Wednesday, October 30, 2019

In Theaters: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

(US/Brazil - 2019)

Directed by Robert Eggers. Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers. Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman. (R, 109 mins)

"How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two days? Help me to recollect." 

2016's THE WITCH heralded a unique new voice in writer/director Robert Eggers, who fashioned his feature debut as a deeply unsettling 17th-century-set slow-burner involving witchcraft, religious hysteria, and one extremely sinister goat. Eggers could've gone in any number of directions in the horror genre, but like his contemporary Ari Aster (HEREDITARY, MIDSOMMAR), he gets even weirder with his long-awaited follow-up THE LIGHTHOUSE, which is bizarre and defiantly non-commercial even by the standards of distributor A24. Sharing writing credit with his brother Max, Eggers' tale of isolation and madness on a distant island off the coast of New England in the late 19th century utilizes the journals of Herman Melville and assorted lighthouse keepers and crusty old sea salts (much like THE WITCH's dialogue was taken in part from documents from the era that it depicts), and showcases a staggeringly realistic depiction of the time and place in all its unforgiving brutality. This is the kind of film where you can feel the dampness and smell the mud, piss, and shit. Eggers veers as far away from commercial expectation as possible, shooting in black-and-white and in the archaic aspect ratio of 1.19:1, which hasn't been regularly deployed since the Weimar-era heyday of German Expressionism, Fritz Lang, and Dr. Mabuse. The tight framing only adds to the sense of isolation and claustophobia in what's essentially a two-character piece where both protagonists' grip on reality and sanity grows more tenuous and frayed by the day.

Wet-behind-the-ears wickie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives for a four-week stay maintaining a lighthouse and the surrounding island with aging, crotchety Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Wake is already there waiting for him, and wastes no time reminding Winslow--condescendingly calling him "lad"--who's in charge and that it's Winslow who will be doing the exhausting grunt work. The perpetually flatulent old coot also expressly forbids Winslow from going to the top of the lighthouse, where the younger man often spots a naked Wake in a trance-like state in the middle of the night, hypnotically drawn to something the blinding glow emanating from the lantern through the Fresnel lens. Winslow also finds a carved figurine of a mermaid stuffed inside in his mattress that he's soon using for his frequent masturbation excursions in the boathouse. He also sneaks into the lighthouse one night and hears Wake in the throes of sexual ecstasy but only catches a quick glimpse of writhing tentacles. He has visions of a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), and develops a hostile relationship with a pugnacious, one-eyed seagull--this film's Black Phillip--that hangs around the lighthouse and seems to have no patience for anyone's bullshit. Wake warns Winslow to leave the gull alone, and that harming one is bad luck in their line of work, and all the while, tensions mount between the two men, with Winslow growing more concerned with the fact that his predecessor in the job died under mysterious circumstances (Wake says he simply went insane and died), and Wake wanting to more about his enigmatic subordinate's shady past.

There's a definite Lovecraftian element to THE LIGHTHOUSE, but it's less concerned with overt horror and more with a slowly simmering depiction of absolute psychological implosion (and, as a bonus, leaving no bodily function undepicted). It takes some time to figure out who's the crazy one, but things take a turn when one commits an act they were expressly warned not to do. But is he crazy? Or is the other manipulating him and driving him insane? Teetotaler Winslow eventually caves to Wake's peer pressure to drink, further toying with their grip on reality to the point where the alcohol runs out and they start guzzling their kerosene supply. There's much dark humor in the way Wake and Winslow, two guys who don't really like each other but are forced to work together (again, that 1.19:1 aspect ratio really sells the notion of being trapped with nowhere to go), eventually start to resemble an old, bickering married couple (watch how hurt Wake is when he realizes Winslow hates his cooking). That includes some subtly-conveyed, alcohol-fueled, and loneliness-induced loosening of inhibitions (Eggers joked in an interview that the lighthouse is indeed a giant phallic symbol) that have enough implications to almost turn the film into something that can be best described as "Bela Tarr's BROKEBACK LIGHTHOUSE."

It's really hard to divulge any more plot details without going into spoiler territory, and frankly, a film like THE LIGHTHOUSE doesn't make a synopsis very easy anyway, at least without one sounding like they also belong stranded in the same location with Wake and Winslow. But it's quite an experience, filled with startling, symbolic imagery, an insidiously effective use of sound (that foghorn will haunt you for days), production design of almost Kubrickian detail, and breathtaking cinematography by Jarin Blaschke. And while Eggers deserves the accolades for his uncompromising commitment to this mad vision, it's the work of Dafoe and Pattinson that really sells it. The former is a national treasure who's only getting better with age, and Thomas Wake might go down as the ultimate Willem Dafoe performance. Coming off like Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview as Captain Ahab (drink whenever he bellows "Hark!" and "Ye"), a madman-bearded Dafoe disappears into his character, sinking his teeth into Wake's verbose and wonderfully quotable monologues (which really should be released in book form) as if they're a melt-in-your-mouth steak perfectly seasoned and cooked medium rare, and doing so as crazily wide-eyed as possible for long takes without blinking. Likewise, Pattinson continues his streak of fearless and challenging career choices (between this, THE ROVER, GOOD TIME, and HIGH LIFE, he's fast becoming the de facto patron saint of the A24 mainstream audience alienator) that may be coming to a temporary halt now that he's the new Batman. But he's a real deal who's more than sufficiently shaken his TWILIGHT image and anyone who doesn't see that simply hasn't been paying attention. Long story short, if you went into THE WITCH and left feeling let down that it wasn't a generically gore-soaked, jump-scare horror movie, then THE LIGHTHOUSE will probably just actively piss you off. It's hard telling where Eggers will go from here (may I suggest an expressionist silent film with a crazy-eyed and super-toothy Dafoe going full Emil Jannings?), but THE WITCH and THE LIGHTHOUSE have firmly established him as one of today's most gifted filmmakers.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

On Netflix: DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Craig Brewer. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Cast: Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Snoop Dogg, Ron Cephas Jones, Barry Shabaka Henley, Tip "T.I." Harris, Luenell, Tasha Smith, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Rock, Aleksandar Filimonovic, Ivo Nandi, Michael Peter Bolus, Kazy Tauginas, Baker Chase Powell. (R, 118 mins)

Amidst all the NORBITs and PLUTO NASHes that came down the pike, along with all the forgettable comedies like HOLY MAN, MEET DAVE, and IMAGINE THAT that litter his IMDb page, we need to be reminded every few years of what an incredible talent Eddie Murphy has been for nearly 40 (!) years. We all remember the unstoppable force that took over a floundering SNL in 1980 and became a box-office giant for the rest of the decade with 48 HRS, TRADING PLACES, BEVERLY HILLS COP, and COMING TO AMERICA. He stumbled in the early '90s (BEVERLY HILLS COP III, VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN) and came back with THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and BOWFINGER, then reinvented himself as a family comedy guy with DR. DOLITTLE and DADDY DAY CARE before finding a whole new generation of fans as the voice of Donkey in the SHREK movies. Then came some more bad movies before his performance as James "Thunder" Early in 2006's DREAMGIRLS earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. But the career resurgence didn't happen--leaving the Oscar ceremony in a huff after he lost to Alan Arkin in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE probably wasn't a good look--and his film appearances since have been sporadic. The Eddie Murphy of old made a welcome return in the underrated 2011 Ben Stiller ensemble comedy TOWER HEIST, but then he was offscreen (not counting 2012's A THOUSAND WORDS, which was gathering dust on the shelf since 2008) for another five years, resurfacing in Bruce Beresford's barely-released MR. CHURCH, which offered a top-notch dramatic performance by Murphy in an otherwise mediocre film.

