Archive for July, 2017

Everyplace is going to hell in a handbasket these days — even Camelot.

Or so Cullen Bunn (who seems to have stepped into the role once occupied by the likes of Brian Michael Bendis and, later, Charles Soule as “the guy who’s writing every other comic on the stands”) and Mirko Colak would have us believe, at any rate — and why not? Every other legend has been deconstructed (if not outright obliterated) in contemporary fiction, four-color or otherwise, so why the hell should King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, and the rest be let off the hook?

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t see Guy Ritchie’s latest cinematic iteration of the Arthurian mythos (nor, apparently, did anyone else), but he’d have had to work pretty hard to equal the tear-down that Bunn, Colak, and colorist Maria Santaolalla perform on it in the twenty pages of Unholy Grail #1, their new series from Aftershock Comics. Purists will no doubt be alarmed, perhaps even outright mortified, by the alternative vision on offer here, but what the hell do we care what they think, anyway? For my part, whatever it’s worth, I absolutely loved it.

The story jumps around in time a little bit, which adds a pleasing bit of post-modernism into this ancient fable, alternating between the period after Camelot’s fall, when the knight Percivale returns (too late?) from his Grail quest, and the period before its rise, when Merlin, who often claimed to be the son of either a demon or Satan himself (comics fans may remember that no less than Jack Kirby himself hinted at this in the pages of The Demon and that Matt Wagner really picked up and ran with the idea about a decade later with his now-largely-forgotten revival of the character) meets up with an actual escaped denizen of Hell, and —- well, nah, that might be giving too much away. Suffice to say that the machinations and manipulations the wizard gets up to after this harrowing,  fateful encounter cast the entire story in a new, and decidedly grim, light that I defy anyone to find less than absolutely intriguing. Sometimes the stories we think we know best are actually hiding the biggest secrets of all right in plain sight, are they not?

I’m impressed at how immediately the creative team is firing on all cylinders with this series, which leads me to think that this is a project that’s enjoyed a long and healthy gestation period. Bunn’s lean, sparse scripting feel downright urgent at all times, Colak’s art is luscious, lavish, and borderline agonizingly detailed, and Santaolalla’s colors are just straight-up frigging beautiful. This is a book with a very “Euro” look to it — as one might expect, I suppose, given that both illustrator and colorist hail from the other side of the Atlantic — and it suits the material absolutely pitch-perfectly. I don’t mean to sell the writing short, because it really is quite good and further cement’s Bunn’s reputation as the premier “go-to guy” for horror comics these days, but seriously : even if the script sucked (which, one more time for good measure, it doesn’t), this would be $3.99 well-spent because the art is just that gorgeous. Wrap it all up with your choice of covers by either Colak himself or cover artist extraordinaire Francesco Francavilla and what you have here is some serious eye candy, pure and simple.

There’s nothing simple at all about what our intrepid creators are looking to do with this series, though. This is heady, ambitious stuff and jumping on with issue number one really does feel like getting in on the ground floor of something special. After reading Unholy Grail, I’m thoroughly convinced that all other takes on the Round Table are strictly for squares.

My pathetic addiction to “mockumentary” horror recently steered me toward writer/director Stephen Cognetti’s 2015 low-budgeter Hell House LLC, now available under the auspices of Amazon Prime’s streaming service (and apparently coming on DVD at some unspecified future date), a surprisingly beyond-competent number that should go some way toward convincing even the most hardened cynic that this genre may not be completely spent yet. It treads some very similar ground to another flick we reviewed around these parts some time back, The Houses October Built, but adds more than a few new wrinkles into the mix, as well as broadening and deepening the core tropes involved, with the end result being perhaps the most successful exploitation of the “found footage” premise that I’ve seen in — shit, far too long.

Cognetti does an admirable job of not only giving his characters a little more genuine individuality than we’ve depressingly become accustomed to from this sort of thing, but of varying up filming styles to keep the look of his flick fresh and interesting at all times. Cinematographer Brian C. Harnick certainly earns his keep here bobbing and weaving between hand-held camcorders, surveillance cams, in-film cameras, even a head-mounted “Go Pro” and a cell phone, but the transitions from one to the other (to the other, to the other) and back again, while in no way seamless, make sense within the context of the story and, for lack of a more sophisticated way of putting things, “feel right” at pretty much all times. That’s no mean feat right there, but who are we kidding? Mere technical prowess is usually not enough in and of itself to make or break a film, so what else does this have going for it?

