Archive for November, 2011

When you think about it, Nazis and zombies are a pretty natural combination, given that both have occultic roots (the Nazis with various Norse/Teutonic cults, zombies with the unique Haitian strain of voodoo), and since it’s long been rumored that Hitler and the boys were throwing a lot of shit at the walls to see  what stuck (“Foo Fighters,” “Vril”-powered UFOs, etc.) in their desperate final hours of WW II, the idea at the core of director Ken Weiderhorn(who also co-wrote the script)’s 1977 low-budget living dead thriller Shock Waves — namely that the Germans bred a race of super-soldiers in the war’s final months who couldn’t be killed and sunk the whole lot of them on a doomed U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic in order to prevent the Allies from discovering of their existence and therefore providing a template for copying the idea for their own uses — is definitely plausible enough as far as these things go.

Yet for whatever reason, the Nazi/zombie connection is one that’s only been exploited a couple of times as far as I know in cinematic history, namely here and in 2009’s Dead Snow. And yet it’s powerful enough as a meme to have filtered its way up into even Hollywood blockbuster fare like Hellboy and Captain America, albeit as minor subplot material. So maybe the true Nazi/zombie masterpiece remains, as yet, unwritten and unmade, but for now, Weiderhorn’s film remains a pretty solid template for future moviemakers to follow.

To be sure, it’s got some flaws — it’s a bit on the slow side, and the gore factor is pretty much non-existent, but what it lacks in blood-n’-guts it more than makes up for in creepily oppressive atmospherics, and the film is anchored by a couple of terrific performances, one from the always-reliable (and at this point in his career apparently doing anything anything for a buck) John Carradine, who plays the drunken captain of a decidedly cut-rate pleasure cruise populated by the usual horror-flick ensemble of good-hearted simpletons, rich assholes, confused everymen and their more confused wives, etc. who have a tragic accident on their boat and are forced to make their way ashore on a (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) uncharted island that hides the last, and deadliest, secret of World War II, and the other from the even-more-reliable Peter Cushing, who portrays the Nazi SS commander who once lead the so-called “Death Corps” and is now readying himself to oversee his former charge’s return from the depths after 35 years (although why it’s happening now is never really explained and frankly doesn’t matter all that much since there wouldn’t be much of a storyline here if it weren’t happening — in short, just go with it). Cushing, who was fresh off Star Wars when he made this, is essentially just playing Grand Moff Tarkin with the creepiness factor dialed up a couple of notches, but hell, it works and he casts just exactly the right air in his time on-screen.

Apart from our two venerable acting stalwarts, the other star here, besides the admittedly effective black-goggle-bespectacled “Death Corps” themselves, is the lush but somehow brooding scenery of the Coral Gables, Florida area where this film was shot. It feels remote, isolated, and impossibly thick with menace thanks to Wiederhorn’s gimmick-free visual style that just allows the setting, and the story, to speak for itself. There’s nothing fancy going on here, just solid celluloid craftsmanship, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. In fact, these days it almost feels like something of a lost art.

Shock Waves is far from a masterpiece, and is definitely a product of its time and budget (apparently the whole thing cost around $200,000), but it’s an atmospheric, professional, generally-pretty-suspenseful piece of zombie-film fare, and makes terrifically effective use of both its shooting locale and its very-cool-and-still-as-of-yet-not-explored,-to-its-full-potential-by-Hollywood premise and  the DVD release from Blue Underground that I’m basing this review on does it pretty adequate justice by including a couple of trailers for the film, some radio advertising spots a nice little gallery of poster and advertising artwork and production stills, and an interview on the making of the film with cast member Luke Halpin. The print certainly shows its age but on the whole looks pretty decent and the stereo sound is simple enough but perfectly adequate.

And to think this flick comes to us courtesy of  the same guy who directed King Frat! I kid you not.

