Archive for October, 2011

Don’t look now, but Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity series is on the verge of becoming the most successful horror franchise of all time.

Take a minute and absorb that before we move on. Not Halloween. Not Friday The 13th. Not A Nightmare On Elm Street. Not Scream. Not even Saw or Final Destination.

This series — which many people didn’t even expect to see so much as one sequel to, a sequel which many of us initially thought had Blair Witch 2 written all over it, is set to pass all of those other venerable horror staples in total box-office gross after only its third installment.

That’s impressive enough in and of itself, but even more impressive is the fact that, despite looking for all intents and purposes like a one-trick pony, the Paranormal Activity flicks actually are finding new and creative ways to keep the story going, namely by continuing to move further and further back into the past. I don’t know how long that can be kept up — and let’s face it, at some point we’ve gotta have an actual, proper sequel to the first one, so we can all find out just what the hell happened there, but for now going deeper into the origins of the demonic entity stalking the Katie n’ Kristi duo is proving to be immensely satisfying.

For Paranormal Activity 3, brought to us courtesy of the directorial team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the same folks behind last year’s was-it-a-documentary-or-not Catfish — and truth be told, their involvement with this film and their expert use of faux-documentary techniques on display here leads me to believe more strongly than ever that their first film was, in fact, made-up bullshit) we’re all the way back to 1988, when our heroines were just young girls in suburban San Diego and the entity-or-whatever-it-is first shows up to start fucking with their lives.

Slowly building from seemingly harmless conversations with an invisible childhood friend the girls call “Toby,” then moving on to the usual bedsheets-moving-and-pots-and-pans-falling-off-the-rack that we’ve seen before (and bubbles in the kids’ bedroom aquarium are this movie’s version of part two’s pool cleaner) before events here actually ramp up into new territory (and the pacing here, while obviously deliberate, still manages to flow along quite nicely and naturally),  by the time we get to the final 15 minutes that are supposed to mess you up for life (they don’t, but hey, they are pretty good), even the most anti-Paranormal Activity horror fan will have to grudgingly admit to him or herself that hey, this is some pretty solid stuff.

The “homemade look” conceit this time comes to us by way of the mother Julie’s new live-in boyfriend, Dennis, who runs some kind of wedding video business out of his garage and sets up his equipment all over the house when weird shit starts happening, so we’re out of the HD computer-cam and 24-hour-security surveillance footage era here and firmly back in the nostalgic age of home movies.Several of the most effective sequences come to us courtesy of a VHS camcorder set up in the living room/dining room area that pans back and forth on top of a tripod with a timing device affixed to it. So this definitely has the feel of an old-school hand-held horror — of the sort that, you know, didn’t actually exist because this genre wasn’t really around back then, Cannibal Holocaust aside.

At the end of the day, though, it’s the plot revelations (which by the time they come will have you saying “shit, I shoulda seen that coming,” but you won’t have), rather than the (with apologies to Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon) nostalgia for an age that never existed that make Paranormal Activity 3 the most satisfying entry in the series to date. They also leave open the possibility of going even further back into the family’s history, although you gotta wonder what medium they’ll employ if they choose to do so — it seems that 8mm home movies of the 1970s/early 80s variety are about the only option left.

Oh well, my rear end will be in a theater seat to see the next one whichever direction they decide to take things, whether they end up delving deeper into the past or finally following up on the events of the first film. Like a lot of people in the die-hard horror community, I was completely underwhelmed by the first Paranormal Activity film and felt it was the most blatant example to date of “viral”  hype (of the studio-manufactured variety, which is even more annoying) trumping actual substance, but with each sequel I’m being won over more and more completely. And it doesn’t hurt that the perpetually-annoying Micah Sloat was nowhere to be found in this latest one.

And so ends our annual October Halloween horror-round up here at TFG. Next month I’ll be starting a new themed series that will end up looking an awful lot like this one. Stay tuned and all will be revealed within the next few days. Until then, I wish a Happy Halloween to one and all!

