Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

So, this is it — the end of the quietest, most underappreciated trilogy to come out of the Hollywood blockbuster machine in who-knows-how-long has arrived, and to make a long story short : it doesn’t disappoint. Not in the least. In fact, it exceeds even the loftiest of expectations.

So that’s me giving away the plot a bit early, I guess, but hey, if you’re still reading this, chances are you were every bit as fond of this series as I was, and for long-time fans of the franchise, not only did it rinse the taste of Tim Burton’s doomed-from-jump relaunch from our collective palette once and for all, it went considerably further by re-imagining the premise in a bold and entirely believable new way, delivering compelling performances, and making better use of CGI than — shit, anything ever, I don’t hesitate to say. It really has been “all that,” hasn’t it?

What makes the 21-st century iteration of one of sci-fi’s most beloved properties stand out hairy-head-and-shoulders above its competitors in the mega-budget popcorn movie game, though, is its entirely magnificent characters, specifically Andy Serkis’ Caesar. He’s really been the heart and soul of these films all the way through, and in War For The Planet Of The Apes, it’s his show all the way. No offensive intended to the likes of Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, and Toby Kebbell, who all knock it out of the metaphorical park as Bad Ape, Maurice, and Koba, respectively, but as much as this series has been about a world in transition (to say the least), it’s also been about Caesar’s own highly personal journey, and while I’m a little bit choked up at seeing said journey come to an end, director Matt Reeves does his star simian justice and gives him a highly emotional send-off rife with moral, emotional, and physical conflict that caps off by — well, shit, that would be telling, but to say Caesar’s final fate is equal parts heroic, intimate, and entirely in keeping with his arc sums things up pretty nicely, in my view.

New human characters make their mark, as well — Amiah Miller’s Nova transcends the typical “little girl lost” stereotype in her heart-rendingly sympathetic role and Woody Harrelson radiates the menace that can only come from a man already shattered beyond repair and with literally nothing left to lose as The Colonel, but again, for all this greatness — and make no mistake, these actors are indeed great, as are the fully-fleshed-out characters they’re portraying — it still, at the end of the day, all comes back to Caesar.

And maybe Maurice, too. Come on — who doesn’t love Maurice? Who isn’t going to miss Maurice? Who doesn’t wish they could grab Maurice right off the screen and take him home to watch over their kids?

Okay, none of us can have Maurice. But intelligent drama, thick-as-L.A.-smog tension, hair-raising action, amazing scenery and shot composition, and complex philosophical questions are surely not too much to ask for, and War For The Planet Of The Apes offers all that in such generous supply that fans could almost be forgiven for thinking the studio was giving them a gift here — until you remember that you’re the one paying them twelve bucks or whatever to see it.

Not that I’m complaining mind you — this flick, as with its two predecessors, is worth every dime and then some to see on the big screen, as it’s epic stuff all the way. Reeves and his co-screenwriter, Mark Bomback, manage to hit precisely the right notes at precisely the right times with such skill that one could almost be forgiven for thinking they make it look easy, even though the logistics of a production on this scale are anything but. There’s a mind-boggling amount of genuine artistry at work here, and no director since Spielberg’s heyday has managed to make the multi-million-dollar spectacle feel as personal as Reeves does. Everything about this climactic final battle for the future of planet Earth is dripping with the sort of import that screams “this is it!!!!!!!!!,” but it never falls prey to the emotionally distant, bombastic trappings that ensnare most “epic event” cinema. This is everything you wanted — maybe even needed — the final chapter of the Apes saga to be, and I’m honestly hard-pressed to remember the last time a franchise has taken the time to say “thank you” to its audience in so heartfelt and earnest a manner.

So, yeah — see War For The Planet Of The Apes. Or see it again, as the case may be. Then tell me there’s no such thing as “movie magic” anymore.

Who’da thunk it — apparently all it takes to get the “Marvel Zombie” crowd to like Spider-Man flicks again is to bring ’em under the banner of the MCU. Or is it?

To be sure, director Jon Watts’ Spider-Man : Homecoming theoretically should give the fans that were pissed off about Sony still holding the cinematic rights to their favorite web-slinger everything they want : it’s fairly light-hearted, reasonably fun, well-cast, and directed in the sort of unimaginative, risk-averse “house style” first laid down by talentless hack Jon Favreau (who’s on hand here as Peter Parker’s Stark Industries “handler,” Happy Hogan) in Iron Man and since followed to a proverbial “T” by all Marvel movie product. Sure, plenty of liberties are taken with Spidey’s origin story — no mention of Uncle Ben, no talk of great power going hand-in-hand with great responsibility, Tony Stark (the by-now-perpetually-annoying Robert Downey Jr.) is shoved into the proceedings for, let’s be honest, superfluous at best reasons — but hey, them’s the breaks when you’re trying to shoehorn Marvel’s most famous character into their interconnected universe this late in the game. And besides, none of those changes seem seem to really bother the die-hards, because at this point it’s all about brand loyalty for them more than it is a franchise staying true to its roots.

