Posts Tagged ‘horror’

Original "Fiend" DVD Cover from Retromedia

The late, great Don Dohler made sci-fi/horror flicks in and around his suburban Baltimore neighborhood with a 16mm camera, some friends, a couple thousand bucks, and little to no concern for what anyone else actually thought about them. The most common “locations” he utilized were his own house and his backyard. He made movies for the most basic, and most compelling, reason of all — because he wanted to. What have you done?

Dohler was something of an accidental renaissance man, to be sure — as he relates in the superb documentary film about his life and work, Blood, Boobs And Beast, filmed before and during  the battle with cancer that he eventually lost, on his 30th birthday a guy broke into the office where he was working, held him at gunpoint, and as his life flashed before his eyes he asked himself — have I really done what I wanted to with my time on this Earth?

When he got out of the situation unharmed, Dohler, who already had a wife and two kids at the time, threw himself into his first love — the movies. Specifically, horror and science fiction movies and the techniques that effects technicians used to make that “movie magic” that so captivated him as a child.

He produced a magazine called Cinemagic that taught aspiring young effects whizzes how to make their own Hollywood-style not-always-so-special effects on a shoestring budget, and future FX legends like Tom Savini have credited Dohler’s mag with inspiring their later career choices. While bigger publications like Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland showed eager young readers what the latest sci-fi and horror moviemakers were up to, Cinemagic showed even-more-eager young readers not only what they were doing, but how they did it and, most importantly of all, how you could do pretty much the same thing yourself.

But eventually writing about all this stuff wasn’t enough for our guy Don and he had to have a go at it himself. To that end, in 1978 he hacked out a bare-bones “alien-monsters-on-the-loose script,  got out his 16mm camera, assembled some local actors, friends, and family members into a makeshift cast, rigged up some rudimentary stop-motion effects, and the end result was The Alien Factor, a movie that he spent pocket change making and eventually sold to both local broadcast and then-nascent-and-desperate-for-product-that-didn’t-cost-much-to-secure-the-rights-to national cable television.

The end result? A movie that cost Dohler a couple grand to produce and didn’t get any theatrical distribution whatsoever, a movie that was plugged the hardest in his very own magazine, ended up being on late-night cable all the time and turning a small, but respectable, profit.

Having had his first taste of low-grade “success,” Don was ready to have another go at things in 1980, this time with the somewhat darker and more atmospheric Fiend, alternately known as Deadly Neighbor, a somewhat more polished (as far as these things so) and confident effort that nonetheless does nothing to betray its near-zero-budget roots and doesn’t represent any sort of compromise in Dohler’s vision, admittedly limited as it may be.

Most of the actors are folks who had worked on The Alien Factor and been pleasantly surprised when Dohler was actually able to eventually pay them for their work, so they were game to give it another whirl. He filled out the minor and non-speaking roles, as before, with friends, neighbors, and family members. The bulk of the action again takes place in his house (specifically his basement) and his yard.  And with an improved eye for shot composition and a scaled-down appetite for homemade effects work, he ended up with a film that is by no means great but certainly a hell of a lot better than it should have been or maybe even had any right to be.

Simply put, Dohler knew what he was doing, and can-do and want-to won the day over should-do.

Don Leifert looking very fiendish, indeed

Now, to be brutally honest, all Dohler films have essentially the same story — a monster, or monsters, from outer space threatens a quiet sleepy suburban community, and an ambitious local, or goup of locals, goes after them and eventually wins the day. This is the basic premise of both The Alien Factor and Fiend as well as subsequent efforts such as Nighbeast and The Galaxy Invader.

What sets Fiend apart from the others, though, and makes it my favorite of all Don D.’s flicks is that the emphasis here is more on the horrific than it is on the fantastic. And it’s not so much bloody horror, either — this movie is essentially a gore-free zone. In Fiend Dohler relies on atmospheric horror and a creepier-than-usual twist on his basic plot outline, and damn if he doesn’t pull it off to the best anyone possibly could given the limitations he had to work within.

From the very first scene, a suitably creepy night-shoot at a local cemetery where some weird red energy blob/giant insect from space descends into a grave, animates a corpse, and the zombie-from-space-thing sets about attacking and absorbing the “life energy” out of a young couple there to do some making out, the stage is set. The old-school horror, absolutely magnificent title logo adds to it, and the superbly over-the-top performance of Don Leifert as the titular Fiend, who immediately goes about buying a house in the suburbs, assuming the name of Eric Longfellow, and opening up a violin-lesson business in his new home is  sensationally tongue-in-cheek while not being overly coy or knowingly winking at the audience too obviously.

The Longfellow/Fiend has to recharge his biological batteries every couple of days or so by strangling someone and absorbing their “life energies” in a red hazy glow as he did with that first pair of young lovers, or else he starts looking pretty gruesome, and the cut-rate make-up effects Dohler utilizes to transform Leifert from “normal fiend” to “ugly fiend” are terrific. Leifert looks a bit like Ron Jeremy or Stan Van Gundy’s less successful brother on the best of days, but when he’s running low on juice he genuinely looks downright creepy.

Our “hero” of the story, such as it is, I suppose, is one Gary Kender (Richard Nelson), an average suburban Pabst Blue Ribbon-drinking guy who lives next door to Longfellow/Fiend and is sick of hearing all that godawful amateur violin playing at all hours. His wife, Marsha (Elaine White) thinks her hubby’s overreacting and is even considering taking some music lessons from their new neighbor herself! Every housewife needs a hobby, I guess.

Anyway, needless to say, as the local body count spirals ever upward, and a neighborhood kid who plays in the cul-de-sac Longfellow/Fiend and Kenders lives on is found dead in the woods behind their homes, good ol’ Gary suspects the creepy neighbor is somehow involved and doesn’t buy his line that he and his assistant, Dennis (the always-awesome George Stover, a regular in fellow Baltimorian John Waters’ films as well as appearing in each and every Dohler flick) were listening to violin music in Longfellow’s semi-swank (but still obviously unfinished) basement on headphones and didn’t hear a thing.

And let me make one quick aside here — the kid Longfellow kills (like all good psychopaths he seems to prefer young women, but he’ll settle for anyone in a pinch) was one of Dohler’s own daughter, and while there’s no on-camera child-murder,  he did have her get under a sheet and get carted into the back of an ambulance and everything! And one of Longfellow’s early strangulation victims, a single woman walking home from work, was played by Dohler’s wife! I told you he kept things in the family.

But I, as is my custom, digress. Look, there should be some pretty obvious plot holes visible here by now — foremost among them being why would an evil alien insect-energy creature choose to reanimate a corpse and kill somebody every day or two if all it wants to do is live in a house in the suburbs, hang out in the basement, drink wine, and listen to violin playing? If you’re gonna go through all that hassle to stay “alive,” wouldn’t you at least be looking to conquer the world or something? There are other little logical inconsistencies scattered throughout, as well — where did Longfellow/Fiend get the money to buy a house, for instance? And the amazingly convenient ways in which Kender begins to learn about insect-energy-corpse-animating evil creatures from outer space are downright laughably absurd. I mean, he may as well just pick up a National Geographic and find a cover article about them for all the sense it makes.

But if these kind of things bother you, then you’re not only seeing the wrong movie, you’re reading the wrong damn blog. Fiend is the absolute shit not because it’s a great wok of art with anything meaningful to say about the human condition or even an internally logical storyline, but because one guy with nothing more than a burning desire to make the kind of movie that he liked to watch as a kid went out and did it, near-insurmountable odds against him be damned.

