Posts Tagged ‘dark sky films’

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If you’re even a casual horror fan, chances are that by now you’ve found it impossible to ignore the buzz surrounding 2014’s Starry Eyes, a modestly-budgeted independent offering from co-directors/co-screenwriters Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. Most folks will tell you that it has “a real old school vibe,” or that it plays out like “a cross between Rosemary’s Baby and Mulholland Drive,” — some have opined that it’s “a slow-burn psychological horror” or that it “reminds them of the best Satanic cult flicks of the ’70s.” The one thing nearly everybody seems to agree on is that it’s flat-out awesome.

Now that it’s available via Netflix instant streaming (you can also find it on Blu-ray and DVD from Dark Sky Films, but not having watched it in either of its physical-storage iterations I can’t fairly comment on their technical specs, extras, etc.) I finally decided to see what all the hype was about for myself and, whaddya know? For once the knee-jerk contrarian in me will just have to sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up, and admit that everybody is right. This movie is the shit.

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The people making the comparisons to Mulholland Drive and Rosemary’s Baby are right on the money, as are the folks saying it reminds them of the better ’70s Satanic cult films (although it’s probably worth pointing out that most of those are watered-down approximations of Polanski’s just-mentioned earlier effort — which is by no means me taking a pot-shot at ’em, I love Satanic cult movies almost as much as I love actual Satanic cults), but I don’t think audiences should necessarily go into Starry Eyes expecting anything that comes close to the depth and complexity of David Lynch’s masterpiece (or one of his masterpieces, at any rate — for my money Fire Walk With Me is right up there, as well). That’s not exactly the point here. Kolsch and Widmeyer are telling a much more straightforward story, with no explorations of the subconscious, fugue-like dream-states, or grand symbolic overtures. This is, in the end, a fairly simple tale of the old “be careful what you wish for” variety that is extremely well-realized in all facets across the board.

So let’s dish out some kudos, shall we? First and foremost to the aforementioned auteurs behind this little slice of horror heaven for crafting a piece of haunting beauty, rich-yet-subtle atmospherics, nearly-unbearable tension, and all-too-human heartbreak. Whether alone or in tandem, the names Kolsch and Widmeyer are ones to be watching from here on out.

Running an incredibly close second in importance, though, is lead performer Alexandra Essoe, whose turn as wannabe-starlet Sarah is a tour de force of physical, psychological, and emotional transformation. Sure, the make-up and SFX technicians do a great job, as well, but she sells you on every step of her journey from waitress at a Hooter-ish hot dog stand with big dreams to instantly-egotistical-bitch who thinks she’s better than all her friends the minute she gets a call-back after an audition to — human gateway for supernatural powers beyond her understanding and comprehension once her new “friends” at Astraeus Pictures get their hooks in her. Yeah, okay, most of her social circle are self-obsessed asshole twenty-somethings, but her drawn-out betrayal of best friend/roommate Tracy (Amanda Fuller) is actually kinda painful to see play out and adds an easily-relatable dimension to the otherwise-otherwordly proceedings. Impressive work from a talent to be reckoned with.

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Shit, I’m almost ready to say that this is a movie that has something for everyone, but I do need to add one very minor caveat — horror fans who appreciate a story that takes its time and actually goes to the effort of involving viewers in its characters, concepts, and settings will be instantly hooked and draw a deeper, gasping breath when things inevitably go way south for our protagonist, no question, but if you’re part of the short-attention-span crowd, you may find the early going a bit of a slog. Stick with it, though — the payoff is big, really big, and even hard-core gorehounds will eventually find enough here to sink their blood-red fangs into, once all the expertly-laid pieces are in place and we find ourselves at the point where the shit hits the fan. I can’t see anyone’s interest completely waning at any point, but if you’re the fidgety type, then glue yourself to your seat if you must, but do not turn away.

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Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, though, that you’re not a horror fan (which leads me to wonder what the hell you’re even doing reading this review, but whatever) — never fear, there’s still plenty in Starry Eyes for you to appreciate, as well, because this is a well-crafted, richly-deserved savaging of the Hollywood rat race from what feels like an authentic, “insider” point of view. From pretentious wannabe-stars to uncaring studio execs to “casting couch” sleaziness to the quiet full-time desperation of those who can’t let go of their dreams at any price, it’s all on display here. The critique ain’t subtle by any stretch, but then neither is the situation for the average kid who heads west with delusions of grandeur that can, in most cases, never come true.I’m pretty sure I said earlier that the heartbreak in this flick is “all too human” (or words to that effect) — trust me, that’s not hyperbole or exaggeration. It’s just fact.