Well, friends, this one’s gonna be brief because we’re venturing into uncharted territory a bid here — the flick under review today, 1988’s The Undertaker, is actually an unfinished, believe it or not, but it’s worth looking at as it features the last starring turn of the one and only Maniac himself, the late, great Joe Spinell.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is included in our annual Halloween horror round-up more as an item of interesting curiosity than anything else. Given that director Franco Steffanino’s’s film ran into the twin obstacles of no more funding and Spinell’s untimely demise before it could be hammered out into finished form, essentially what we’re got on our hands here, thanks to the fine folks at Code Red DVD (specifications of said DVD being rather minimal here — the full-frame transfer looks pretty sparklingly, surprisingly good for the most part, though it veers into crummy, even downright greasy territory in some spots, and the sound is hit-and-miss to put it kindly — the only extra, cool as it is, consists of the legendary Robert Forster and his daughter, Kathrine, sharing their memories of Spinell — keep in mind I’m not complaining here because the fact that this thing even managed to get a DVD release at all is something of a miracle and I thank Code Red for doing all us Joe Spinell fans a great service here) is a rough cut of the movie. There’s very little by way of gore or other special effects, the editing is choppy (jarringly so in several instances), and the overall feel is of watching some semi-competent student project that just happens to feature a recognizable (to fans of cult cinema, at least) lead actor.

That being said, you can see that The Undertaker had some — I repeat, some — potential. Spinell is back to doing what he does best, playing a skin-crawlingly creepy and pathetic psycho, this time out said psycho going by the name of Roscoe, a small-town New Jersey mortician who has a penchant for necrophilia, a nagging wife who won’t leave him alone long enough to enjoy himself with his corpses, and a big problem with his business — namely, there just aren’t enough people dying in his town for him to have a variety of sexual — uhmmmmm — “partners,” not to mention a steady income.

As you can imagine, his only alternative is to take matters into his own hands and steer some business his way by dint of his own actions.

Spinell isn’t at his Maniac – level best here, but he still turns in a solid enough intentionally-way-over-the-top performance, and the overall tone of the film seems to be pretty self-deprecating in terms of its outrageously tasteless subject matter, but you never know how it all would have turned out with a few more scenes, a final edit, etc. Maybe the filmmakers unintentionally did us a great service by pulling the plug on this thing, or maybe we lost another Spinell classic, it’s hard to say (well, okay, it’s not — the surviving mish-mash of material leaves the distinct impression that we needn’t worry too much about the latter).

Still, in my book at least The Undertaker is definitely worth a look. You have to be willing to cut it a hell of a lot of slack, to be sure, but getting the chance to see Joe Spinell in action one final time makes putting up with all of this flick’s — how shall I put this? — glaring inconsistencies more than worthwhile. They just don’t make lecherously slimy cinematic killers like this anymore, and even in a raw and incomplete production (that, it must be stated, looked like it was most likely doomed to be a substandard effort anyway given the rather second-rate nature of the script),  Joe Spinell stands out.

What the hell? While we’re on the subject of Z-grade 1980s shot-on-video horror movies (and this one’s also part of the “Retro 80s Horror Collection” from Camp Motion pictures, in case you hadn’t already noticed — nice full-frame picture, good quality remastered stereo sound, extras include two commentaries, one from the director, another from three of the “stars,” a making-of documentary, video test shoots, and an investor’s (good luck with that) promo reel — and it’s shot on 16mm, not on video, but I didn’t want to ruin my intro segue), let’s take a quick look at one more, shall we? the “one more” in this case being writer-director Tim Ritter’s 1987 offering Killing Spree.

