Thursday, October 31, 2019

Cardboard Science: I Wouldn't, But Ed Would

Year: 1959
Director: Ed Wood
Cast: Gregory Walcott, Tom Keene, Mona McKinnon 
Run Time: 1 hour 19 minutes

Our final entry in our crossover with Kinemalogue's Cardboard Science (I'm doing three of his 50's sci-fi movies and he's doing three of my 80's slashers) is a big'un. Among members of the bad-good movie glitterati, of which I consider myself a part, there are pretty much three huge pillars of best-worst movie, representing different decades and genres: The Room, Troll 2, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. These are the ones that regular civilians might have even heard of (once you get going is when you dive into the meaty stuff like Ben & Arthur or Fateful Findings), to the point that one of the most famous episodes of Seinfeld ("The Chinese Restaurant") revolves around them trying to eat in time to make a screening of the movie. Plan 9 is the only one of those I've never seen, so I was definitely looking forward to completing the unholy trinity.

My hunger for this film was ravenous, one might say.

So, the plot. Insofar as there is one. Aliens are pretty nonchalantly flying their saucers around Hollywood and a nearby small town, trying to contact humanity. When humanity of course tries to blow the shit out of them, they decide to execute Plan 9, which involves resurrecting the corpses of the recently dead for... some reason. These dead folks are Inspector Clay (Tor Johnson), an unnamed Old Man (the late Bela Lugosi, as played by silent stock footage shot for a different movie that was never made), and the Old Man's Wife (Vampira, the horror host precursor to Elvira), whose youth and sexiness completely fail to square with her character.

Handsome hero pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott) and his useless wife Paula (Mona McKinnon) get caught up in all this as the zombies wander around not really doing anything, but sometimes strangling people offscreen. Apparently these three corpses are going to help the aliens destroy the world. Somehow. The aliens are worried that the warmongering human race, who has already split the atom, will learn how to split - and I quote - "the sun particle," and destroy the universe. 

You know, science!

There are many elements of Plan 9 that are in the distinct arena of the "good-bad" epic. I've already mentioned the hilarious shoehorning of Bela Lugosi into the plot - his all too frequent appearances are mostly just him wandering through a field not interacting with anybody, alternated with shots of Ed Wood's wife's chiropractor with a cape over his face pretending to be him. And the frequency with which this film transitions from day to night to day again in the space of a couple cuts either belies gross incompetence or that the film takes place over the course of about 82 years. 

Oh, and who could forget the alien spaceship, the interiors of which seem to have been shot in a high school cafeteria with curtains set up to look like walls. And, once it has landed, the exterior of which is clearly somebody's shed. Or the cop who scratches his chin with his loaded gun. Yes, there are definitely good reasons for this movie to be an iconic member of the bad movie pantheon. 

Unfortunately, I've done enough of these Cardboard Science pictures that I don't feel entirely certain that the movie is remarkably bad among its peers. There's certainly an idiosyncratic shoddiness to its construction (thanks to Ed Wood's lusty amateurishness), but is this movie really any cheaper or worse than the effects in, say, The Giant Claw or It Conquered the World? I will give those films that their scripts are far more coherent (one scene in Plan 9 has the aliens lamenting that "Earth people who can think are so frightened by those who cannot - the dead," which I'm sure means something to someone, but that someone ain't me), but Plan 9 really isn't demonstrably worse when you weigh it all out.

There is actually some material that is quite good in Plan 9, mostly the gothic imagery of Vampira and Tor Johnson's zombified corpses wandering the cemetery. They are iconic, visually electric figures that do send a slight tingle of what feels like dread up the spine even though they really don't do anything. Johnson especially has an uncanniness to his physical performance that makes him feel entirely not of this Earth, and provides a huge distinction between his living and undead characters.

Plus I love a good horror vamp, and she's giving me exactly what I need.

On top of that, the shots of alien craft hovering over Old Hollywood are a huge hit of nostalgia, providing a naturalistic retro thrill that would make Once Upon a Time in Hollywood jealous. Other than the notably bad and the notably good, the movie is just plain old dull. Maybe I would have been more swept up in it had I seen it properly with a crowd, and not in my living room at 9:00 in the morning, but I didn't feel particularly compelled by it.

I might have liked it more if it was even worse, come to think of it. There was enough bad and good material here to maintain my interest, but not above the most basic, perfunctory level. I won't feel compelled to revisit this one unless I can see it at a screening with a devoted cult of its followers. I want to like it more than I do, but oh well. What are you gonna do. Happy Halloween?