I’m glad you asked —

Here’s the deal : “way” back in 2009, 15 customers and staff met their tragic and untimely ends at our titular Hell House, a yearly mobile attraction in upstate New York (by way of Pennsylvania, where most of this was filmed) that has nevertheless continued on thanks to the dogged determination of owner/operator Alex (played by Danny Bellini), who hasn’t lost his passion for scaring the shit out of rural yokels despite his company’s tragic history. This year, he’s found the most potentially-really-haunted spot yet to set up shop, a notorious abandoned hotel in the fictitious (and Lovecraftian-sounding) town of Abaddon, and he’s hired out a film crew to record the days leading up to his big opening in order to upload the footage to his website for the edification of his fans around the world. Principal cameramen Paul (Gore Abrams) and Tony (Jared Hacker) pull double-duty as set-up men at the attraction itself, with Alex’s girlfriend, Sara (Ryan Jennifer) providing the bulk of the raw footage that makes up their de facto “documentary” segments. They’ve got six weeks to whip the hotel into shape for the “punters,” which is a tight schedule, but things start out easy-peasy enough — until they shift their attention and labor to the basement, where they find Bibles haphazardly strewn about the floor and numerous pentagrams scrawled into the walls. Soon, as you’ve no doubt guessed,  the employees of Hell House find themselves haunted — by their own haunted house.

Getting ready for the big pre-opening “walk-though” is the goal everyone is working towards, but it seems that the paranormal forces at work in the hotel aren’t interested in seeing that happen, and while wildly uneven sound quality (including curious and ill-timed volume fluctuations and numerous drop-outs) hamper the proceedings here somewhat, the plot skillfully offers any number of logically-consistent reasons to bathe the visuals in strobe lighting and garish neon tones, keeping viewers off-balance and even downright scared at just the right points. Throw in some very good acting from the principals already mentioned (with special mention going to Jennifer, whose quiet and reserved performance suggests she may know more about both what happened five years previously and what the strange things happening today may portend) as well as Andrew Schenider as tech-hand Andrew, Lauren A. Kennedy (last seen around these parts in our recent review of micro-budget indie horror Summit), and Theodore Bouloukos and Jeb Kreager as interview subjects in “film-within-a-film” faux-documentary portions of the story, and what you have here is a case study in how well-realized execution can make all the difference between a film playing out as a dull retread or a refreshingly cold and creepy breath of fresh air.

For his part, Cognetti not only strings fine acting, expertly-chosen lighting, and creative cinematography together, he also slowly and stylishly builds up the tension inherent in his script, creates a rich, dark, and foreboding atmosphere, and even throws in a generous sampling of “jump” scares for all of us to enjoy. He and his cohorts should all be very proud of their efforts here — Hell House LLC is “Exhibit A” for why many of us aren’t ready to throw in the towel on “found footage” horror anytime soon.

 

 

Question for fellow Amazon Prime members : is it just me, or have they been adding fewer no-budget “found footage” horror flicks in recent months? I mean, new ones used to show up at a pretty steady clip on there — we’re talking two or three a week — but lately, not so much. I’m not sure why that would be given that at least as many of these things are being made as ever have been, but if anyone has any theories as to the slowdown, I’d be curious to hear them. Maybe they just figure having several hundred of them already is enough?

In any case, one that was added to the streaming queue recently (and is also apparently available on DVD if you’re so inclined) is writer/director Kathleen Behun’s 2014 effort 21 Days, and since I was literally “Jonesing” to check a new one out after a weeks-long dry spell, I gave it a whirl despite it having a premise that sounded, frankly, redundant as hell.

Shot in a fairly nondescript suburban home in Fillmore, California for what I’m guessing was no more than a few thousand bucks, the plot revolves around a trio of amateur filmmakers/ investigators who get wind of the fact that no person or family has been able to make a go of it for more than 20 days in this spread due to excessive paranormal harassment. Their goal? To make it to 21, of course.

In the “plus” column, the acting in this one isn’t too bad. Max Hambleton, Whitney Rose Pynn, and Mickey River all do a fairly nice job in their roles as Jacob, Shauna, and Kurt, respectively, and while none are given a tremendous amount of depth, the amateur thespians uniformly breathe a bit more life into their characters than is probably there on paper, particularly River, who very nearly becomes the “third wheel” who steals the show. Mind you, none of these performances are what one would consider to be Hollywood-caliber, but veteran “homemade horror” viewers will probably be more than pleasantly surprised by both the effort and the ability of the principal players involved with this one.