"Alien Fiend" Double Feature DVD from Retromedia Featuring "The Alien Factor" and "Fiend"

And now, 30 years later, people — well, okay, some people — are still talking about Fiend, even though it’s a miracle the damn thing ever got made. Retromedia have released it on DVD on two separate occasions, once on its own as seen at the top of this review, and more recently as part of the “Alien Fiend” two-sided double feature disc with The Alien Factor. Both movies sport digitally remastered full-frame (as intended) transfers that, sure, look a bit grainy and have some artefacting here and there, but on the whole look way better than you’d ever figure they would. The touch-up job done on the prints is very nice indeed. The soundtracks for each are mono, as you’d expect, but are crisp and clear with no audible hiss or distortion to be found. And while you’d probably expect these to go out bare-bones with no extras at all,  each movie features outtakes and deleted scenes (mostly of the “blooper” variety), and feature-length commentary tracks by actor George Stover, who has a razor-sharp memory and not only manages to entertain, but also to inform. They’re a terrific listen. How’s that for a couple of near-nothing-budget backyard homemade space-monster movies?

Which brings us back to where we started — the late, great Don Dohler made sci-fi/horror flicks in and around his suburban Baltimore neighborhood with a 16mm camera, some friends, a couple thousand bucks, and little to no concern for what anyone else actually thought of them. The most common “locations” he utilized were his own house and his backyard. He made movies for the most basic, and most compelling, reason of all — because he wanted to. What have you done?

German VHS Box Cover for "Killer Workout," Under the Alternative Title of "Aerobicide"

I know what you’re thinking already, my friends — -can any movie possibly be as good as that cover? For that matter, can any movie possibly be as good as good as this cover —

French VHS BoxCover for "Killer Workout,"Also Under the "Aerobicide" Title

The answer in this case is an emphatic “hell yes!”

If you’re a lover of B movies, and slashers in particular, writer-director David A. Prior’s 1986 offering Killer Workout, also released (as if you hadn’t figured it out by now) under the if-anything-even-better title Aerobicide has everything you’re looking for and then some.

Gratuitous nudity? It’s in there.

Gratuitous violence? It’s in there.

Bad 1980s hairstyles? They’re in there.

Even worse 1980s soundtrack music? It’s in there, too.

Lots and lots of cheesy-in-a-seriously-hot -way chicks in tight workout leotards? In there by the score.

What, then, is honestly missing from this flick? Absolutely nothing. It even had a reasonably coherent plot with a semi-involving little murder mystery at its core, not that you necessarily need that given all the other sheer awesomeness on display here, but it’s a nice plus.

One reason you're watching this movie ---

From the very opening scene, you’re guaranteed to be hooked : a rather shapely young lady arrives home at her apartment and checks her answering machine messages to find that she’s flying to Paris tomorrow to shoot the cover of Cosmo magazine! Her agent (or whoever it is) warns her not to have any tan lines, though, so she heads to her favorite tanning salon and strips completely naked to lay out and soak up that UV goodness. Once she closes the bedcover (or whatever it’s called), though, a horrendous malfunction traps her inside and the heat cranks up past max. Does she live? Does she die? All will be revealed, even though we spend the first 3/4 of the movie wondering just what the fuck any of that had to do with anything.

and another ---

Next we jump ahead to the present day (although the events in the pre-credits opening sequence could well have happened the night before for all we know at this point) we’re at a typical 80s aerobics studio owned by a lady named Rhonda (Marcia Karr) that’s called, unimaginatively but admittedly appropriately enough enough, Rhonda’s Workout. Rhonda is stuck leading that day’s group session (filmed in lovingly close-up detail) because her perpetually untrustworthy employee  Jaimy (Teresa Van der Woude) is running late yet again, She gets there in time to clean and lock up and gives Rhonda essentially no excuse whatsoever for her tardiness (the condoms that drop out of her purse in the parking lot clue us in, though) but promises it will never happen again for what we can tell is the umpteenth time.

In the showers after class, though, a fetching young lass is murdered gruesomely with a giant safety pin, and when Jaimy finds her body stashed away in her locker while pursuing her decidedly unglamorous cleaning duties, she screams and screams and screams and next thing you know the cops are there, led by Detective Lieutenant Morgan (David James Campbell, who’s got the 80s moussed-hair look down every bit as well as any of the women in the flick), who hard-assedly (think I invented a new word there) interrogates Rhonda, Jaimy, and anyone and everyone else associated with the club.

and another ---

With no real leads to go on, his investigation grows more urgent — and he grows more stereotypically belligerent — as more people associated with the club all start turning up dead in and around Rhonda’s joynt, all despatched in the same manner — by giant bad-ass motherfucking safety pin.

To complicate matters, Rhonda’s absent silent partner in her operation, one Mr. Erickson, send in a new male employee named Ted (Chuck Dawson), who seems to have a habit of snooping around in Rhonda’s file cabinets.

Who is he? What’s he really up to? Again, all will be revealed, because unlike a lot of B-movies, every loose plot strand in this one is explained in at least something like a satisfactory fashion.

and, of course, yet another.

Mostly, though, it’s the details that matter in Killer Workout, and I’m thrilled to say it gets them all right. Inventive and gruesome kills, big hair, bigger boobs, cheesy period fashions and hair — we already went over our little checklist of everything that could possibly make this movie awesome, so you already know they’re all present and accounted for. And you can add barely-competently staged fistfights, scenery-chewing overacting, stereotypical gender roles, and a truly gleeful fourth-wall-busting ending to the list, as well.

You could want more from a film than that, I suppose, but why be greedy?

Workout queen Rhonda has a little message for all her fans at the end

Is Killer Workout a great movie? Of course not. But it’s definitely a great B -movie, and that’s what we’re all about here at TFG. Consequently, it earns, and I do mean earns, your humble host’s highest possible recommendation.

"Killer Workout" Advertising One-Sheet

Killer Workout is, sadly, not available as an official DVD release in Region 1, but fortunately that doesn’t stop the ever-enterprising Flesh Wound video from offering it anyway, and if you feel no moral qualms about needing to see this flick ASAP (and you really shouldn’t), then I suggest you get off your ass and go over to right away. As usual, Todd there does as good a job as humanly possible in transferring this over from the given source elements (which I assume in this case to be VHS). It’s a nicely-done full-frame transfer with an equally nicely-done opening title menu that, for all intents and purposes, looks like the “real” thing — and is probably as close as we’re ever going to get, anyway.

There are better movies out there than Killer Workout — lots of them, in fact. But I doubt you’ll have more fun watching them. If I were burying a time capsule in 1986, I’d put this in itside. It tells you everything you need to know about the era it comes from. It’s more fun to watch now than it probably was when it came out, and in 50 years’ time plopping down in front of the tube to it is gonna be an even better time.

"A Night To Dismember" Opening Titles

What would you do if you had a completed film “in the can,” so to speak, but a disgruntled lab worker at the processing facility where it was being developed set fire to the place and destroyed 40% of your movie, leaving you with just over an hour of usable footage, all from various unrelated segments of your flick?

And what if, by an even more cruel twist of fate, it turned out that the destroyed 40% was some of the most crucial material, and what you had left made little to no sense without its inclusion?

Imagine, for instance, you had a ten-minute short film about a couple who have an argument in the park that results in their breakup. You had six minutes of footage left relatively unscathed, but it was the six minutes showing them going to the park and leaving, with the crucial four minutes of argument and breakup material gone, leaving you with a “story” that looks, for all intents and purposes, like two people just walking to the park and then leaving under much the same circumstances as they arrived.

Would you just shoot the thing over? I guess that would make the most sense. But what if you were broke, since all your money was used up on the production of your little indie opus, the print itself was uninsured, so you couldn’t recoup any of your losses,  and it was due to play at a local short festival in a week or so?

Well, that’s what happened to B-movie auteur Doris Wishman in 1982, only on an even larger scale.

Despite being a key player in the exploitation movie business for nearly three decades at the time, Wishman had never actually made a proper horror flick before, with most of her efforts being sexploitationers like Nude on the Moon, Deadly Weapons, Double Agent 73, and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist — but in the early 80s, spurred on by the success of films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, slashers were all the rage, and Wishman, ever the savvy low-rent businesswoman, wasn’t about to let that gravy train pass her by.

