lot more tense and foreboding to me, but as a fully-fledged (at least physically, if not mentally) adult, it has just the opposite effect, killing any suspense that might be achieved by simply stretching things out way past their breaking point. Sure, you can make a rubber band more tense by pulling it further and further, but at some point the damn thing just gives up and breaks. The same rule applies to scenes in what’s supposed to be a “suspense” film.

So in that key respect, Visiting Hours certainly misses the mark. It’s got some stuff going for it, as detailed above, but not enough to make it stand out from the pack. And the pack, it has to be said, was a pretty crowded one at the time.

In 1982, hot on the heels of the success of films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and (arguably) the progenitor of them all, Black Christmas, Hollywood studios were always on the lookout for cheap psycho-slasher flicks that were already in the can and wouldn’t cost them anymore than whatever the price tag was for distribution rights. Having chosen to take a pass on Black Christmas, 2oth Century Fox probably didn’t want to be beaten out a second time when it came to snagging the rights to a Canadian horror flick, especially not one with a pedigreed cast like this, so they picked this one up for distribution and gave it a pretty decent little promotional campaign (just check out that poster!), but ultimately it didn’t catch on much with audiences, and didn’t even make much of a splash in the early days of the home video market, when people would rent pretty much fucking anything.

Still, as time has proven over and over, more or less every single horror flick has its fans, and there are sorrier flicks than Visiting Hours that have legions of adoring admirers, so even though it languished around for a hell of a long time before being picked up by Anchor Bay for DVD release, and even though there wasn’t exactly an outcry (or even much of a murmur) from the horror-loving public demanding it, I imagine it’s sold okay for them. It’s fairly representative of its time, and there are plenty of people who are determined to have every 80s psycho-slasher flick in their library — and since the psycho himself is one of the strongest elements in this film’s favor, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

But damn, I sure remember it being a hell of a lot better.

"Hatchet" Movie Poster

“Old School American Horror.”

Shit, that sounds good, doesn’t it? That’s what writer-director  Adam Green’s 2006 indie-horror mini-sensation Hatchet (which has now spawned a sequel that came and went in ultra-limited theatrical release pretty fast, but should be available on DVD in the hopefully-not-too-distant future) promises, and I’m pleased to say that it delivers.

Need some evidence? How about cameos from cult horror icons Robert Englund (as a backwoods redneck), Tony Todd (as a French Quarter witch doctor/tour guide), and Richard Riehle (as a loudmouth tourist/soon-to-be-victim)?

Not enough for ya? How about most people’s favorite Jason, Kane Hodder, as the slasher (or hatcheter) himself, Victor Crowley?

Shit, how about that name — Victor Crowley, that’s got “iconic horror character” written all of it, doesn’t it?

Shit, I can see you’re still not convinced.

How about a healthy serving of bare boobs (not all of which are that great)? How about a simple-ass plot about a dumped-and-heartbroken college schmuck name Ben (Joel Moore) who goes down to Mardi Gras to forget his troubles but can’t get his mind off his ex so he heads out on a guided “haunted bayou” tour with a buddy and ends up hearing about the Crowley legend — the story of a horribly deformed young boy who was protected by his father until the locals came to kill him and Victor’s dad, while trying to save him, accidentally puts a hatchet through his skull — only to find that the legend is real, Victor survived, and now he’s hunting down and killing anybody who comes into his neck of the woods (or, in this case, swamp)?

Still not enough? Dear God you people are tough to please.

Okay, how about awesome effects by none other than John Carl Buechler himself, who also puts in a cameo in the film?

How about a huge body count and gruesome-as-hell deaths?

How about a totally insane non-ending of an ending that rips off both the original Friday the 13th and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the same time?

How about I shut the fuck and you see Hatchet for yourself and come back here later and tell me about how right I was?

Now that sounds like a plan! Hatchet is available in an unrated director’s cut on DVD from Anchor Bay and features a flawless anamorphic widescreen transfer, a terrific 5.1 surround audio mix, and a great commentary by writer-director Green and co-producer Scott Altomare that’s well worth a listen, among assorted other extras. It clocks in at right around 90 minutes just like you’d expect, and while it does nothing — and I do mean nothing — new, that’s sorta the point.

Hatchet isn’t about breaking new ground, defying convention, subverting audience expectations, redefining the slasher genre for a new generation of fans, or any of that shit. Hell, it’s not even trying to be particularly scary, and its tongue is planted firmly in its cheek pretty much the whole way through. It’s more funny than it is frightening, but it never loses sight of what it’s trying to achieve and retains an attitude of playful respect toward all the horror conventions it’s aping throughout.

Simply put,  this flick  is about one thing, and one thing only — delivering the goods. And damn if it doesn’t do that in spades.

Hatchet is the kind of movie that could only be made by hard-core 70s and 80s horror fans, and it’s only made for hard-core 70s and 80s horror fans. If you love Michael, Jason, Leatherface, and Freddy, rest assured you’re gonna love Victor Crowley and Hatchet — and it’s gonna love you right back.

"Paranormal Activity 2" Movie Poster

So, the “phenomenon” is back, as you knew it would be. After Paramount raked in a bundle thanks largely to a phony, studio-orchestrated “grassroots” campaign that “demanded” widespread release of writer-director Oren Peli’s original Paranormal Activity, a sequel was inevitable — and just about exactly one year later, Paranormal Activity 2 is here. Boasting a budget of nearly three million bucks as opposed to the original’s $15,000, there’s no way this is going to make as exponential a profit as the first one, but it’s still going to earn the studio a very tidy sum, even if audiences are only 50% of what they were the last time around, which, based on how many people were in the theater when I saw it this afternoon, seems pretty likely.