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Frankly, I think the frequently maligned flying saucer effects look pretty cool, especially when one is flying away while on fire. Fight me!
  • The dialogue is trying so hard to make the aliens feel otherworldly that at one point while making a metaphor they say "a can of your gasoline." They're one step away from paying for things with "space bucks."
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • When Paula tells Jeff she hugs his pillow at night sometimes when he's away, he laughs in her face and calls her a "crazy kid." 1) This is a totally normal thing to do, calm down. 2) When did men stop calling their wives "kid," and how can we make sure the term is well and truly dead and can't come back to hurt us anymore?
Sensawunda:
  • Lieutenant John Harper on guns: "They've been mighty useful before on flesh and blood - and you two look like you've got a lot of both."
TL;DR: Plan 9 from Outer Space is not as bad as its reputation would have you believe, which means it's less interesting than I was hoping.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1127
Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Keep The Doctor Away

Year: 1982
Director: Boaz Davidson
Cast: Barbi Benton, Chip Lucia, Jon Van Ness 
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

For the final pre-Halloween post in our reinvigorated push into Census Bloodbath, I figured I'd do a holiday-themed one to keep us in the festive spirit. Sure Hospital Massacre AKA X-Ray is themed around Valentine's Day, but let's not pretend like the pickings weren't already slim by this point in the decade. It's an 80's slasher movie so we're watching it. If you've read my blog for even one minute, you know this is all the motivation I need.

Also who doesn't love a themed killer? OK, maybe people who haven't devoted their lives to watching hundreds of these movies. Perspective really sucks, doesn't it?

Hospital Massacre hits the ground fucking rolling with a prologue set in 1961. When young boy Harold (Billy Jayne, one of the trio of child killers in the same year's Bloody Birthday) delivers a Valentine to his crush Susan (Elizabeth Hoy, another member of the trio - what a reunion!), she proceeds to make fun of him with her friend Dave (Michael Romano). When she leaves to go cut the Valentine's cake (?) with a knife so huge it's clearly meant to somehow be a red herring, Harold dispatches Dave by jamming one of the spikes of a coat rack through his skull and hanging him from it. Holy shit!

Cut to 19 years later, which I guess means the film is a period piece set in 1980. Susan (now played by Playboy bunny Barbi Benton) has a brief moment of useless exposition with her daughter and vile ex-husband before being dropped off at the hospital by her boyfriend Jack (Jon Van Ness, not the one from Queer Eye, but aren't Tourist Trap and The Hitcher the collective Queer Eye of horror films?). She is there to pop in and get some quick test results, but unfortunately for her, her doctor (Gay Austin) has just been murdered by a man in medical scrubs who is lurking in the 9th floor, which has been cleared for fumigation.

This selfsame killer has taken it upon himself to toy with her medical records, making it seem like she has a life-threatening illness and making the hospital staff go full Cuckoo's Nest on her, forcing her to remain bedridden despite her protestations that she feels completely fine, never even checked in, and - by the way - it seems like there might be a psycho killer wandering the halls murdering people.

Gaslighting has never been more sexy.

I suppose the first thing I should mention is that this is a production of Cannon, the company behind infinite delightful B-pictures of the 80's, whose other efforts in the slasher genre included New Year's Evil and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. They were never, shall we say, hinged. But Hospital Massacre makes no apparent attempt to resemble the structure or presentation of an actual motion picture. It exists in a weird space between dimensions, constantly presenting character motivations, dialogue, and even physical locations that make not a single lick of sense.

This does work toward making the film terrifically uncanny, at least. Consider the way characters wander into the ninth floor, not questioning the insecticide filling the corridors or bothering to cover their mouths except when they cough as their lungs are filled with poison. Or when Susan hides behind a screen, even though her legs are clearly visible poking out from the bottom. Or the trio of bedridden old ladies in Susan's room who judge her in thick cockney accents ("She must be old and rotten on the inside, her blood is malignant slime, etc., etc.") but can periodically be spotted wandering throughout the moonlit halls cackling like Shakespearean witches.

OR how every character who needs to perform any task uses a comically large knife to do so, even though this movie isn't really a whodunit. We're pretty clear that the killer is a grown up Harold, and there's literally a character named Harry wandering around (we're supposed to be shocked when he reveals that he's been the killer the whole time, saying "actually, my name is HAROLD," in a scene very reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express when Michelle Pfeiffer removes her blonde wig to reveal that she has brown hair in the exact same length and style).

This movie is just rather strange, from top to bottom. While the staff all seem like they've just stepped off the set of XXX Candy Stripers Gone Wild, their patients wouldn't be out of place in Smith's Grove Sanitarium. Every patient who isn't Barbi Benton is a leering old man, a gibbering maniac, or in one case a drunken bum who doesn't seem to even have a room. He just wanders around with his whiskey bottle and nobody gives him a second look. 

I'm beginning to wonder if I actually just dreamed this movie.

This movie also clearly understands exactly nothing about how hospitals works. I'm really not asking a movie called Hospital Massacre to be 100% medical accurate, but you think somebody might have noticed that, say, nurses don't keep blood samples in old wooden cabinets, or that heartbeats don't come in sets of three. This might explain Susan's terrifyingly porny physical exam, which begins with the doctor peeling down her hospital robe to reveal her breasts, before checking her blood pressure. Because you need to see the breasts to do that.

So this is the atmosphere which surrounds our tale of a mad slasher. The synoptically goofy elements surrounding the killer serve him well, because he doesn't really improve beyond his awesome, pedal to the metal opening kill. He does have a pretty slick outfit, serving sheer creepiness as his breath puffs out the surgical mask and his shiny plastic gloves completely remove any semblance of humanity from his hands.