So, yeah, this is one of those rare instances where you can absolutely believe all the hubbub and hoopla. Starry Eyes is at least as good as everyone’s been claiming,  and maybe even better. The over-used cliche “game-changer” comes to mind. Kolsch and Widmeyer have set the bar for indie horror very high indeed. I’d be damn surprised if anyone else surpasses it this year.

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If you’d have told me, say, ten years ago that the annoying comedian best known for doing the voice of that stupid rabbit puppet on a third-rate Married With Children knock-off sitcom would develop into one of the most eclectic, incisive, and provocative independent filmmakers to come down the pipeline in some time — and that he’d be in his fifties when said entirely unexpected career transformation took place — well, I’m sure I’d have laughed. And yet here we are, in 2014, and it’s the inimitable Bobcat Goldthwait who’s having the last laugh on all of us. Funny how life works, ain’t it?

Here’s the thing, though — having surprised us already by coming out of nowhere and delivering two very funny, but also painfully human,  robustly scathing critiques of  dysfunctional American family life and consumer/media “culture” with World’s Greatest Dad and God Bless America, Goldthwait has opted to eschew easy pigeon-holing and take his writing/directing career down yet another road none of us saw coming, scaling things back tremendously for his latest, Willow Creek, a low-budget flick shot in 2013 and released this year (now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Dark Sky Films — on the technical front both widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are superb, and extras include a deleted scene, a brief “behind-the-scenes” vignette, and a full-length commentary track featuring Goldthwait and his two principal actors that’s actually pretty engrossing and informative),  that breathes some much welcome new life into not just one, but two sub-genres — the Bigfoot movie and the “found footage” or “mockumentary”-style horror,  both of which are considered by many to be well past their sell-by dates.

First let’s talk Sasquatch, shall we? He’s never really gone away, but let’s face it — you’re just not likely to get away with a movie like The Legend Of Boggy Creek or Night Of The Demon (my personal favorite of the bunch, best known for being “the one where Bigfoot rips a guy’s dick off”) these days. Audiences are too sophisticated, apparently, for good old-fashioned cheesy fun and we’re more interested, so we’re told, in angst and gravitas and all that. Yet there definitely remains a hard-core group of “Bigfooters” out there, as evidenced by the sheer number of websites devoted to “proving” the creature’s existence  and the fact that the venerable late-night radio show Coast To Coast probably still has at least one or two segments devoted to “Squatchers” every week, and with Willow Creek we have a film that not only acknowledges, but actively embraces, this sub-culture —  to the point where Goldthwait even dedicates his work to Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, the two guys who shot what remains the most-famous Sasquatch footage ever back in 1967. More on them in a minute.

As for “found footage” horror — well, it’s really not going away, even if it’s been pretty thoroughly played out in the eyes of many. We’re probably never going to see this particular genre regain the staggering heights of effectiveness it achieved when first utilized by Ruggero Deodato in his notorious (and, in my book at any rate, legendary) 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust, nor will it ever enjoy the kind of commercial success it did when first revived, after a long hibernation, with The Blair Witch Project, but it has staying power for a couple of reasons : one, it’s economical, so indie horror auteurs on a tight budget can always turn to it out of practicality/necessity, and two, the old adages of “the scariest stuff is what you don’t see” and “the creepiest explanations are the ones you have to provide for yourself” are woven right into its celluloid DNA automatically, since we almost never get a clear picture of what’s actually happening, either physically or conceptually, with a shaky, hand-held, purportedly-operated-by-an-amateur camera.

The sheer number of these “mockumentary” horror flicks available on Netflix instant streaming alone is proof that this conceit is very much alive, but whether or not it’s alive and well — shit, I guess that’s open for debate. I’m not as bone-tired of it as many of my fellow wannabe-critics out there, as evidenced by the healthy amount of digital “ink” I’ve devoted to reviewing some of these movies demonstrates, but it does need to be handled right, and too many filmmakers have taken too many liberties with it that often strain credulity. “I assembled this footage later, added a musical score, and edited the sequence of events to play out like a traditional narrative” not only doesn’t cut it logically, but rather defeats the whole purpose by taking away the two things that the genre should, at least, always have going for it — namely immediacy and authenticity. Here again, Goldthwait comes up trumps by making sure that his supposedly “raw” and “amateur” footage does, indeed, feel both “raw” and “amateur.”  It takes a seasoned pro to make something that has all the airs of something this unseasoned and unprofessional.