Shot in sunny Jupiter, Florida for the princely sum of $75,000, this one’s an absolute blast from start to (almost — more on that shortly) finish. With tongue planted so firmly in cheeks it’s just gotta hurt, Ritter tells us the simple tale of one Tom Russo (played up — rather than just played — to the hilt by Asbestos Felt — and yes, like you, I’m assuming — hell, desperately hoping — that’s not his real name), a guy who’s so convinced that his wife Leeza is cheating on him when he’s at work, out running errands, basically doing anything other than sitting at home and watching her like a hawk, that he figures his best course of action is just to start killing any guy who happens to be anywhere near his house at any time just in case he might be sleeping with her. And Tom not only has a grand old time dispatching them (watch for screwdrivers to the head, dismemberment (followed by an accidental death when he lobs said dismembered head off the balcony and right onto the noggin of an unfortunate passerby), all that good stuff), he figures spending too much time burying these folks is just time that could be better spent killing even more guys his old lady might be getting it on with, so he just buries most of them out in the back yard.

And that’s when things get a little bit hairy towards the end (I told you we’d be getting back to it sooner rather than later) — for reasons not entirely explained (well, okay, not explained at all, truth be told), Tom’s victims all rise from the grave and kill him at least as spectacularly as he did them. So yeah, things do go off the rails there a bit at the conclusion, but you know what? It’s all good, because this is one sadistic, malicious, tasteless, downright nasty little piece of businees, and it does it all with a wink and a nod.

First off, the effects are straight-up impressive. I mean, you’d think Ritter was spending some actual money  on this shit. Yeah, he’s hemmed in by his obvious limitations, of course, but that’s not about to stop him from making you go “eeeeeeeewwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!” as loudly, and as frequently, as possible. Huge props for that.

Secondly, everyone from felt on down through the cast is hamming it up in the best possible way, yet they all uniformly give the impression that they actually want you to think they might be playing this straight even though you’d have to be literally, clinically insane to think they were. Given that this type of overall uniformity in tone (admittedly bizarre as it is) absolutely can’t be chalked up to each and every individual in front of the camera on a movie this far below the “B” level being, you know, talented, credit has to be given to the director for clearly communicating, and then not stopping until he damn well gets, exactly what he wants from everyone involved.

Finally, a lot of the trappings inherent in the homemade horror genre (think long, slow pans of the scenery for no reason, lots of dead space with nothing going on — everything that goes with a medium where editing is such a pain in the ass when we’re comparing this to many of its contemporaries, which were SOV affairs) are noticeably, and thankfully, absent here. In short, Ritter doesn’t demand that you make allowances for his paltry budget — he just delivers the best-quality product that he possibly can given what he’s got to work with.

I don’t know why Tim Ritter never went on to have much more of a career. He certainly deserved bigger and better things slaving away on a bunch of direct-to-VHS-and-DVD “erotic thrillers,” by-the-numbers slashers, sci-fi cheapies, and crooked-cop crime “dramas.” But hey, give him credit — he’s carved out a living at it and is still going strong today. It certainly beats factory work, at any rate.

But based on the strength of Killing Spree alone, it’s this reviewer’s considered opinion that he probably deserved a shot at the big time. Or  at least bigger than he ever ended up getting.

As anyone who’s followed these Halloween horror roundups over the last couple of years on this blog (assuming, of course, that anyone has) knows, I love me some homemade 80s shot-on-video gore flicks. Sure, the acting’s usually either unintentionally camp or downright lifeless, the effects are fifth-rate, the stories are insipid, and the directors/DOPs (assuming they weren’t one and the same person, which they often were) had a tendency to linger on shots where pretty much nothing was happening for waaaaaayyyy too long simply because videotape was a bitch to edit. But hey, it’s all about heart, right?

Case in point — director Jon McBride’s (okay, I should stop right there for a second right there and point out that one Tom Fisher is also credited as a co-director here, but all indications are that this was McBride’s show pretty much from start to finish) 1988 zero-budget opus Cannibal Campout. In essence, this is a lot like the dreadful flick Chain Letter that we reviewed a few days back — it exists pretty much solely to drench the audience in blood n’ guts. But whereas Chain Letter had some money behind it but no heart, McBride’s movie has plenty of heart but no money. I don’t know about you, but I know which I’ll go with anytime (not to mention that this movie’s a whole lot less mean-spirited and cynical, but that’s a side issue).