Murphy does his best work since his '80s glory days in the Netflix Original  DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, a wildly entertaining biopic of singer, comedian, and foul-mouthed party album legend Rudy Ray Moore (1927-2008), who would go on to be the mastermind of the 1975 blaxploitation cult classic DOLEMITE (a major influence on BLACK DYNAMITE). The screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski follow their ED WOOD template with Moore presented as a persistent, can-do dreamer whose ambitions in the entertainment industry stretch far beyond the capacity of his ability, yet he nevertheless corrals a rag-tag crew of skeptical but loyal friends and associates who are won over by his infectious spirit and personality. Unsuccessfully selling himself as a "total entertainment experience,"  his music and comedy careers have stalled and he's depressed that it's 1970 and all he's got in his life is his job as an assistant manager at Dolphin's Record Store in L.A. Moore finally finds some inspiration in listening to some homeless guys tell ridiculous stories of a badass, rhyme-busting pimp named "Dolemite." He works their stories into his own act, assuming the role of Dolemite and testing the character at a local nightclub. It gets a raucous response, and he borrows $250 from his aunt (Luenell) to record a live, X-rated, Redd Foxx-esque comedy album in his living room and then selling copies out of the trunk of his car. The Dolemite character soon finds a cult following and Moore takes the act on the road, with a record company eventually picking up his album (the not-very-subtly titled Eat Out More Often), and having him record several more. Emboldened by his newfound fame, Moore decides to take Dolemite to the next level, envisioning a big-screen movie along the lines of SHAFT and BLACK CAESAR.

Of course, neither Moore nor his inner circle--Jimmy Lynch (Mike Epps), Ben (Craig Ferguson), Toney (Tituss Burgess), and protegee and opening act Lady Reed (Da'Vine Joy Randolph)--have the faintest idea how to make a movie. Moore hires playwright and inner city theater director Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to write a script that's initially planned to be a hard-hitting look at life on the mean streets but soon takes a turn toward the ludicrous with Moore's insistence that "titties" and "kung fu" be added to the story (Jones manages to talk him out of including an exorcism, in a nod to Moore's later demonic possession spoof PETEY WHEATSTRAW). A chance encounter while scouting for leading ladies at strip club leads to Moore landing "big time" actor D'Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) as a co-star with the promise of letting him direct. Scenes of the filming of DOLEMITE allow Murphy to recreate some of the film's most memorable (and memorably incompetent) moments, with "director" Martin more or less presented as a screwdriver-swilling drunk who's only there to mumble "Action" and "Cut" while Moore essentially takes control of the production.

"Dolemite is my name and fuckin' up motherfuckers is my game!"
Rudy Ray Moore (1927-2008)

Alexander and Karaszewski take the time to get the movie industry details right (like DOLEMITE initially taking off by the practice of "four-walling"), while obviously taking some liberties with the Moore story and the timeline (for instance, Dolemite yelling "Put your weight on it!" is actually from a later Moore "classic," 1979's DISCO GODFATHER), and they never address his long-rumored homosexuality (Moore never came out of the closet, but those closest to him have said he was gay), though there are some subtle hints in some remarks made to his closest friend Toney as well his nervousness about shooting a sex scene for the movie (oddly, the film overtly insinuates it about Martin, as evidenced by Snipes' flamboyantly effeminate portrayal of the actor/director as a sassy, melodramatic drama queen). It's definitely sidestepping to a certain degree, whether by Murphy's choice or because Moore never publicly came out in his lifetime, but it doesn't detract from the sheer entertainment of the film or the joy of watching an inspired Murphy just let it rip. Moore not only influenced the pioneers of rap, but also the young Eddie Murphy, and while Murphy doesn't cave to affectation by trying too hard to sound like Moore or wearing a ton of makeup to look exactly like him, he brilliantly nails the persona and the feel of Rudy Ray Moore (Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace in THE INSIDER immediately comes to mind--Plummer looked and sounded nothing like Wallace, but yet he was Mike Wallace). Murphy turns in an Oscar-caliber performance, and he gets some terrific support from Snipes in his best role in years as the arrogant Martin, who derisively sneers at the entire project and never misses an opportunity to remind everyone that he's been in big movies and is friends with Fred Williamson. And Randolph, who gets an emotional scene ("I ain't never seen nobody that looks like me up on that big screen") near the end that seems to bring Murphy the actor to actual tears, definitely has some awards season recognition coming her way. Directed by Craig Brewer (HUSTLE & FLOW), who's reteaming with Murphy on the upcoming COMING TO AMERICA sequel COMING 2 AMERICA, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is a triumphant comeback for both Murphy and Snipes and an affectionate tribute to Rudy Ray Moore.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Retro Review: PHOBIA (1980)

(Canada - 1980)

Directed by John Huston. Written by Lew Lehman, Jimmy Sangster and Peter Bellwood. Cast: Paul Michael Glaser, Susan Hogan, John Colicos, David Bolt, Patricia Collins, David Eisner, Lisa Langlois, Robert O'Ree, Alexandra Stewart, Neil Vipond, Marian Waldman, Kenneth Welsh, Gwen Thomas. (R, 91 mins)

Barely released to theaters in the fall of 1980, the Canadian tax-shelter thriller PHOBIA is a front-runner for the most bizarre outlier of the legendary John Huston's filmmaking career. The director of THE MALTESE FALCON, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING never turned down a lucrative gig, but like his contemporary Orson Welles, he usually reserved the more shameless cash grabs for his onscreen appearances in other directors' movies. Huston enjoyed a major resurgence as an in-demand character actor after his memorable performance as insidiously evil water magnate Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's 1974 classic CHINATOWN, but he wasn't very picky with his subsequent acting gigs. Within just a few years, he was starring in things like the Italian JAWS ripoff TENTACLES (1977), Mexican trash auteur Rene Cardona Jr's THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE (1978), Umberto Lenzi's cheap WWII would-be epic THE GREATEST BATTLE (1978), the insane THE VISITOR (1979), and the dismal Joe Lewis martial arts actioner JAGUAR LIVES (1979). Following his acclaimed but little-seen 1979 directing effort WISE BLOOD, Huston, then 74, somehow found himself in Toronto helming PHOBIA, which spent some time in cable rotation in the early '80s but has since fallen into almost total obscurity. It's just been resurrected on Blu-ray in a 4K restoration (!) by Kino Lorber, because physical media is dead.

In his only big-screen lead, STARSKY AND HUTCH's Paul Michael Glaser stars as Dr. Peter Ross, a Los Angeles shrink who's set up shop in Toronto, where he's conducting a potentially revolutionary experimental treatment of irrational fears, using volunteer prison convicts as his subjects. The treatment doesn't appear to be anything beyond planting the patients in front of a large screen where they're forced to watch what looks like a multimedia presentation of live-action images of whatever it that frightens them the most, whether it's snakes, crowds, fear of heights and falling, etc. As one expects to happen in thrillers of this sort, Ross' patients start getting offed one by one, mostly in ways related to their phobias, except for the initial victim (Alexandra Stewart), who's killed in a bomb blast that was meant for Ross. Red herrings abound--there's colleague and former lover Dr. Alice Toland (Patricia Collins), who doesn't seem too pleased that he's taken up with new girlfriend Jenny (Susan Hogan, memorable as the schoolteacher in THE BROOD), or it could be any of the remaining subjects in the program, including Bubba (Robert O'Ree), who has a fear of snakes; Henry (David Bolt), with a fear of falling, unstable nutcase Johnny (David Eisner), and Laura (Lisa Langlois), who has a fear of drowning. Could it even be irate, bellicose cop Barnes (John Colicos), who has little but scornful derision for both Ross and his "experimentees," as he dismissively calls them, or his condescending sidekick/partner Wheeler (Kenneth Welsh)? Who knows? Did John Huston even care?