But though his kills certainly shed blood freely in a manner only an early 80's slasher was able to - or even allowed to - accomplish, they're just not that well executed. A man has a spike driven through his throat that is so clearly just glued to the side of his neck it's embarrassing. And there are too many offscreen stabbings with blood splashing the killer for my taste. It's a cop-out in a movie that literally has one reason for existing, because the plot sure isn't delivering anything satisfying.

I want to say I had a good time with this film, because it's so bizarre it's almost hypnotic. But it's time to face facts that it's just not very good. It's fun, but confusion only carries you so far as a marker of a film's quality, you know? I wouldn't warn people away from it, but you really need to be aware of what you're getting yourself into beforehand.

Killer: Harold (Chip Lucia)
Final Girl: Susan Jeremy (Barbi Benton)
Best Kill: They kill a child with a coatrack, that's hardcore man.
Sign of the Times: Susan casually lights up a cigarette in the hospital hallway while waiting for her appointment; also, when a doctor is primping and preparing to meet her, he fluffs his mullet.
Scariest Moment: The killer advances on a nurse, holding a bedsheet up in front of his body so you can only see his silhouette.
Weirdest Moment: What we're meant to believe is a bloody corpse propped up in the elevator turns out to be a man eating a very ketchupy burger who briefly fell asleep.
Champion Dialogue: "Can you touch her whenever you like in all her secret places?"
Body Count: 10
  1. David has his head impaled on a coat rack.
  2. Dr. Jacobs is stabbed to death.
  3. Bow Tie Janitor has his face shoved in a sink full of acid.
  4. Suzie is stabbed to death.
  5. Nancy is garroted.
  6. Jack is decapitated with a skull saw, and his head is put in a Valentine's box.
  7. Dr. Saxon is axed in the head.
  8. Green Scrubs Lady is injected with... something bad.
  9. Surgeon gets a spike through the throat.
  10. Harold falls off the roof on fire.
TL;DR: Hospital Massacre makes very few attempts to even resemble a motion picture, but it's kind of captivatingly zany.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1370

Thursday, October 24, 2019

I'd Trade My Soul For A Wish, Pennies And Dimes For A Kiss

Year: 2002
Director: Chris Angel
Cast: Tara Spencer-Nairn, Michael Trucco, Jason Thompson 
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's probably unfair of me to suppose you have committed to memory the production history of Sleepaway Camp II and III so let me give a quick recap. Those films were shot in one big chunk using the same crew, same locations, and same lead, then split into two direct-to-video movies in consecutive years. For some unfathomable reason, III is loads better than II, even though they had almost no time to reflect on their craft between productions.

I was hoping for the same thing with Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled, which was produced exactly one weekend after the abysmal Wishmaster 3, helmed once more by director Chris Angel. It's a foolish thing to dream that the miracle the movie gods visited upon the set of Sleepaway Camp would occur a second time, but you know what? My prayers were answered!

Good thing my prayers were not for Andrew Divoff's return, because THAT ain't gonna happen.

Wishmaster 4 opens with a bang. Literally. Young couple Lisa (Tara Spencer-Nairn) and Sam (Jason Thompson) move into a huge house they can afford because Canada, then immediately get to bonking their hearts out beneath the opening credits. It's a wildly lusty softcore scene to introduce a movie. At one point Sam starts thrusting so hard I thought he might turn into the Djinn then and there and split Lisa in half. Then, the cherry on top... A title card that reads "Three Years Later." Three years later than what?! We've done nothing to establish a timeline or any kind of narrative, we just watched some hotties bone down.

Anyway, now Sam is bound to a wheelchair after a horrible motorcycle accident, and Lisa is working on a lawsuit with the motorcycle company with hotshot pro bono lawyer Steven (Michael Trucco), who transparently has feelings for her. Sam's feelings toward her seem to have soured, associating her with the accident, and he compounds his shittiness by being outrageously jealous of Steven and assuming they've already slept together. As Sam pushes her away more and more, Lisa tries to resist Steven's advances but it's getting harder to do.

Oh yeah, and there's a Wishmaster. Michael gives her some sort of Ancient Persian rune thing as a present ("I know you like this stuff." Coulda fooled me, Steven.) and she releases the gemstone and thus the Djinn (John Novak, the only returning cast member). He kills Steven and takes over his body, then attempts to seduce Lisa into making three wishes so he can unleash the dimension of the Djinn upon Earth. He does this quite successfully until the third wish turns out to be about love, which is something his magic can't force. He then must convince her to fall in love with him to fulfill the third wish, but wouldn't you know it, along the way he might just be falling in love with her, complicating his world-domination plot.

Twilight be damned, Wishmaster 4 has the TRUE relationship between undying monster and extremely bland girl who doesn't really deserve his attention.

There's a reason the Wishmaster doesn't show up until paragraph three. The Prophecy Fulfilled could lift the Djinn entirely from the script and be left with a functional, if highly melodramatic narrative, because the characters who are affected by the horror are actually having an interesting storyline on their own without his help. This is literally the first time any human has ever been interesting in a Wishmaster film, which is quite the accomplishment. It also uses its small, microbudget cast to its advantage, allowing them to play out an actual human drama between evil wish-granting murder sequences rather than attempt to spread themselves out as evenly possible to try and make the body count seem more robust than it is.

