Archive for April, 2011

Three films into his career as a horror auteur, I feel supremely confident in saying that you just never know what the fuck you’re gonna get from director Jim Isaac. His debut feature, Jason X, was an absolute blast — probably the very best of the entire Friday The 13th canon (sorry, purists). He followed that up with 2006’s abysmal Skinwalkers, and now he seems to be back on track with Pig Hunt, and indie-horror feature that was actually lensed in 2008 before going on to play the horror and sci-fi festival circuit throughout most of 2009 and even into 2010. A few months back it finally turned up on DVD (extras include a making-of featurette, the trailer, and a seriously feature commentary track with Isaac and co-writer/co-producer Robert Mailer Anderson that really adds a lot to one’s appreciation of the work that went into this thing while remaining ridiculously entertaining from start to finish —needless to say, the widescreen transfer and 5.1 sound are both pretty much perfect since this is, you know, a new movie)  thanks to Phase 4 Films under the Fangoria FrightFest Presents label (like a lot of independently-produced genre features that received decent-enough notices while playing the festivals in the last few years — the other major player in this area being Lionsgate with their After Dark Horrorfest series) and this reviewer, who has been giving the films under this banner a go here and there since they came out, found it to be the best of an admittedly very mixed bag.

The damn thing is, it really shouldn’t work — it’s got red flags all over it. There’s an overstuffed cast full of wildly contradictory characters and even more wildly contradictory scenarios, a two-guys-in-a-suit monster, an exposition-laden, supremely talky (at least for a horror flick) script, and some dodgy CGI work on display at times. Nevertheless, Isaac really does manage to pull it off — Pig Hunt  is a wild, if slow (how’s that for yet another contradiction?) ride, full of sumptuously-shot northern California (Boonville, to be precise, where co-writer/co-producer Robert Mailer Anderson, and his co-writer brother, Zack Anderson, hail from) location work that lends the film a sense of both authenticity and genuine foreboding. Simply put, it’s obvious that these guys know this area well and use that to their advantage.

Our story centers around a group of “weekend warrior”-types out for a couple days’ hunting in the forest area where one of them, our erstwhile “hero”, John (Travis Aaron Wade), grew up. John’s an Iraq war vet (and yes, there’s some anti-war, anti-Gitmo, anti-all-that-shit stuff sprinkled throughout the proceedings, which never bothers me but might grate a bit on the nerves of any right-winger who sees this thing) who hangs around with a bunch of other wannabes who work at Costco. He’s also a rather pussy-whipped dude by the look of things, as he’s easily cajoled into taking his ball-busting (but admittedly rather fetching — the actress’s name is Tina Huang, in case it’s of any interest) girlfriend, Brooks (with a name like that don’t you just hope she dies violently?) with him on this so-obviously-doomed-it’s-not-even-funny excursion that for all intents and purposes has “Guy’s-Only Weekend” written all over it.

John’s got an uncle that lived up in the area they’re headed for, and he went crazy and disappeared some time ago, so a visit to the old family haunts is definitely on the agenda, as well. In fact, they plan to set up camp on his late uncle’s property. Wild boar is the target of choice this weekend, and local legend has it that there’s a 3,000-pound pig roaming the forests that the rednecks call “The Ripper.” John’s uncle, in fact, appears to have been pursuing (or, more likely, being pursued by) this beast when he departed this mortal coil.  Me, I’d stay the hell away, but these guys figure they can bag some reg’lar swine while avoiding the big fella.  Good luck with that.

Needless to say, John’s buddies being the city-dwelling fuck-ups that they are, things all go to pot (literally and figuratively, as we shall soon see) pretty quickly, as the  yokel Tibbs Brothers, who grew up with John, show up to lend some local flavor to the proceedings, snort some crank, and generally wreck everybody’s good time. Still, these guys know the area, and sticking with them might just mean the difference between life and death — until one of them is killed and  their whole murderous, motorcycle-riding, inbred clan head out for revenge on our city-slicker hunting party. Could it be that salvation — or at least safety — might come from the cultist hippie commune comprised of dozens of naked, blond white chicks (and let by one seriously feral and ravenous black guy who knows what he likes and surrounds himself with it!) that grow — and smoke — copious amounts of pot by day and —gulp! — worship a giant pig that sure sounds a lot like it might be “The Ripper” by night?

So it’s all here, folks, including the kitchen sink — motorbike chases, hillbilly throwbacks, racial and sexual stereotyping, Manson Family-style dropout drug-dealing cultists, doomed city folk heading out where they don’t belong —and a seriously mean giant pig. The stew is pretty loaded with ingredients, but chef Isaac somehow pulls it all off. The cast, as I mentioned, is uneven at best, some of the redneck dialogue is hopelessly corny, the sex-crazed-black-dude-with-a-harem-of-white-honeys-in-the-woods trope ought to come off as a hell of lot more offensive than it somehow manages to, and a couple guys in a zip-up pig suit at the end should be just plain laughable. And yet —

The tone Isaac takes with this admittedly outrageous material is so absolutely spot-on that the whole mishmash really works. He never takes events too seriously, yet he doesn’t play it all for laughs, either. As I mentioned earlier, the terrific filming locations really help set the mood, and there’s some genuine suspense here that makes itself felt at all the right times. the “cult-commune” set-up is both absurdly OTT and suitably creepy at the same time. The rednecks come off as both hopelessly stereotypical and honestly threatening. And the giant pig — as well as most of the non-CGI-gore effects liberally interspersed throughout — really does look pretty damn good. So count me as a believer in Isaac again, because any slight shift in tone or emphasis here and we’d be firmly into truly absurdist territory. There’s literally only one way for any mix this heady and outrageous to work without turning into some sort of self-parody, and our guy Jim finds it.