And can you blame her? A genre that requires no big-name actors, no expensive sets, and has a guaranteed built-in audience at grindhouses and drive-ins all across the country was something no B-movie maker could really afford to pass on. As long as people were getting killed, audiences were happy, and if you made movies literally to pay your rent or make your mortgage payment, this was just too good a deal not to get in on. A license to print money!

Wishman began her first and only voyage into slasherdom the way she began all her productions — with a title, in this case the rather catchy A Night To Dismember. Then she filmed a roughly five-minute trailer, another staple ingredient in her filmmaking stew. With no completed script, no actual cast in place, and no idea where or when the movie itself would be shot, she then would shop these trailers around to potential investors in a bid to secure what she billed as “completion funds.” The movie’s budget would be whatever she was able to raise using this rather unconventional, but usually marginally successful, sales “technique.”

With these “completion funds” in place, she would then finish a script, get a cast in place, secure some filming locations (as often as not utilizing her own house as the primary scene of the action), and shoot a movie that often bore little to no resemblance to the trailer she’d shot earlier.

That’s putting it all on the line for you art, my friends, which is why I’ll always say, despite all physical evidence to the contrary, that Wishman had more balls than most of her male contemporaries.

Anyway, it’s 1982 and our lady Doris has just followed the MO outlined above to make this cheap little slasher flick, A Night To Dismember. She shot it over the course of a couple of weeks, mostly in and around her own house (in, I believe, New Jersey), the only “star” of note whose services she could secure on her budget was late-70s/early-80s second-tier porn actress Samantha Fox (not to be confused with the British topless “Page 3 Girl”/wannabe-pop starlet of the same name who would come along a few years later) who was looking to break into the “legitimate” film business, and the script was a fairly bog-standard little extra-gory murder mystery about a seriously dysfunctional family.

In short, a girl gets sent to an insane asylum as a teenager, gets out in her (supposedly) late 20s, and upon her release her brother and sister enact a devious little scheme to send her back to the bughouse because they don’t want her cutting in on daddy’s affections and, more importantly, his money. They figure they’ll subject her to all kinds of taunting and nightmare visions to make her question her own sanity, and hey, if that doesn’t work, they’ll maybe even kill some people and try to make it look like crazy sis must have done it. That ought to get her out of the picture.

Wishman, as ever, recorded the film without sound and shot it from a safe enough distance in most sequences so that audiences wouldn’t notice the shitty quality of the dubbed-in audio track later. When close-ups were required, she focused on eyes, foreheads, necks, nearby inanimate objects — literally anything but the actors’ mouths, just in case the sound and the images didn’t quite synch up — which they usually didn’t.

So, the movie’s done. And what’s more, it’s been sold. It’s set to play the bottom half of double-bills in various regional markets in early 1983, and as the prints make their rounds up and down 42nd street and around to various rural drive-ins, Wishman is sure to make enough to recoup her investors’ costs as well as line her pockets with at least a little bit of the change left over. After all, she’d done this  dozens of times in the past. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, if you’re an astute reader — hell, even just a reader with an attention span lasting longer than oh, say, five minutes — you’ll already know what went wrong. Wishman sent her print to a company called Movielab to be developed. Movielab was having some financial troubles. The paychecks for many of their workers bounced. And one particularly enterprising employee decided he wasn’t going to take this lying down — so he literally set fire to the place.

If the movie doesn't make any sense, why would a caption?

Wishman had never insured a print in her life, and didn’t do so in this case, either. So what she had left after the Movielab fire was 60% of her footage, for which no sound had yet been added, and no money to go back and try to do things over. And her movie was due to open in a couple of months.  This is when true B-movie makers bring their “A” game.

Doris went to work. First up, she edited what she had left into as close to a sensible order as humanly possible, even though, as mentioned before, a lot of the most crucial stuff was gone. Then she spliced in some footage from her promotional trailer, even though the “story” depicted there didn’t much resemble the movie she’d made (if you’ve read rather than skimmed this review, I’m assuming you’ll understand why that statement makes sense). She added in some outtake footage from other movies she’d made to pad out the run time. And she wrote and then laid out a feature-length narration track over the whole thing so that this discombobulated series of scenes, where one sequence would have absolutely nothing to do with what was on the screen right before it, would maybe, sort of, almost make something resembling, you know, sense.

Was it a successful effort? Hell no, how could it be? When you’ve got someone walking outside followed by people sitting in a room talking followed by someone getting an axe through their head, there’s only so much you can do. But the voice-over, provided by a supposed “private investigator” named Tim O’Malley, does at least put the completely unrelated events in some kind of plausible sequential order. He relates the events of “Bloody October” in 1986 (yes, the film was released in ’83, but I think Wishman was giving herself a little extra time in case the whole thing didn’t come together for a few more years — she may not have had any actual physical insurance, but narrative insurance is free) in the only way possible given what we see unfolding/haphazardly landing on the screen, the film clocks in at 68 minutes — the bare minimum to get feature distribution — and hey, Wishman got it out in enough time to ride the slasher gravy train before it petered out.

How much of a "plot" do you really need to understand what's happening here?

I’m not going to claim that Wishman accidentally found greatness with the end product here,  that dire circumstances proved to be an act of serendipity that resulted in an unheralded horror masterpiece. There’s a reason A Night to Dismember isn’t regarded as a slasher classic — it’s just not very good. But it certainly should be seen by any true B-movie aficionado. The fact that it even exists is a testament to Doris Wishman’s sheer determination and/or desperation — probably both. It exists because it has to, and in that sense it’s probably just about the most honest movie you’ll ever see.

"A Night To Dismember" DVD from Elite Entertainment

A Night To Dismember is available on DVD from Elite Entertainment. It’s a heck of a little package, considering the source, and features not only, surprisingly, a 16×9 widescreen transfer of the film, but also the promotional trailer footage (again, shot before the movie itself was actually made) and a feature-length commentary from Doris Wishman herself, recorded shortly before her death in 2002, and her longtime cinematographer Chuck Smith. This commentary is, as you might imagine, absolutely invaluable in terms of trying to actually understand the flick itself, and furthermore it’s a lot of fun with Wishman and Smith engaged in some fun bickering banter throughout (well, to be honest, Wishman bickers, Smith just sort of takes it all in good humor — but you can picture his eyes rolling almost non-stop throughout). To be honest, the movie’s a lot better with the commentary track on than it is on its own — but it definitely helps to watch it without it first, then to put it on in order to understand just what the fuck it is you’ve witnessed.

A Night To Dismember is an exercise in pure cinematic necessity. It resembles, most closely, a piece of “outsider art” or surrealism, although it certainly wasn’t intended to. It just is the way it is because it literally can’t be any other way. But here’s the irony — if somebody like David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky (n0 offense intended to either of those two truly outstanding filmmakers, I invoke their names merely because it makes sense for reasons of comparison)  set out to make a movie like this on purpose, it would be heralded as an artistic triumph. Doris Wishman makes a movie like this because it’s the only thing she can do with what she’s got and everyone says it’s a piece of crap.

Go figure.

"Splatter Farm" DVD from Camp Motion Pictures

In 1987, rural Pennsylvania twin brothers John and Mark Polonia probably had no business trying to make a horror movie. But they did it anyway. Armed with nothing but their dad’s piece of shit old-school VHS camcorder, no money, a found location, some primitive ideas for how to stage  gore scenes that they’d learned “on the job” since they were single-digits in age and first began playing with their family’s old Super-8 movie camera, and a half-assed “script,” they set out, with friend and his grandmother in tow, to become moviemakers.