A funny thing happened on the way to this flick taking in its inevitable billion dollars at the worldwide box office, though : a not-inconsiderable percentage of the very troglodytes Marvel Studios and Sony hoped to win back with their new co-production deal turned on the so-called “House Of Ideas” in a big way.

The reasons for this are as simple as they are simple-minded, and so pathetic I don’t wish to go into them in great detail — suffice to say a quick Google search for “SJW Marvel” will turn up any number of mouth-foaming rants, either of the written, spoken, or streaming variety, featuring emotionally and intellectually stunted middle-aged white guys bitching about the fact that their once-favorite entertainment conglomerate has become “too political,” “too liberal,” “too preachy,” “too PC,” etc. Yes, apparently the company that has for decades produced — and continues to produce — mind-numbingly stupid comics and films featuring reactionary bloodthirsty vigilantes such as The Punisher, Wolverine, Bullseye, Foolkiller, etc. just isn’t right-wing enough for the “Make Marvel Great Again” crowd.

Then again, making Marvel “great” isn’t what they’re concerned about in the least — the post-Kirby Marvel comics they grew up reading and now speak of in reverent whispers were anything but. In fact, by and large, they sucked. But, Captain America sidekick The Falcon aside, they were essentially all-white stories, and these days, with characters like a Muslim-American Ms. Marvel, a female Thor, an equally female Wolverine, a black and female Iron “Man,” etc. running around, things are getting a bit too diverse for the “Trump troll” segment of fandom.

So what’s any of this got to do with Spider-Man : Homecoming, you ask? I mean, didn’t we already establish that no one’s really complaining about the “updated” take on the character? Hell, aren’t some of these 40-year-old virgins downright thrilled about Aunt May being a good three decades years younger than she’s ever been and played by Marisa Tomei?

Well, yeah, they are — and they generally seem to be in agreement that the new tech-savvy version of the villainous Vulture, as portrayed by Michael Keaton (who’s punching way below his weight class in a second-fiddle role) is an A+ baddie and that Tom Holland hits the nail on the head in his infectiously likable turn as Peter Parker/Spidey (although for my money Pete should always be a little bit of a self-absorbed, self-pitying jerk, and Andrew Garfield got that part of the character exactly right) — what they don’t like is that he’s got a crush on a black girl (Laura Harrier’s Liz) and that another black girl (Zendaya’s Michelle/ M.J.) has a crush on him. They seem far less than thrilled that Pete’s best buddy, Ned (played by Jacob Batalon) and arch-rival Flash (Tony Revolori) are “insufficiently” Caucasian, as well, but that’s nowhere near as large and affront to these knuckle-dragging cretins than even largely- unrequited interracial romance is. Kinda makes you wonder if they’ve got got some issues they don’t wanna deal with, doesn’t it?

In point of fact, these supposed ” old-school purists” (or maybe that should just be racial purists) — who, again, voice little to no objection to any of the other, much more significant, alterations made to the franchise they claim to revere — have even taking to calling this film “SJW Spider-Man,” even though, in the chickenshit tradition of the MCU, nothing like an even remotely political statement is made by anyone in the movie at any point. Hell, in the overall scheme of things Mary Jane’s name being changed is probably a “bigger deal” than her race being changed given that Peter Parker lives and goes to school, as is customary for the character, in Queens, and there just plain is no such thing as an all-white, or even a majority-white, high school in Queens anymore. If you don’t like that fact, then don’t venture outside of Kentucky, or Alabama, or wherever the hell you’re broadcasting your racist YouTube screeds from, but don’t blame either Sony or Marvel (a phrase you’ll never hear me say again, I promise) for providing an entirely realistic 21st-century supporting cast for their newest star-in-the-making.

And while we’re at it, let’s acknowledge that Liz’s race goes some way toward helping the more-clever-than-these-things-usually-are script keep its massive third-act plot twist a secret. I’ll say no more for fear of offending the “spoiler police,” but for those of you who’ve seen this flick already, well — you know what I’m talking about. It’s a genuinely surprising twist that I sure as hell didn’t see coming, and neither did you.

Add in the aforementioned very-good-too-terrific acting, solid CGI work, some flawlessly-timed laughs (many coming our way courtesy of Chris Evans), and numerous well-shot-and-choreographed action scenes, and what you’ve got here — and I risk my “Marvel-hater” reputation by saying this, I know, but — is an enjoyable, if flawed, summertime popcorn flick. Sure, quality veteran performers like Tyne Daly and Bokeem Woodbine are utterly wasted in go-nowhere roles, and sure, there’s nothing happening here that breaks the MCU mold, and sure, the rank hypocrisy of those who praise this film to high heavens after bad-mouthing, and in some cases even boycotting, the frankly superior The Amazing Spider-Man (I’m only talking about the first one, mind you) is annoying as all get-out, but hey, who are we kidding? These things are what they are. And for what it is, Spider-Man : Homecoming isn’t too shabby at all.