The pieces are all in place for at least a workmanlike thriller: it's co-scripted by Hammer horror vet Jimmy Sangster, and reworked from an earlier draft by genre greats Ronald Shusett (ALIEN, TOTAL RECALL) and Gary Sherman (RAW MEAT, VICE SQUAD), both of whom would collaborate on Sherman's 1981 cult classic DEAD & BURIED. But Huston doesn't even hide his complete lack of engagement with the material. Granted, they can't all be winners in a career as long as his, but PHOBIA feels like a run-of-the-mill assignment that could've just as easily been made by Harvey Hart (SHOOT), Paul Lynch (PROM NIGHT), George Kaczender (AGENCY), George Mendeluk (STONE COLD DEAD), or any other mercenary director-for-hire who was consistently busy in the Canadian film industry at that time.  There's absolutely nothing here to indicate that the guy who made THE MALTESE FALCON is the one calling the shots. The story plods along with no sense of urgency and little in the way of thrills, chills, or suspense, and the "shocking" reveal at the end lands with more or less a shrug. There's only some brief Langlois nudity and a couple of F-bombs to differentiate PHOBIA from any random made-for-TV movie of the period, and even a mid-film car chase comes off as perfunctory and spectacularly unexciting. The end result is certainly watchable--Glaser is fine in the lead, Colicos is terrific as the asshole detective, and there's a vaguely Pino Donaggio-esque score by Andre Gagnon that makes you wonder what Brian De Palma could've done with the same material--and it's obviously of interest to Huston completists, but the only thing they'll take away from PHOBIA is the nagging question of why he even bothered making it. Huston stayed busy in his final years with 1981's VICTORY, the 1982 musical ANNIE, and he finished big with three acclaimed films in a row with 1984's UNDER THE VOLCANO, 1985's PRIZZI'S HONOR, and his final work, 1987's posthumously-released THE DEAD, a longtime pet project based on James Joyce's novel, but PHOBIA remains his biggest head-scratcher of a directing credit. It's also one that apparently wasn't near and dear to his heart, as according to legend, Huston once walked out of an interview when he was asked about it.

Huston and Glaser on the set of PHOBIA
After PHOBIA tanked at the box office, Glaser continued appearing in TV movies for a few years until he took a two-decade sabbatical from acting to focus on directing. He'd already logged time behind the camera on a few episodes of STARSKY AND HUTCH and his work directing several episodes of MIAMI VICE led to his 1986 Michael Mann-produced feature directing debut BAND OF THE HAND. He followed that with Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1987 satirical sci-fi Stephen King adaptation THE RUNNING MAN, but as a director, Glaser is best known for the 1992 figure-skating romance THE CUTTING EDGE, which was a minor hit in theaters but found an even bigger audience on video and cable and remains a sentimental favorite for its fans today. In recent years, the now-76-year-old Glaser has acted and directed on TV occasionally and appeared at fan conventions with David Soul, the Hutch to his Starsky (both had cameos in the 2004 Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson big screen STARSKY AND HUTCH). For a long time post-PHOBIA, Glaser was known less for his Hollywood career and more for the unimaginable tragedy that befell his family when his wife Elizabeth contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in 1981 while giving birth to their daughter Ariel. She was unaware of it for several years, and didn't find out until 1985 that she had passed the virus on to both Ariel (via breastfeeding) and the couple's second child Jake, who was born in 1984. Seven-year-old Ariel succumbed to AIDS in 1988 and Elizabeth, who delivered a memorable speech on the AIDS epidemic at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, died in 1994. Glaser never contracted the virus, while his son Jake is now 35 and has lived with HIV since he was born. Father and son have remained active in promoting HIV and AIDS awareness through the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Retro Review: FRIGHT (1971) and STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING (1972)

(UK - 1971; US release 1972)

Directed by Peter Collinson. Written by Tudor Gates. Cast: Susan George, Honor Blackman, Ian Bannen, John Gregson, George Cole, Dennis Waterman, Maurice Kaufmann, Michael Brennan, Roger Lloyd Pack, Tara Collinson. (PG, 87 mins)

British filmmaker Peter Collinson graduated from television work in the mid-1960s and quickly scored a pair of box office hits with 1967's THE PENTHOUSE and the 1969 Michael Caine heist favorite THE ITALIAN JOB. His career was generally considered that of a busy, genre-hopping journeyman, routinely cranking out two movies a year until his death from lung cancer at just 44 in 1980, shortly after the release of his final film, the William Holden/Ricky Schroeder drama THE EARTHLING. Collinson didn't live long enough to see his work reassessed (considering his career trajectory, it's easy to imagine him pulling Michael Winner/J. Lee Thompson duty for Cannon in the '80s had he lived), but time has been kind to initially dismissed films like his vividly atmospheric, giallo-esque 1974 take on Agatha Christie's TEN LITTLE INDIANS. After the success of THE ITALIAN JOB, Collinson made the lighthearted 1970 mercenary actioner YOU CAN'T WIN 'EM ALL with Tony Curtis and Charles Bronson before returning to the UK for a pair of British thrillers with 1971's FRIGHT and 1972's Hammer-produced STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, neither of which attracted much attention at the time beyond drive-ins and grindhouses (STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING didn't even find US distribution until 1974). Both have recently been released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory (because physical media is dead) and both have become favorably regarded cult films that show a definite auteur consistency in themes and style, especially if evaluated in conjunction with THE PENTHOUSE and Collinson's similar but far sleazier 1974 hunting humans/survivalist thriller OPEN SEASON, a film that's been MIA on home video and has become virtually impossible to see in an uncut and/or watchable print (both THE PENTHOUSE and OPEN SEASON involve an adulterous couple being terrorized by three psychos).

Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS wasn't the only 1971 film to feature Susan George enduring a harrowing night of terror in a remote British country house. George stars as Amanda, a college student who fills in as a last-minute substitute babysitter for the three-year-old son (Collinson's own son Tara) of the Lloyds--Helen (Honor Blackman) and Jim (George Cole)--who are going into town for drinks and dinner. Helen seems distracted and nervous when Amanda arrives, and is quick to snap at Jim and hesitant to leave the child with Amanda. Once they're gone, Amanda hears all sorts of strange sounds, most of which can be chalked up to the house being very old. A figure outside turns out to be her boyfriend Chris (Dennis Waterman), who incorrectly assumes this will be the night virginal Amanda decides to go all the way. She kicks him out of the house after an argument, and he's immediately pummeled in the face by an unseen assailant. Meanwhile, at the restaurant, the Lloyds are joined by friend Dr. Cordell (John Gregson), who's also the psychiatrist overseeing the care of Brian Hillston (Ian Bannen), Helen's ex-husband and the father of the child, who was locked up in a nearby insane asylum after trying to kill them. Dr. Cordell gets an emergency call at the restaurant notifying him that Hillston has escaped and hitched a ride with a truck driver who's been found dead. At the same time, the phone line at the Lloyd home goes out and Amanda answers a knock at the door: it's a badly-beaten and near-death Chris being helped in by Hillston, who identifies himself as a neighbor who lives down the road.