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Now, getting back to Patterson and Gimlin, as promised — coming in at a brisk 77 minutes, Willow Creek follows the trials and travails of neophyte “Squatcher” Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his “struggling actress” girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), as they venture into the northern California wilderness to re-trace the steps the fathers of modern “Bigfooting” first took way back in ’67. They spend an enjoyable day and night in the titular town of, ya know, Willow Creek, before heading off into the woods for a night of camping and finding — well, pretty much exactly what they were expecting to find (or what he was expecting to find, at any rate — she’s a bit more agnostic on the whole matter going in). Along the way we get a few tried-and-true horror tropes thrown at us — locals warning them off, etc. — but even those don’t feel too hackneyed and cliched when delivered with the proper air of genuine menace. In due course, though, it becomes plainly obvious that, in the tradition of celebrated horror fare like Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, these city slickers have no fucking idea what they’re doing and can barely pitch a tent much less hope to survive a night in the inhospitable wilderness, so it’s fairly obvious from the word go that things aren’t going to end well for our young lovers.

Mind you, that’s not a complaint on my part. No one’s out to reinvent the wheel here, and like most horror fans, all I ask for is that the filmmakers do a reasonable enough job telling a variation on a story I already know. Goldthwait definitely delivers on that score by keeping things nice and tight — his small (okay, very small) cast of, let’s face it, complete unknowns do a terrific job,  andthey’re stuck in a very tense and confined situation, thus allowing the chills to really hit home. In stark contrast to so many other horror films these days, the people in this one are actually quite likable and we don’t want anything bad to happen to them, even though we know it both will and, frankly, must.

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How tense and confined is this situation they’re stuck in, you ask? Well, it’s no exaggeration to say that the film’s most harrowing scene involves nothing but the two of them in a tent, whispering in the dark, for a good 15 minutes or so while they hear strange noises outside. In the wrong hands that could get pretty tedious pretty quickly, but in Goldthwait’s, it’s almost unbearably gripping. With no special effects, not much by way of a set, and only two characters, he gives an absolute clinic on how to make “things that go bump in the night” work. It’s the most bare-bones, stripped-down tour-de-force I’ve seen in quite some time, oozing with more power and drama than 100 million dollars’ worth of robots or super-heroes battling it out while the city burns behind them could ever hope to achieve.

Which brings us to one more — and final — thing that sets Willow Creek apart : not only does it lack the soulless bluster and bombast of the big-budget blockbusters, unlike most of its genre contemporaries, it’s also a fairly bloodless and gore-free affair. Don’t get me wrong — I love a good splatter-fest as much as anybody, and appreciate the efforts of most horror directors to flat-out sicken and repulse me, but Goldthwait manages to frighten the bejeezus out of me here without showing so much as a drop of the red stuff on screen. That’s an impressive feat in and of itself, even if it isn’t exactly what many of my fellow “gorehounds”  are usually in the mood for.

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At the end of the day, then, I have to say that I hope Willow Creek — which was never released theatrically, to my knowledge — finds an audience on home video, and that said audience includes plenty of aspiring horror filmmakers. Bobcat Goldthwait, who has never made a horror movie before, is teaching some valuable lessons here that future generations can learn from — give us good characters worth caring about, a believable and easy-to-relate-to premise, and scenes that play out best late at night with all the lights off, and it doesn’t matter if we don’t see heads getting ripped off or bridges blowing up, a rustle against a tent can be more effective than all the special effects in the world. I like being “shocked and awed” as much anyone, but ya know what? I like being scared even more.

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It occurs to me that I’m kind of late to the party with this one, since Hatchet III actually came out last year, but whatever — I’ve reviewed the first two films in Adam Green’s self-proclaimed “old-school slasher” series, and it’s high time I reviewed this one, as well, even if, by all rights, I probably should have seen it sooner than I did (which was just last night, for the record).

It also worth noting that, unlike my usually way-too-verbose ramblings, my reviews of Hatchet and Hatchet II were actually quite short, and there’s probably no reason to break that streak here — after all, you  pretty much know what you’re getting into with these flicks, and even though creator Green has passed on the directing chores this time to long-time camera operator BJ McDonnell, he still wrote the script and he’s on hand (in whatever capacity) as an executive producer, so things aren’t gonna be that much different.

Which, I guess, is both good and bad. It’s good in terms of continuity (the story here picks up at the exact moment the last film left off) and style (it feels for all intents and purposes like Green may as well have directed this one himself), but it’s bad news if you want something a little bit different or challenging (which, admittedly, most fans of the series probably don’t). The blood, guts, innards, entrails, and other various viscera all fly more freely than ever in Hatchet III, to be sure, and since that pretty much represents the raison d’etre of what Green and his cohorts are trying to accomplish here, ya gotta say — job well done on that score. But is it just me, or is all of this starting to get more than just a little bit stale?