Unfortunately, in the “minus” column we’ve got — well, everything else. Things going bump (and thump, and boom, and crash) in the night really doesn’t do it anymore, and while it’s fair to point out that this flick is now about three years old, the simple truth is that it was all pretty old hat by then, as well. There’s a very dark and sinister power at work here (you knew that), and Behun’s direction is competent enough that a reasonable amount of ramping tension will probably keep you at least half-engrossed in the goings-on, but the directly-borrowed tropes from both the Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch franchises (see photo below for evidence) are just a little too numerous and a little too obvious to get you fully invested, and even if you’re leaning in that direction, the final 15 minutes or so are such a mess that you’ll find yourself shaking your head (as well as wondering what the fuck is even going on thanks to Eduardo Servello’s ridiculously dark and incomprehensible cinematography) and feeling frustrated by the time the end credits mercifully make their appearance.

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Certainly there’s no question that 21 Days is far from the worst thing that the micro-budget “mockumentary” sub-genre has to offer. Lord knows I’ve endured, and subsequently reviewed, incompetent garbage that makes this film look like Oscar-caliber stuff. But it’s so derivative and unoriginal that the only real “fun” you’ll have is in seeing how Behun and company string together various and sundry cliches that you’ve grown not just accustomed to, but tired of. I give everybody here credit for trying, I suppose, but next time, please, try something new. Surely that’s not asking for too much, is it?

Between 2003 and 2008, Rick Popko and Dan West of Bay Area “comedy-horror” production house 4321 films got busy : not only did they make sure that they’d have a lot more money to work with (a cool $500,000 if IMDB is to be believed) when they got behind (and in front of) the cameras for Retardead, the sequel/follow-up to their earlier Monsturd,  but they also honed their craft and conspicuously updated their equipment. The end result? Something that looks a whole hell of a lot more professional than their debut effort, yet somehow manages to hang onto all the low-grade “charm” of its predecessor despite the obvious quantum(-ish) leap in production values. In my book, that’s a fairly impressive achievement in and of itself right there even if this film were to somehow manage not to get anything else right.

I’m happy to report that such is not the case, however, and to be honest I have no idea how and/or why Troma never secured the distribution rights for this one (like Monsturd, it’s available on DVD from Brain Damage Films, and with a significantly larger quantity of extras), because it’s actually several orders of magnitude better than most of what Lloyd Kaufman’s outfit has been dumping out onto the public for the last several years. Oh well, guess they missed the boat — again.

The premise for this one is as follows : quintessential mad scientist Dr. Stern (Dan Burr reprising his role) is back at it, this time “armed” with an intelligence-enhancing serum that he’s using on the residents/students of the Butte County Institute For Special Education, a haphazardly-administered center for the intellectually challenged (barely) overseen by a nameless director played by Michael Allen. The side effects of this miracle juice are pretty severe, though, it must be said, given that it first kills its less-than-lucky recipients and then causes them to rise from the dead as flesh-and-brains-craving zombies. So, hey, there’s some work to be done before it can be mass-marketed, obviously.

So, anyway, zombies everywhere is what this one’s all about, and most of ’em are roughly akin, appearance-wise, to those of Romero’s original Dawn Of The Dead, while the spilling innards and gut-munching are pure Day Of — all the way. A handful (or, perhaps more appropriately, a stomach-full) of Tom Savini’s more memorable effects sequences are re-packaged/re-purposed to great effect here, albeit with a fraction of the cash, but what of it? If sheer originality is your bag it’s doubtful you’d ever find yourself watching a flick like this in the first place — you’re on this ride to see how well they do what they can with what they’ve got, and by that standard, Popko and West acquit themselves very skillfully, indeed.

Meanwhile back in what passes for the plot, the local cops (Paul Weiner’s Sheriff Duncan, Popko’s Deputy Rick and West’s Deputy Dan) are busy trying to track down a public masturbator who’s flaunting them at every turn, but when their new and bigger problem hits, FBI agent Hannigan (Beth West) is called back in, along with some extra backup, most notably a broadly-caricatured “G-Man” named Russo (Tony Adams), and in fairly short order juvenile, dare I say retarded, semi-hilarity with blood and guts to spare unfolds non-stop on your TV screen/computer/whatever, all of it as hopelessly lame as it is hopelessly addicting.