Around here at TFG, Ray Dennis Steckler is one of our (okay, my, who are we fooling?) all-time heroes. Seldom in cinematic history has one man accomplished so much with so little. And yet, I find his films difficult to review (in fact, in nearly three years of blogging this is the first time I’ve ever gotten around to writing about one of them) because, frankly, his “plots” are so uniformly paper-thin that there’s just not that much to talk about without delving into the minutiae of the production itself, which is rather redundant when it comes to Steckler because the DVD releases of his film Media Blasters/Shriek Show cover all of that so well already (in the case of today’s subject, 1971’s Blood Shack, for instance, there’s not one but two commentary tracks, one from Steckler himself and one from the always-awesome Joe Bob Briggs, an on-camera interview with Steckler about the making of the film, an extensive gallery of still photos from the production, an interview with the film’s star (and former Mrs. Steckler) Carolyn Brandt, a couple different versions of the trailer, and an alternate, 70-minute cut of the film (the “official” cut being a mere 35 minutes) under the title of The Chooper — the list is endless. Needless to say it’s a comprehensive and essential purchase) that there’s really nothing to be accomplished by my regurgitating any further behind-the-scenes information for the umpteenth time. And yet —

The hows, whys, and wherefores of a Steckler production are pretty much inseparable from any analysis of the on-screen “product” itself because there’s simply no way to appreciate any of this guy’s work without actively realizing what an absolute fucking miracle it is that any of these films were made in the first place. Blood Shack was made for $500 and stars his ex-wife and kids. Everybody else in front of and behind the camera was a friend of his and the bleak desert locale was property owned by an acquaintance. It’s truly a labor of love, and Steckler himself never harbored any illusions about getting rich off any of these flicks. All his stuff was strictly third-and fourth-billed filler material at the drive-ins and the fact that any of his films, much less all of them, even survive to this day is testament to this guy’s perseverance in the face of odds longer than those of picking the winning numbers for this week’s Powerball.

One thing you can certainly count on from any Steckler production is a raw and authentic sense of locale that the biggest Hollywood productions could never match in their wildest dreams. Case in point — the setting for Blood Shack is a dingy, abandoned, piece-of-shit Nevada desert lean-to that MGM could spend millions trying to replicate  yet never match because this is no fancy studio set dirtied up and trashed to give it an air of realism, it’s the actual fucking deal. And while it’s admittedly absurd to consider that some black-clad killer of local legend known as “The Chooper” can sneak around in a totally flat, arid and open landscape where you could see a wild coyote from ten miles off, you can’t let things like gaping plot holes and suspect (at best) “acting” deter you from enjoying a Steckler film because, hell, you couldn’t do any better with 500 bucks and a half-dozen or so friends and relatives and your finished product would never make it onto any screens at all, much less have a cult following four decades later.

Yeah, okay,  I just gave away the whole plot with a shrug — woman inherits a disused piece of land in the middle of nowhere and a mysterious (and supposedly legendary) killer called “The Chooper” shows up and starts offing people in an attempt to drive her off — but so what? Complexity isn’t exactly the name of the game here, either. On Planet Steckler, the normal rules of what makes for “good” cinema just don’t apply, and you’re either gonna appreciate what this guy was able to accomplish or you won’t, simple as that.

Look, I’m not here to convince you that Blood Shack is some unheralded masterpiece of low-budget horror. It’s got a complacent and austere vibe all its own that I enjoyed tremendously but that I can easily see many folks finding at the very least off-putting, if not downright dull. What is is, however, is a testament to the sheer bloody-mindedness of one lone individual who just wanted to make this movie because he could.

Call me crazy, but I’ll always have a healthy amount of respect for that.

Once in awhile, your friendly neighborhood Trash Film Guru is exposed to a film for the first time that reminds me of exactly why it is that I love these largely-forgotten B-level (at best) cheapies ohhhh so much, and  director David Wellington’s 1988 canuxsploitation mini-masterpiece The Carpenter is the most recent example of exactly what I’m talking about here.

You probably know how it goes — we’ll sift through dozens, if not hundreds, of less-than-memorable examples of cinematic flotsam and jetsam in order to find that one diamond in the rough, and friends have I ever found one here. Although I freely admit that many loyal readers of this blog (come on! There surely must be some!) won’t share my enthusiasm for this extremely quirky straight-to-video ghost (I think — more on that later) story from north of the border, those of you who do get into the mellow, dreamlike vibe this flick exudes from the outset are going to be on a Carpenter high every bit as all-consuming as the one I’ve been on since first seeing a couple of weeks ago.