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Danielle Harris is back as full-time “final girl” Marybeth, and she’s given plenty of opportunity to do what she does best — you love Danielle Harris, love Danielle Harris, we all love Danielle Harris — and it’s nice to see some familiar genre faces turn up (look for Zach Galligan as the sheriff leading a doomed expedition into the swamps to track down Crowley and Sid Haig in a memorably OTT cameo) for the party, but some of the “second generation” (nice-speak for “nepotism”) casting decisions are questionable at best, like Robert Diago DoQui (son of legendary blaxploitation stalwart Robert DoQui) as a personality-free deputy and Cody Blue Snider (son of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider) as a typically annoying twenty-something, but no real matter — when the time comes for them to meet their end, they  all do it in style, and we all know that nodoby dispatches his victims better than Kane Hooder (even if he never gets to show his face in any of his most memorable roles). So yeah — for what it sets out to do, this flick does it as well as you’d hope and/or expect.

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Dark Sky Films has done a nice job with the Blu-Ray (and, I’m assuming, the DVD) release, as well —- picture and sound are both flawless, as you’d figure from a new production, and the disc is loaded with extras including a couple of “making-of” featurettes, the trailer (of course), and two feature-length commentaries, one with the cast and one with the crew, that are both pretty fun to listen to. The shoot for this one sounds like it was positively grueling, but all in all everyone’s spirits seem high as they observe their handiwork. Again, job well done here.

So what, you rightly ask, is the problem, exactly? Good question — and not necessarily the easisest one to answer, but I get the feeling that Hatchet is a franchise in serious danger of jumping the shark. We’ve got some “voodoo curse” elements thrown into the mix here that have always lurked in the background, I guess, but become more prominent “crutch factors” this time out; the laughs are a little flatter; the “old school” vibe is not nearly as novel as it once was — lots of little things, I guess. But the most prominent death spiral that Green and Co. have gotten themselves into is one of their own making, and is the toughest one to pull out of : simply put, they’re always having to top themselves.

Think about it : every single one of Victor Crowley’s murders is more bloody, spectacular, tasteless, and physically and scientifically impossible than the previous one. And when you run up the body count as high as ol’ Vic does, that means you’ve gotta find some new way to pull out all the stops about 15 or 20 times in each film. It’s worked so far, but it’s starting to wear pretty thin, and any horror series that has devolved to the point where the only reason you’re watching it is to see just how fucking crazy and outlandish the next killing will be is one that’s starting to run on fumes. Everybody is still giving it their all here, that much is obvious, but it seems like they’ve pushed the whole concept about as far as it can possibly go, and maybe even a bit further. There’s no shame in quitting while you’re still at least marginally ahead, is there? Don’t get me wrong — I had a good time watching Hatchet III. It was pretty much exactly what I was expecting it to be, and that’s just fine. But I think it’s time to let Victor Crowley take a much-deserved rest for a good half-decade or so. He’s a fun, memorable, absolutely over-the-top character, and I’d hate to see him overstay his welcome.

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Then again — most of the ’80s slashers he’s based on did just that, so maybe continuing to milk this cash cow to the point where all it’s got left is a few runny dribbles is part of that whole “old school” thing they’re going for. To be followed, of course, by the inevitable “re-imagining” of the series. The Hatchet fracshise might be starting to feel a bit threadbare, but who knows? Maybe it’s only just begun.

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One of the things I like best about re-visiting horror classics around this time every year for our annual Halloween round-up on this site is occasionally finding one that’s not just every bit as good as what I remembered, but even better. Sure, the years haven’t been kind to many flicks I once thought of as being seminal examples of the genre, but once in awhile I take a fresh look at something and find that it’s not only held up damn well over the ensuing decades, but that it’s an even stronger and more effective work than what I remember it  as being.

Such is definitely the case with John McNaughton’s groundbreaking shot-in-1986-but-not-released-until-1990 effort Henry : Portrait Of A Serial Killer, a not just street level, but gutter level piece of ultra-low-budget guerrilla film-making based (loosely, I grant you) on the exploits of notorious sociopath Henry Lee Lucas and his semi-retarded cousin, Otis Toole — specifically on their brief time in the Chicago area.

Yeah, sure, this film’s been available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Dark Sky Films in an impressive “special edition” package loaded with extras (but no commentary, damnit!) and featuring a reversible cover with Joe Coleman’s stunning poster art (as pictured below) on the “flip side,” but for all of you too cheap and/or broke to give this movie a permanent place on your shelf, the good news is that it’s also now featured as part of Netflix’s instant streaming queue as well — so watch it, will ya?

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Honestly, you’ll thank me for it later. I admit that even though I actually do own this one, it had been several years since I’d given it a spin, and that’s well-nigh unforgivable of me because it really is “all that” and then some. From the “cinema verite” direction of McNaughton to the “goddamn but he/she absolutely nails it” performances of Michael Rooker as Henry, Tom Towles as Otis, and Tracy Arnold as Otis’ sister/Henry’s nominal romantic interest Becky, everybody here is firing on all cylinders creatively, and the end result is a flick that flat-out burns  a path into the deepest recesses of your subconscious and never loses its grip once there. You want a truly memorable viewing experience? Look no further, my friend.