The fact that we’re still talking about the results of their handiwork today, a when almost every other similar home-made horror flick never got seen by anybody beyond the people who made it and maybe a few of their friends, is testament to the fact that the shot-on-video monster they gave birth to, the aptly-titled Splatter Farm, certainly has something going for it — but what, exactly?

It’s certainly not the acting. The Polonia brothers themselves portray the film’s two leads, a couple of super- thick-rimmed-glasses-wearing late-teens  total horror geek losers named Joseph and Alan. The only other characters in the film are portrayed by their friend/co-writer/co-director Todd Smith, who tackles the role of Jeremy, a demented farm hand with plenty of secrets , some of which he doesn’t even know about, and Smith’s real-life grandmother,  Marion Costly, who plays the twin boys’ lonely and batshit crazy old aunt Lacey.

Smith, to his credit, does a pretty convincing job as Jeremy and is feaky-looking and -acting enough to creep out the average viewer. Costly, on the other hand, is simply abominable — you can’t even call what she does “acting,” it’s more like just reciting lines. You’ve literally never seen a performance this bad in your life. I halfway wonder if she didn’t have the lines scribbled down on her hands, Sarah Palin-style.

So, no, it’s not the acting that has made Splatter Farm the ultra-small-cult “classic” it is today.

And it’s not the directing, that’s for sure. This flick is credited to three directors, as alluded to before, and it looks every bit as made-up-as-it-went along as it surely was. Sure, the two brothers and their pal try to get a bit creative here and there with some different perspectives, slow-mo, and other rudimentary tricks, but none of it really works and everything they attempt to achieve stylistically comes up well short of the mark.

So it’s not the acting, and it’s not the directing. What then? The story, maybe?

Buzz! Sorry, wrong answer! The story is as stupidly simple as anything else about this fil — err, movie. It’s not a “film,” per se, so I won’t call it that. Basically all that happens is that two twin brothers get sent to live with their aunt they haven’t seen in years over the summer at her country home, where the phones don’t seem to work, the randy old aunt takes a liking to twin brother Alan (to the point where she ends up drugging him and, presumably, having her way with him), and a handyman who works around the farm likes to do shit like cut himself and lick up his own blood. Oh, and kill anyone else he can. Which isn’t really too many people when you consider there’s only one on-screen murder before the brothers themselves are in danger.

It’s not like they slowly find this out over time, either. It’s pretty obvious that something is wrong with Jeremy right off the bat and it takes all of about five minutes to figure out that something ain’t right with Aunt Lacey, either. The bothers are left without a car about 20 minutes into the proceedings, and even though they wander around aimlessly quite a bit during the first third of the film, and as I mentioned the phones don’t work, the idea of just getting the fuck out of there on foot never occurs to them.

Then again, we’re not exactly talking about two charming geniuses here, as an early dinner scene proves. After eating a splendid supper of baked beans,  Joseph delivers one of the accidentally great lines in movie history, “sorry to ruin everyone’s dinner, but I gotta go take a shit,” after which Alan, almost flirtatiously, tells Aunt Lacey “that was a fine meal,” while the old bat caresses his leg under the table.

Say it with me, people — ewwwwwwww.

Pretty shortly after that, the fun and games begin as Jeremy decides to kill these interlopers.

So let’s see, where does that leave us? The story sucks, the direction sucks, and the acting sucks. Well, then, what about the gore?

It’s certainly plentiful, and it’s certainly sickening, and it’s certainly ambitious, but like everything else here, it’s pretty ineptly staged. The blood — and there really is a lot of it — is thin and runny and not too terribly red, the viscera and entrails are school-stage-play “quality,” and the rotted corpses that we get are pretty much obvious papier-mache or Plaster of Paris or some shit, although the real bugs crawling around the eyesockets are a nice touch.

So the gore is lame, the story is lame, the direction is lame, and the acting is lame. By all accounts, then, this thing never should have made it further than the VCR in mom and dad Polonia’s living room. And yet here we are, 23 years later, and as I said ,we’re still taking about this thing. What the hell for ?

Todd Smith as country bumpkin psycho Jeremy

I think the reason why can be boiled down to one word : earnestness. The Polonia boys and their pal wanted to make a horror movie so goddamn badly that they just went out and did it.  Not only that, they wanted to make a memorable horror movie — and Splatter Farm certainly is memorable.

Oh, sure, it’s memorable for all the wrong reasons, as I just detailed, but it’s memorable too for watching three young moviemakers try their damndest even though their reach so far exceeds their grasp you spend nearly every moment of the flick wondering why they didn’t just say “fuck it” and give up. I would have. You would have. But they didn’t. And goddamn it, you gotta respect that.

Splatter Farm wants to be the bloodiest, sickest, most nauseating mess you’ve ever seen. It wants to push every single button it can on the old tastelessness machine. It wants to make you sick. And in the hands of a Lucio Fulci or somebody like that, it probably would. In the hands of the Polonias and Smith, however, it ends up occupying a weird middle ground that you almost don’t know what to make of as a viewer.

On the one hand, you want to laugh your ass off at the Z-grade amateurism of the whole thing. And let’s be perfectly frank, there are plenty of occasions where Splatter Farm is, indeed, laughably incompetent. Too many occasions to even count, much less list, in fact.

On the other hand, the subject matter they’re covering here is so puke-inducing — necrophilia (Jeremy shoves his dick in a decapitated head’s mouth and fucks it until he climaxes), incest, cannibalism, and anal fisting (Jeremy shoves his hand up one of the brother’s asses while he’s killing him and smears the phony diarrhea-ish substance all over the hapless lad’s face), to name just a quick handful of depravities, that you really can’t bring yourself to laugh even when the production “values” demand nothing less. And the SOV camerawork gives it all a kind of cheap-documentary immediacy that a production with any sort of budget whatsoever probably just couldn’t match, which is effectively accentuated by the dilapidated farmhouse locations that seem so believably real because — well, hell, they are.

So the brothers Polonia and their pal Mr. Smith definitely want to give you a serious case of the willies — and being a waaaaaayyyy independent production they can get away with stuff that even the most amoral exploitation producers wouldn’t touch with a 50-foot pole. But their lack of technical expertise — hell, their lack of even basic competence — well, to be honest, while it makes them look inept, it conversely makes them seem like even sicker fucks then they’d come off as being if they were helming anything like a real production here. I say that because there’s no wiggle room for them here. A jive Hollywood asshole who’s gone too far can always fall back on “well, I didn’t really want to do that, but the producer (or the studio, or the ever-nebulous “audience”) really wanted us to pull out all the stops on this one.” The creative “minds” behind Splatter Farm can’t do that — they came up with this twisted shit, and even though it was obvious they couldn’t pull just about any of it off, they went ahead and gave it a go anyway. That doesn’t take much in the brains department, I guess, but it definitely takes balls.

The Polonia boys shopped this thing around to various cheap-ass video distributors for over a year and got no takers. They gave up and moved on to another project which I guess must have been slightly better, because one of those cheap-ass video distributors said they’d like to release not only that later effort, but Splatter Farm, as well. For whatever reason, the second project, the one they wanted more, never did see the light of day, but Splatter Farm did. And the rest, as they say, is history.

And now, dear friends, you can experience this SOV opus for yourself, should you so choose, thanks to the good folks at Camp Motion Pictures, who have released Splatter Farm as part of their Retro 80s Horror Collection line, which includes titles like Cannibal Campout, Ghoul School, Killing Spree, Video Violence, and other mainstays of the backyard-produced horror subgenre that kinda flourished there for a minute during the largely unfortunate Reagan years. It’s billed here as the “cult classic special edition,” and apparently the brothers Polonia have tweaked it a bit, remastering the picture as best as possible, editing out a bit of superfluous crap from another backyard production altogether that they threw in to pad the running time (yes, folks, this “special edition” is actually a little bit shorter than the previous VHS release — it clocks in at just under 70 minutes), and tinkering with the sound to fix up some “drops” and incidental noises that were present the first time around.

