Things will be a little different this year though, as this will be the first time that I'll be going as industry, representing the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Fest. That said, now that I no longer have to sing for my supper as it were, review frequency may be sparse over the next week. I do plan on seeing about five to ten flicks while I'm there, so I'll try and do a wrap-up post at the very least. Inspiration for writing about new releases has been a tad elusive lately, (Cheers for Hereditary! Jeers for A Quiet Place!) but we'll see how it goes.
A platoon of recruits (headed by Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame) out on maneuvers come across the site of a Confederate massacre and run afoul of some vengeful ghouls.
Happy Friday the 13th everyone! If I’d been more astute I’d have posted about a slasher this week, but such is life. I’ve been preparing for my yearly jaunt to Montreal – and crying into my pint over England’s loss – so I just picked the VHS on the top of the pile.
The Supernaturals was a half-decent yarn. I say “half”because it started pretty strong, but fizzled out toward the end. I did learn something new though. In the opening sequence, set during the Civil War – actually a solid bit involving Confederate civilians forced to walk through a mine field – I wondered if mines had been invented yet. The Internet then let me know they’ve actually been around for almost a thousand years. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. If humans are good at anything, it’s dreaming up new ways to kill each other.
Anyway, I was into it during the first act, as the camaraderie between the recruits was entertaining and boasted some familiar faces, including Max Caulfield, Scott Jacoby (now grown up from his teen roles in Little Girl That Lives Down the Lane and Bad Ronald) and also, decades before her work in two of my favourite shows Homeland and Mad Men, Talia Balsam.
Quite strangely though, once things started to get weird, everyone turned into an idiot. It wasn’t particularly clear that one of the characters was drunk when he went monosyllabic and stumbled off, but on several occasions people went sprinting through the darkness knowing full well there were pointy stick traps set up everywhere.
I imagine that the budget was a restraint here, but I really wished the effects (provided by Bart Mixon) could’ve been more front-and-center here. It’s like the opposite experience Mixon had on NOES 2 where it seemed like they had money leftover for some inserted climax creature gags. The ghouls in The Supernaturals were largely just shadowy shamblers and save for a decent throat rip, there’s not much to write home about. It’s disappointingly a decidedly PG-13 affair at best - regardless of what the coverbox says! With the Civil War backdrop, I guess I had the sinewy excesses of H.G Lewis’ 2000 Maniacs in my brain.
Oh I forgot to mention that, in a stroke of serendipity, LeVar Burton was also in this film. I like to think that between takes Burton was asking Nichols about Star Trek, not knowing that, within a year or so, he himself would become part of the canon in The Next Generation.
The Supernaturals was watchable fare, but I feel it could have been better if it had more money and edge behind it. Mastroianni is a prolific director who by that time had already directed He Knows You’re Alone(and later some notable genre television like Tales From the Darkside & Friday the 13th) so he certainly had the chops.
After a young girl is murdered at her communion ceremony, her sister Alice (Paula Sheppard) becomes the prime suspect. But is she guilty?
No sooner had I picked this VHS up from Rue Morgue's yard sale last month when The Royal announced they would be screening it as part of their No Future series. Perfect!
Alice Sweet Alice was a solid film, but also a strange one for many reasons that I'll get into shortly. The evening's host (I didn't catch his name and the website was no help) made a very valid point that due to being made in the mid-seventies, the film treads a very fine line between giallo and what would become the most popular horror of the next decade – the American slasher. Alice Sweet Alice was much more conscious of its visual style and many other tropes – The Don't Look Now-inspired costume was a striking image in itself – appeared as well.
However, for all its genre leanings there were also several irregularities. Firstly, the inevitable reveal happens very early on at the end of the second act. We then stay with them for a while as they try to cover up their crimes, which leads me into my next point. Alice Sweet Alice oddly has no clear protagonist. As a viewer, we spend time with Alice, her sister Karen (Brooke Shields in her first role), the mother (Linda Miller), the father (Niles McMaster) and even the family priest (Rudolph Willrick). It can be a bit erratic at times.
Though the acting could be a tad melodramatic (Jane Lowry really cranks it to eleven as the suspicious Aunt Ann), the story kept me engaged. A highlight for me was Sheppard as the title character. Nineteen when she took the role, yet somehow managing to pull off playing a twelve-year-old, she sadly only made one other film, Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky. She comes off as apologetically devilish regardless of whether or not she's the culprit. At one point, she actually avoids being molested by murdering a kitten. So many emotions!
Paula Sheppard in Alice Sweet Alice.
Alice Sweet Alice was not at all what I was expecting, but I was still pleasantly surprised. Instead of a generic slasher (I initially thought it to be about five years newer than it was), I got a competently executed mystery that contains more than a few jabs at Catholicism. I can get behind that. With all their kneeling and chanting, church services never cease to creep me out. Oh well, whatever gets you through the day I guess.
I posted this short today because tragically, in a case of life imitating art, this story recently became a reality for one Montreal family. I remember getting chills the first time I watched this short a few years ago because it was so incredibly plausible. People are often slaves to their routines and any subversion can have catastrophic results.
This week's VHS is Victor Halperin's 1932 film White Zombie.
A wealthy plantation owner's plan to steal a young woman from the arms of her fiancee backfires when he enlists the help of an evil witch doctor.
Making my way through the second season of Luke Cage and its use of black magic (the show doesn't call it voodoo or obeah so it won't either) I was reminded that my White Zombie VHS still remained un-watched. This was a title I was obviously aware of being a fan of the band that took its name in the late eighties, but never had the inkling to watch it until now.