As set-ups go, they don’t come much simpler than this — a mixed group of four friends heads out to the New Jersey woods (yes, they have trees there) for a weekend of camping and find themselves set upon one-by-one by a crazed trio of probably inbred mountain men who have been murdering and then devouring any poor souls unlucky enough to stumble across their path because — get his — they promised their momma on her deathbed that they wouldn’t eat any junk food!

And honestly that’s all you need to know because everybody’s in this thing for one reason and one reason alone — to get killed. Slowly, painfully, brutally, graphically, creatively — hell, damn near lovingly — killed.

I can’t say for certain, but I’m thinking that McBride’s biggest motivation in putting this thing out there — keep in mind most of these backyard SOV horror flicks were released on VHS by unscrupulous, fly-by-night distribution operations that basically all offered the same deal, namely we’ll release your film and keep pretty much all the money and you’ll have the chance to get your name out there and more or less nothing else — was to show off his chops as a Tom Savini wanna-be and maybe land some work on the makeup and effects crew of a picture with an actual (hell, any) budget.

He certainly wasn’t trying to impress anyone as the next great screenwriter or director, that’s for certain — this flick crawls along at a snail’s pace even when the killing starts and there are interminable lengths of absolutely nothing go on that you have to wade through in order to get to the good (relatively speaking, of course) stuff. But hey — it’s pretty obvious everybody’s having a good time regardless of whether or not they actually know what they’re doing and yeah, once the blood starts flowing and the entrails come spilling out and the faces get gnawed on and the organs get ripped loose it is impressive enough in a dime-store kind of way. Sure, you might be able to do just as well with all of it yourself if you had the time, inclination, smarts, and most of all the single-minded determination to do so, but you didn’t and Jon McBride did. Regardless of how amateurish most of what’s on display here is, you gotta give the guy credit for that.

Cannibal Campout is available on DVD from Camp Motion Pictures as part of its “Retro 80s Horror collection” series, and features a nicely done full-frame (of course) transfer of the film (whoops, better just call it a movie — it was shot on videotape, after all), pretty decent remastered stereo sound, a veritable feast (get it? cannibal flick? feast?) of extra including a feature-length commentary track with McBride, interviews with many of the cast and crew, a lengthy selection of deleted scenes and still photos, a bunch of trailers for other Camp titles. In short, it’s stuffed to the guts (get it again?) with goodies.

I won’t kid you — Cannibal Campout is so far removed from a masterpiece that the two words don’t even belong in the same neighborhood as each other, much less in the same sentence. But if you’re in the mood (and I freely admit that it’s entirely possible that your humble reviewer is one of the only people who actually gets in this mood) for a warts-and-all labor of love that seeks nothing more than to do as well as it can in the gruesomeness department and doesn’t even really care, much less try, when it comes to anything else, then hey — you could certainly do a whole lot worse.

And hey, since we’re on the subject of shitty direct-to-video zombie flicks —

Honestly, folks, they don’t come much worse than the 2008 “remake” (and I use that term very loosely) of George A. Romero’s classic, Day Of The Dead.

I remember in the time between when this project was announced (sometime in 2006, if memory serves me correctly) and it landed like a thud on video store shelves, Netflix, etc., most hard-core horror fanatics were — skeptical, to put it kindly. Sure, the budget was okay (estimated to be around $18 million, and filmed in Bulgaria to make those dollars stretch even further), and Steve Miner was attached as director, a guy who had earned a certain reservoir of goodwill for Halloween : H2O. The cast list didn’t look to bad, either — Mena Suvari was set to star, Ving Rhames would be in there for a (brief, as it turns out) cameo as a military commander, Ian McNeice was going to play a burned-out ex-hippie DJ, Nick Cannon (before his career seriously took off thanks to who he married) was in there someplace, a pre- 90210AnnaLynne McCord was on board — surely it couldn’t be as bad as we all feared, could it?

As things turned out, the finished product was actually much, much worse.