As for the extras, like all the Retro 80s stuff Camp has put out, it’s pretty well loaded — there’s a commentary from the Polonias, a huge selection of their earlier shot-on-Super-8 work ( these were  no-sound recordings, but they do provide commentary for all of them), and there’s a great documentary about the production of the movie that includes a visit back to the farm locations used for the shoot (the house has been remodeled, sadly). All in all, the Polonia come across as surprisingly well-adjusted, decent family guys who aren’t exactly proud of the movie they made back in their late teens, but then aren’t ashamed of it, either. They gave it a shot, it is what it is, and they’ve moved on since then. And while they lead relatively normal lives (apparently) now, they do still get the urge to get out a video camera and make a cheesy horror flick, like Splatter Beach a few years back.

All in all, the highest compliment you can pay to Splatter Farm is to acknowledge that it even exists. By all rights it probably shouldn’t, and the fact that it does says something — and even if that “something” is just that two twin brothers with very little talent but a lot of gumption got together with a buddy of theirs and tried to make a seriously fucking twisted horror flick despite the fact that they really didn’t know what the hell they were doing, that’s nothing for these guys to hang their heads about. Splatter Farm is what is is because it has no other choice but to be — well, exactly what it is., and while that’s not a lot to put on your tombstone when it’s all said and done, I suppose,  it’s a greater legacy than most people will ever leave behind.

Thoughts like that keep me warm at night.

FAB Press Ad Sheet for Volume 1 of "Motion Picture Purgatory" by Rick Trembles

I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the work of Montreal cartoonist Rick Trembles and his incredible “Motion Picture Purgatory” on this blog before, but with a second collection of Trembles’ strips recently published by FAB Press, now seems as good a time as any to rectify that situation.

In short, Trembles hit some years ago on a genius idea so obvious it’s amazing no one ever thought of it before — reviewing movies in comic-strip form. It’s a natural, really, since both comics and film and, you know, words and pictures, it’s just that one features movement and the other doesn’t. So utilizing the comics medium to critique film is about as natural a combination as I can imagine.

I can’t really think of any other cartoonist whose work closely mirrors that of Trembles, but I think the intricately detailed “Quimby the Mouse” stuff by Chris Ware probably comes closest stylistically, and while in some strips in the late 90s/early 2000s the Ware influence is pretty pronounced, as time has gone on Trembles has really developed his own unique artistic style to go with his own voice, which he’s always had. I could go on and one about how Trembles structures a page and works the film’s themes and plotlines into the layout of his visual reviews, but, assuming it won’t get me into any sort of copyright trouble, I’ll just reprint one here and let you see for yourself —

Rick Trembles "Motion Picture Purgatory" Review for "Thriller" (a.k.a."They Call Her One Eye")

Trembles covers a wide variety of films in his reviews, which are published weekly in the Montreal Mirror free paper and available for viewing on his website, but 70s grindhouse fare, particularly of the horror variety, is nearest and dearest to his heart. He’s not a one-trick pony, though, and everything from documentaries to comedies to golden age Hollywood classics to Ray Harryhausen (for whom Trembles’ admiration is obvious) to animation to recent Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between has come in for the Trembles treatment. In the recently-publishes Volume 2 of his collected works, for example, he covers films as varied as “The Deadly Spawn,” “The Gods of Times Square,” “Fight for Your Life,” “Cloverfield,” “The Manson Family,” “Pontypool,” “Things,” and “Visitor Q,” to title-drop just a few!

Volume 2 of the Collected "Motion Picture Purgatory" by Rick Trembles

Anyway, his stuff’s a blast, and his unique brand of genius — a term I don’t throw about freely — is seriously unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Not only is he one of the more creative and inventive cartoonists around, he’s also one of the best film critics working today, period.

Both volumes of his collected work are available directly from FAB Press (who also have an exlusive hardback edition of the second book unavailable elsewhere) or at any major online book retailer like Amazon, and are seriously worth the price. End of free, but very well-deserved, plug.

"I Spit On Your Grave" movie poster

"I Spit On Your Grave" movie poster

In the storied annals of exploitation cinema, few films have ever stirred as much controversy as Meir Zarchi’s rape-revenge masterpiece “I Spit On Your Grave.” Originally released in 1978 under the title “Day of the Woman,” which is actually much more appropriate to the movie’s content but far less—shall was say—noticeable, the story of Jenny Hill(played by Camille Keaton, veteran of Italian exploitation fare such as “Tragic Ceremony”), sophisticated but mild-mannered Manhattan author who rents a cabin on the Husatonik river in Connecticut for the summer in the hopes of getting some peace and quiet so she can write her first book only to be descended upon savagely by a gang of four local, and absolutely merciless, it must be said, redneck rapists(played by Erin Tabor, who turns in a fairly solid performance as the group’s ringleader, Richard Pace , who features as the dim-witted virgin buddy who the others are trying to  “get laid” that summer by any means necessary, Gunter Kleeman and Anthony Nichols) before pursuing her own brand of justice, came and went from the drive-in and grindhouse circuit pretty quickly while only kicking up a slight bit of outraged dust from the morality police. When Jerry Gross picked it up for wider distribution a couple years later with a new and more provocative title with an ad campaign to match that played up the film’s subject matter in the most prurient way possible, though, audiences took note. And so did the critics.

It wasn’t just the Jerry Folwells of the world who objected to “I Spit On Your Grave”‘s shockingly brutal sexual violence, or the purported film sophisticates like Pauline Kael who jumped on the supposed exploitation of its audiences most base “urges”—even perfectly mainstream critics like Siskel and Ebert were appalled and outraged by what they deemed on “Sneak Previews” (remember that?) as “the most sexist movie ever made.” The passing of time has cast things in a new, and in this case proper, light, though, and I have to say that your friendly neighborhood TFG agrees with B-movie aficionado par excellence Joe Bob Briggs, who, in his superb commentary on Elite Entertainment’s  “Millennium Edition” DVD of the film released in 2002 declared it, rather, to be quite possibly the most FEMINIST movie ever made. Let’s take a quick look at why I think this is the case and explore why it is that this flick retains its power to shock and disturb even now, over 30 years after its original release.

Things start out pleasnatly enough for Jenny---

Things start out pleasantly enough for Jenny---

The standard feminist line, as I understand it, is that rape is not a crime about sex, but about violence—about power, control, and the objectification and dehumanization of its victim. Seems like a fair enough analysis to me. It’s not anything to do with using violence to to obtain sex, it’s about using sex as a tool of violence. Well, there’s no question that “I Spit On Your Grave” absolutely shows that to be the case—a little too absolutely for most audiences, truth be told. There’s no “rape scene” in “I Spit On Your Grave”—there’s a long, harrowing, maliciously brutal SERIES of rape scenes strung together that take up nearly 45 minutes of the film’s 100-minute run time. It’s well and truly excruciating stuff to sit through and there’s nothing even remotely “kinky” about any of the proceedings. Each is more savage and relentless than the last. And you know what? For the purposes of the story being told here, that’s the way it’s got to be. This isn’t a story about the better angels of human nature. It’s not about love and forgiveness. It’s about a brutally violent crime followed by brutally violent revenge. Given what Jenny does later—freeing her attackers from the bonds of this mortal coil with extreme prejudice—the crime perpetrated upon her needs to be shown in all its repulsive barbarity or else the methods by which she chooses to dispatch these guys is going to seem like some serious overkill. “I Spit On Your Grave” is about the deadly consequences of psyche-and spirit-shattering attack. Skimp out on the details and the story itself loses most of its meaning and all of its power.

---but quickly take a turn for the worse---the FAR worse.

---but quickly take a turn for the worse---the FAR worse.