It's, dare I say, the most coherent story in the Wishmaster canon. Following immediately on the heels of the least, it comes as quite a shock. But apparently Mr. Chris Angel made the wise decision to have two different screenwriters pen the movies he was going to jam together in one sixteen-day marathon.  Scribe John Benjamin Martin hasn't written anything else I've heard of, but he's at least been working consistently, proving that other people down the line have also recognized his skill. Again, it's no masterpiece (we literally learn the basic exposition that Lisa owns a clothing store and runs it with her best friend at about the 45 minute mark), but it's the best script we've gotten in four movies and that's not nothing.

There are stakes and everything!

As for everything around the script, it's a little more on and off, but "on" more often than I could have ever expected going into it. While the kills continue to be pretty routine and uninspired (and involve a strip club way more than is strictly necessary), they are brought to life with a certain bloody gusto. A scene with a lawyer who is forced to rip out his tongue and slice off his own nose (in accordance with a cavalcade of atrocious puns delivered via phone by Djinn Steven) delivers a string of effects that can only be described as "gooshy." And a ridiculous scene where the Djinn crushes a man's fist produces a spray of blood so vigorous it splashed its way right into my heart.

Plus, there are effects scenes that actually attempt to create atmosphere, something that not a single Wishmaster movie has ever had on its mind. I'm thinking specifically of the eerie scene where Lisa finally jumps Steven's bones, and while they are softcore thrusting, a dozen scabby slimy demon hands reach out for her from behind. It's creepy, and it might only be for a few seconds, but it's the only few seconds this October that my skin has crawled.

This movie also improves upon the ridiculous, campy world-building of Wishmaster 3 (Look at me - I act like these films are in conversation with one another, which I'm pretty sure is legitimately impossible, but what else is one to do in a marathon like this?). Where that movie was briefly salvaged by a ridiculous cameo by the Archangel Michael, this one is given another shot of pure sugar by the Hunter, an ancient character with an overdubbed James Earl Jones voice who is sworn to kill the person who wakes the Djinn before she can fulfill the prophecy. This leads to a lot of Ren Fair cosplay and swinging swords around in a public park, which is hilarious.

You know what, I might just love this movie. I know it's cheap and lousy and exploitative and I'm supposed to hate it, but I can only think of compliments. Maybe watching all of these movies melted my brain. Maybe my perspective has been skewed by all the garbage I've shoved into my eyes over the years. Maybe Michael Trucco is just the right amount of mid-2000's handsome that my nostalgic lizard brain quieted all other complaints.

He's not even specifically my type, but there's something about the kind of guy who was "hot" when I was a pre-teen that is still magnetic to me.

What is true is that Wishmaster 4 has the best protagonist of the franchise. This is definitely a backhanded compliment, but for once the heroine has something other to do than lament about her psychic connection with the Djinn, cutting into his fun kill scenes with her ludicrous forced writhing. This movie features no psychic connection at all, to my immense relief. It's certainly only because that plot thread wouldn't work in a movie where the Djinn is actively trying to win her heart, but for whatever reason the screenwriter felt compelled to excise it, I am extremely grateful. As a result, she actually gets a story and an emotional arc to play with. Isn't that just lovely?

It's always a pleasant surprise when the final movie in one of these marathons isn't a massive stinking pile of rotten banana peels. In fact, I don't think this has ever happened in an October marathon. So I won't question it. I'll just leave the Djinn and his exploits with a fond farewell, and consider this a Halloween season well spent. 

Oh, don't worry. Next year I'm certain to be forced to do some more sprawling, more excruciating project. I'm definitely running out at this point and there's a chilling silhouette that looks suspiciously like a Puppetmaster on the horizon.

TL;DR: Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled is - shockingly - entirely competent.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1442
Reviews In This Series
Wishmaster (Kurtzman, 1997)
Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (Sholder, 1999)
Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of Hell (Angel, 2001)
Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled (Angel, 2002)

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Writing's On The Wall

Year: 1982
Director: James W. Roberson
Cast: James Houghton, Albert Salmi, Lynn Carlin
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated

I figured October was as fine a date as any to relaunch a serious effort to press forward into my Census Bloodbath marathon, exploring every... single... slasher movie from the 1980's. I chose Wishmaster as my Halloween marathon because I knew it would be short and give me opportunities to really sit down and fill in some major gaps from 1982, the current year we're focusing on. The first title I'm jumping in with is Superstition, which was lovingly bestowed a Blu-Ray release by the maniacs at Scream Factory, whose judgment in early 80's nonsense I trust implicitly.

As usual, I was right.

Superstition doesn't give a flying shit what you might expect from its title or poster or tagline. Instead, it's about the ghost of a witch who was drowned in 1692. She stalks the property of her home at night and murders any trespassers. The house, which is owned by the church, is now occupied by alcoholic reverend George Leahy (Larry Pennell) along with his wife, pre-pubescent son, and a bevy of nubile teen daughters. When mysterious happenings begin to plague them, it's up to George's co-reverend David Thompson (James Houghton) to put the pieces together and try and figure out how to stop it. I don't rightly know why David cares so much, but I'm glad to have him here because he is extremely cute in a dorky teacher kinda way.