First off, let’s get one thing straight right away — 2008’s Day Of The Dead isn’t a remake of the Romero original at all. It’s not even “based on” that film as the credits proclaim. The only vague similarity between the two is that the first one had a semi-intelligent zombie who was capable of learning named Bub (in a legendary performance by the great Howard Sherman), and this one’s got a vegetarian zombie (yes, you read that correctly) named Bob.

That’s it. Seriously. Oh, and this one’s got a secret underground military base, as well. But they don’t get to it until about the final 30 minutes of the film.

So no allusions to Cold War paranoia. No attempts to educate the zombies for domestic use/possible co-existence. No mad doctor. No questions along the lines of “what price will our possible survival come at?”

No, friend,s all of that would require brains and heart, and this film has neither. Hell, Miner and company can’t even decide if they want their zombies to be slow shamblers or the new, speedy, 28 Days Later model, so they give us both (as well as a mix of live-action and CGI creatures, with extremely mixed results). instead all we’ve got here is the story of a by-now-typical zombie outbreak that first looks like a virus but turns out to be much worse plaguing the scenic mountain town of Leadville, Colorado (and to this flick’s credit Bulragia does, indeed, look a bit Colorado-ish) that our heroine, army private ( I think, although maybe she was a corporal, I can’t remember and don’t care) Sarah Bowman (Suvari) just happens to call home.

And I think I’m just gonna leave it at that because, honestly, there’s just no reason to see this movie. A pretty decent cast turns in listless, one-dimensional performances all around, which is what I would probably do in their shoes as well if I’d read this mind-numblingly lifeless script. There’s no tension, suspense, or even anything really interesting going on. The best thing I can say about the whole thing is that it’s over in a truly mercifully short 86 minutes.

Day Of The Dead , 2008 incarnation, is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from First Look Pictures. It’s got a sharp widescreen transfer, 5.1 sound, a commentary with Miner and several of the cast and crew, a making-of featurette — all the bells and whistles. But it still sucks. Royally. But hey, if it just had another title — any other title — what we’d be looking at here is yet another lousy DTV living dead flick. Stand in line and take a number.  By trying to hitch itself onto Romero’s wagon, however, it shows itself to be not just bad, but shameless and disrespectful, as well. Avoid at all costs, I beg you — please!

Zombies — they’re everywhere these days. Not that I’m complaining, mind you — your humble host is digging the hell out of AMC’s The Walking Dead, for instance, and even though hardly anybody outside the die-hard horror community is paying attention, the master himself, George Romero, is back in fine form with his latest, truly independent undead film series. The recent zombie boom isn’t all great news, though, as some real stinkers have made it onto (straight onto, if you must know) DVD in the last decade or so since films like 28 Days Later and Shaun Of The Dead placed the shambling, flesh-eating corpses of the recently-departed back into the forefront of the public consciousness.

Case in point — director Tor Ramsey’s 2001 DTV effort, Children Of The Living Dead.

The title, of course, tries to tie this film in somehow with Romero’s original Night,  and while the budgets of the two films are probably in the same general ballpark, any similarities between the two unfortunately end there. This flick is a pure, unadulterated stinkbomb.

First off, on the purely technical front, there are the sort of things going on that even high-school filmmakers generally avoid — camera and mic shadows, horrendously wooden sub-standard “acting,” half-assed, unprofessional editing — the list is endless. All of which this critic could easily overlook if the film had some sort of sense of humor about itself and at least copped to, if not downright celebrated, its many, varied, and quite noticeable shortcomings. But this particular movie takes itself  so seriously , despite a storyline (more on that in a minute) that could pass itself off as parody or even Troma product, that you just can’t help but hate the thing.

I mentioned the story just now and for the sake of maintaining not only your interest but your very sanity itself I’ll keep this brief — dead serial murderer/rapist Abbot Hayes disappeared from the morgue in 1987, and shortly thereafter a zombie infestation swept his (Pennsylvania, I think — another nod to The Master/attempted Night tie-in) hometown. Many locals lost their lives in the battle and only a handful of aged residents with nowhere else to go remain in the area. Now, however, 15 years later, a shady businessman (who’s new in town, naturally) has surreptitiously moved the bodies from the local cemetery into one big mass grave of the sort we always accused Saddam Hussein of having (another charge that was never really proven) and Hayes gets all riled up and emerges as the king of a zombie army out to seek revenge on the living — again.