Yes, Pig Hunt is outrageous. And on paper, it probably looked like a giant quagmire waiting for some helpless sap to fall into it. But in its realization, Jim Isaac really hits the ball out of the park. It’s nothing groundbreaking or extraordinary, but it’s way better than it probably has any right to be, and it’s a solidly entertaining time from the word go to the word stop. It’s comical where it needs to be, suspenseful where it needs to be, and uniformly in tune with both its material and its audience throughout. With a no-name cast, a small budget (apparently around $6 million), challenging  working conditions, and a short-and-tight shooting schedule, one could be forgiven for expecting an unholy mess. Instead, it’s a damn solid little flick that will make you laugh, creep you out just a bit, show you a few corners of society you’re unlikely to see for yourself (albeit in heavily caricatureized form) and even keep you on the edge of your seat. Making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, indeed.

Let’s be perfectly honest here right off the bat — in recent years, it’s become almost de riguer for so-called “serious” horror fans to slag off Wes Craven’s Scream franchise, and to be honest this critical re-appraisal — because more or less everybody liked ’em at the time, regardless of whether or not they admit to it now — isn’t entirely unwarranted.

After all, the shtick did kind of wear itself out a bit by the third installment, and even though every segment in the original trilogy kept you guessing and was a decent enough way to burn 90 minutes, the whole idea of a horror film that was so self-aware that it not only flaunted its standard conventions but essentially based its entire plot around them went from feeling kinda cool to seeming downright smug (if still more fun than we liked to admit) in pretty short order.

By the time it ended (or so we thought), even though it hadn’t run out of gas creatively speaking, it seemed like it might be smart to bury it before it played itself out. We know the rules, you (the figurative “you” here being Craven and his various and sundry cohorts) know the rules, we know you know the rules, and you know we know you know the rules. that kind of setup goes from being (or, to be totally fair, seeming) revolutionary to feeling kind of tired pretty quickly, and the brains behind Scream, to their credit, knew when to stop.

Still, you gotta admire the ingeniously simple hustle they perpetrated — don’t come up with anything new, just reveal your hand from the outset and therefore make your self-admittedly derivative plot set-up seem relatively fresh and exciting. No originality needed — just awareness of what you’re doing and a willingness to construct a film (or as events unfolded, a series of films) around the knowledge that the audience knows the rules going in every bit as well as you do yourself.

Just over ten years later, Scream 4‘s tag line promises us “New Decade. New rules.” I guess that’s partially true, but the set-up remains essentially the same — the so-called “new rules” are laid bare not just in deeds but in words, to make sure we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet, and then the film itself proceeds to play by those “new rules” pretty much to the letter while still keeping us guessing throughout.

This may all sound a whole lot less than inspired — and frankly it is — but damn if it’s not a lot of fun to piece thing out along the way, as usual. And to be perfectly blunt, this may well be the most successful of all the Scream films in terms of genuinely keeping you off-guard while sticking strictly to its self-aware formula yet. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking going on here — old Ghostface is back and this time he’s not just calling his victims, he’s texting them and messaging them on facebook as well, so what? — but its not so much about the genre trappings as it is about their execution, and Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson  are obviously having a blast leading us along their oh-so-clearly-delineated map.

We begin with the metafilm elements of the “Stab” film series that Craven played with some in the original trilogy (and that he in truth first experimented with in the criminally underrated New Nightmare, his last — and best — take on the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise) and after some mind-fucking there we go right into the meat and bones of the ‘actual” story — Sidney Prescott (Never Campbell, who I swear to God doesn’t age) is back in her hometown of Woodsboro on the tenth anniversary of the original killings as part of her nationwide tour promoting a best-selling “survivor’s story”-type tell-all that she’s written. Meanwhile, Gale Weathers (now Gale Weathers-Riley, as she’s married to Dewy Riley, who’s now the sheriff — the two roles still being portrayed, as you’d expect, by Courtney Cox and her real-life ex-husband, David Arquette) has risen to prominence by writing salacious “true crime”-style potboilers about the crimes which became the basis of the “Stab” (meta)film series. Sidney’s staying with her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and Jill’s  mother Kate (Mary McDonnell) while she’s in town, and soon the calls start coming (and texts, and facebook messages — but mostly calls) and the bodies start piling up. No doubt about it, Ghostface is back at work, and as more and more people close to Sidney start to die (and the deaths are substantially more gruesome in this one), it becomes apparent that he’s circling the drain, so to speak, and saving her murder for the very end — or is he?

Honestly, that’s about all the plot recap you need to know going in, since anything more is just gonna give some crucial shit away, and probably inadvertently at that, so I’ll shut up about all that now. The less you know at the outset the better, even though as all the so-called “new” rules are revealed, you’ll realize you know them already. We’ve got a “new generation” of teen horror stars having their coming-out party here (Rory Culkin, Erik Knudsen, Kristen Bell, Hayden Panettiere, etc.) and brief-but-fun turns from established vets like Anna Paquin and Heather Graham (starring in a quick “Stab” segment directed by Robert Rodriguez), but there’s really nothing new under the sun here — even if it seems like it for a minute.