Sifting through the veritable mountain of tributes that have been flooding the internet since the announcement that the film world lost one of its truly great auteurs today, it seems to me that almost all of them miss a vital point : sure, the man, myth, and legend that was George A. Romero is among a small handful of people — King, Carpenter, Craven, Wrightson — who re-defined and frankly revolutionized horror across all media in the late 20th/early 21st centuries; he was beloved by fans for not only his staggering body of work but also his warm and engaging personality and infectious, perpetually-youthful enthusiasm;  and there’s no doubt that he will forever be regarded as The King Of The Zombie Movie in the same way Elvis will always be remembered as The King Of Rock N’ Roll and Jack Kirby as The King Of Comics. These ae all givens. But what most people fail to remark upon — perhaps because the aforementioned alone are more than enough to cement a legacy that, like his zombies, will never die — is that Romero was also one of the most important, and trailblazing, independent filmmakers of all time.

I’ll tell you who never lost sight of that fact for a second, though — all the celebrated indie directors who followed in his wake. Go on, ask folks like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith where they’d be without the road map Romero set out for them, they’ll tell you : nowhere. When a guy with a background in commercial and industrial film production hustles up $114,000, heads out to a Pittsburgh-area cemetery in 1968, and makes a flick that not only changes the face of a genre forever but plays both drive-ins and “proper” movie-houses for literally years on end, it fundamentally alters the definition of what is possible, and gives birth to the notion in many eager young minds that, hey, maybe they can do this one day, too.

Here’s the damndest thing of all, though — Romero affected this fundamental shift not just once, but twice.  Ten years on from Night Of The Living Dead, he doubled-down on his claim to cinematic immortality with Dawn Of The Dead, a rising tide that lifted any number of boats along with it. Just ask Tom Savini. Or Ken Foree. Or Goblin. Sure, they’d all done fine work in the past — and would continue to do so — but would any of them have risen to legendary status absent their involvement with Romero’s masterwork?

While we’re at it, let’s try to imagine the contemporary horror landscape had Romero never happened : there’s no 28 Days Later, a film that made its mark by dint of its open flouting of Romero’s unwritten-but-so-effective-everyone-else-followed-them “rules.” There’s no Zombie (or Zombi 2, if you prefer). There’s sure as hell no Walking Dead.

Like any number of artistic standard-setters, then, Romero gave birth to a veritable slew of either outright imitators on the low end or more slick, mass-audience-friendly progeny on the high, and surely others (thanks to an infamous copyright indicia oversight) profited from the fruits of his imagination, either directly or indirectly, more than he ever did himself — but if he let that bother him, he certainly never showed it : George was indie to the core, and while he did some damn fine work for the studios intermittently over the years (The Dark HalfMonkey ShinesCreepshow), after returning to the by-then-an-industry he’d created with  Land Of The Dead (by my account still the best John Carpenter movie of the last 20 years even if it wasn’t, ya know, directed by John Carpenter), he couldn’t wait to get back to his low-budget, DIY roots. Diary Of The Dead and Survival Of The Dead may not have been as well-received as Night or Dawn or Day Of The Dead, but do yourself a favor in the coming days as you program your home-viewing Romero marathons : watch ’em again with an open mind and tell me that they don’t feel like the work of a guy who’s absolutely in his element, making the kinds of movies he wants to make, saying the things he wants to say, with an admirable lack of concern for commercial considerations.

And while you’re perusing through his unjustly-less-celebrated works, don’t forget to give Martin a go and silently weep for what the vampire genre could have become if it had chosen to follow Romero’s lead rather than Anne Rice’s; enjoy the ethereal and intriguing admitted near-miss that is Season The Witch; frighten the living shit of yourself with The Crazies, a film every bit as prophetic as his zombie tales; check out Knightriders for proof positive that he could step outside horror altogether and produce a damn-near-sprawling moody character-driven drama tinged with understated melancholy. There’s a lot to choose from, and all of them are “master-class” offerings on how to do a whole lot with very little by way of resources — other than the two most important, vision and will.

Others have commented — and will continue to do so — on the expert analysis Romero offered on subjects ranging from racism to consumerism to sexism to Cold War and post-9/11 “security state” paranoia in his films, and it’s no secret that he proudly wore his “social justice warrior” bona fides on his sleeve well before that term became either a badge of honor or an intellectually lazy, reactionary insult, depending on who’s using it. Suffice to say, though, that even the most politically conservative viewer would have to admit that what Romero’s perspective revealed was a guy who understood that horror is most effective when it’s rooted in the world we know, and when it both reflects and lays bare certain uncomfortable truths about our society, indeed or reality, that we’d rather not talk about. George understood, intuitively it seems, the words of the late, great Walt Kelly — “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

In today’s early morning hours, then, this writer would humbly suggest that we lost a whole lot more than the father of the modern zombie movie. We lost a pioneering independent filmmaker, an insightful social and political commentator, and a singular artistic talent. We lost the best there is at what he did, and I don’t think any of us would begrudge him getting back up from the dead for a minute in the least, if only to take a well-deserved victory lap.

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.