Paramount even rolled out another phony-ass “viral” marketing campaign for this sequel — they couldn’t do the old “we’ll release this movie in every market that we get 1,000 requests for it in” again, but it’s more or less the same thing — if they get “enough” requests in a particular market (the exact amount isn’t specified), then it will open in that market “before” it goes nationwide.

Needless to say, every single major market supplied the requisite number of requests and the flick rolled out “early” — as in one night early, in a series on midnight shows on October 21st.

So, anyway, it’s out there in every megaplex now, and it’s on the whole a little less claustrophobic-feeling than the first ,a little less tense, a little more polished, a little more by-the-book — and, surprisingly, a little bit better, as well, in this critic’s view.

I wasn’t nearly as enamored with Peli’s original as most of the horror “community” — it wasn’t bad, by any means, but I really didn’t find it at all scary, and I honestly failed to see what all the buzz was about. It was okay, sure, but that’s about it.

The sequel, on the other hand, is — a little better than okay. Not a masterpiece by any means, but not a bad way to spend 90 minutes of your time and seven or eight bucks of your cash.

Our setting is sunny San Diego once again, but this time, instead of an unlikable, self-absorbed yuppie couple moving into a townhouse, we’ve got a slightly-less-self-absorbed, slightly-more-likable yuppie family living in the house they’ve always lived in.  The mom, the dad, and the teenage daughter (all portrayed by no-named actors) have just welcomed a new addition to the fold, a baby boy named Hunter. Within a year of little Hunter’s birth, though, shit starts going a little crazy around the house, and after what they believe to be a  violent break-in, they go ahead and install a video surveillance system all over the house. Rather than being presented (supposedly) through the point of view of the same exact camera throughout the flick, then, what we’ve got here is a hodgepodge assemblage of “footage” from the various security cameras, as well as the family’s home camcorders.

And while only the absolute dimmest bulb in the world would still be wondering “Holy shit, is this for real?” at this point, I’ll give the suits at Paramount credit for opening the movie with a great exploitation-style tag line — “Paramount Pictures would like to thank the surviving relatives of the persons involved for their agreement to participate in this film,” or somesuch. The cow’s long since left the barn, but they’re still trying to mikl it, bless ’em.

Notable by his absence here is the “creator” of Paranormal Activity himself, Oren Peli. He’s still listed as an air-quote co-producer, but the director’s chair this time around is seated under The Door in the Floor‘s Tod Williams, and the screenwriting duties are handled by veteran TV scribe Michael R. Perry. On the whole, injecting a bit of (admittedly uninspired) professionalism into this amateur-birthed franchise (as it now surely is) works, and there’s a definite sense that the adults have stepped in to take this thing in a more finished and sensible direction than the kids were capable of. This is most notable in how they’ve chosen to portray the lead characters — last time around you wanted both to be killed, this time you’d just as well see them survive. They’re not all that interesting or anything, to be sure, but they’re no less nauseous than the average family of corporate scumbags. Plus, there are little touches added in to give them a more “human” feel — this is the old man’s second marriage, his first wife died, the teenage daughter is his kid with said first wife, the new bundle of joy is his first with his much-younger second wife, things like that.

Plus, they’ve hit on a  concept that, while by no means original, certainly works — this time around, the ghost/spirit/demon/whatever-the-fuck is after the baby.

Now, what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with the previous film? Well, that’s where the next effective plot twist comes in, and I’m not gonna give it away. Suffice to say that the couple from the original Paranormal Activity is known to this bunch, it’s the same spook haunting them, and a seriously asshole move made by the dad in this flick is what sics the invisible monster onto the other folks from the other movie in the first place.

If you’re dying to find out what this rather simple, but ingenious, plot device is that ties the two pictures together, I’m sure there are plenty of “spoiler”-filled reviews out there on this great big internet of ours, but I’m not going to add this one to those ranks since seeing this particular plot twist unfold for yourself is one of the best things about this movie and, while there are fewer jump-in- (or out of) -your-seat moments in Paranormal Activity 2 than there were in the first, this major-league “damn, that’s a cool idea” moment more than makes up for it — and  the ending has the dad not only pay for what he’s done, but ties the two films together even more tightly and leaves open the possibility for yet another sequel.

All that being said, and even though I freely admit I liked this flick better than the first one,  I find myself hoping this is the end of the road for not only Paranormal Activity, but for the whole digital handheld/camcorder/POV/fake DIY  horror craze in general. Really, this idea’s been not just mined for all it’s worth thanks to movies like Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Rec (and it’s Americanized remake, Quarantine) , Rec 2, and of course the original Paranormal Activity itself, the fact is that it’s been flat-out strip-mined down to nothingness. It was a novel enough idea to start with, I suppose, and serves as a useful plot gimmick for getting around one of the great dilemmas every horror screenwriter faces, namely “how do I explain all this shit?” (since with this particular genre you never really have to), but it’s beyond played-out at this point — and while Paranormal Activity 2 might do a little better job of it than some of the other films mentioned here, it by no means adds anything new to the proceedings. Simply put, the whole idea is beyond it’s sell-by date and went from feeling fresh and interesting to old and stale in no time flat — which is really rather fitting, I suppose, given that the  modern, instantaneous “information age” culture that gave birth to this new spin on horror has an attention span of about fifteen seconds and demands something new all the time. In a way, then, the “camcorder horror” subgenre is a victim of its own success, and has been done in by the very same culture of instant “information” (and instant gratification) that gave rise to it.

Whether that’s poetic, prophetic, or just plain the way things are today, I leave up to you to decide. But if the whole craze has gotta end, this wouldn’t be a bad note to end it on.