And therein lies the essential genius, I think,  of the entire Scream ouevre — to take what’s old and make it seem new again — at least until you leave the theater — just by pointing it all out so brazenly. In the hands of a lesser director, this would come off as being a hopeless cop-out perpetrated by a hack who’s run out of anything to say. But with Wes Craven running the show (and I’m pleased to say he’s back in top from here after the travesty that was My Soul To Take), it plays out like exactly what it is — essentially a violent and sorta-gory Whodunnit that leaves you kicking yourself for not having figured the whole thing out earlier because, shit, the clues were all there — they even said so. I even stopped worrying about ever seeing Courtney Cox get killed (I’m hoping she’ll suffer a spectacularly graphic demise at some point here — sorry folks, always hated her, always will) about halfway through the flick and just relaxed and enjoyed the ride — hell, I enjoyed it thoroughly, at that.And for a cynical, grizzled horror fan like me (albeit one that sees plenty of rancid horror flicks and frankly expects them to be nothing but derivative, uninspired junk going on), that’s not an easy mindset to achieve, I assure you. I therefore duly salute Mr. Craven for delivering a product so goddamned fun that even the “seen it all before”-types in the audience will enjoy it.

Because  he knows we’ve seen it all before. And we know he knows. And he knows we know he knows. And — ahhh shit, we’ve been through all that already.

And so everything old isn’t new again, but it seems new again for as long as our butts are parked in the seats, and frankly, that’s more than enough in this day and age.  Maybe the time has finally come to admit, as has begun to happen with The Blair Witch Project, that’s the mainstream-crossover success of the Scream series — these films that have escaped the ghetto and achieved some modicum of actual respectability — didn’t  appeal to such a wide audience because they were stupid, or because they were sellouts, or even because the vast majority of the American moviegoing public are brainless idiots with no taste whatsoever (well, okay, they are, but that’s another matter for another time), but because they flat-out deserved it. I know, I know, it’s a radical concept for horror aficionados to get their heads around — but it’s one worth considering.

Barring any unforeseen miracle, Scream 4 will surely go down — with people honest enough with themselves to admit it — as the good-time horror film of the year. I’ll hate it — and hate myself for ever having liked it — later. For now, screw it, let’s party.

"Scream Bloody Murder" Movie Poster, Under Its Original Title "The Captive Female"

Continuing my perusal though the Chilling Classics cheapie 50-pack from Mill Creek last evening, I came across a surprising little gem from co-writer (along with Larry Alexander)/director Marc B. Ray (who apparently primarily made his living writing for kids’ shows like Lidsville and New Zoo Revue) that goes by the utterly ubiquitous grindhouse title of Scream Bloody Murder.

Shot in and around  Los Angeles and Venice, California locations in 1971, this evidently sat on the shelf until 1973 when it was released under the far more plot-appropriate name The Captive Female (but since every single DVD release it’s been given has been under the Scream Bloody Murder tag, that’s what we’ll go with here — it was also re-circulated under the name Matthew around 1976, hoping to cash in, I would guess, on the one-word-psycho title craze in the wake of Damien and all that), and it’s a pleasantly competent and atmospheric little zero-budgeter that features a couple of very strong lead performances from Leigh Mitchell and, most notably, Fred Holbert.

How's That For A Quick Title-Swap On A Poster?

Our story opens with a young kid on a farm who decides to run over his dad with their tractor for whatever fucking reason. He hasn’t thought things though too well, though, and when he falls off the still-running tractor himself, it crushes his hand. Next thing you know it’s a good 10 or 15 years later and the kid (named Matthew, which you’d probably already guessed from the previous paragraph, and portrayed by Fred Holbert, which I’m betting you’d figured out, as well) has been fitted with a hook hand and is about to be released from an extended stay in the loony bin (whoever authorized this hopefully lost their job, because our guy Matthew is quite obviously still batshit crazy right from the outset).  He soon heads home to mother’s farm, and we learn in no time flat that the reason he killed is old man is because he’s got seriously unresolved Oedipal issues and wants to keep mommy all to himself.

Needless to say, when dear mother shows up at the door fresh from her marriage ceremony to a well-meaning “swell guy”-type of fella named Mr. Parsons, Matthew doesn’t take to the new situation too well. He quickly hacks Mr. Parsons to death with an axe, but when his mom discovers the murder-in-progress, a tussle ensues and she ends up breaking her neck on a rock. Matthew’s plan to keep her all to himself has apparently backfired again, just like it did when he was a kid, and next thing you know he’s on the road, trying to thumb a ride out of town before his crimes are discovered.

He’s picked up by a young newlywed couple who seem like nice enough folks, but when they pull over for a quick dip in the river, and get to making out, Matthew’s seen enough and starts throwing rocks at them and screaming “Don’t touch her!!!!!!!!!!!” at the guy. He ends up knocking the poor SOB dead, and when he goes to “rescue” the woman and promise her sweet nothings like “no one will ever have to touch you again,” he starts seeing images of his dead mom flashing in his mind and whaddaya know, he ends up strangling her and leaving the two dead bodies floating in the water.

Matthew’s forced to high-tail it out of town even faster now, and gets a lift in the back of a pickup truck to a serene beachfront community, where he quickly makes the acquaintance of a local free-spirit named Vera (Leigh Mitchell) who’s painting on a canvas in front of her bungalow. Matthew quickly takes a liking to her and asks if he can be her friend and Vera, trusting swinging 70s chick that she is, says sure, that would be nice. He even asks is he can call her Daisy (his late mother’s name), and for reasons I guess known only to her, she agrees.