What follows is less a suspense thriller and more an exercise in squirming discomfort, as the easily-agitated and severely unstable Hillston keeps hallucinating that Amanda is Helen and that he just wants their family to be together. He even tries to force himself on young Amanda in a scene that feels like Collinson is test-driving the more brutal and sadistic sexual assaults inflicted on Cornelia Sharpe's character by vacationing Vietnam vets and all-around creeps Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, and Richard Lynch in OPEN SEASON (Sharpe later married high-powered SERPICO and DOG DAY AFTERNOON producer Martin Bregman, and one long-rumored theory regarding OPEN SEASON's disappearance is that Bregman had it buried because Sharpe was embarrassed by it). Like OPEN SEASON's "Casting Shadows" by John Howard, FRIGHT opens and closes with a haunting theme song, in this case "Ladybird" by Nanette. Collinson brings an intriguing sense of style to the proceedings, whether it's a big pre-De Palma split diopter shot or his recurring use of reflections--in mirrors, windows, the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock, and, in the film's most memorable shot, a sweaty, wild-eyed Bannen seen in a knife-shaped shard of a shattered mirror that he's holding up to George's face.  Bannen's performance grows more unhinged and downright feral as the film goes on, and George acquits herself well as an impressive proto-scream queen, but FRIGHT is most notable as perhaps the earliest example of the "babysitter-in-peril" thriller, several years before HALLOWEEN and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS would set the standard. Scripted by Tudor Gates (DANGER: DIABOLIK, BARBARELLA, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS), FRIGHT is more concerned with establishing a foreboding sense of dread rather than going for outright scares, and it probably shows its cards too early in the way Blackman's Helen is so agitated from the get-go, but it's of definite historical value to fans of both babysitters-in-peril and Susan George.

(UK - 1972; US release 1974)

Directed by Peter Collinson. Written by John Peacock. Cast: Rita Tushingham, Shane Briant, Tom Bell, James Bolam, Kayta Wyeth, Annie Ross, Clare Kelly, Harold Berens, John Clive, Tommy Godfrey, Mavis Villiers. (R, 96 mins)

Collinson quickly followed FRIGHT with the Hammer production STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, one of the most unusual and structurally ambitious thrillers to roll off the legendary horror house's assembly line during their 1970s decline, an unjustly maligned period that really deserves some reconsideration. Hammer spent most of those last years trying to find ways to stay relevant in the changing times, often lacking confidence in their product and leaving good movies like CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER and THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES to either languish on the shelf or be subjected to poor distribution. STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING opened in the UK in July of 1972, but it wouldn't hit US screens until August of 1974, courtesy of the short-lived B outfit International Coproductions, who also released FEAR IN THE NIGHT, another discarded, two-year-old Hammer title, around the same time. A somber, downbeat slow-burner that's even less inclined to traditional "scares" than FRIGHT, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING finds Collinson using a disorienting, cross-cutting editing technique that establishes an overlapping, flash back-and-forward time element that feels very European and is almost aggressively off-putting until you pick up on its rhythms. The pieces of the puzzle start to fit and you see how the style, which initially seemed overly gimmicky, serves the narrative and helps establish the mindset of the main character. To put in more updated terms, it feels like a cross between that familiar Steven Soderbergh technique and the early work of Alejandro G. Inarritu until it settles into a standard linear plot structure after about 25 minutes.

STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING is a film that would be ideal for a politically-charged remake today, one that might have a heroine whose conservative or even patriarchal upbringing results in her being the kind of person she is. Rita Tushingham (A TASTE OF HONEY) stars as Brenda, a intensely socially-awkward and emotionally-stunted young woman with aspirations of being a children's book author. Brenda lives with her concerned mother (Clare Kelly) and lies to her about being pregnant, thus leading to her impulsive decision to leave dreary Liverpool to go to London in an absurd, fairy tale quest to find a man to take care of her and her baby. In truth, she's not pregnant but hopes to be, and once in a London with a depressing social scene that feels like everyone's trudging through a mod hangover, she finds a job at a trendy salon and rents a room in a house owned by promiscuous co-worker Caroline (Katya Wyeth). Brenda immediately has her eye on Joey (James Bolam), but is heartbroken when she goes out to get cigarettes for him only to return and hear him having sex with Caroline. Going out for a walk, she finds a dog and sees its owner looking for it. The owner is Peter (Shane Briant), who bumped into her outside a store sometime earlier and never gave her a second glance. Liking what she sees and wanting to win his affection--and finding Peter's address on the dog's collar--she takes the dog home, bathes it, and returns it to his flat the next day. What the viewer knows and what Brenda doesn't is that Peter has killed a series of lovers, the most recent being an older, clingy, alcoholic woman (jazz singer Annie Ross) that he kept locked in a room. Brenda, so desperate for a man, doesn't bat an eye when he immediately invites her to move in, rechristens her "Wendy"--the name he gives all of his eventual victims--and essentially "auditions" her, saying that if she can cook, do the chores, and keep a clean house ("Cleaning up is a woman's job...there isn't a woman around, so I don't do it"), he'll give her the baby she wants.

Peter Collinson (1936-1980)
It's a perversely uncomfortable scenario that would probably cause Vulture and the AV Club to break out in hives if they watched it today (it's easy to imagine a remake with a female character raised in the kind of old guard culture where women remain subservient to men). Peter's homicidal mania is driven by an aversion to beauty, and he has genuine feelings for Brenda/"Wendy" when she's the plain and frumpy doormat who came knocking at his door with his dog. But when she gets a makeover that boost her self-esteem, he feels the need to extinguish her newfound beauty and confidence. He eventually keeps her prisoner in the flat when her mother comes to London and files a missing persons report, which attracts media attention along with the missing Caroline, who showed up at Peter's door looking for Brenda after finding the dog's collar in her old room, was told Brenda was out, was invited in by Peter and was never seen again. Like FRIGHT and the later OPEN SEASON, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING opens with, you guessed it, a haunting, depressing theme song in "Straight on Till Morning" performed by Ross, and while it's mostly a dread-soaked character piece, it culminates in one of the most terrifying and unsettling sequences in any Hammer horror film, with Peter locking Brenda in a room and forcing her to listen to the tapes he's recorded of all of his murders, while he crouches on the stairs, hugs the railing, and sucks his thumb. Tushingham is excellent in a difficult role (look at the character through the lens of 2019, and it's a legit question that Brenda might be on the spectrum), and an androgynous-looking Briant, another young actor who, like Ralph Bates, was being groomed for a future in Hammer horror that just wasn't meant to be (though he did co-star in DEMONS OF THE MIND, CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER, and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL), wisely underplays Peter, which makes his actions and his behavior even more disturbing. Decidedly not for all tastes, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING is a thriller that really sneaks up on you, and it offers even further evidence that there was more to Collinson than simply being a jobbing journeyman and that the alleged creative decline of Hammer in the 1970s was largely a myth.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: TONE-DEAF (2019) and BLOODLINE (2019)

(US/UK - 2019)

Richard Bates, Jr. had an impressive debut with 2012's transgressive and disturbing EXCISION, which felt not unlike MEAN GIRLS re-imagined by David Cronenberg. It found significant acclaim in indie horror circles, but his follow-ups--2015's SUBURBAN GOTHIC and 2016's TRASH FIRE--didn't attract nearly as much attention from genre fans. Early buzz for his latest, TONE-DEAF, served as a reminder of Bates' existence, but you won't get far into it before thinking he may have peaked with EXCISION. A heavy-handed and ultimately toothless generation clash horror satire, TONE-DEAF had some potential to offer some insightful and cutting commentary on today's volatile cultural and political climate, but true to the film's title, Bates settles on neither a tone nor what exactly the targets are supposed to be. After Olive (SILICON VALLEY's Amanda Crew) splits with her boyfriend (Nelson Franklin) and loses her job after refusing to take any shit from her sexually-harassing boss, her besties Lenore (Hayley Marie Norman) and Blaire (EXCISION's AnnaLynne McCord) convince her to get out of town for a few days and take some time to herself to regroup. She rents an old, lavish country home in the middle of rural nowhere ("This place is boujee as fuck") from recent widower Harvey (Robert Patrick, one of a dozen producers). It isn't long before Harvey is creeping around the house, spying on pot-smoking Olive in frowning disapproval, and playing tricks like hiding a spider in her contact lens case. What we know and Olive doesn't is that Harvey has killed Agnes (Nancy Linehan Charles), an elderly neighbor and his late wife's friend because, while he's lived a good life, "killing is an itch I never got around to scratching." And he's still feeling the itch.