What’s so special about it, you may ask? First off, we’ve got Wings Hauser — or, as well affectionately refer to him around these parts, Wings Fucking Hauser, because he’s such a bad-ass — in his best role since Vice Squad. Next up we’ve got the surreal, like-it-or-lump-it nature of the production itself, as briefly alluded to at the outset. Sure, Wellington and company throw a lot of shit at the wall in an effort to see what sticks here — part comedy, part Lynchian absurdist nightmare, part gorefest, part low-grade soap opera, The Carpenter confidently, and nearly seamlessly, blends genres left and right in an effort that some may call haphazard, but others will appreciate for its sheer bravado and for the consistently ethereal tone it maintains throughout these numerous changes.

On the surface, things seem simple enough — Alice Jarrett (Lynne Adams) is released from a psychiatric hospital following (apparently yet another) nervous breakdown to find her college professor husband has purchased a large fixer-upper out in the country and is employing a stereotypically lazy union crew to remodel this new money pit. The strange thing is, even though the uniformly mulletted  (oh, wait — I think they call it “hockey hair” in Canada) construction brigade isn’t getting much done during the day, at night Alice starts hearing the whirring of buzzsaws and the pounding of hammers and downstairs and finds a solitary carpenter (Hauser) working away to his heart’s content. Alice quickly beings anticipating these nocturnal visits and , in between watching our guy Wings work away in a state of self-induced blue-collar tranquility and listening to his pithy lectures on the value of an honest day’s labor, finds herself falling in love with her mysterious midnight laborer.

She slowly builds up more and more self-confidence, taking a job at a local paint store and tackling many of the household fix-up projects herself, eve as she becomes aware that her husband is carrying on an affair with one of his students. All in all, personal drama (that she’s beyond even really caring about) aside, things are looking up for our heroine. Her rather over-pprotective beau even has a habit of sawing off the arms, or otherwise “dealing with,” those who would cause her harm, such as horny off-duty workers from Carpenters and Remodelers Local 1182.

And yet — is anything here exactly what it seems? Alice’s mental state is far from sound, and she’s recently taken to cutting up and dumping the anti=psychotic meds she’s been prescribed. Her sister, while admittedly overbearing, is genuinely becoming more and more concerned with her fragile mental and emotional state. Her husband’s mistress is pregnant. And just when the questions seem more plentiful than any answers that might or night not be forthcoming,  cheeseball local sheriff J. J. Johnston (and you just learned everything you need to know about him right there) shows up at the door and tells Alice a little story about the guy who used to own her house — a carpenter who was sent to the electric chair (the only non-Canadian wrinkle in a story that’s Canuck though-and-through otherwise) after he killed some repo agents who showed up to take possession of the place when he wasn’t keeping up with his payments since he was too busy working on it rather than going out and finding paying jobs.

So do we have a ghost story on our hands here? It would seem so, but when the shit hits the fan in the film’s final act, it’s clear that others also see Alice’s capenter friend, and the physical damage he ultimately causes to the house is very real. So if it’s a concrete, cut-and-dried explanation of exactly what’s going on here that you’re after, you’re bound to be sorely disappointed. That being said, if, as mentioned earlier, you’re already going with this film’s singular-yet-scattershot flow (a contradiction, I know) you’ll be more than willing, by that point, to just accept the fact that easy answers aren’t on the menu here, as long as the whole thing just sort of feels right and/or consistent in its admitted inconsistency (yup, contradiction rears its head again).

And finally, of course, we’ve got Wings Hauser (again — but you knew there’d be more to say about him, didn’t you). His screen time is limited, but his coolly psychotic menace, hiding beneath a veneer of everyman working-class charm, is the glue that really holds everything together here. It’s another singular performance in a career that’s too often mocked for his numerous less-than-stellar, self-parodying choices vis- a- vis some of the roles he took on. Seriously, though, when this guy was on — as he absolutely was here — nobody could touch him. Wings Fucking Hauser indeed. This guy will show up with roses at your door and try to rape you with a broomhandle  five minutes later.

A couple months back, the fine folks at Scorpion releasing finally put this forgotten gem out on DVD as part of their “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” line, hosted by former WWE “diva” (whatever that term even means anymore) Katarina Leigh Waters. Extras are, sadly,  non-existent apart from the intro and exit segments from the hostess, but the widescreen transfer looks pretty solid and the stereo sound mix is more than serviceable.