Things get a bit complicated, though, when a drunken sailor shows up at her door, interrupting their conversation, and we learn that Vera’s a hooker (who apprently works out of her own house), and Matthew’s gotta make tracks so she can attend to business. Needless to say, this doesn’t exactly sit well with our hook-handed Oedipal loon, and he waits outside Vera’s place until nightfall, when the sailor departs , whereby he follows him to a bridge, kills him, and dumps his body in the river (after explaining to the guy that Vera hated it when he touched her, of course).

So the set-up here is pretty obvious, of course — the sexually-impotent Matthew is looking for a surrogate mommy-figure and is repulsed by the idea of any man getting it on with any of the women he comes across who might fulfill that role. The next morning, though, upon a return visit to Vera’s place (he doesn’t waste much time), he kicks his obsession into another gear and spins her a line of bullshit about how his dad is rich, he lives in a mansion, and he can take care of her from now on and she’ll nevver have to let any sailors touch her again.

Smelling his line for what it is, and finally figuring out this guy might not be that stable, she politely sends him on his way — but he promises he’ll be back to prove to her that his wild claims are true. And that’s when our breezy little psycho- tale takes a sudden turn for the even crazier —

"Sorry, Lady, But I Need The House!"

Casing out a neighborhood in the ritzy part of town, Matthew rings the doorbell of the mansion of an elderly shut-in who’s attended to by her long-suffering maid. He quickly ingratiates himself to her by spouting some nonsense about his car being broken down around the corner and no one in the neighborhood being willing to let him come in and use their phone. She says “don;t that sound just like the people around here” and agrees to let him enter the kitchen and make a call, and he summarily fake-phones-up a non-existent auto repair shop while eyeing up the surroundings. The dog is barking. the maid is cutting up chicken with a meat cleaver.The old bat upstairs is screaming for her to come change the TV channel. She bitches back at her as she heads up the staircase, flips the fucking channel for the demanding wench, and when she comes back down, we’re treated to the very effective close-up of Matthew seen just above, he says those exact words in the caption, and next thing you know —

"Help Wanted : New Maid"

In short order, the old woman and the dog (relax, they don’t show it) are history, too, Matthew dumps their dead bodies in the basement, and he’s got himself a mansion and a Rolls Royce (or maybe it’s a Bentley, I dunno). Time to go romance his lady!

He shows up at her door, talks her into taking a ride over to his (supposed) palatial digs, and when they get there he lays his heavy trip on her about coming to live with him and letting him take care of her and not having to let any man ever touch her again and all that shit. Vera tries to calmly explain to him that she’s not for sale (well, okay, she is, but you know what I mean), and when that doesn’t work out, a hasty escape attempt results in her falling down the stairs and being knocked out cold.

I bet you can guess what happens next, can’t you? Yup, when Vera wakes up, she finds out she’s not going anywhere

Not My Idea Of A First Date, But Hey, We All Have Our Quirks

Now Matthew’s got Vera right where he wants her — namely tied-up and gagged in bed. And while the average movie maniac would take this occasion to — uhhmmm — have his way with the damsel in distress, hook-boy has an altogether different idea of a good time, He mugs an old lady, rips off a store, and soon he’s back home with groceries and art supplies. Regaling her with heartfelt platitudes like “Look what I got you! A steak! Whoever bought you that before, huh? Nobody, that’s who!” and  “See what I do for you? I get groceries, and clothes, and art stuff, and kill people — and do you appreciate it?” , it quickly becomes obvious that’s there’s bound to be some trouble in Matthew’s little paradise.

He feeds her while her hands are bound at the table and she spits the food back in his face. He leads her around the house on a fucking leash and forces her to paint because he knows she loves art. A couple of half-assed attempts at escape go nowhere. And finally Vera’s forced to fall back on her one proven set of skills in order to get out of there. She tells Matthew she needs a bath. He becomes nervous, as you’d expect by now, at the sight of her naked body. She figures he must be a virgin. And the full-on game of seduction begins —

The Object Of Our One-Armed Leading Man's Affections

Will Matthew fall prey to her charms? Will he get over his mommy hang-ups and decide he wants to fuck this admittedly rather fetching lady after all? And will she be able to use the confusion and/or straight-up horniness her feminine wiles cause to effect her escape? I’ve probably given away too damn much already, so I’ll leave that for you to find out!

Obviously, we’ve covered a plethora of films about serial killers with mommy fixations here before, but Scream Bloody Murder is definitely a cut above the rest. As I mentioned previously, both leads are very strong, with Mitchell oozing a type of self-aware confidence throughout, even in the most harrowing of situations and even (hell, especially) when compromising herself, and Holbert turning in a delightfully unbalanced performance that’s equal parts realistic and pathetic. Matthew is never portrayed as a sympathetic figure by director Ray by any means, and what could easily be a misogynistic tale in less capable hands is always quite clearly on the side of the victim, but you can’t help but be drawn Holbert’s utterly involving portrayal. You won’t sympathize with Matthew by any means, but you won’t be able to absolutely hate him, either. It’s a rare performance that’s both unsettling and — dare I say it — a lot of fun.

One Place You Can Find "Scream Bloody Murder" ---

--- And Another.

Scream Bloody Murder is a public domain film and has been released on DVD a number of times. From all I can gather, they’re all struck from the same print — it’s a  full-frame transfer that’s generally pretty crummy and washed-out looking, particularly in the early scenes outdoors, and the soundtrack is mono all the way. Both the rattiness of the visuals and the sound serve the material just fine, though, as this is a flick that’s definitely most at home swimming at the bottom of the grindhouse barrel (where, naturally, much of the best stuff is to be found). If you want bang for your buck, I’d say pick it up as either one of four films on the Blood-O-Rama DVD set from Superchiller (along with Black Mamba, Blood Theatre, and The Torture Chamber Of Dr. Sadism, if you must know), or better yet, get it as part of the 50-movie Chilling Classics box from Mill Creek, where you get hours and hours of pure cinema trash for around ten bucks.