TONE-DEAF might've functioned as a straight two-character suspense piece, but Bates instead fashions it as a Baby Boomer vs. Millennial throwdown, thus turning it into a pointless mash-up of a home-invasion thriller and a Thanksgiving argument with your Fox News-obsessed uncle. Olive is everything that the bitter Harvey hates: young, liberal, independent, her social media profile pic shows her in a T-shirt that reads "This Pussy Grabs Back," and her arrival at the house is accompanied by Awkwafina's "My Vag" in a car with a CoExist bumper sticker. Harvey has a chip on his shoulder about millennials, Venmo, climate change, young people's sense of entitlement and perceived lack of work ethic, and how Sundays are for the Lord, and Bates often allows him to break the fourth wall to rant directly to the viewer about "brunching bimbos getting drunk off your skinny-girl margaritas and cavorting around with your jobless, fedora-clad boyfriends." It's great in theory that Bates has given Patrick a role that he can sink his teeth into as a retiree Patrick Bateman for the MAGA crowd, but the characters are painted in such broad strokes that there's no room for subtlety, nuance (Harvey changing the lyrics to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" and declaring "That's right, kids...Papa made a remix!" is embarrassing), or consistency (if his beef is with millennials, then why does he kill geriatric Agnes?). Bates also drops the ball by cutting away from the action to focus on inconsequential asides that only serve to pad the running time, like Olive's hippie mom (Kim Delaney), who joined a commune after Olive's dad (Ray Wise) committed suicide years ago, and now has a young, snowflake boy-toy (Johnny Pemberton) who can't change a tire and objects to her texting Olive while he goes down on her, a potential Olive Tinder hookup (Tate Ellington) at a townie bar, which does offer one legit surprise that goes nowhere, or Olive buying acid from a local dealer (shouldn't WHALE RIDER Oscar-nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes have better things going on than 13th billing in TONE-DEAF?) and tripping balls in the living room, where she imagines conversations with her exes and her dad. A couple of jokes land, like Harvey yelling "Jesus Christ, I didn't really think this through!" after he impulsively stabs Agnes and is shocked by the amount of blood gushing out of her, and a running gag about Olive's terrible piano-playing has a funny payoff that, of course, Bates bungles by immediately over-explaining it. But by the time Harvey and Olive have their final showdown, where he comes after her with a tomahawk and she snarkily sighs "Is that at tomahawk? Textbook cultural appropriation, man," you'll have long since lost your ability to even with TONE-DEAF. (R, 88 mins)

(US/China - 2019)

When AMERICAN PIE became a huge summer hit 20 years ago, everyone was talking about Jason Biggs fucking an apple pie and quoting Alyson Hannigan's perfectly-delivered "This one time...at band camp..." But in the relatively minor supporting role of grating goofball Steve Stifler--aka "The Stifmeister"--it was Seann William Scott who stole every scene he was in and would eventually become a major focus of the subsequent big-screen sequels (not counting the various Eugene Levy-headlined DTV spinoffs), with each successive performance going more obnoxiously over-the-top. Inevitably, Scott found himself typecast as variations of Stifler in comedies like ROAD TRIP and DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR? and even into his early 30s, he was still utilizing his Stifler schtick in MR. WOODCOCK and ROLE MODELS. Though he's found steady gigs doing voice work in animated films like the ICE AGE franchise (as fan favorite opossum Crash) and PLANET 51, and enjoyed a minor cult hit with the Canadian-made hockey comedy GOON and its lesser-seen sequel, Scott, perhaps more than any of his castmates from that influential raunch comedy from two decades back, will forever be inextricably linked with his AMERICAN PIE character.

With that in mind, BLOODLINE is about as radical a departure as possible for the now-43-year-old actor. An under-the-radar Blumhouse production that only made it into a few theaters, BLOODLINE is a horror oddity that doesn't skimp on the gore, but may be a little too offbeat and cerebral for those looking for run-of-the-mill jump scares. Scott is Evan Cole, a social worker at an L.A. high school who's happily married to Lauren (Mariela Garriga) and the father of a newborn son. Parenthood is stressing both of them out, even with Evan's mom Marie (a terrific Dale Dickey) helping out. Evan isn't feeling effective at his job, where he spends day after day counseling students--including a scholarship candidate with a junkie dad, another who's come out of the closet and is regularly beaten by his homophobic father, and a 15-year-old girl who's being sexually molested by her uncle--which brings up long-suppressed memories of his own abusive father. Evan decides the best way to help these kids is to permanently eliminate the source of their troubles, so he spends his evenings moonlighting as a serial killer. Lauren begins questioning where he goes at night while Marie offers a silent, knowing understanding of her son's apparent calling. It isn't long before an incredulous and persistent detective (Kevin Carroll) comes snooping around after Evan didn't do as thorough a job as he should have in disposing of his victims, the killings having a strangely similar M.O. to an unsolved string of murders in a different city and school district in where Evan used to work before he met Lauren.

Director/co-writer Henry Jacobson, a documentary filmmaker helming his narrative feature debut, stages a few startlingly blood-splattered kill scenes while sometimes going for bizarre shock value (a close-up of a stretched prosthetic vagina as Lauren gives birth to their son seems to be a bit...much). He also deploys some De Palma split diopters and an effectively-executed split-screen late in the game (he's also got a ringer in editor Nigel Galt, a late-period Stanley Kubrick inner-circler who worked on FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT), but the idea of an everyman serial killer as portrayed here owes quite a bit to the likes of DEXTER and THE STEPFATHER (and I'm willing to bet that Jacobson is also a huge fan of Donald Cammell's WHITE OF THE EYE). The surprise development at the end is something you won't see coming, but its abruptness dampens things a bit, as it hasn't been built up enough to be wholly plausible. BLOODLINE isn't a great movie by any means, but it deserved more than the dump-off of a release that it got, though I get it: it's a strange and eccentric little thriller even beyond the novelty of the against-type casting of Scott, whose restrained and very internalized performance as a homicidal maniac quietly living his life as a family man and upstanding member of the community wouldn't have delivered the wisecracking, serial-slashing Stifler that mainstream horror fans would've expected. (R, 98 mins)

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

On Netflix: ELI (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Ciaran Foy. Written by David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing. Cast: Charlie Shotwell, Kelly Reilly, Lili Taylor, Max Martini, Sadie Sink, Deneen Tyler, Katia Gomez. (Unrated, 98 mins)

Originally set to be released in theaters back in January 2019, ELI was given the CLOVERFIELD PARADOX dumpjob treatment by Paramount, who abruptly yanked it from the release schedule and sold it to Netflix. That precedent serves as a red flag for this rampantly idiotic horror film that Paramount actually admitted they had no idea how to market (or, more likely, they knew they had a steaming turd on their hands that wasn't even worthy of some early January garbage time at the multiplex). It feels like several half-baked ideas crammed into one screenplay under the guise of "reveals" and "twists," but never establishing any consistency and often rendering past events nonsensical. But ELI is the kind of movie that doesn't want you to ask any questions or think too hard about it, lest you see how sloppily assembled and thoughtlessly executed it ends up being. It's too bad, because Irish director Ciaran Foy brought some style to both his promising 2012 debut CITADEL and 2015's intermittently interesting SINISTER 2, and two of the three credited writers (Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing) scripted 2016's terrifying THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE, but whatever promise ELI might have in the early going is torpedoed at an alarming speed before completely collapsing in on itself in the home stretch.