That all seems pretty cut and dry, but have I mentioned the fact that the opening scene involves a decapitated head being put in the microwave and exploding? The police liaison Inspector Sturgess (Albert Salmi), who seems to hate every other character and insults them whenever he's given the opportunity, which is all the damn time? Or the presence of a little girl in white who's so clearly a ghost she doesn't even really bother pretending she's not? Or the fact that there's a mute groundskeeper/professional red herring named Arlen (Joshua Cadman) whose mother Elvira (Jacquelyn Hyde) is doing her best Piper Laurie impression? 

Also she mostly acts from within a tiny window that makes her look like a painting.

Superstition is all about how much wild shit it can stuff in around the edges of its pretty rote and tropey slasher plot, and I certainly found myself responding to that. Supernatural slashers certainly have an edge over the average bear, laying the groundwork for people to expect the unexpected. Supernatural kills also usually sneak past the MPAA because they aren't always incredibly gory. That's how Freddy could keep tormenting his teens with aplomb long past the point where his peers were cut down in their prime by the moral majority.

Luckily for us, though, Superstition was made in 1982 before anybody cared (and released so ignominiously in 1985 that it's entirely possible nobody even noticed) so this film is full of good old hand-operated gore just like your daddy used to make. There are still an irritating amount of kills that are just people being grabbed by a spooky hand and deposited in random places, smeared so indiscriminately with blood so that specific wound is even evident (which is hell on any lunatic who wants to keep an accurate body count). But the ones that are present are delectable.

Did you not see that there's an exploding head in a microwave? And that's just the cold open! Also featured: A guy gets lopped in half by the top part of a window, and both halves lay twitching grotesquely on the ground. In the middle of a dialogue-heavy exposition scene, an elderly priest played by Stacy Keach's dad is felled by a rogue buzzsaw blade that flies off its device but continues to spin, drilling through his torso and the chair behind him. And one of the teens gets a spike malleted into her forehead, in an effect so convincing, I'm pretty certain that actress sacrificed her life to make this movie.

RIP Maylo McCaslin. It probably wasn't worth it.

I don't think I need to reiterate that Superstition is kind of a blast. Unfortunately, though, I can't quite place it at "hidden gem" status. It's more like a hidden rhinestone. Because as much as I want to adore its gonzo nuttiness, it's undercut by some severe incompetencies that I'm just not willing to ignore. For one thing, we're treated to a lot of my least favorite slasher trope: people wandering through empty rooms calling each other's names. And the pacing dies a miserable, lonely death in the sequence where the son goes missing and Inspector Sturgess must take a break from throwing shade to be obsessed by the dimensions of a basement for what feels like hours.

And between the lover's lane cold open, all the business with David, and a bunch of flashbacks to 1692, we really aren't given a chance to get to know this family or care about their fate. They don't even show up in the film until at least 30 minutes in! I didn't even learn the mom's name until after she was dead! And the one we do know anything about, George, just isn't a compelling figure. He's played as a spineless coward, which is an interesting choice, but his complete refusal to make any decision even when his wife is screaming in the kitchen is incredibly frustrating in a lead. He doesn't even have to save her. He could run! But he chooses to just stand there and stare as the seconds tick on by...

Don't even get me started on the score that kicks in any time the tension is raised, which sounds like it was contributed to the film by Dexy's Midnight Runners.

In the end, I'd say the cool elements of Superstition outweigh the bad (there's a half decent visual sense here too, my favorite being the killer in silhouette on a windy stairwell and blood dripped over a glass of spilled milk), but I am not so bowled over by them that I can find it in my heart to completely forgive it for its sins. I would highly recommend it for a party viewing though. There's a lot of wonderful fun moments to whet the appetite, and you can just talk with your friends during the boring bits. It's a win-win!

Killer: Elondra Sharack (Carole Goldman)
Final Girl: Rev. David Thompson (James Houghton) - come to think of it, this is probably our first lead character who belongs to the church in a movie that isn't explictily about exorcism
Sign of the Times: The score is one of those one's that's so clearly aping Halloween they practically just transposed it one octave up - there's no surer sign you're dealing with a slasher from the early 80's.
Best Kill: It's actually hard to choose, but for my money it's hard to beat a reverend getting sawed right through the gut completely out of nowhere.
Scariest Moment: Honestly, the idea of finding a stillwater pond on your property that hasn't been touched in years and then immediately stripping down to your skivvies and jumping in might be the most frightening concept to this Southern California boy.
Weirdest Moment: David learns that the only way to defeat the witch is to set a pond on fire?
Champion Dialogue: "Shut your bitchy mouth!"
Body Count: 13; a perfect number if the movie were actually about superstitions in any way, shape, or form.
  1. Artie is decapitated offscreen and his head is put in the microwave, where it explodes.
  2. Charlie is cut in half by a window.
  3. Jack is dragged into the lake.
  4. Henry is sawed in the gut by a spinning blade.
  5. Construction Worker is hanged in an elevator shaft.
  6. Justin is killed offscreen.
  7. 1692 Priest is crushed in a Spanish Inquisition torture device.
  8. Sturgess is killed offscreen.
  9. Melinda is killed offscreen.
  10. George has a mirror shatter into his face and throat.
  11. Cheryl has a spike hammered into your forehead.
  12. Ann is killed offscreen.
  13. David is dragged into the pond.
TL;DR: Superstition is inept in a couple deeply damaging ways, but its gung-ho supernatural spirit is still kind of a blast
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1379