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Henry seethes with menace from the word “go,” but it’s also not afraid to fuck with your sentiments in a very careful, methodical way as well — you really do sorta hope, for reasons you’re never able /comfortable enough to put your finger on, that our brooding anti-hero might be capable of turning over a new leaf and making a go of it with Becky, but shit —- you also know you’re doomed to be let down on that score, because he is who he is and ain’t nothin’ gonna change that. Still, when he offs her at the end (shit, did I just give too much away?), it still packs a mean wallop even though by all rights it shouldn’t.

McNaughton’s got a lot to say about the nature of what most of us right-thinking (honestly, I swear I am!) folks consider to be “evil” here, and about how a leopard can never change its spots, but he does it in such a free-form, unpretentious manner that you never feel like he’s lecturing you. Why he never went on to become an “A-list” talent as a director I’ll never know — an unwillingness to put up with Hollywood bullshit is probably at the top of the list of reasons — and the same can be said for all the principal players involved here, most of whom have had pretty nice careers (Rooker’s been in everything from Oliver Stone’s JFK to, most recently, The Walking Dead, for instance), but none of whom have ever earned quite the recognition level they deserve.

Oh well. They can all look back on this one with a hell of a lot of pride.

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And you should look back on this one, as well — immediately. Horror doesn’t get any more real, or any better, than this — and neither do movies in general. I may just give it another go when I get done writing this myself.

I’ll close on a weird historical note : while governor of Texas, George W. Bush is infamous for supposedly never granting a single appeal to a convict facing “Ol’ Sparky” — he signed enough warrants of execution to mark him as a pretty goddamn prolific serial killer himself, in fact. You name ’em, he killed ’em — an elderly grandmother who shot her husband dead after decades of physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse? He fried her. A guy whose “defense” lawyer slept through his trial, showed up drunk more than once, and belched and farted throughout the proceedings? Bush figured he got a fair shake and deserved to die. But his reputation for never granting one solitary stay of execution? That’s false. He commuted the death sentence for one — and only one — convict in his tenure as governor. Can you guess who was the recipient of his sole act of compassion?

You got it —Henry Lee Lucas, despite being convicted of over a dozen murders and confessing to well over 300, a number which would make him number one on the all-time list by a wide margin, was granted a stay of execution by the guy who would later go on to implement torture of poor Afghan and Iraqi goat farmers and teenagers as “intelligence-gathers techniques” in his endless “war on terrorism.”

Curious, isn’t it? People who were convicted of murder despite the only eyewitness testimony to their supposed crime coming from somebody who was dead drunk, people who had airtight alibis that placed them out of the state when they supposedly killed someone — Boy George didn’t give them a break. But Henry Lee Fucking Lucas? Bush figured he deserved some leniency. Why would that be?

Well, far be it from me to say I have anything more than a strong hunch here, but Lucas has claimed on numerous occasions that many of the murders he committed were actually contract killings for the CIA disguised to look like “random” and “senseless” acts of violence. And we all know who used to be in charge of “The Company” — the guy the entire Bush clan playfully refers to as “Poppy.”

Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe real life is is even more twisted — and scary — than McNaughton’s film.

I leave it for you to decide. But either way — this is a movie that has richly earned your attention, whether for the first or fiftieth time.

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1. Busting The Fourth Wall

How many films well and truly grab you with their very first line? The moment Simon Sinistrari, incomparably brought to life on screen by the criminally-underappreciated Andrew Prine, turns and looks right into the camera and says “My name is Simon. I live in a storm drain. When it rains, most people go in — but I go out,” director Bruce Kessler’s 1971  exploitation opus Simon, King Of The Witches has you hooked. There’s really not much you can do about it; maybe this guy really is a magician. His story begins and ends in massive, violent, torrential storms — and those are plenty exciting in and of themselves — but that 80-or-so-minutes in between  bookending monsoons,well, how many ways can you say “sublime”?

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2. “Does the district attorney know that his daughter’s dropping pills?”