Rose (Kelly Reilly) and Paul Miller (Max Martini) have stretched themselves to their financial limit caring for their young son Eli (Charlie Shotwell). He has a rare autoimmune disease where everything makes him sick, air and water burn his skin, and he's required to live in a plastic bubble or be in a sealed Hazmat-type suit if he goes outside. They're taking him to a clinic housed in an old manor that's been equipped with a state-of-the-art air filtration system and is run by Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor), a leading--and expensive--immunology specialist. Since the house is "clean," Eli is able to walk around without the plastic suit, but from Dr. Horn's nervous smile and askance glances, it's obvious that things aren't what they seem. The aggressive treatments make Eli's condition worse, underlying tensions between Rose and Paul start bubbling to the surface with clumsy dialogue like Rose insisting "We just have to have faith!" and a glaring Paul responding "I have always been a faithful man" with a cold terseness that borders on passive aggression, and Eli starts seeing ghostly, CGI apparitions of dead children who appear to have shuffled in from a circa 2003 Dark Castle production.

Dumbest of all is the handling of Eli's only friend, a sassy, snarky, red-headed teenager named Haley (STRANGER THINGS' Sadie Sink), who loiters around the property, talks to him through the windows, and seems to know a lot about what's happened with other children who have been treated at the clinic. Nobody else sees Haley until it's convenient for the plot, Eli never mentions her to anyone, and her own highly suspect backstory ("I live down the road"), coupled with her affected 'tude, doesn't in any way add an air of mystery to ELI. Rather, it spotlights its lax story construction and inept execution where plot twists and exposition dumps are just shat out willy-nilly with no concern over the effect they have on whatever happened before. Knowing what you know when it's over, ask yourself "Why are the Millers so financially strapped?" and "Would money even be a concern under those circumstances?" and "Where was Paul when that deal went down?" These complaints only make sense if you see the movie and experience first-hand its wholly unique brand of stupidity that's almost unparalleled in the horror genre in 2019. In the right hands, ELI could've been one of those "You know what...fuck it" sort-of gonzo batshit fright flicks that's so unabashedly ridiculous that you just roll with whatever it throws at you. But what's here is essentially audience contempt, with a final 15 minutes that's so out-of-nowhere and leads to so many "But, hold on...wait a minute...what the fuck?" questions that you'll wonder why Netflix didn't just re-title it CLOVERFIELD'S BABY and be done with it.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: 3 FROM HELL (2019), NIGHT HUNTER (2019) and SPIDER IN THE WEB (2019)

(US - 2019)

If you thought Rob Zombie shit the bed with 31, then fuckin' hold his motherfuckin' beer because the unwatchable 3 FROM HELL is the kind of career-killer that's so bad that even some of his "gooble gobble, one of us!" fanboy faithful began turning on him after the film's three-night Fathom Events run a month before its Blu-ray/DVD release. The third chapter in what's--fingers crossed--a trilogy that began with 2003's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and 2005's THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, 3 FROM HELL seems like a desperation move after his pointless remake of HALLOWEEN and its disastrous sequel, his ambitious but unsuccessful THE LORDS OF SALEM--which at least tried to do something different before falling apart in the end--and the dismal 31 were all starting to make him look like a hick-horror one-trick pony whose entire filmmaking career was an endless tribute to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2. A brutally intense and absolutely uncompromising throwback to '70s grindhouse at its grittiest, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS remains Zombie's masterpiece, and he's never come close to duplicating it since. Even with 14 years to think about it, he doesn't even seem to have the slightest semblance of a game plan with 3 FROM HELL, which ends up looking like a flimsy excuse for Zombie, his wife Sheri Moon Zombie, and some friends from the convention circuit to hang out under the guise of belatedly continuing the saga of the homicidal, serial-killing Firefly clan, despite the fact that they went out in a Skynyrd-abetted blaze of glory on a desert highway at the end of the 1978-set REJECTS. Turns out they survived the hail of police bullets, spent a year in intensive care, and then ended up in prison. Cut to a decade later: leader Captain Spaulding (the late Sid Haig in his last film) is executed, and Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) orchestrates an escape with his previously unseen half-brother Winslow Foxworth Coltrane, aka "Foxy," aka "The Midnight Wolfman" (31's insufferable Richard Brake) after killing now-jailed bounty hunter Rondo (Danny Trejo). Meanwhile, at another prison, Baby (Mrs. Zombie) is denied parole (no shit) but gets bounced by the corrupt warden (Jeff Daniel Phillips), whose wife is being held hostage by DESPERATE HOURS superfans Otis and Foxy.

The titular trio head to Mexico and hole up in a sleazy south-of-the-border shithole where they run afoul of Rondo's crime boss son Aquarius (Emilio Rivera), who leads a Mexican wrestler-masked kill squad known as the Black Satans, leading to a long shootout set to Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida," as if MANHUNTER doesn't already exist. There's no way to sugarcoat this: 3 FROM HELL is absolutely abysmal. There can't possibly be a script. It's obvious that Zombie's making this up as he goes along and just letting the actors wing it, and improv doesn't appear to be anyone's strong suit. Moseley recycles the same schtick he's been doing since TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 but never finds the sense of terrifying menace that he brought to Otis in the previous film. Here, he just talks a lot of shit. Brake doesn't offer much other than a tired Bill Moseley impression, which leaves him more or less looking like the copy-of-a-copy that the Michael Keaton clones made in MULTIPLICITY, and a grating Sheri Moon Zombie doesn't even seem to be playing the same Baby as before. Remember the "Tutti Fuckin' Frutti" scene in THE DEVIL'S REJECTS? That's where she's at from start-to-finish here, with bonus meows, hisses, and vamping histrionics as Zombie does fuck-all to rein her in lest he be sleeping on the couch. You also get Dee Wallace humiliating herself as a sexually repressed prison guard, Clint Howard as a hacky clown-for-hire who pisses himself, Tom Papa and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13's Austin Stoker as TV news anchors, Daniel Roebuck as a reporter, and Richard Edson as a scheming Mexican pimp.

Sid Haig (1939-2019)

The sole saving grace--aside from the use of three James Gang deep cuts from the neglected Tommy Bolin era and an admittedly amusing scene with Sheri Moon Zombie doing a bad-ass slo-mo walk to Suzi Quatro's "The Wild One"--is the brief appearance of Haig, who's out of the film by the seven-minute mark. Frail-looking and obviously gravely ill, the beloved cult icon, who died just a few days after the Fathom Events screenings in September, nevertheless brings his A-game in his one scene, but when he's gone, it's quickly downhill from there. Tedious, ploddingly-paced, and ridiculously overlong at nearly two hours, the embarrassingly self-indulgent 3 FROM HELL is Rob Zombie hitting rock bottom, and the only thing it accomplishes is providing the final evidence one needs to concretely conclude beyond a shadow of a doubt that THE DEVIL'S REJECTS was a fluke. No matter how bad it gets, Zombie will always have a core of apologists who will stand by whatever he does, so best of luck to them going forward. I'm done. (R, 115 mins)

(UK/US - 2019)

Shelved for two years before being dumped on VOD, NIGHT HUNTER is a bumbling and often incoherent procedural thriller that's just as formulaic as its title indicates and would've been right at home in the late '90s. In cold, snowy northern Minnesota, a young woman is killed jumping from a highway overpass while fleeing an unknown killer. Meanwhile, Cooper (Ben Kingsley), is a former judge who lost his wife and daughter to a killer who's never been apprehended. He channels his rage into becoming a vigilante who goes around entrapping, extorting, and castrating internet predators with the help of teenage accomplice Lara (Eliana Jones), a ward to whom he was appointed guardian. When Lara, who has a GPS tracker in her earrings, is abducted, the cops not only uncover Cooper's operation but they're also led to her location, where a deaf and mentally-impaired man named Simon (Brendan Fletcher) has several women held captive in cells in the basement. Marshall (Henry Cavill), a hard-nosed, inexplicably British-accented detective who--you guessed it--plays by his own rules, and profiler Rachel Chase (Alexandra Daddario) can't seem to get anywhere with him, and the mayhem doesn't stop even with Simon in custody: an entire forensics team is wiped out by a rigged gas leak in Simon's basement, another cop's baby is stolen, one is killed by a car bomb, and Rachel gets a bomb threat with a crayon-scrawled note reading (what else?) "Tick tock," meaning that someone else is pulling the strings and that Simon can't possibly be the primary culprit.