All in all, this film is a genuine rarity — a sleaze flick not only with heart, but with soul. The sympathies of the audience are never once directed towards the killer, but Holbert is so damn convincing as Matthew that you’ll find yourself taken in by his side of the story, if you will, nevertheless. Everyone from a strident feminist to a diehard misogynist will find something to like here, and be able to interpret the events onscreen in a way that fits their worldview. Quite clearly the director’s POV is with the victim rather than the perpetrator, but the fine performances of the actors raise the stakes and even — almost — split your loyalties.

You obviously don’t want your daughter bringing Matthew home, by any means — but at least he’ll probably keep his hands off her. As long as she plays by his rules.

Let’s get one thing straight about writer-director Larry Cohen(who we always seem to come back to every few months around here)’s 1973 mini-opus Black Caesar : this is most assuredly not a blaxploitation film in any traditional sense.

Oh, sure, it was marketed to the African American audience. And yes, a formerly-trod-upon black guy getting his revenge on “The Man” is a central theme here. And yeah, it’s got a kick-ass soul music soundtrack (in this case supplied by the one and only James Brown himself). And okay, it stars none other than Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and features D’Urville Martin in a supporting role as a crooked preacher.

So fair enough, it’s got all the trappings of your classic blaxploitation flick. But right there, bubbling away just underneath the surface, hiding in plain sight, there’s an unstoppable rhythm that grinds away more ferociously than the vocal stylings of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. An undeniable trajectory that guides the plot along like a force of nature. We know it’ll all end either in tears or in a bittersweet “victory” that stings more than it soars, yet we can’t turn away despite the fact that the fate of the film’s central protagonist, one Tommy Gibbs (Williamson, in the role that made him a household name), is written in the stars. Yes, friends, this is classic Shakespearean tragedy as its finest — albeit in truncated form and set in Harlem.

When we join the story, our guy Tommy is a hard-working shoeshine kid in the 1950s who helps out the local hoods by setting a guy up to get whacked and running a payoff over to a local crooked cop. When the payoff envelope he delivers turns up a little light, the aforementioned morally compromised police officer, one Captain McKinney (the great Art Lund) takes it out on Tommy and busts his leg with his nightstick. And that right there is his biggest mistake, because Tommy Gibbs never forgets, and he never lets a grudge go.

As he lays in bed with leg in a cast, he begins to hatch his master plan, his rise to the top — he learned all he needed to know about the world when McKinney’s billy club whacked him, and he knows without a doubt that the name of the game is power. First he’s gonna get McKinney and every other white asshole just like him to bow down before him, and then he’s gonna bring ’em all down at the precise moment he’s got them eating out of his hand.

Next thing we know it’s 20 years later and Tommy’s making his mark as a hit man for the mob who’ll take on the jobs nobody else wants. the Italian “family” bosses don’t trust him, of course, but when he’s given a block of his own in Harlem that none of them want, he makes it work, and soon he’s expanding his territory — and taking over theirs. Tommy Gibbs soon becomes known as the “Black Godfather,” and as his influence grows, the same guys who first gave him a chance begin to view him as a threat. It’s only a matter of time before Tommy gets too big for his britches and is brought down hard.

Along the way, though, he becomes the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Harlem crime world — but not without paying a price. Oh, sure, he gets McKinney, and every other bent lawman and politician, right where he wants them, and soon the guys who used to give him his marching orders are all taking the same from him. But the first person to see Tommy for the monster he’s become is none other than his own mother. When Tommy offers her everything she ever wanted and then some, she turns him down flat. When his estranged father re-enters the picture later, the results are no different. And his single-minded determination to “make it” manages to alienate his wife (there’s a particularly gritty scene that marks one of the few times I’ve actually seen a film portray spousal rape  as the horrendous violation ) and drive her into the waiting arms of his best friend.

Needless to say, by the time our Mr. Gibbs finally has everything he wants — or more precisely everything he thought he wanted — he’s alone and finds he’s really got nothing. There’s been one thing driving him on all these years, though, one thing that he can still take care of before the curtain drops on his classically-structured tragedy — he can finally get even with McKinney, personally. Tommy’s a very sharp guy and senses that he’s on the way out, but before he goes, he’s going to take the symbol of all his former oppression and victimization down with him, goddamnit!

Okay, so this isn’t a particularly original set-up in and of itself (“be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” and all that) — but the the oldest stories are still the best. As I stated at the outset, Black Caesar is genuinely Shakespearean in its structure (and Shakespeare got it from the Greeks — remember Oedipus, the very first tragedy?), but Cohen does a terrific job of serving us up a story we’ve seen a thousand times before in a way that’s fresh, exciting, and for its time, frankly even a little bit revolutionary. the characters here, even down to the smallest supporting parts, are interesting and involving, even if they’re only there to serve as convenient plot devices. The dialogue is uniformly smart and realistic throughout, the actual Harlem filming locations are well-portrayed, Williamson is flat-out superb in the title role (equal parts compelling, repulsive, sympathetic, and alienating — we can always relate to his portrayal of Tommy even when we can no longer condone any of his actions), and at no point do you feel like there’s no way this could happen. This is a thinking person’s exploitation flick, and folks with a background in classical literature are going to feel more intrigued than insulted or pandered to by it. There’s nothing wrong with telling the same old story very well, after all, and that’s exactly what Black Caesar does. Sure, at the end of the day you could make the argument that it’s essentially a Cliff’s Notes version (right about 90 minutes) of The Bard transposed into an urban ghetto environment, but that’s actually a pretty cool thing, especially when done with  professionalism and passion — both of which are on display here in ample quantities throughout. Frankly, while Larry Cohen can usually be counted on to crank out a competent piece of work, this is as close as I’ve ever seen him come to genuinely inspired moviemaking.