So do yourself a favor — give The Carpenter a go. You may not find it to your liking — although I’m sincerely hoping you do — but there’s no denying that this flick has a tempo and flavor all its own, and if you find yourself drawn onto its admittedly quirky wavelength, I think you’ll be stopping back here to thank me.

“Can’t they all just fucking get killed already?”

Friends, that’s a direct quote from Mrs. TFG not ten minutes into director Edward Gorsuch’s 2006 straight-to-video slasher offering, The Butcher, a film as relentlessly uninspired as its title would suggest. I’m all for retreading the same ground over and over again, and I’m all for doing poorly what other films have done well (depending on my mood, of course, and how that “poorly” is executed), but when you combine by-the-numbers, point-and-shoot direction with a by-the-numbers plot and acting that’s of the “bad” rather than, say, “memorably bad,” or “hopelessly bad” variety, then what you end up with is, well — what you end up with is The Butcher. As Morrissey once said, stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before —

Six spoiled collegiate creeps, led by an uber-obnoxious frat boy, are going on a cross-country road trip (in this case to Las Vegas, not that it really matters since of course they won’t be getting there) when said frat asshole decides to take a “short cut he knows about,” ends up hitting a pedestrian and soon the group of “friends” finds the accident bringing out the worst in each other (not that any of these folks really have what you’d call a “good side”) as they must both quickly decide whether or not to actually help the woman they hit, and what to do about getting their SUV (of course) fixed out in the middle of nowhere ( the same middle of nowhere with no cell phone service we’re finding time and again in these flicks). Needless to say, their search for help/their victim (who’s fled into the woods) leads them to find an old run-down shack that turns out to be the residence of an insane, and quite likely inbred, clan of country bumpkins who don’t take too kindly to strangers coming onto their land because, you know, rural folks in the movies pretty much never do.

Short cut to a series of gruesome, competently-but-not- memorably-executed kill scenes, and soon (but, as my wife would agree, not soon enough) we’re down to our “final girl,” who survives by having slightly more common sense than the rest of the bunch and therefore being marginally (extremely marginally, truth be told) sympathetic to the audience. If you’re still awake by this point (and for some reason I was), there’s nothing much left in store for the 80-plus-minutes of your life you’re never gonna get back that you’ve invested in this thing than  an ending as run-of-the-mill as the rest of this revenge-of-the-psycho-backwoods-rednecks-upon-the-uppity-city-folks “thriller.”

Which is all sort of a shame, really, because the rural stalker subgenre is one I’ve always liked and probably always will (despite the absolute ubiquitousness — is that even a word? — of half-assed efforts like this one), and when it’s done right — as was the case with, say, the original versions of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes — it’s one of the more universally functional horror tropes out there. When it’s done poorly, though, it gets pretty annoying pretty fast. Needless to say, The Butcher is far from a shining example of just how effective this sort of slasher flick can be.

To be fair, there’s one genuine jump-out-of-your-seat surprise in this film, and I won’t give away it is just in case you decide to ignore my advice and actually see this thing, but it happens very early on, and from that point on all The Butcher does it go listlessly through the motions. Therefore,  any early optimism you may have for this film based on this one sequence is quickly dashed. Oh well.

Let’s see, technical specs —the DVD release of The Butcher was handled by Lionsgate. It’s got a nice widescreen transfer and good directional effects on the 5.1 surround mix. I didn’t bother dealing with the extras, but I believe there’s a commentary and a making-of featurette of some sort, if memory serves me correctly. It was shot in southern California somewhere or other for around $750,000.  None of the “stars” of this thoroughly soulless affair have gone on to much else of note, nor has director Gorsuch — for obvious, I should think, reasons.

Can’t they all just fucking get killed already, indeed.

So, anyway, yeah — I told you this month’s “theme” would be a lot like last month’s here at TFG, and the truth of the matter is, all I’m doing is reviewing a few more horror flicks that I didn’t get around to during October’s Halloween round-up. I sincerely hope nobody minds. And let’s be honest here — no overview of the contemporary cinematic horror landscape (ding! three points for super-pretentiousness!) is complete without a look at the movie that more or less everyone’s talking about these days (for good and ill), namely writer- director Tom Six’s second chapter in his Human Centipede trilogy, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence).