Okay, none of it makes much sense. Simon’s apparently been crashing in his concrete home beneath the obvious-stand-in-for-Los-Angeles that is “West Side” for some time, but he doesn’t seem to know anybody. All that changes, however, when the cops decide to pick him up for vagrancy and he makes the acquaintance of fellow guest-of-the-establishment-against-his-will Turk (played with a mixture of  impish glee and all-too-believable naivete by George Paulsin), who’s cooling his heels at County on a loitering charge. It’s no secret how Turk makes his living — he tells Simon right off the bat — but,  as with Kessler’s previous effort, The Gay Deceivers, it’s made clear from the outset that any homosexuality in this flick is engaged in by necessity, not choice.  Damn, though, there sure are a lot of “poofters” to go around : take, for example, Hercules Van Zant, whose high-society parties Simon is introduced to by Turk. Or the hapless Stanley, an attendee at one of said soirees who Simon uses in his magickal working to energize the rod (snickering is most definitely permissible here) that he’ll use to penetrate his mirror/portal and “take his rightful place among the Gods.” Simon ropes him into his ritual because he discovers from an earlier failed attempt that his working won’t succeed if he has a partner who turns him on! Each gay guy in this flick is more OTT and, frankly, pathetic than the last, but hey — the movie’s a product of its times, and even admitting that homosexuality existed was a bridge farther than most of its contemporaries were willing to travel. Portrayal with dignity would have to come later, I suppose.

Still, in some ways Simon was willing to buck societal preconceptions. Let’s not forget that this was the height of Manson-era “hippies are evil” paranoia, and here not only is the obvious Charlie doppleganger portrayed sympathetically, he’s even good enough to date the daughter of the DA (who he meets at one of Herclues’ shindigs, naturally), while her old man is depicted as being an asshole for trying to keep them apart. Anti-authoritarianism has a definite friend in the King of the Witches.

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3. “Don’t touch me, I’m a religious object!”

It’s said that this film’s screenwriter, one Robert Phippeny, was some sort of occult initiate himself, and that he worked with several serious practitioners in  the development stages of his story, but I don’t buy it — and that’s part part of the charm here, of course. Simon’s tarot readings are like nothing I’ve ever witnessed, and he worships some strange combination of the old Greek gods and Left Hand Path-style, quasi-demonic forces. It’s all about as “authentic” as Velveeta. Still, even Simon recognizes the hodge-podge nonsense of Wicca for what it is :  his crashing of a local Wiccan coven’s get-together, with Turk in tow as his chauffeur, is one of the film’s more memorable sequences, and lays bare the secret of its ultimate success — simply put, nobody’s taking this thing all that seriously. Simon’s having fun exposing the priestess-in-charge for the fraud she is, Turk’s trying to get a peek a the naked chick who serves as the group’s living altar, and Kessler and Phippeny are probably off in the shadows snickering, wondering if anybody out there is stupid enough to take any of this at face value.

Gary Lachman’s 2003 book Turn Off Your Mind : The Mystic Sixties And The Dark Side Of The Age Of Aquarius, an absorbing and well-researched examination of exactly what its title states, would have noted in detail all the contradictory messages, mixed pantheons, and outright hokum on display here, but for the non-academic among us, it’s pretty fun to just sit back and enjoy the show. Remember the cardinal rule : if the people who made the film didn’t take it, or themselves, too seriously, then there’s damn sure no reason why we should, either.

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4. “Magnetic — electric — charge — CHARGE!!!!!!!!!!!!”

It occurs to me that the photo above could be easily misinterpreted — Simon’s girlfriend, Linda (Brenda Scott) is actually holding a huge red ball in each of her outstretched hands, but they match the color of her dress so perfectly that you could be forgiven for taking a quick glance  and thinking she’s just got enormous boobs. Which brings up another of this movie’s most endearing qualities , namely that appearances can be pretty deceiving here. We’ve already established that it’s readily apparent that the people who made Simon, King Of The Witches did so with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, but that doesn’t mean they were out to deliver a shoddy piece of work, The costumes are first-rate. The sets all have a surprising air of authenticity. The performances — especially Prine’s — are out of this world. And David L. Butler’s cinematography is first-rate and endlessly inventive, especially when Simon passes through his mirror and has one of the most effectively-realized psychedelic “head-trip” experiences ever committed to celluloid. You don’t  have to set out to make great art to end up making great art — sometimes shit just happens.

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5. “Please don’t think I’m prejudiced, Rabbi — I hope you’ll be very happy here.”

Those are the words spoken by Simon’s landlord when he moves into his new pad (hey, a guy can’t live in a storm drain forever) and draws a pentagram on the wall for mystical protection. And misunderstandings and fuck-ups play a key role in the film’s climactic third act. As far as fuck-ups go, none are bigger than the one Simon himself commits — he’s been planning his whole life to take his place among the Gods. He’s plotted the precise moment when his voyage to the “other side” absolutely must take place. Hell, for the entirety of the film’s middle act it’s pretty much all he talks about. And yet — he misses the preordained moment because he’s listening to a couple of his small-time drug-dealer buddies   bitching about the no-good, dirty narc who’s been snitching out everyone in town to the cops.

Obviously, there’s going to be hell to pay. You don’t miss out on your one and only chance to become a God and just get over it and move on. And yet rather than blame himself, as you or I might do, Simon decides to take things out on the powers that be. He’s got a vengeful side — watch what happens to the guy who writes him a bad check early on in the film — and this time, he’s determined to exercise his wrath on, in his own words, “The mayor, the DA, the whole system!!!!!!!!!!”