Black Caesar is available on DVD from MGM as part of its Soul Cinema line (of course). It’s (again, of course) essentially a bare-bones release that offers nothing by way of extras apart from the original theatrical trailer, but the anamorphic widescreen transfer looks great, especially considering its age, and the 2.0 stereo sound does the admittedly killer soundtrack pretty solid justice. It’s also playing for free all month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite systems.  So do yourself a favor and check it out — I’ve got a feeling that no less an authority than William Shakespeare himself would be more flattered than insulted by it.

Not so long ago we took a look at Pam Grier’s finest hour, Coffy, and I thought it would be fun to follow it up quickly with a re-watch, and subsequent review, of a flick that’s generally considered to be one of her more uninspired starring turns, namely late exploitation king William Girdler’s 1975 offering Sheba, Baby.

A lot of the criticism this flick comes in for is frankly pretty well-founded — far from being “Hotter’n Coffy” and “Meaner’n Foxy Brown” as the tag line on the poster claims, this is a pretty tame and formulaic affair, with Pam pretty much just running through the motions. Here she portrays one of her fairly standard characters, a tough-as-nails Chicago P.I. named Sheba Shayne who comes home to Louisville, Kentucky (where Girdler shot most of his early work) when her dad’s neighborhood loan operation is vandalized and the old man himself attacked by some vicious hoods trying to run him out of business  who work for a mid-level loan shark/all-around operator named Pilot (the always-reliable D’Urville Martin) who in turn works for a higher authority who goes by the name of Shark (Dick Merrifield) and is busily consolidating control of all the various rackets in the black neighborhoods around town. Honest businessmen like Sheba’s pop and his partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker, with whom Sheba subsequently rekindles an on-again/off-again relationship) hasn’t got a chance when the crime lords decide that legit loan operations are standing in the way of the 20-30% vig they can charge desperate people who have no legit alternatives to take their custom to.

Along the way Pam goes undercover and tries to lure the crime bosses in with her always-alluring feminine wiles, kicks a lot of ass, takes a bunch f names, tussles with lazy, crooked cops who are in for a piece of the action — you know the drill. It’s not like she’s gonna lose in the end or anything, and even though there’s a twist of pathos added when her dad gets killed about halfway through the flick, you know that sooner or later (in fact, in just about 90 minutes’ time), our gal Sheba is bound to bring down the whole operation.

Sadly, Sheba, Baby is pretty light on the mayhem and violence front, with what few killings there are being relatively bloodless affairs, and Pam’s ample — uhhhhmmm — assets are more or less obscured throughout with only some almost-but-not-quite nudity in a couple of spots, but I still don’t think this thing would garner the PG rating it got at the time if it were released in this day and age (to those who say that you can get away with more in the movies these days I humbly beg to differ — plenty of PG-rated flicks in the 1970s had more sex and violence that many contemporary R-rated features).

On the technical front, Girdler, who would go on to give us such notable exploitation classics as Grizzly and Day Of The Animals before dying in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for an upcoming film project at the tragically young age of 30, and who co-wrote the script for this feature, struggles a bit. He doesn’t seem to have mastered anything beyond basic point-and-shoot filming techniques at this point in his all-too-brief career, and the editing is uniformly amateurish throughout, which especially detracts from some key action sequences.

All in all, though, I can’t be too hard on Sheba, Baby. Even in a by-the-numbers effort like this one, Grier still oozes charisma and bad-ass sex appeal and can carry a film on attitude and poise alone. She shines more brightly when she’s got better material to work with, of course, but even her substandard fare usually gives her enough (even if it’s only just enough) to sink her acting chops into, and her natural dynamism has a way of carrying even the most hackneyed scripts further than they deserve to go. Simply put, she’s essentially the only reason to see this movie, but she’s more than enough.

I guess I can’t really recommend Sheba, Baby to anyone but the most diehard Pam fans or blaxploitation completists, but it’s still got more going for it than most of what comes out of the Hollywood meat grinder these days and certainly isn’t any more formulaic than, say, the latest Michael Bay blockbuster. It hasn’t got the soul of a Coffy or even a Foxy Brown, but it’s still not a bad way to spend an hour and a half of your life by any means.

Sheba, Baby is available on DVD from MGM, who see to have acquired nearly all of the old American International Pictures catalog,  as part of its Soul Cinema line. It’s pretty much a bare-bones release, but the widescreen anamorphic transfer and mono sound are perfectly serviceable. It’s also playing all this month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite TV systems, and is certainly worth a look if there’s nothing else on TV — which, let’s be honest, there pretty much never is.

I suppose I should start by clarifying that headline just a tad —I don’t mean to imply that writer-director James Nguyen’s 2008 cinematic opus (and the latest big-time midnight cult sensation) Birdemic : Shock And Terror is literally the last film you should see out of the millions that are out there. Truth is, you should see it right away and watch and re-watch it often. What I mean is that after seeing it, you may just feel like you never need to see another movie. After all, whatever you watch next is only gonna disappoint you. It’s only gonna let you down. It’s only gonna leave you with a hollow, empty, unsatisfied feeling inside. Because it’s not Birdemic.