Do you wish you weren’t the sort of person who finds laughing at the unfortunate to be humorous? I know I sure do. But there’s plenty of other absurd shit on hand here that you don’t necessarily have to feel guilty about chuckling at, including an attack by a half-dozen gyrating zombie-babes, a random-ass LSD trip, a visit to an old-school porn shop, and some super-cheesy trailers for non-existent horror films featuring staple characters like Jack The Ripper and Frankenstein, most played by Popko and West themselves. Throw in a bit of voice-over narration at the beginning from none other than “Godfather Of Gore” Hersechell Gordon Lewis himself (the spiritual forefather of all the deliciously grisly practical FX this film is drenched in) and a cameo from the still-awesome-after-all-these-years Jello Biafra as the local mayor (a job he actually ran for in San Francisco himself once) , and this is a film that’s pretty much pre-programmed to hit all the right notes for trash cinema lovers like me and, presumably, you. Of course Retardead isn’t a good movie — it’s a horrible, lousy, tasteless, stupid, irredeemably bad movie. But it’s a great one, at that.

When you’re a low- (or no-) budget film production outfit, you’ve gotta live by three simple words : never say die.

Seriously, even if you mange to hustle up enough funding to get your flick “in the can” (not the greatest choice of words given the movie we’re about to discuss, but —), often times the real work is only just beginning — you’ve gotta promote your work both relentlessly and endlessly. Case in point : 4321 films, the brainchild of northern California-based writers/director/producers/actors Rick Popko and Dan West, is still hard at work getting the word out about their two feature-length films, Monsturd and Retarded, even though the former came out way back in 2003 and the latter in 2008. I know this because, in modern parlance, they “reached out” to me via twitter only a couple of weeks ago offering a couple of “screeners” of their flicks for review. I sad “sure,” and just a few scant days later “legit” copies of their DVDs, released under the auspices of Brain Damage Films and complete with cover art, extras (what few there are) etc., showed up in my mailbox. No email link to a Vimeo account. No plain-wrapper “sleeve.” These guys do it old-school, like everyone who wanted their movies reviewed way back when I started this blog used to do it, and I appreciate that. But would I appreciate their efforts both in front of and behind the camera as much?

I watched ’em in chronological order, and aesthetically speaking, it’s gotta be said that Monsturd looks every bit like the $3,000 production it is. Essentially a series of one-take scenes strung together with “wipe” transitions of the sort you (or anyone) can master in a matter of moments with the old Windows Movie Maker program, it nonetheless has quite a bit going in its favor for fans of Troma-esque “insta-cult” trash : psychotic serial killer Jack Schmitt (played by Brad Dosland) is on the run from the law after having made a daring jailbreak, and finds himself chased into the sewers of Butte County (yes, all the jokes really are this lame and obvious — would you expect anything less? Or more?) where, unbeknownst to him, evil scientist Dr. Stern (Dan Burr) has been pumping the contaminated waste (including the corpse of a recently-deceased colleague) left over from his dastardly experiments for the Dutech chemical corporation. Jack gets covered in all this sludge, as you’ve no doubt already surmised, and ends up a grotesque half-human/half-shit monstrosity who still can’t let go of his burning need to kill. In fact, it seems to have grown even more pronounced. So, ya know, let the  antics begin.

One unwritten rule of so-called “B”- movies is that law enforcement always has to be totally incompetent — even more than they are in real life — but it’s a sort of “fun and harmless” incompetence, free of the kind of devastating consequences that the families of Philando Catsille, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, etc. are all too painfully and tragically familiar with.  Sheriff Duncan (Paul Weiner) is the head “Keystone Kop” trying to bring shit-man to justice in this one, with his faithful deputies, Dan and Rick, being played by — well, there’s no way you don’t have that one sussed out, is there? FBI agent Susan Hannigan (Beth West) is the closest thing to somebody who actually has a handle on how to do her job, and she knows Schmitt best because she spent years on his tail, so the situation isn’t totally hopeless — just hopelessly stupid. Hijinks ensue, run-arounds become the order of the day,  at some point you may just want to flip on the commentary track on the DVD because it’s actually reasonably informative and engaging and you can pretty much predict all the dialogue you’d be missing out on, anyway.