It’s when we really delve into the backstory of Hayes — a move that Ramsey and screenwriter Karen L. Wolf absolutely had no need to make — that things get truly laughable. Hayes became a raping, murdering maniac, and later rose from the dead, because he was — -get this — pissed at his mom for making him wear girls’ clothes as a child! In other words, this is no zombie king that the late, great Edward D. Wood, Jr. would ever have conceived of, even if this film has Wood-like production values (minus any and all of the charm and insanity Ed brought to any given production).

As far as the “stars” of this picture goes, the only one you’re bound to recognize is Tom Savini, who plays one of the local deputies, and even he’s quite clearly just mailing it in. In truth, his talents would have been much better served in the effects department here, because the zombies (as well as all the related blood, viscera, entrails, etc. that always accompany them one way or another) look like crap. I mean, community-theater-level crap.

If you really must see Children Of The Living Dead — and trust me, you don’t have to — it’s available on DVD from Artisan Entertainment. It’s a widescreen transfer with 5.1 sound and no extras, if memory serves me correctly. Or at least no extras worth remembering. But honestly, friends, you’re much better off avoiding this at all costs. I used to think that I could be reasonably entertained by pretty much any flick that had zombies in it, no matter how lackluster or completely bereft of anything resembling coherence or production values. Just get them corpses walking, I figured, and I’m all in. Children Of The Living Dead proved me — no pun intended — dead wrong.

Fast-forward one year to 1989 and we find ourselves staring headlong at Halloween 5 : The Revenge Of Michael Myers, a flick as uninspiring as its title is uninspired.

I’ll give director Dominique Othenin-Girard and his screenwriters credit for trying to expand the whole Myers mythos into new directions here, but the whole thing’s just so flipping absurd that no amount of suspension of disbelief can carry you through it with a straight face.

First off, we’ve got the prospect of Michael (this time portrayed by one Donald L. Shanks, as if it matters all that much) surviving a hail of gunfire followed by a plunge down a mineshaft. Okay, only a little rougher than some of his previous “deaths,” I suppose, but add to that the fact that when he comes back one year later on Halloween night (of course) to take another crack at killing his niece Jamie (again played by Danielle Harris, who’s really asked to carry a lot of this film since her friends start buying the far rather quickly, and truth be told she does a very admirable job) we find that she has developed full-blown psychic powers that clue her into where and when her murderous uncle is going to strike next! Not that it saves her friends or his other victims, of course, ‘cuz where would the fun be in that?

Anyway, the whole setup’s absurd, Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis feels like he’s being shoehorned into the script just because, hell, he’s gotta be there ,right?, and Othenin-Girard proves himself to be a director who doesn’t exactly excel at the basics of mood and tension, both of which are absolute musts in any slasher film.

While the “Divimax” DVD release from Anchor Bay of Halloween 5 is every bit as nicely-put-together as the one they did for the previous installment (see our last review for semi-full DVD specifications), it’s really a matter of trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. The movie itself just doesn’t warrant all that special a treatment, sad as it makes this Halloween series junkie to utter those very-nearly-blasphemous words.

Look, I won’t kid you folks out there in blog-reader-land — when Halloween 5 : The Revenge Of Michael Myers plays on AMC this week, I’m sure I’ll watch it at least once (well, okay, probably only once) but that just proves what a sucker for any Michael Myers flick I am. Assuming that you don’t share this affliction and are, instead, a viewer of taste and discernment who values their free time and spends it wisely, there’s really nothing I can honestly come up with to recommend this film to you. the tried-and-true phrase “for completists only” is absolutely as spot-on a description of this flick as one can find, so if you are one, then hell, tune in, of course (I will be, so you don’t have to feel like too much of a hopeless sucker), but if you’re not, then yeah, it certainly won’t be too hard at all for you to find something better to do with your time.