I’ve seen every possible micro-analysis of this film online, and watched it twice myself on demand on cable (it’s also screening at various midnight showings around the country), and at the end of the day all I can say is that everyone over-thinking this movie is playing right into the admittedly talented (if demented, not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course) Mr. Six’s hands — this thing is simply a good, old-fashioned, straight-up gorefest, albeit on steroids, designed to do nothing more than make you sick — and make you think that Six might be trying to say something about the human condition, some inner sickness at the heart of modern life, etc. So I’m sorry, armchair film theorists everywhere — you’ve been played (largely by yourselves,because truth be told Six has never said anything to indicate that he’s going for  “something more” with either this film or the previous  installment in this series).

There’s some cleverness at play here, no doubt about that, but it’s all revealed at the very beginning, when we learn that the set-up for this sequel is of the “meta-film” vareity employed by We Craven in New Nightmare and Lucio Fulci in A Cat In The Brain, among other examples : specifically, Martin, the loner-psycho at the heart of this story (superbly portrayed by British actor Laurence R. Harvey — no relation to guy from The Manchurian Candidate and Domino’s dad) is inspired to create his own 12-person centipede with one interconnected gastrointestinal system by watching (okay, to be fair, obsessing over) the original Human Centipede flick. To that end, he sets about kidnapping 11 victims and renting out a dingy old London self-storage space before going after his ultimate conquest, one of the stars of the first movie, Ashlynn Yennie, who happens to be in the UK on some sort of film publicity tour and is portrayed in an absolutely delicious manner as a vapid, self-obsessed Hollywood airhead (honestly, Yennie and Harvey both deserve serious Oscar consideration here — one for delivering an absolutely flawlessly creepy-as-shit performance without uttering so much as a single word of dialogue from start to finish, the other for having the guts to play an exaggerated, two-dimensional caricature of her own self — not that either will actually get any, of course), who he intends to place at the head of his hastily- assembled monstrosity.

And it’s that one little turn of phrase — “hastily-assembled” — that best describes what’s got every right-thinking person so utterly grossed-out by this flick. Good ol’ Do Heiter’s somewhat-medically-feasible (hey, give me a break, I did qualify that with a “somewhat”) three-person centipede in the first one was gruesome enough in both concept and execution, but a fat middle-aged loser with no medical training whatsoever who works as a parking ramp attendant just doesn’t typically have the necessary equipment or skill to pull anything like that off, so he makes do with a staple gun and gets right down to business.

As his centipede comes together (well, okay, is forced together), it soon becomes obvious that our guy Martin’s favorite part in his favorite movie was the infamous “feed her” scene, and what he really gets off on is the whole idea of watching each of these people shit into the mouth of the unfortunate soul stapled right behind them. And frankly that seems to be Six’s whole obsession here, too — the only time we get any colors besides black and white (and yes, this film is gorgeous in its stark ugliness) being when Martin start force-feeding laxatives to the crowd and diarrhea-brown starts splashing around everywhere.

So anyway, that’s what The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) amounts to — 80 or so minutes of set-up so you can finally see runny shit going from ass-to-mouth. You’ve been warned.

It’s sort of a shame, really — Six has a lot more at his disposal here in terms of body horror than what he chooses to focus on so singularly, and like I said, his talents as a visual filmmaker can’t be denied. He also coaxes superb performances out of his cast, particularly the two aforementioned leads, and he’s apparently a master at the long-lost art of generating a ton of publicity and controversy for relatively low-budget pictures. He’s capable of delivering a lot more than sloppy toilet gore, but in the end, that’s what he seems willing to settle for here. I’ve got absolutely no objection to delivering us the grossest film possible, and while The Human Centipede 2 certainly is that, it still ultimately feels like Six is taking the easy way out here and not addressing any of the larger, and ultimately more horrific, issues that could come to the fore here if he let them. The whole thing ultimately feels like a cop-out, albeit probably the most visceral cop-out in movie history, and frankly like a high-tech exercise in sleight-of-hand — Six is making us sick to disguise the fact that he hasn’t really got much of anything else up his sleeve.

Maybe he’s saving it for his big wrap-up, when evidently he’ll be taking his Human Centipede concept to America, but I remain skeptical. While I admire Six’s technical skill, his bravado, and his ability to make suckers out of the so-called (and entirely self-appointed) critical “elite,” I think he’s ultimately shying away from the nastier theoretical implications of his work and concentrating solely on the superficial. He has one more film to prove me wrong.