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Cardboard Science: Friday, I'm In Love

Year: 1964
Director: Byron Haskin
Cast: Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West
Run Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

This week's continuation of our crossover with Kinemalogue's Cardboard Science finds that Hunter has once again assigned us a sci-fi movie from the 60's rather than the 50's. I don't blame him for not being as strict on the years as my Census Bloodbath project, but I can't help but feel that if this movie had been released a decade earlier it would be a clean 40 minutes shorter. And I can blame him for that.

If it's any consolation, these effects would have looked WAY worse in the 50's.

This week's assignment is Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which is an appropriate double feature with Mysterious Island, updating that film's tale of stoic male survival into a more traditional sci-fi milieu. Really, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Commander Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee) is stranded on the surface of Mars when a celestial event forces him and his Colonel, Dan McReady (the Adam West, in approximately three total minutes), to abandon ship. With only a monkey named Mona for company, he must learn to survive on the hostile Mars terrain.

Eventually (extremely eventually), he discovers other life forms, namely an alien race of miners that uses their ships to keep a horde of humanoid slaves from Orion in line. One of these slaves (Victor Lundin) escapes and Commander Draper befriends him, names him Friday, and teaches him English. 

Apparently the Orionese people also have troubling Native American stereotypes.

One, and exactly one, thing I love about these survival movies is how un-self-consciously masculine they are, constantly tripping into a deep well of homoeroticism that I'm sure they would be mortified by. The boundless tropes of American machismo roll over and across one another in an ecstatic parade of shirtless men bonding, swimming, and feeding each other (and I quote, "You're gonna learn English if I have to sit on your chest for two months."). But as for anything that's intentionally placed in the text... Well, I could take it or leave it.

It doesn't much help that this screenplay was provided by one Ib Melchior, the auteur behind such cinema classics as The Time Travelers and Reptilicus, both of which have been ripped apart by MST3K. While I can be delighted by the fakey science that fills these types of movies, there's really not a lot of dramatic heft to discovering that burning space rocks releases oxygen, and this is the tedious stuff that fills the first three-quarters of the movie before it politely commits to going completely batshit insane.

At least there was some effort put into the movie beyond the script. The sets are well-crafted and transportive, for one thing. They may look a wee bit artificial or old-fashioned, but that actually helps them feel even more surreal and alien. Not for one second do you think about the fact that they had to film this on Earth. The craggy mountains, the cherry red sky, and the barren desolation feel distinctly unique (or maybe the fact that I've never been to Death Valley helps a bit). Plus, we're delivered some exquisite matte painting work late in the film that gives the setting an expansive, lonely beauty.

What can I say, this set rocks!

There's also a recurring element that I find fascinating. The astronaut's abandoned spaceship is still circling the planet, trapped in endless orbit. His salvation constantly flits by overhead, taunting him with its complete uselessness until it almost drives him to the point of madness. Madness that involves fashioning himself a pair of bagpipes as if he's determined to make the entire audience go mad as well!

There's also a remarkably creepy nightmare sequence in the second act that underscores his absolute loneliness. I almost wish it hadn't turned out to be a dream, because the uncanniness of it might have led to a far more interesting tale of extraterrestrial mayhem down the line, but I'll take whatever little tingles of the spine the film has to offer.

Unfortunately though, at the end of the day Robinson Crusoe on Mars lands in the exact same bucket as Mysterious Island. There are a lot of interesting elements scuttling around, but the movie chooses to foreground the most mundane and generic survival tropes. Plus, that nearly two hour run time completely embalms the drama, suffocating every last shred of momentum it could have possibly had. God, life in the 60's must have been so boring.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • This movie discovered water on Mars long before scientists did, so maybe we should leave all the astronomical work to Ib Melchior.
  • There is a truly hilarious attempt at making the interior of the spaceship seem like it has no gravity, where Mona the Monkey is clearly hung on a vertical lazy Susan and spun around on the wall.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • It literally never even occurs to Commander Draper that he could attempt to learn how to speak Friday's language. Because who would want to know how to speak anything other than English? USA! USA!
  • Draper calls Friday the R-word because he hasn't learned English in 45 seconds. I didn't even know that word had hit regular usage in the 60's, what a pioneer this asshole was.
  • Draper says he feels like Columbus discovering a new territory. Little did he know, but he discovered way more than that fool ever did.
Sensawunda:
  • There are these scary floating fireballs sort of wandering the terrain of Mars, and I definitely thought they were alien scouts or something, but maybe they were just bad effects? Only God and Ib Melchior know the answer.
TL;DR: Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a tedious accidental exploration of the underside of the American male psyche.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 982
Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Wishin' And Mopin'

Year: 2001
Director: Chris Angel
Cast: Jason Connery, A.J. Cook, Tobias Mehler 
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Remember that precipitous drop in quality we narrowly avoided last time? Well, here it is. After somebody actually put effort into the made-for-TV Wishmaster 2 (I'm sure they had their reasons), the franchise got farmed out to Canada and director Chris Angel, who is notable only for not being Criss Angel. That's at least one point to his credit. Today's topic, Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of Hell, was filmed back-to-back with Wishmaster 4 in Manitoba (there was literally one weekend separating production of the two films). And now here we are reviewing it some decade and a half later. I think I've already put more effort into watching this film than anybody did into making it.