Unlike the film, though, your humble critic is going to spare you the details of both the attack on Ms. Hill and her vengeance in case you, dear reader, haven’t seen this movie yet and would like to.  Suffice to say neither are pretty, but if you’re a properly-morally-hardwired human being, one will leave you disgusted beyond words while the other will have you high-fiving whoever you’re watching the movie with (assuming they, too, have standard human moral codes—if not, get some new friends. Fast.). Which is where the shock and disgust of the Siskels and Eberts of the world once again come into play. Apparently they stated that when they went to see the movie in the theater, some audience members were literally cheering during the midst of Jenny’s ordeal. I have to admit, that’s sick—really sick. I just don’t see how any honest analysis of the film can lead a person to conclude that was the reaction Zarchi was aiming for in any way, shape, or form, and a director really I can’t help who buys a ticket to see his or her work.  I’m also willing to bet those some assholes were probably sitting there in stunned silence, clutching at their balls to make sure they were still there, when the animals they were whooping and hollering for get their comeuppance. Let’s just say guys out for payment in blood for the wrongs done to them or their families like Charles Bronson (no disrespect to Chuck, TFG loves the guy) could learn a lesson or two from our girl Jenny(apart from her one mistake—she kills the group’s head honcho— a guy, by the way, shown as having a wife and kids, therefore destroying another myth of rape, that it’s perpetrated by masked intruders and not “decent family men,” therefore making another very feminist, and sadly accurate, argument about sexual violence, namely that it can be perpetrated by people in all walks of life for any reason or no reason at all— second, rather than saving him for last—but hey, it’s understandable, you gotta kill these guys in the order you come across them, you may not get a second chance).

Revenge is a dish best served cold---

Revenge is a dish best served cold, even if it's not at the table---

Your host isn’t terribly fond of the idea that cinema, literature, or music can somehow “influence” somebody to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise, and frankly I find the idea that critics of “I Spit On Your Grave” advanced at the time that this film would somehow “inspire” anyone to go out and rape somebody is absurd. Those buffoons that Siskel and Ebert heard cheering obviously had problems to begin with. But in truth this film does nothing to “encourage” them, rather it shows the unbearable ugliness of rape in the coldest and most clinical light possible and shows the rapists themselves as being mindless thugs who get exactly what they deserve. This is movie isn’t told from their point of view, it’s told from hers — it’s quite apparent that in no uncertain terms, as far as Zarchi is concerned, these guys are inhuman monsters.

---just be prepared to clean up the mess afterwards. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

---just be prepared to clean up the mess afterwards. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

The critical reevaluation this film has seen over the years is finally waking some folks up to the fact that they had it wrong the first time around and what we’ve got here is not a prurient piece of irredeemable garbage but, in truth, probably the best entry into the “rape-revenge” subgenre of all time. Sure, classics like “The Last House on the Left” still stand out in this tiny cinematic ouevre, but the crime itself and its aftermath are much more personal, and therefore immediate, in “I Spit On Your Grave.” No family members getting even for what was done to their daughter or wife here. This is a woman settling the score for what was done to HER, personally. It’s not flashy or stylized or in any way “glamorous”(another great point Briggs makes in his DVD commentary is that, sure, there’s some gratuitous nudity early on—it’s an exploitation film, for Christ’s sake—but Zarchi doesn’t dwell on extreme close-ups of Keaton’s naked breasts as one would expect, rather it’s all shown from quite a considerable distance). It’s raw, authentic, and unvarnished. And yeah, that makes it ugly, but it’s an ugly crime — is it even right to portray it in any other way?

Elite Entertainment's "Millennium Edition" DVD Release of "I Spit On Your Grave"

Elite Entertainment's "Millennium Edition" DVD Release of "I Spit On Your Grave"

There have been a few different DVD editions of “I Spit On Your Grave” over the years (and incidentally, this was one of the films on Britain’s infamous “video nasties” list, movies which were literally BANNED by the UK government during the early-80s VHS boom), but the “Millennium Edition” from Elite Entertainment is the way to go here. In addition to the fantastic commentary from Briggs referenced a time or two above, there’s also an insightful commentary track from writer-director Meir Zarchi (who would go on to to make one other film, “Don’t Mess With My Sister,” which also centers on a revenge them—guess he wasn’t too terribly interested in other types of stories. Oh, and he married his leading lady from “I Spit On Your Grave,” Camille Keaton, so I guess she wasn’t too convinced herself that he’d made some “pro-rape” movie here),  a selection of outraged (and outrageous) text reviews from newspapers and magazines from around the time of the film’s release,  and the theatrical trailer and a sampling of TV spots are thrown in for good measure, as well. The digitally-remastered picture and THX sound are great. An essential addition to the home video library of exploitation film fans everywhere.

We’ve lost far too many off-beat independent DVD labels that specialized in exploitation and horror cinema in recent years. Barrel Entertainment, Unearthed Films, Psychotronica, BCI/Navarre to name just a few—and now I’m afraid it looks like another is on the ropes.

Code Red, the absolutely great outfit that has put out first-class releases of flicks like “Don’t Go In The Woods,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “The Forest,” “Terror Circus,” , “Savage Streets, ”  and “Beyond The Door,” among other great titles, seems to be having some—ahhh—issues. Their release of the 1981 horror not-so-classic “Scream” was first pushed back, now cancelled altogether (at least according to Amazon), their release dates for the “Rareflix Triple Feature Collection” volumes four and five were pushed back and now they appear to have been cancelled as well, and their upcoming release of “Riot on 42nd Street” has also, sadly, been scrapped. Two other titles they had pre-listed, “Choke Canyon” and “Trapped!,” are officially “delayed” for the time being, but could suffer the same fate.

This is especially a drag to me because they have three upcoming releases that I’ve been waiting some time for—“The Strangeness,” “Weekend Murders,” and—at long last!—a proper, remastered version of the great “Messiah Of Evil.”  I hope these will all still see the light of day. Heck, I hope a lot of these cancelled and/or  delayed titles still somehow make it to the shelves, since I for one really dig the “Rarefilx” collections and think “Scream” is a pretty fun flick, too.

I know times are tough and people are tightening the metaphorical belt as far as their entertainment budgets are concerned, but I hope Code Red can weather this storm and pull through okay. They do an absolutely great job with their releases, really seem to care about their product and the fans, and understand the old axiom that a job worth doing is worth doing right. Too many companies flood the market with crummy, substandard releases. Code Red is not one of them. Let’s hope this is all just some temporary setback, and I hope all the horror and exploitation fans out there will buy their upcoming releases (assuming the come out) and help support the future survival of Code Red. We need them to stick around!

Original European poster for "Syngenor"

Original European poster for "Syngenor"

Whatever happened to the guy in the rubber suit?

Ever since “The Creature From The Black Lagoon,” the rubber  reptilian (usually) monster has been something of an on-again, off-again mainstay in the world of horror cinema, and while CGI has certainly made putting an actual human inside one of these slimy sweatboxes redundant at best, it’s fair to say that the era of this particular type of movie baddie was over long before today’s computer effects wizards went to work.  The purported “sophistication” of more modern audiences convinced filmmakers long ago that a dude in a goofy costume just didn’t have what it takes to scare people anymore, and while I can’t say for certain, it seems to your humble host that the 1990 horror-sci-fi semi-thriller “Syngenor” is quite probably the last stand of the rubber-bedecked bad guy, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a look.

First off, it should be stated that “Syngenor” is a sequel — of sorts. Actually, it’s not so much a “part two” as it is another movie featuring the exact same monsters as William (“Creature”) Malone’s 1981 ultra-low-budget (but nevertheless effective) “Scared To Death.” It’s not in the least bit necessary to know the first thing about the earlier  film, though, in order to fully comprehend this later offering, so I won’t go into detail about it here beyond saying it’s definitely worth a look,  and it’s a fair bet that most audiences (such as there were) that caught “Syngenor” during its ultra-brief theatrical run didn’t know the first thing about the previous Syngenor flick, either. Malone himself was not involved with the movie in any way—he had written a brief outline of a script which was later changed more or less wholesale by screenwriters Michael Carmody and Brent V. Friedman, and the directing duties were handled by George Elanjian, Jr., so this thing probably doesn’t even count as a “follow-up” to “Scared To Death” — like I said before, the best way to describe it would probably be to call it a movie that features the same monsters as another, earlier movie.