Yes, friends, I have been to the mountaintop. I have seen the promised land. I have found the Holy Grail of all bad films. And its’ name is Birdemic : Shock And Terror.

Since my first viewing, I’ve been hooked, and a strange sort of inner peace and serenity has settled over me. Inner turmoil and doubt and restlessness have disappeared from my life, replaced by a feeling of sublime satisfaction. A life-long quest is over. I feel — dare I say it — complete. My life is now divided into two distinct time periods — B.B. and A. B . Because surely this film can never be topped — and frankly it doesn’t even need to be.

But first a little background. Folks, the world is fucking ending. Oh, sure, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, and maybe not even next year. Nope, nothiing so exciting. But the meter on our continued survival as a species is running. The hourglass is almost totally out of sand. And while you’ve been drinking beer, eating pizza, flipping channels, and occasionally trying to get laid, James Nguyen has been worrying. He’s been worrying enough for all of us. And he’s decided to get up off his ass and take action!

Ya see, there’s a little thing going on called global warming. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Al Gore made a movie about it called An Inconvenient Truth. It won an Oscar. James Nguyen saw it and it changed his fucking life! Up until that point, he’d just been a guy who loved Alfred Hitchcock and wanted to rip off his Master’s style with his HD video camera and no money. He even got Tippi Hedren herself to play a cameo role in one of his backyard “romantic thrillers” (and she pops up for a split-second here, too).  But the epiphany our guy James had watching the former VP warn us of our impending doom left him a changed man. Now, he was gonna do a dime-store Hitchcock knock-off with a message, goddamnit, and even if he had to stand on top of a chair and scream at the top of his lungs, he was gonna make sure he got noticed !

And I’ll be fucked if he didn’t do just that.

It has to be said, what Nguyen (obviously) lacks in talent and (even more obviously) lacks in funds, he more than makes up for in sheer bloody-minded earnestness and determination. Birdemic : Shock And Terror is hardly the most accomplished, professional, or even competent piece of filmmaking you’ll ever see, but it’s probably the absolute most sincere. And as for the determination I just referred to — well, when Sundance rejected James’ film for inclusion, he spent the entire week of the festival driving around Park City, Uta —, up and down the same couple of blocks over and over, in fact — in a minivan with plastic dead birds stuck to it and “BIRDEMIC” written all over it. Really. Say what you will for the man, but he damn sure believes in his work.

And you know what? So do I. Honestly, how can you not? It’s like the kid you went to school with who was so convinced of his own coolness in spit of the fact that he was as uncool as anyone could possibly be that after awhile you start to respect him and think that he really is cool because his belief in his awesomeness continues, unabated, in spit of all the evidence to the contrary staring him in the face. Nguyen is so utterly unflappable in his conviction that he’s made something of genuine, earth-shattering importance here that he doesn’t let the pesky fact that his leading man (Alan Bagh) is quite possibly the worst, most wooden “actor” (and believe me I use that term fucking loosely) to ever appear in front of camera, or that his CGI team has created the most incompetently-realized effects in cinematic history, or that the sound drops in and out during his movie at all times, detract from his essential belief in the rightness of his message. he doesn’t even let digressions into other topics like sermonizing against the Iraq war distract him for too long. He’s on a mission to save the world from global warming, and nothing’s gonna get in his way.

Shot entirely on the fly without permits, with his “stars” (Bagh and Whitney Moore, who can almost, sort-of act) doubling as his crew, and with no eye for little things like shot composition, basic acoustics, lighting, or even a sensible, comprehensible plot (despite the fact that a story about two young  Bay Area lovebirds who meet, get attacked by a marauding army of eagles and vultures, fight the airborne menaces off  with coat hangers and pistols , and live to see another day at the end is so simple that it really ought to make sense, sheer absurdity and all that aside), Birdemic : Shock And Terror is nothing if not a labor of deep, passionate, unhinged, stalker-ish love. Nguyen pursues his goal with the tenacity of  an ex who won’t leave you the fuck alone. Of  a sandwich that you keep tasting long after you want to. Of a that dude you hated in high school but friended on facebook anyway who messages you every time you’re online. Of an  overbearing relative who calls at the worst possible times and drones on for hours.

And like all many of those things, somehow, some way, for some reason — he wins you over. He reels you in like a fish. And like that fish , you’re hooked. For my part I can’t tell you how many times the thought of “damn, I could be watching Birdemic right now” has gone through my head over the last few months. There’s no escaping it. I’ve had it happen at work. I’ve had it happen while I’m driving. I’ve had it happen at the theater while I’m  watching another movie. I’ve had it happen while babysitting my niece and nephew (a fact I’m none too proud of, but there you have it). Fortunately, thanks to the fine folks at Severin Films, who have obtained exclusive worldwide distribution rights to this mighty statement of cinematic art, you can now scratch that Birdemic itch anytime on DVD or Blu-Ray, in a package loaded with extras that include two commentary tracks (one from Nguyen, who still seems somehow blissfully unaware of the fact that people are laughing at him and not with him, and one from Bagh and Moore — if you rent this film rather than buying it, make sure you listen to both of these in their entirety before returning the disc or you’ll seriously be missing out), a cable-access TV interview with Nguyen, footage from various live Birdemic screenings around the world, previews of Nguyen’s other film work, deleted scenes and outtakes, a preview for the upcoming documentary feature Moviehead : The James Nguyen Story, and lots of other goodies (on the technical front, the anamorphic widescreen transfer and stereo sound are as good as they’re gonna be given the technical limitations of both the equipment and the guy who made the film). This disc has got everything and the kitchen sink, and I urge you to hunt down a copy immediately. You’ll be thanking me for the rest of your life.