Which is really sort of the point here, isn’t it? Purposefully ridiculous horror-comedy hybrids like Monsturd are in the business of offering the familiar : don’t tax my brain, don’t surprise me, just give me a healthy dose of exactly what the fuck it is I knew I was letting myself in for — and in that regard, Popko and West perform their task admirably. Both direction and acting are as deliberately over-the-top as one can imagine, the plot is rote and unimaginative stuff, and the turd-monster him/itself — the real reason you’re even watching this thing in the first place — is a very cool and suitably repulsive piece of dime-store practical FX wizardy that would make the late, great Don Dohler proud. They obviously blew their entire budget on this creature, and that’s exactly as it should be. Top it all off with some fun fairy tale-style narration from Hannah Stangel and a groaningly absurd ballad that plays out over the end credits, and you’d have to be a really hardened piece of shit to walk away from this flick with anything less than a smile on your face. There ain’t much blood, and there are no boobs, but everything else you’re looking for (presuming this even is the kind of thing you’re looking for) is present and accounted for.

Lastly, if you’re as tired of misleading and duplicitous cinematic marketing as I am, rest easy — Monsturd doesn’t pretend for a moment to be anything other than what it is : an absolute pile of crap. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

If thewe’s one fing I weawwy wuved about —-

Okay, that’s gonna get on your nerves and mine really quickly, isn’t it? Let’s start over.

I won’t kid you — when these DC/Looney Tunes crossovers were first announced, I was scratching my head a bit. Some of the team-ups (Marvin The Martian and Martian Manhunter, for instance) made more sense on paper than others (I’m looking at you, Bugs Bunny and The Legion Of Super-Heroes), but at five bucks a pop, they were going to have to offer something more than an intriguing novelty to get my money. The just-released Batman/Elmer Fudd Special #1 certainly meets that criteria by featuring an “A-List” creative team — Tom King on scripting chores, Lee Weeks on art — and a damn nice-looking cover, so what the hell, right? You only live once, and if you’re as broke as the average comic book collector, you gotta take your adventure where you can find it. I decided to give it a shot.

To call this a “pleasant surprise” would be an understatement. It’s no secret that I’ve been less than impressed by most of what King’s been serving up since taking over as scribe on the regular Batman series, but freed from the tight editorial strictures that no doubt sway his hand (and steer his plotlines) in those pages, he does something here that he by and large hasn’t been able to do there — he has fun. His iteration of Fudd is a less-than-fearsome assassin, the classic down-on-his luck noir anti-hero, and Weeks’ always-stylish art, combined with Lovern Kindzierski’s dripping-with-atmosphere colors, conveys the mood and tone of the far-less-absurd-than-you’d-think premise perfectly from page one onwards as our dual protagonists converge toward a surprisingly touching confrontation for the heart and, perhaps, hand of Silver St. Cloud. It’s simple, straight-forward, and admittedly derivative stuff (right down to the big “twist” that’s really nothing of the sort), but who can argue with even the most time-worn tropes when they’re executed this well? Certainly not me, especially in a book littered with this many gratuitous references to Fudd’s own WB animation “universe.”

Oh, yeah — Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Michigan J. Frog, Foghorn Leghorn, ACME, carrot juice, Marvin The Martian, The Tasmanian Devil, Sylvester, and probably one or two other characters/things that I missed are all present and accounted for here, and almost always in ways you’ve never seen them before and never will again. One would think a mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Chuck Jones either wouldn’t or shouldn’t work, but damn — it does. And rather beautifully, at that. Throw in a fun little backup strip told in “classic cartoon” style by King and artist Byron Vaughns and what you’ve got is a comic that hits all the right notes, at all the right times, for fans coming into this from either end of Warner Brothers’ sprawling entertainment empire — hell, maybe even for folks who aren’t all that crazy about either one but just enjoy a good (make that very good), old-fashioned slice of detective fiction peppered with a healthy dose of the absurd.

I’ve been far less enthusiastic about the “DC Rebirth” initiative than most, but I have to hand it to ’em — they’re hitting far more than they’re missing with their cartoon revamps/adaptations these days. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s recently-concluded revisionist take on Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones was the best thing to come out under the publisher’s auspices literally in years, and the Batman/Elmer Fudd special can stand proudly alongside it in terms of high-quality, pitch-perfect, obvious labors of love. I could go on and on about this book’s merits for who knows how long , but hey — why do that when it’s just as easy, and probably for more effective, to just say “that’s all, folks!” and call it a day? Buy this comic now — that’s all, folks!