The plot is pretty simple stuff — a couple of low-life yuppie types pick up a couple of ladies of  “easy virtue” and take them back to the flashy corporate headquarters (actually L.A.’s disused Ambassador Hotel, infamous for being the site where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated) of Norton Cyberdyne, where the fellas serve as mid-level executives. Unbeknownst to the women, though (and to one of the yuppie scumbags himself), they’ve been “selected” to become “test subjects” for the ruthless killing efficiency of the Syngenors (shorthand for Synthesized Genetic Organism), a race of reptilian super-soldiers genetically engineered by the corporation to fight in the hostile climate of the Middle East (it’s worth noting that Gulf War I was going on at the time this film was released) The Syngenors don’t need any water, and survive by drinking the spinal fluid of their victims with their long lizard-tongues. They also reproduce asexually by laying a pod every 24 hours from which a new Syngenor hatches, fully-formed and ready to fight. So even if there are any casualties on the Syngenor side, they’re replaced rather quickly. Obviously, then, the Pentagon is pretty hot-to-trot to get these new slime-coated soldiers into action.

The in-on-the-plot yuppie, a greasy operator named Armbrewster (Charles Lucia) turns the Syngenors loose on his colleague and their—uhhhmmm—“dates,” but he doesn’t count on one of them getting loose from headquarters  and going straight to the home of their creator, a reclusive scientist named Ethan Valentine (Lewis Arquette, patriarch of the Hollywood Arquette clan) who has left Norton Cyberdyne and now works out of his garage on various mad-geneticist-type projects. Evidently, though, the Syngenor doesn’t harbor warm feelings for its surrogate “father,” and mauls him to pieces before laying a pod in his garage.

Unfortunately for her, Valentine’s live-in niece, Susan (Starr Andreeff, who bears something of a resemblance to a younger Mariska Hargitay), gets home from an evening out just shortly after her uncle’s murder, and the Syngenor attacks her in the family home. She manages to get away, though, and report what happened to a friend of her uncle’s who works as a police lieutenant. She doesn’t get a whole lot of help from the cops, though, who bury her report under pressure from Norton Cyberdyne’s CEO, Carter Brown (David Gale of “Re-Animator” fame who delivers an equally fun and OTT performance here as a corporate boss slowly losing his mind as his whole world comes crashing down around him—largely due to his own sleazy machinations).

She does, however, find help in the form of newspaper reporter Nick Carey (Mitchell Laurance), who went down to Norton Cyberdyne HQ in order to do an “executive of the year” puff-piece on Brown and ended up finding out about the previous night’s murder from a chatty secretary (played by Melanie Shatner — yes, you-know-who’s daughter) who also happens to be Brown’s niece.  The younger Brown also clues Carey into the fact that a leading scientist for the company quit a few weeks back, and when he can’t get in to see Brown to write his fluff story, he decides to follow his reporter’s instincts and go check out the home of said no-longer-employed-there scientist. That’s when he meets Susan, finds out what happened to her uncle, and the two of them go on the trail of the Syngenor mystery.

The Syngenor, last of the rubber-suited villains

The Syngenor, last of the rubber-suited villains

From there the pace does drag a bit as we get enmeshed in corporate scandal between Carter Brown, Armbrewster, who’s trying to depose him and move up the ranks, and a third untrustworthy executive , Paula Gorski (Riva Spier), who Brown has the hots for but who’s secretly playing both he and Armbrewster against each other for her own ends.  Things get a bit talky, in other words, and the action lags as our heroes (who quickly also become lovers) investigate all this company intrigue, but it never gets truly dull, and watching Gale (who really does look like John Kerry with a receding hairline) portray Brown’s gradual melt-down really is a lot of fun (I just wish I knew what the green serum he’s always injecting in his neck is—it’s never explained and, according to the commentary track on the DVD, this is intentional. Still, I’d be curious to know—that’s just the kind of guy I am).

David Gale in full nervous breakdown mode

David Gale in full nervous breakdown mode

The somewhat slower middle section is certainly worth it in the end, though, as the pod in Susan’s uncle’s garage hatches and terrorizes her and Nick at the house before they make their escape and plunge into a  final, protracted battle against the Syngenor army at company headquarters, with Brown going apeshit and killing everybody the evil reptiles don’t.  It’s  an absolute blast to watch, with plenty of bloodletting, pretty solid gore effects (from Robert and Dennis Skotak, who worked with James Cameron on “Aliens” and “The Abyss”), and an impressively high body count. In other words, don’t give up on this thing halfway through because the finale is everything you could hope for and then some.

“Syngenor” certainly isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s definitely plenty solid all things considered,  has a seriously great performance from Gale, and pays off the patient viewer, with interest, at the end. All in all, the era of the rubber-suited monster (and it’s a pretty damn good rubber-suited monster at that) probably couldn’t have asked for a better send-off.

DVDCover For Synapse Films' release of "Syngenor"

DVD Cover For Synapse Films' release of "Syngenor"

“Syngenor” is available on DVD from Synapse Films in a terrific package that includes an impressively sharp 1.85:1  widescreen transfer, a newly-remastered 5.1 surround audio track, an extensive gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and publicity stills and artwork, three pretty interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes, and an audio commentary featuring actress Starr Andreeff, screenwriter Brent V. Friedman and producer Jack F. Murphy.  A really nice “special edition” that, for once, genuinely lives up to that name.

Movie poster for Sam Raimi's "Drag Me To Hell"

Movie poster for Sam Raimi's "Drag Me To Hell"

Once again, this “Hollywood Sidebar” column will be a short one, since Universal Studios doesn’t need any extra help from my little blog to promote their latest Sam Raimi multimillion-dollar summer blockbuster, but I just have to say — damn, this was good. I hesitate to use a shopworn cliche like “wicked good fun,” but in this case it really does apply.

I should say this by way of setting the stage : I’m not an enormous Sam Raimi fan. Do I love the original “Evil Dead?” Absofrigginlutely. The first sequel is pretty good, too, although a little heavy on the comedy elements for my taste. The third installment, frankly, does nothing for me, since by then they were just parodying themselves. As for the rest of Raimi’s oeuvre, I can take it or leave it, apart from “Darkman,” which I love to pieces. I could care less about the Spider-Man franchise, and found the third entry in that over-hyped cannon particularly appalling; I thought “The Quick And The Dead” was alright, but not great; I’ve never seen “For Love Of The Game” and really don’t care to; and as far as “A Simple Plan” goes, hey, I’d rather just see a real Coen brothers movie, they’re generally much better.

With “Drag Me To Hell,” though, Raimi is back on firm horror grounding. Sure, it’ s still got plenty of comedic elements, and an overall “Looney Tunes on bad acid” vibe, but comedy is not the backbone of the film—good old-fashioned scares are, and this movie delivers plenty of seat-jumping moments, even for the grizzled horror veteran.

The effects are generally pretty good, and while I’m no CGI fan, the computer effects that are used blend in pretty well with Greg Nicotero’s “real” effects and the whole thing flows pretty seamlessly, as far as the visual side of things goes.  Bob Murawski’s editing is , as always, both mildly inventive and  flawlessly professional, and Peter Deming’s cinematography is out of this world, his best work since “Mulholland Drive.” So the whole things looks like a million bucks—or rather more like tens of millions of bucks.