Simon’s a friend to dope pushers, hustlers, con artists, and petty thieves — when he finds himself stuck on our lowly mortal plane for the duration, the enemies of “his people” are sure to find themselves in for a very rough ride, indeed.

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6. Simon As Jesus?

It began with a storm, and ends with one — but this time the deluge is of Simon’s creation. “The next few days are mine,” Simon tells his pusher pals as he brings down the rain on West Side, and the pain on the heads of his foes. His girlfriend OD’ing doesn’t do much to help his mood, either. And yet — just as he’s taking righteous vengeance on those who would oppose his will, he’s laid low by his own Judas Iscariot, who facilitates both his death and, it’s strongly hinted, resurrection. Or ascendance. Or something.  It’s not Turk who deals the fatal blow — as a matter of fact, when Simon severs his bond with his youthful sidekick, it’s a strangely emotionally resonant moment — but the betrayal stings just as harshly, if only for an instant, until the darkened lamp-post shown at the beginning of the film suddenly lights up out of nowhere and we come to realize that, hey, maybe Simon didn’t miss his trip to the “other side” after all — he just needed to get there by means of a different, infinitely more painful, route.

There’s no right or wrong way to achieve Godhood, I suppose — give Simon credit for eschewing, even if by accident, the easy road, and doing things his own way. Rather like the film that bears his name.

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If you haven’t yet, please — do yourself the favor and pick up Dark Sky’s DVD release of this psycho-psychedelic gem. For a supposed “special edition,” its selection of extras is pretty weak — there are interesting on-screen interviews with Prine and Kessler, the original theatrical trailer is included, and there’s a selection of radio spots on hand, but geez, a commentary, at the very least, would sure have been nice. Still, the widescreen transfer looks great, and the remastered mono sound does the job nicely. This is everything I love about exploitation movies in one glorious hour-and-a-half potion. It’s engaging, quirky, authentic in its inauthenticity, sincere in its bracingly honest insincerity. These people didn’t know squat about the occult, but they were game to give it a go, and the end result is pure magic.

Say what you will for the Paranormal Activity films (and I happen to rather like them myself, but that’s neither here nor there), but one thing they’ve done is make it acceptable to tell a good, old-fashioned ghost story again. And old-fashioned is the key word (well, okay, key compound word) here, because writer-director-editor Ti West’s 2011 indie horror offering ( I understand it was given a limited theatrical run, but it sure never made it to my neck of the woods) The Innkeepers is definitely a throwback in many ways.

For one thing, it’s pretty light on the gore and heavy on the atmospherics (and for atmospherics you simply can’t beat a story set in a real New England bed-and-breakfast-type establishment, in this case Connecticut’s Yankee Pedlar Inn, on its last weekend of operation before the owner shutters the pace for good) and character development, with a heavy dose of light-hearted comedy thrown in for good measure. The back-and-forth banter between lead characters Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), two college dropouts turned bellhops/front desk attendants/luggage porters/whatever else the inn’s absentee owner needs them to be who decide to avail themselves of the opportunity to become webcam ghost hunters before their supposedly haunted place of employment closes its doors to the public is consistently fun and engaging throughout, and the end result is one of the most truly personable horror flicks in far too long. You genuinely find yourself caring about these people and not wanting anything bad to happen to either one of them.

The other principal person of interest here is one Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis —yes you can officially stop asking “whatever happened to —?”), a washed-up sitcom actress turned new age “mystic seer” who might know more about the restless spirits wandering the halls of the Yankee Pedlar — but then again, might just be full of shit. Her interplay with Paxton’s star-struck Claire is likewise engaging and pitch-perfect from start to finish and never feels either forced or belabored;  the two just seem to have a natural chemistry together on screen that’s downright, dare I say it, even infectious at times.

So — small cast, simple set-up, ratchet up the tension incrementally to take us from slacker-duo-comedy to pleasantly-creepy haunted hotel story, throw in a few cheap scares, and you’ve got yourself the recipe for a 70s-style winner on your hands. In one of the two commentary tracks on Dark Sky Films’ newly-released DVD/Blu-Ray  of the film (there are two, one featuring  Ti West with various members of the crew, the other pairing him with stars Paxton and Healy — the other extra on offer being the requisite “making-of” featurette, in case you were wondering), West mentions how he wanted the opening credits sequence, featuring time-lapse photography of the inn throughout the years, to have an old-school, made-for-TV horror-movie feel to it, but in truth the entire production maintains that exact same aesthetic from the word “go,” and brings back fond memories of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot network mini-series, Dark Night Of The Scarecrow, and (the original) Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. Groundbreaking? Hardly. Fun? Oh, most definitely.