The process that brought us Sleepaway Camp II and III couldn't possibly go wrong, could it?

The Wishmaster movies have never really had a consistent setting, so why not set it on a college campus? History student Diana Collins (A.J. Cook of Final Destination 2) is dating a schlub named Greg (Tobias Mehler) and has trouble saying "I love you" because her parents died in a car crash or something. Character motivation is fun, y'all. Anyway, she is volunteering at the campus museum and discovers the key to an ancient Persian puzzle box. Yadda yadda glowing gemstone, yadda yadda grant three wishes to the waker, unleash Armageddon. We get it. The Djinn this time is played by John Novak because Andrew Divoff hated the script so much that he walked from the project. Might I remind you that this is a man who said yes to a film featuring an old woman crapping out coins on the floor of a casino.

Because make-up work wastes precious hours and we're making this movie in about the same time that it takes to print the poster, the Djinn mostly takes the form of lecherous professor Joel Barash (Jason Connery, who is in fact Sean Connery's son). He spends the first half of the movie playing phone tag with Diana, granting wishes to randos along the way and eventually making his way across her group of nubile teen friends.

This is how it works, Billy. Sorry not sorry,

First things first, the Djinn sucks. The makeup is a huge step down (I assume it's mostly just a prosthetic headpiece they jam onto poor John Novak), and while I never thought I'd be missing Andrew Divoff, this film proves he brought a spark to the character. A spark that can't be recreated with an SNL-level impression. I could work with this pale imitation of the Djinn if he actually did anything, but the boundless creativity of the franchise hits a wall. Hard.

These movies have always had really tortured dialogue when the Djinn tries to squeeze wishes out of people, but there's no amount of twisting words that can change a wish for two women to be in love with you to topless zombie ladies biting out your tongue. It's not even lowest-common denominator clever, it's just lazy and insipid, going through the motions of a franchise nobody was really ever asking for in the first place. There are only two death scenes worth a lick (Billy's impalement, as pictured above, and a really brutal, grotesque moment where the mean girl who wished to lose weight is vomiting up all of her insides), and the rest are cheap, awkwardly executed pablum.

The script attempts to make up for the lack of creative kills by finally embracing the post-Scream meta humor that was dominating the teen horror market (at least a year too late, might I add), but these sad, painfully unfunny grasps at relevance ("These exams are gonna be murder!") are really the nail in the coffin.

A coffin with he will sadly rise out of sooner than later.

Wishmaster 3 briefly wins back my favor by going completely batshit insane for about 15 minutes Spoiler alert: the literal Archangel Michael becomes a character, possessing the body of Greg and wielding his flaming sword of angelic doom. But the daffy Act 3 decisions (there's also a sequence set in the campus graveyard - you know, standard college campus location work) aren't enough to redeem a painfully tedious film. By the hour mark it was my fervent wish that the movie would end as quickly as possible. I should have learned to be careful what I wish for, because the climax is devastatingly perfunctory.

There is practically nothing redeeming about this film. It's not even worth looking at, with its daytime scenes (of which it has altogether too many for a film with makeup this shoddy) blasted with an eye-searing lighting scheme that makes it legitimately hard to even see the characters, they're so washed out.

The sad truth is that I've still seen worse, so I survived the process of watching this with my wits pretty intact. It least it has a coherent plot. It's not worth following, but it's followable, which is something I've learned not to take for granted. It's in the literal sense a diversion. You can pay attention to it if you have nothing better to think about at the time. But I almost always have something better to think about, as I'm sure do you. Even if that thing is just Wishmaster 2.

...Next week is gonna be rough, isn't it? Do you think there's any chance Chris Angel got mentored by Steven Spielberg or something during that weekend between movies? Wish me luck. But make sure there aren't any Djinn around to hear you.

TL;DR: Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of Hell is a paltry trifle that barely drags itself across the finish line, buoyed by some jaw-droppingly dumb plot developments.
Rating: 3/10
Word Counter: 973
Reviews In This Series
Wishmaster (Kurtzman, 1997)
Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (Sholder, 1999)
Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of Hell (Angel, 2001)
Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled (Angel, 2002)

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Be Fearful What You Wish For

Year: 1999
Director: Jack Sholder
Cast: Holly Fields, Paul Johansson, Andrew Divoff
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating:

Usually when horror movie sequels get subtitles, that's when you need to keep an eye out. They're not always bad. But when Halloween II gave way to Halloween III: Season of the Witch, things got so wild that the film was disowned by the horror community for decades. There's something sublime about the simplicity of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or Exorcist III rather than Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III or Exorcist II: The Heretic. It's not a hard and fast rule, to be certain, but I can't say I was incredibly optimistic when I learned that Wishmaster succumbed to the fever immediately, delivering Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies the second that Hollywood uncorked the franchise bottle.