The performances are solid all around if not spectacular, apart from the always-excellent David Paymer as our leading lady Alison Lohman’s rather wormy boss. The cast of players  overall is plenty competent, and while no one apart from Paymer stands out as really great, you can’t complain about any of the others, that’s for sure.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty standard gypsy-curse stuff, specifically young bank loan officer puts an old gypsy woman out of  her house in order to try to secure a promotion at work and is then haunted by a demon the old woman sicks on her, but as with the original “Evil Dead,” it’s atmosphere and execution that trumps originality here, and even though you’ll see the ending coming a mile away, you’ll still enjoy the ride thoroughly.

A couple of weeks back I said if you only see one Hollywood blockbuster this summer, make sure it’s “Star Trek.” Well, your humble host needs to acknowledge that he spoke too soon there. Sure, “Star Trek” is all kinds of mindless fun, but not as much mindless fun as this megabuck studio offering.

Don’t expect anything new from “Drag Me To Hell.” But do expect to have a great time seeing so much you’ve already seen before put together so well.

Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when you’re imitating yourself, what should that be called? Resting on your laurels? Beating a dead horse? In the case of the 1982 reworking of “Maniac” known as “The Last Horror Film” such pejoratives are probably undeserved, and we’ll settle, I think, on calling it a transplant—more specifically, a rather successful transatlantic transplant of a damn good slasher film. Not so much a sequel or even a rip-off as maybe a companion piece. Read on and all will be explained—

Most slasher fans will acknowledge that William Lustig’s “Maniac” was undoubtedly one of the genre’s finest early-80s offerings(a time period with an embarrassment of riches to choose from, so that’s no small feat), featuring as it did two standout elements, the first being the late Joe Spinell’s absolute tour-de-force performance in the lead role. He absolutely oozed creepiness and patheticness at the same time, and delivered one of the signature performances in horror movie history. Spinell didn’t even seem like he was acting, truth be told—he absolutely inhabited his character, to the point where I’m not sure I’d want to be the guy’s neighbor in real life. He wasn’t playing a lonely, pathetic psycho—I’ll be goddamned if it didn’t seem like he was a lonely, pathetic psycho. Chillingly believable stuff from start to finish, and in a sane and just world he probably would have won an Oscar for it.

The other star of the film was Tom Savini’s outstanding gore effects, limited as they were—particularly the classic ending scene. This was the era when Savini was really coming into his own and earning his legendary reputation with every project he worked on.  Gut-wrenching stuff—-literally. What this guy could do with “real” effects and a shoestring budget still puts today’s CGI “wizards” with millions of dollar as their disposal to shame.

Sadly, Savini wasn’t a part of “The Last Horror Film” (aka “Fanatic,” a title that tied it in even closer with its—ahem!—“source material,” probably even a bit too close as it was little more than a glaringly obvious attempt to paint the film as a type of “Maniac 2”—which, okay, in many respects it is, but since the original “Maniac” died, it’s rather ridiculous to paint this as a “pure” sequel — not that death ever stopped the Jasons, Michaels, and Freddies of the world), nor, unfortunately, was director William Lustig, who wove an atmosphere of tension and inner psychic decay with his expert helmsmanship, in truth TLHF is more dependent than ever on Spinell to carry the show himself, teamed as he was with relative newcomer David Winters in the director’s chair and, generally speaking, less-experienced folks behind the camera in all respects. Without Lustig and Savini around, then, “The Last Horror Film” gives Spinell a chance to prove how much of the success of “Maniac” was down to him alone and how much was due to Lustig, Savini, et. al.

As it turns out, Spinell answers that question forcefully and with supreme confidence, turning in another fine performance as, for all intents and purposes, the same character, albeit with a couple of fun twists.

This time around, Spinells’ non-“Maniac” maniac is a New York cabbie named Vinny Durand, a mama’s boy who still lives at home (go figure) and is the sole inhabitant of the absolute bottom of his own social barrel, a guy who’s such a loner and a putz that even the other geeks at the local comic book store give him shit. Vinny’s a bit of a dreamer, you see, and his mind is always at the movies. He lives, eats, breathes and sleeps celluloid, and has big dreams of making his own films a reality. And the star of all his filmic fantasies is the lovely Jenna Bates  (Carlone Munro, Spinell’s co-star from “Maniac,” providing another strong tie to Lustig’s , errrmmmm, let’s call it “original,” even if this isn’t a sequel, strictly speaking). Vinny’s bout to prove all those doubters and finger-pointers wrong, however—he’s been saving his pennies (living at home is cheap, after all) and is headed to the Cannes film festival, where he intends to win the attentions, and the heart, of the woman of his dreams and cast her as the leading lady in the horror film he’s got swirling around in his head (no evidence of an actual plot on paper on Vinny’s part is ever offered).

Once at Cannes, Vinny is summarily rebuffed in all his attempts to get at Ms. Bates or even any of her handlers, and decides that if he can’t get her to work with him by using conventional means, he’ll simply eliminate anyone and everyone else around her to the point where she’ll have no one else to work with — call it process of elimination, if you will — elimination of the permanent sort.

The sights and sounds of the festival are on full display here, including a guerrilla-lensed (I’m assuming) take or two of contemporary sort-of stars like Cathy Lee Crosby making their entrances into various festival venues.  Vinny’s staying in a fleabag hotel adjacent to, of course, a movie theater (that’s playing “Cannibal Holocaust”!) and quickly decks out his room to look much like his—err, not his— hovel in “Maniac,” with pin-ups on the walls of Ms. Bates, dim lighting, and sparser-than-sparse actual furnishings. The room’s got “nutcase” written all over it.

When Vinny goes into action murdering Bates’ handlers (including her love interest)and anyone else around whose work rubs him the wrong way, the killings are inevitably brutal and bloody, and while lacking the sheer panache of Savini’s “Maniac” work, they remain nonetheless effective and even semi-memorable in their own way. Needless to say, some of Vinny’s attempts to get at his leading lady border on the absurd, and when he does eventually get at her the border is even crossed, but Vinny’s not one to let an army of hangers-on and middlemen stop him, and the shots of him scaling hotel rooftops and performing various other feats of physical dexterity that would be well beyond a guy of his challenged physique are well and truly ridiculous, sure, but Spinell’s performance is so effective that he gets you to literally believe that our guy Vinny is compelled to do the near-impossible by sheer force of his demented will alone.

Vinny’s a good boy and calls home every day, of course, and he even seems to have his mom believing that he’s on the way to becoming a superstar director who has attained the services of the film industry’s most-desired starlet for his film.  It’s classic stuff, and while the live-at-home loser who will kill to fulfill his sick fantasies has been done a million times over, nobody does it quite like Spinell and it’s also, to my knowledge at least, never been done in a setting quite this exotic.

To be sure, “The Last Horror Film” lacks some of the dramatic tension and raw impact of “Maniac,” but that’s only to be expected—after all, Cannes setting aside, we’ve seen this all before. Still, everything here is done well enough that you certainly won’t mind seeing it again, and if for some reason Joe Spinell didn’t convince you the first time around that he was one of the best actors ever at playing lonely, pathetic psychopaths, seeing him do it just as well a second time should cement his argument.

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

“The Last Horror Film” has recently been re-released on DVD by Troma (it had been available earlier under the “Fanatic” title) as part of its fledgling “Tromasterpiece” collection. In addition to the usual nonsensical Lloyd Kaufman introduction, it features an interview with “Maniac” director William Lustig, the Buddy Giovinazzo-directed, short film “Mr. Robbie” (aka “Maniac 2”—which I guess sort of makes this “Maniac 3”),the original theatrical trailer and a collection of TV spots, an interview with the late, great Joe Spinell’s best friend, Luke Walter, and a full-length(and highly engaging) audio commentary by Walter, as well as the usual semi-absurd Troma-themed extra stuff.  Well worth your time and money, it’s a pretty impressive package to go along with what is a pretty impressive slasher flick — one that by all rights should feel a lot more redundant than it actually does.