All of which isn’t to say that The Innkeepers doesn’t have its flaws, some of which are even pretty glaring — the ending, particularly, feels a bit rushed and frankly falls pretty flat in its attempt to send chills up the spine, and a couple of the plot “revelations” are about as surprising as a combo meal lunch at McDonald’s, but that’s not the end of the world — it’s comforting familiarity that West (whose previous effort, The House Of The Devil, really didn’t impress me in the least) is aiming for here, a love letter to the kind of TV tales of the supernatural he undoubtedly grew up with, and in that respect he hits all the notes on his admittedly derivative, but nevertheless quite pleasing, song-sheet more or less exactly right.

In summation, then, while it’s certainly more than fair to say that  we’ve seen all this done before,  it’s been a long time — hell, too  long — since anybody combined these familiar ingredients together  so successfully. The Innkeepers is a rare beast indeed — a horror movie that leaves a wide, beaming smile on your face as the end credits roll. Sure, it’s a new film, but it feels like you’ve just spent a pleasant evening catching up with an old friend — one you didn’t realize how much you’d missed until you saw them again.

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It hasn’t been too terribly long since we took a look at the first Hatchet flick around here as part of our 2010 Halloween 12-pack, but as the sequel, Hatchet II (properly referred to, I guess, as Adam Green’s Hatchet II) just came out on DVD from Dark Sky Films (who also handles its — admittedly limited — theatrical run), and the second movie picks up exactly where the first one left off, we might as well jump right in and review it right it straight away.

So Marybeth (Danielle Harris) escapes the clutches of murderous deformed psycho Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder, everybody’s favorite Jason) and after finding no shelter with a backwoods survivalist (horror EFX legend and occasional director John Carl Buechler) high-tails it back to Reverend Zombie (the Candyman himself, Tony Todd)’s cut-rate French Quarter voodoo shop in the hopes that he’ll have a strong enough conscience to decide to go back and try to retrieve his boat, look for what’s left of his tour guide, and maybe even help her rid the world of the Crowley menace once and for all.

To her (and let’s admit it, our) surprise, the not-so-good Reverend agrees and after assembling a crew of local yokel quasi-fortune hunters to help him in his daring mission, it’s back to the swamp they all go. Marybeth just wants to find the remains of her family members and give them some semblance of a proper burial, but Reverend Zombie, of course, has slimy ulterior motives galore for agreeing to help our young damsel in distress out, and naturally, this being a sequel and all, along the way we’re made privy to some new wrinkles in the Victor Crowley origin story that give him a more firm connection to our intrepid heroine than we’d previously imagined (but no, she’s not his long-lost sister — thank God).

Yup, folks, this is old-school slasher-style horror amped up to the Nth degree again, with more blood, more guts, more kills, more thrills, and more laughs. It’s really not even a sequel so much as a direct continuation, and if you watched both Hatchet films back-to-back (as I admittedly ended up doing later), what you’ve basically got here in one solid three-hour-plus story. And your humble host has to say that it’s a pretty damn good one.

Writer-director Green knows he’s not mining any new ground here story-wise and the only way he can top himself is by going for the jugular more directly, so the violence is more spectacular (and spectacularly funny), the characters are more OTT, and the whole thing just takes on the atmosphere of a straight-up slasher party flick. As always, I’m more impressed by a movie that knows its limitations and just tries to do a damn good job of what it sets out to do than something that’s bury reaching for a goal that’s well beyond its grasp. Hatchet II doesn’t fuck around — it knows why you’re watching it and it sets out to serve you up a heaping helping of everything you love.

My only real beef with this movie, honestly, is that it was show on HD instead of good old fashioned 35mm, but that’s a small gripe — apart from that, everything here is spot-on and it more than fulfills its worthy mission of  bringing old-school horror to an appreciative audience of old-school horror fans. It’s not for everyone, of course, but if your idea of a good time is watching a guy get strangled by his own intestines or a young lady fuck (or getting fucked by, depending on how you look at these things) a dude who gets his head hacked off mid-coitus and she keeps bucking back on him anyway until she figures things out, this is is the movie for you.

Dark Sky does a nice job with the DVD, too — the picture and sound are great, as you’d expect from a new release like this, and it’s loaded with some nice extras including the theatrical trailer, a making-of featurette, and two full-length commentaries (one cast, one crew) that are both a lot of fun(my favorite part being where Green points out all his horror-director friends that he got to e extras or take on minor parts in group scenes,  just in case you might be a horror geek like myself who wonders what some of these people look like) if a little bit in-jokey at times.

Anyway, Hatchet II — it’s exactly what you think it is, on steroids. And that’s a very good thing indeed.