Writer and debuting director David Raymond corrals a solid cast in what should be a serviceable thriller, but it's so clumsily-edited and haphazardly-assembled that it never really catches fire. No by-the-numbers thriller like NIGHT HUNTER should be this hard to follow, and it ultimately can't even live up to its absurd potential as the next HANGMAN. Of course, there's a ridiculous twist 2/3 of the way through that a cursory glance at someone's medical records would've uncovered, but throwing in the big reveal and subsequently moving the plot forward demands that the cops be total morons. Daddario's Rachel has to be the dumbest profiler in the serial killer genre, and Fletcher obnoxiously overacts with the kind of slobbering, eye-bulging, vein-popping gusto that he brought to Uwe Boll's RAMPAGE franchise, his high point being when he yells "Tick tock, tick tock, who's the silly boo-boo?" while pissing on the walls of his cell. Elsewhere, a constipated-looking Stanley Tucci appears to be getting paid by the scowl as Marshall's irate captain, and Nathan Fillion is completely squandered as a police computer tech in a frivolous supporting role that literally anyone could've played. The Cooper/Lara plot thread is an interesting one that might've made a more entertaining film on its own, but NIGHT HUNTER can't stop tripping over its own feet, leaving Kingsley offscreen for long stretches (a good indication that they probably only had him for a few days) while we get character depth in the form of Cavill's boring, brooding Marshall trying to bond with his teenage daughter (Emma Tremblay) after splitting with his wife (Minka Kelly). Nothing against Henry Cavill, who's a fine actor under better circumstances, but wouldn't you much rather see a gonzo thriller with a vigilante Ben Kingsley going extreme TO CATCH A PREDATOR on some pedophile creeps? (R, 99 mins)

(UK/Israel/Belgium/Netherlands/Portugal - 2019)

Speaking of Ben Kingsley, he's clearly in one of his frequent "Just pay me and I'll do it" phases, and the tireless 75-year-old Oscar-winner's performance as an aging, weary Mossad agent close to being put out to pasture--whether voluntarily or by more aggressive means--is the chief selling point of the relentlessly talky and glacially-paced espionage thriller SPIDER IN THE WEB. In the latest from Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis (ZAYTOUN, THE SYRIAN BRIDE, SHELTER), Kingsley is Avner Adereth, a spy for the Israeli government who's currently undercover in Antwerp, posing as an antiques dealer named Simon Bell. He's spent two years gathering intel on a Belgian medical supply company that he suspects is secretly involved in chemical weapons sales to Syria. Complicating matters is that his boss Samuel (Itzik Cohen) is losing confidence in him, believing Adereth to be slipping, burned-out, and flat-out making shit up and pocketing big payments designated for a source that he hasn't been meeting nearly as much as he's claimed. As a result, the clock's ticking on Adereth to produce some legitimate results, and Samuel assigns ambitious young agent Daniel (Itay Tiran) to babysit him and make sure the info he's giving them and the leads he's chasing are legit. Of course, Daniel is the son of Adereth's late colleague from back in the day, which brings emotion into play as the two form a hesitant bond. All the while, Adereth finds himself falling for Angela (Monica Bellucci), an environmental activist and doctor who works for the Belgian company and is unaware of their side-involvement in funding terrorism. She's also upset when he shows her how her employer has been polluting the fresh water supply, thus convincing her to get him a secret file called--wait for it--"Spider in the Web," that explicitly details all of their Syrian shenanigans. Convoluted double-crosses ensue, with at least one character not being who they claim to be, and it's all a rather rote imitation of John Le Carre, with Adereth even waxing rhapsodic on the author at one point in case you don't pick up on the influence. The generic SPIDER IN THE WEB is really nothing special, but Kingsley's regal performance single-handedly gives it a boost above the mediocre, making it worth a look on a slow night for his fans who don't mind their night getting even slower. (Unrated, 114 mins)

Friday, October 11, 2019


(Italy - 1961; US release 1964)

Directed by Mario Bava. Written by Alessandro Continenza, Mario Bava, Duccio Tessari and Franco Prosperi. Cast: Reg Park, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo, Giorgio Ardisson, Marisa Belli, Ida Galli, Franco Giacobini, Mino Doro, Ely Drago, Gaia Germani, Raf Baldassarre, Elisabetta Pavan, Aldo Pedinotti, Claudio Marzulli. (Unrated, 84 mins)

The global success of 1958's HERCULES, an Italian production starring American bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe Steve Reeves, led to countless peplum films coming out of Italy over the next several years. Stanley Kubrick's epic 1960 blockbuster SPARTACUS also had a hand in this exploding subgenre's immense popularity, and before long, muscle-bound guys like Reeves, former Tarzan Gordon Scott, Mark Forest, Brad Harris, Gordon Mitchell, Mickey Hargitay, "Alan Steel" (Sergio Ciani), "Kirk Morris" (Adriano Bellini), Dan Vadis, Ed Fury, and "Rock Stevens" (American actor Peter Lupus, who would later act under his real name when he was on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) were headlining dozens upon dozens of these things, playing heroes like Hercules, Samson, Ursus, Goliath, and Maciste (Reeves even played the son of Spartacus in 1962's THE SLAVE), though by the time many of these ended up dubbed in English and headed straight to syndicated TV, the hero could be a completely different character. British bodybuilder and three-time Mr. Universe Reg Park (1928-2007) had a very short-lived movie career courtesy of the post-HERCULES muscleman craze, starring in five films over a four-year period, starting with 1961's HERCULES CONQUERS ATLANTIS, aka HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN.

Park made enough of an impression that he was immediately cast in another Hercules outing with the same year's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, directed by trailblazing Italian horror auteur Mario Bava, who served as the cinematographer on the initial HERCULES and was coming off his highly influential official directing debut with 1960's BLACK SUNDAY (Bava's mentor Riccardo Freda let him direct large chunks of 1957's I VAMPIRI and 1959's CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER, though only Freda was credited). One of the most innovative stylists and special effects craftsman of his day and a guy who could work phantasmagorical wonders on tight budgets using matte paintings and colorgasmically garish lighting techniques, Bava would seem to be the only choice for a horror peplum that sends Hercules into the bowels of Hell, and the end result is one of the subgenre's strongest entries. As explained in verbosely muddled detail by Medea (Gaia Germani), oracle, sorceress, and mythical Basil Exposition, Hercules, son of Zeus, must venture into the depths of Hades on a quest to recover the Stone of Forgetfulness in order to break a spell cast upon his true love Princess Dianara (Leonora Ruffo) by her uncle, the diabolical King Lico (Christopher Lee!), who is conspiring with the forces of darkness to rule Italia for all eternity and have Dianara for himself. Hercules is joined by his friend Theseus (Giorgio Ardisson) and a bumbling comic relief sidekick in Telemachus (Franco Giacobini) as the trio embark on a journey to retrieve the Stone, save Dianara's soul, and defeat the treacherous Lico.

Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in a stunning restoration with three different versions (distinctly unique US, UK, and Italian releases) because physical media is dead, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD is as hokey as any other peplum of this sort (it's no surprise that some of them became prime MST3K fodder). But Bava's visual flair and the effectively-executed horror elements make memorable impressions, whether it's Theseus being tortured on a stretching rack by a stone creature lumbering around like an ancient Frankenstein monster, Hercules and Theseus encountering obstructive vines that "imprison the souls of the damned" and bleed and emit cacophonous shrieks of agony as the two heroes hack their way through them, or an enraged Lico resurrecting the dead and forcing Hercules to battle on onslaught of zombies. Lico is also described as a "vampire," an obvious nod to Lee's notoriety from 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA and undoubtedly just another brick in the wall in his decades-long resentment of being typecast in horror roles. This was one of several films Lee made in Italy during this period, most of them taking advantage of his Dracula connection, including the 1959 spoof UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE and the 1963 Karnstein riff TERROR IN THE CRYPT. Lee's best film in his Italian sojourn was a reteaming with Bava on 1963's THE WHIP AND THE BODY, released in the US in 1965 as WHAT! The unfortunate downside of both of Lee's Bava films is that he didn't dub himself, and there's unquestionably something missing when an actor has a voice as distinctive as his. Nevertheless, Lee's presence--even though he's absent for a long stretch in the middle--is as vital a component in establishing HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD's horror bona fides as Bava's innovative directorial touches.

Reg Park and Christopher Lee
goofing off on the set
with Leonora Ruffo
The horror/peplum crossover worked, and inspired a few similar mash-ups, like Gordon Scott in 1961's GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES (Scott played Maciste, but became Goliath via dubbing), and Park battling werewolves in 1963's HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (filmed as URSUS: IL TERRORE DEL KIRGHISI, but again, magically transformed into a Hercules movie through its English dub). The Italian peplum fad died down by 1965, when everyone moved on to  spaghetti westerns and 007-inspired Eurospy knockoffs, and while some--Mitchell, Hargitay, Vadis, Lupus--shifted into journeyman actor mode, others called it a day and moved on. Reeves took a few years off and attempted a one-off non-peplum comeback with the 1968 spaghetti western A LONG RIDE FROM HELL before retiring from acting, while Park left the movie business altogether after starring in HERCULES THE AVENGER in 1965, the same year that he won his third and final Mr. Universe. He continued to be a staple in bodybuilding events well into his 40s, and at 42 and nearly two decades after winning his first Mr. Universe, he was the runner-up in the 1970 competition, with that year's title being the third straight for 23-year-old Austrian phenom Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has long cited Park as one of his heroes and inspirations. Park retired from bodybuilding by the mid-1970s, having already relocated with his South African-born wife to Johannesburg, where he opened a chain of successful gyms. He died in 2007 at 79 after a battle with metastatic melanoma.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Retro Review: THE PREY (1984)

(US - 1984)

Directed by Edwin Scott Brown. Written by Summer Brown and Edwin Scott Brown. Cast: Debbie Thureson, Steve Bond, Lori Lethin, Robert Wald, Gayle Gannes, Philip Wenckus, Jackson Bostwick, Jackie Coogan, Carel Struycken, Connie Hunter, Ted Hayden, Garry Goodrow. (R, 80 mins)

If nothing else, THE PREY serves as proof that anything can merit cult classic status if it's the product of a bygone era that's held in much sentimental regard by genre fans. A fixture in video stores and in regular rotation on late-night cable back in the day, THE PREY has fallen into almost total obscurity in the decades since. So of course, scenesters lost their shit when Arrow announced a deluxe edition Blu-ray, because physical media is dead and every long-lost, forgotten slasher movie must be an unheralded classic waiting to be rediscovered (have none of you seen PET SEMATARY? Sometimes dead is better). Shot in 1979 and 1980 but unreleased until 1984, THE PREY would seem to be indebted to the survivalist likes of RITUALS and it also prefigured the post-FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher explosion (THE BURNING, in particular), but manages to do just about everything wrong. The story seems foolproof enough: three young couples--Nancy (Debbie Thureson) and Joel (future PICASSO TRIGGER star Steve Bond), Bobbie (BLOODY BIRTHDAY's Lori Lethin) and Skip (Robert Wald), and Gail (Gayle Gannes) and Greg (Philip Wenckus)--are hiking and camping through the remote Northpoint area of Keen Wild, the location of a destructive forest fire in 1948, and there's a monstrous, deformed, burn-scarred killer (Carel Struycken) in the wilderness and before long, he's stalking and offing them one by one.

But THE PREY takes a long time to get to where it's going, which is hard to fathom when you consider that it's only 80 minutes long. Director/co-writer Edwin Scott Brown has so little material that he pads the running time with shots of everyone talking, hiking, standing around, and sitting around, in addition to a ton of nature stock footage. It gets even slower with the introduction of a weirdo park ranger (Jackson Bostwick, who looks like a creepy 1979 Zac Efron), who's seen strumming a banjo and having a heart-to-heart chat with a fawn (!) before joining his flummoxed boss (Jackie Coogan, who died in early 1984, several months before the film's belated release) and sharing some cucumber-and-cream cheese sandwiches on oatmeal bread that both actors eat in real time while they alternately discuss a missing middle-aged couple and just sit chewing in silence. It's possible that the free cucumber-and-cream cheese sandwiches are why Coogan even signed on, as he's a long way from his days as Uncle Fester on THE ADDAMS FAMILY and an even greater distance from his time as cinema's first famous child star opposite Charlie Chaplin in 1921's THE KID (as if appearing in THE PREY wasn't demeaning enough, Coogan's introduction is accompanied by the sound of a flushing toilet). Brown and his producer/co-writer wife Summer Brown were undoubtedly working outside of their comfort zone on this one-and-done attempt at mainstream crossover, having already established themselves in the hardcore porn industry, with Edwin directing under a variety of aliases, including "Edwin Durell" and "Stephen Lucas."

And yet, somehow, THE PREY has a following. And if you're so inclined, rest assured, it's granted a Criterion-level Blu-ray package that offers more of this film than even its most ardent defender thought possible or even within the realm of reason or sanity. While this languished on the shelf for several years before hitting a few American theaters and drive-ins, the financiers at Essex Productions decided to overhaul the whole thing for the overseas market, losing almost all of the nature stock footage and inserting a 25-minute (!) flashback sequence set at a gypsy camp and showing the origin of the killer and how it related to the forest fire in the opening shot. This new footage was shot at some point in 1981, and neither Edwin nor Summer Brown had anything to do with it, despite the presence of some moonlighting XXX stars like John Leslie, Arcadia Lake, and Eric Edwards in a few softcore sex scenes.

When THE PREY was finally picked up by a post-Roger Corman New World Pictures in 1984, it was the Browns' preferred 80-minute version, minus the "gypsy flashback." As you might guess, Arrow's Blu-ray features not only the 80-minute domestic version and the 97-minute international version, but also a 103-minute (!) composite fan cut which combines the footage from both versions into the ultimate (?) PREY experience. Even in the short version, THE PREY is tedious, terribly-acted, and boring as hell, with absolutely nothing happening until the last 15 minutes, but there are a few scattered positives to be found: the score makes significant use of Stravinsky's "Glorification of the Chosen One," from The Rite of Spring (also known to trash connoisseurs for its presence in Mario Bava's THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM); John Carl Buechler's makeup and latex work on Struycken serves as an amusing test run for the stuff he'd do for Empire Pictures a few years down the road; the last shot is queasily perverse; and some of the location work in Idyllwild and San Bernardino National Forest (the same area where the recent BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK was shot) is impressive, as are some shots of Bond scaling the famous Suicide Rock. Most importantly, the New World poster art's killer tag line--"It's not human and it's got an axe"--is an '80s exploitation gem that deserves to accompany a much better movie.