White Zombie was a pretty cool watch. I found it a bit less substantial than RKO's similarly themed 1943 picture I Walked With a Zombie, but there was still a lot of interesting stuff in here. As I stated with that film, there was something really disturbing about those pre-Romero shamblers. Being a reanimated corpse is one thing, but the indignity of being a soulless slave is quite another. Starring in this vehicle (one year after his turn as Dracula) was Bela Lugosi, as the subtly monikered villain Murder Legendre. Lugosi really did have one of the best glowers in the business.
Bela Lugosi in White Zombie.
Like a good number of the silver screen horrors I've been acquainting myself with over the last decade, this one also used shadows to great effect most notably the bar scene where our drunken protagonist Neil (John Harron) plays against other patrons represented only as specters on the wall behind him. I noticed several cool in-camera tricks as well that likely would've been quite dazzling to American audiences back when this was released. Most impressive though was the pretty spectacular scene in the mill where Legendre's drones monotonously work the machinery. Sequences like that make me wonder how this film could've been shot in just eleven days, even if did filch a bunch of stuff from previously shot Universal productions.
John Harron in White Zombie.
White Zombie was another black-and-white classic that I was glad to cross off the list. It featured Lugosi at the height of his fame and some devilishly stark visuals that explain why it has persevered through the ages.
Last week, my favourite short film from 2016, Justin Harding's Kookie, dropped online.
KOOKIE - Vimeo
I adore this short for many reasons, but foremost is how adeptly Harding is able to juggles laughs and scares. He's also super productive, as since Kookie premiered around this time two years ago, Harding has made two more short films and a feature, all while working a full time job within the biz. That's some mad mojo!
A mother (Jill Clayburgh) desperately tries to find her two children after they are abducted for their backyard.
I dug this one out as it seemed appropriate given recent headlines. I had no idea what to expect from this title – that it was written by Jack Sholder (of The Hidden fame) was what initially sold me – but I was pleasantly surprised by it. Based on a novel by prolific novelist Mary Higgins Clark(her first bestseller in fact), I found this story to be very engaging. Under Malmuth's direction, who over the course of his career worked with such action stars as Stallone, Dolph and Seagal, Where Are the Children? remained inherently watchable.
I really appreciated the pace of this film, as it fully embodied the expediency of the pulp it was derived from. The denizens of the Cape Cod town (which including perhaps the sassiest paperboy ever put to film) were swiftly established and the villain's plan was set in motion almost immediately. Where Are the Children? featured so many familiar faces to me, including Clifton James (who will to me always be Sheriff Pepper from Roger Moore era James Bond), Frederick Forrest & Bernard Hughes. The latter was killing me because his voice was so familiar, but I couldn't place him. Imdb bailed me out by telling me he was Grandpa in The Lost Boys.
Jill Clayburgh in Where Are the Children?
Now, the action was somewhat clumsy and the two child actors were a tad uneven, but I thought the storytelling was pretty sound. And it gets pretty fucking dark toward the end. It got me thinking about child murders and I have to wonder how any of my generation – the ones who roamed free from summer sunrise to sunset – survived childhood. Considering how much time I spent exploring the forests near my home, it amazes me that I never ended up on a milk carton. Were there less perverts back then, or did you just never hear about them?
The kids are NOT all right.
Anyhoo, Where Are the Children? is worth a watch if you are into pulp thrillers and the work of Clark. I obviously haven't read the book, but I wouldn't be the least surprised if this was a fairly accurate representation of it. I wager parents will hug their kids a little tighter post-viewing though.
This week I wanted to post a short film that I first saw way back in 2010. Part of Toronto After Dark's Canadian shorts programme that year, Junko's Shamisen by director Sol Friedman blew me away with its visual style. FYI for those who may think it's missing subtitles, only the opening is in Japanese.
Junko's Shamisen - YouTube
As you can see, this live-action/animation hybrid has style to spare. Since 2010, Friedman has gone on to direct many more short films, including the highly amusing Day 40 in 2014.
This week’s VHS is Manny Coto’s 1989 effort Playroom.
An archaeologist (Chris McDonald) returns to the site of his family's murder many years later only to encounter the same evil.
Playroom was a rather interesting watch. I was reminded of the weird oddball stuff Full Moon was putting out at the onset of the nineties as the story – provided rather randomly by Jackie Earle Haley no less – engaged me more than most B-movie fare. Director Coto, who three years later would direct Dr. Giggles, has a solid grasp on how to entertain his audience.
The movie sported a pretty solid cast, as well. Led by consummate character actor Chris McDonald, years before he settled into the villainous d-bag role he would often play down the road, the film also featured Aron Eisenberg and Vincent Schiavelli, who showed up mid-stream to add some spice to the proceedings.
Chris McDonald playing it up.
Playroom started off a little confusing with a scene where a child wakes up in a castle to find all his family has been butchered. Then, I realized it was a dream. But wait no it was a flashback. So the kid was really living in a castle. I still can’t decide whether that’s the best or the worst thing ever. As the movie went along, it seemed to be frustratingly holding back on the gore, but little did I know the best was yet to come.
Because holy cripes, does this thing ever bring it in the third act! First there were the torture devices – think Bloody Pit of Horror, but, you know, not shitty – that in turn lead to something even better. I had no idea there was a cool creature puppet at the climax of this. It was kind of a cross between Chucky and the Crypt Keeper, so much so that I was clamouring to Imdb to see if it was a Kevin Yagher creation. Turned out it was Greg Aronowitz & John Criswell, the latter of which worked on countless films of that era, including Spaced Invaders, Garbage Pail Kids & the Ghoulies series. The Yagher influence was clearly evident though and it was a fucking capper.
With the practical effects revival happening right now I’m surprised more people don’t talk about this one. Playroom was a nice find. Once just another in a sea of coverboxes that would always stare back at me at the video store, it’s good to see that it’s actually watchable fare.