I truly am a martyr to these franchise horror movies, you're welcome.

Wishmaster 2 begins in a place I legitimately could have never predicted: an art heist. Morgana (Holly Fields) and her boyfriend Eric (Chris Weber) rob the local museum, in the process releasing the ancient Djinn (Andrew Divoff) we've come to know and love when Morgana smashes the crystal that held him. Eric dies in the escape, but the Djinn, in human form, takes the blame for the heist and is sent to jail, where he sets about granting wishes for the prisoners and collecting the 1,001 souls he apparently needs before he can grant Morgana three wishes, thereby unleashing the Djinn dimension upon the world. As if the mythology of the first movie needed to be even more complicated.

Anyway, all this sends Morgana into a moral crisis about the choices she's made in life, and she runs into the arms of hunky goatee priest Gregory (Paul Johansson), who turned to the church after she chose Eric instead of him. They work to learn more about the Djinn and how to go about destroying him.

Meanwhile, Andrew Divoff gets a chance to work on his Godfather impression.

Wishmaster 2 was helmed by Jack Sholder, a director who seems to be stuck as Wes Craven's clean-up hitter, considering he also helmed A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. I can't help but imagine he feels the same way, because that film - and its highly publicized homoerotic overtones - seems to be weighing heavily on his mind. At least, that's the only explanation I can come up with for why this film is so hideously homophobic. Even for a film set in a prison, the sheer amount of F-words flying back and forth is... shocking. It feels like a grotesque overcompensation, and the only scene that helps me feel better about the whole affair is a scene where a prisoner wishes that his shady lawyer would "go fuck himself." This results in him literally having sex with himself, which he does in fact seem to enjoy. 

Visibility is so important, y'all.

Generally, the wish scenes are about as satisfying as the original film, though the leading questions the Djinn is forced to ask to eke requests out of people are even more strained and ludicrous. Wishmaster 2 never captures the sheer, indulgent mayhem of the original's third act, but there's still a solid sense of fun to the proceedings (minus a truly atrocious joke in the climactic casino showdown, where a lady at a craps table literally craps hundreds of slot machine tokens out of her ass). And while the effects are hardly at the level of KNB's previous contributions, they are delivered with no small amount of gooey zeal by future Sharknado auteur Anthony C. Ferrante.

This stuff one can find on IMDb is wild, folks.

The only place where the DTV effects budget really shows is in the Wishmaster himself. We're getting a lot of Andrew Divoff face time in this one, and when he shows his true face as the Djinn, it's a lot more plasticky and immobile than last time. Rather than resembling an actual organic organism with a dripping, twitching carapace, it just looks like some dude's Wishmaster Halloween costume.  A very expensive Halloween costume, but still.

Beyond the effects setpieces, sadly, Wishmaster 2 has almost nothing to offer. The protagonist is even blander than the last time, a feat I didn't think could even be possible, and her inane thrashings that are intercut with every effects scene are even more irritating for it. Plus, this business with the priest lands the film in some deeply vexing sub-Exorcist territory. Down to the score (an airy interpretation of "Tubular Bells" by somebody who's clearly only heard it once, years ago) and the method of defeating the villain (repeating the same phrase over and over and over again until everyone at the slumber party watching this VHS tape has passed out from exhaustion), this film transparently aspires to Exorcist-level greatness, not realizing that all the hot air it's blowing about God and purity and prayer are a needless distraction at the absolute best.

Catholic imagery permeates the film to the point that even the Wishmaster seems perplexed by it. He's literally not a Christian figure, and his attempts to explain this fall on deaf ears.

Morgana's plotline is frustrating tedium. No matter what she does, we must see it repeated three times in three consecutive scenes before we can move on. Same goes for the Wishmaster, but at least he's turning people into goo in the process. But, dear God, the moments with him that go for myth-building or menace rather than gore fail miserably. Let me paint you a picture. At one point while our protagonists are preparing to head over to his lair, we cut to him sitting in a chair. He spins toward the camera, makes his magic gemstone appear in his hand and then disappear, at which point he says "Magic..." He's alone in a room! Who is this for?!

This film was clearly not thought through one tiny bit, and it's buoyed only by the mild amusement of seeing Wishmaster perform his dirty deals in new locations (the prison yard and later a bar run by the Russian mafia for some reason).

But hey. There's always a quality drop-off point in my franchise marathons, and considering that the Wishmaster franchise only ever stretched to four films, I was nervous they would condense their timeline and fall straight into the gutter immediately. Luckily, that was avoided, though being a big step down from the already mediocre original doesn't really leave the film in a great place regardless.

TL;DR: Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies is a sometimes fun, entirely forgettable horror sequel.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1110
Reviews In This Series
Wishmaster (Kurtzman, 1997)
Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (Sholder, 1999)
Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of Hell (Angel, 2001)
Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled (Angel, 2002)