Okay, in fairness, there’s lots about this flick that makes no fucking sense whatsoever and that can only be answered by listening to the director’s commentary track. Questions like “why do some of the birds explode?” (they’ve turned toxic from global warming) and “what the hell is going on at the end with those tiny birds you can barely see?” (they’re doves, who represent peace and have come on the scene to call the attacking vultures and eagles off and give humanity another chance) aren’t actually, you know, answered on screen and I guess you could fairly make the claim that’s a big strike against Nguyen in the comprehensibility department. But no matter. Birdemic : Shock And Terror weaves a kind of occult rhythm around its viewers that makes you forget about pesky little details like “what the fuck exactly is going on here?” and just surrender to its bizarre internal reality. You won’t be able to resist it. You won’t want to. And you won’t care about ever seeing another movie again.

Because you’ve entered into B-movie nirvana. You have achieved everything you’ve ever sought. Your purpose in life has been fulfilled. You can die happy now.

And with that, I’m gonna quit writing about Birdemic : Shock And Terror and go watch it again.

Ever had a flick you haven’t seen in awhile and been pleasantly surprised to find, upon re-watching it, that it’s every bit as good as you remember, and maybe even better? Such is the case with your host’s recent viewing of Joe Dante’s seminal 1978 Jaws rip-off,  Piranha.

Oh, sure, it’s a lot less bloody than I remember, and the fish are a lot more rubbery looking to me now than they were the last time I saw this (which has gotta be nearly a couple decades ago now), but it’s a lot more atmospheric and just plain fun than my pubescent brain gave it credit for being. And now that Shout! Factory has finally re-released it on DVD as part of their Roger Corman’s Cult Classics line (loaded with the usual awesome assemblage of extras we’ve come to expect from this gift-to-B-movie-aficionados series, including a brand-new “making-of” featurette, deleted scenes and outtakes, all the extra scenes added for the television broadcast version (yes, once the brief nudity and a little of the blood was edited out, this flick ran considerably under the standard network movie-slot runtime and extra scenes were shot to pad the flick out), radio spots, TV spots, a couple trailers, and a feature-length commentary track featuring director Dante and producer Jon Davison — oh, and the anamorphic widescreen transfer and remastered mono sound are both damn solid, to boot), we can all enjoy this camp, 50’s-influenced classic time and again in the privacy of our own homes. Who says life ain’t great?

The setup is as basic as they come : skip-tracer’s gal Friday Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) gets sent by her boss to find a couple of missing teenagers who disappeared near a Texas river, meets up with local drunk divorcee Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman, doing his best Andrew Prine imitation, which causes the mid to reel for a minute when you consider the question “How cheap is Roger Corman? So cheap he didn’t even hire Andrew fucking Prine to play a role pretty much tailor-made for him!”) who’s holing up in a cabin near where the two young lovebirds probably disappeared and enlists his more-than-reluctant help in finding them, and in their investigations they run across a formerly-employed-by-the-guv’mint mad scientist (Kevin McCarthy) who’s bread a mutant strain of killer piranha capable of surviving in cold water (he wanted to use ’em to win the Viet Nam war — really) and our erstwhile heroes commit the fuck-up of the century by accidentally releasing the flesh-eating fish into the river, where they soon threaten both the summer camp where Grogan’s daughter (played by Belinda Balaski) is staying and the new white trash water park just opened up by local unscrupulous tycoon Buck Gradner (Dick Miller, who’s just about the coolest B-movie actor of all time). Cult stalwarts like Keenan Wynn and Barbra Steele turn up in side roles along the way as the military and local law enforcement get involved, and pretty soon there’s a full-court press on to lock up and shut up our intrepid amateur sleuths who just want to save people from certain scaly doom while the powers-that-be seem more interested in averting widespread panic, keeping their dirty little secret scientific breeding program under wraps, and protecting sleazy Buck’s profit margins. It’ll all end in tears, I tell ya, it’ll all end in tears.

Actually, no it won’t, it’ll end on a totally brazen ready-for-sequel non-climax. But we won’t hold that classic exploitation hustle against D ante and his cohorts because along the way we’re treated to a combination of Jaws on a (shoestring) budget, summer camp horror of the Friday The 13th variety (albeit a few years before that slasher classic came along), a mishmash of classic 1950s B-movie style set-ups, some genuinely interesting and dare I even say charming characters, incisively witty dialogue (no huge surprise given that future indie auteur par excellence John Sayles wrote the script), solid suspense, and some of the best editing you’ll ever see in a flick this cheap. The whole thing has a surprisingly professional feel for such an overtly amateur effort and it’s really no surprise that so many of the people behind the scenes went on to have such lucrative and successful film careers. Like the titular piranha themselves, Dante, Sayles, and their counterparts (most notable co-editor Mark Goldblatt) cut their teeth on this movie and then went on to bigger, meatier fare.

Piranha is by no means top-notch, high-brow filmmaking, but it’s way better than it’s probably got any right to be, especially in terms of its production values, it’s got a comedy-romp pace and feel to it, and it never insults its audience even while (quite obviously) not taking itself too terribly seriously. It’s got plenty of heart and almost as much brains. And I’m kicking myself for having neglected it for so long.

So dive on in and enjoy yourself — sure the water’s cold, and the fish bite, but that’s the whole point! Don’t wait 20 years to get around to watching this bona fide cut-rate classic again, especially now that a readily-available (and terrific) DVD release frankly offers you no excuse to do so.