When a Stranger Calls (2006)

When a Stranger Calls (2006)

Evil Hits Home

Jill Johnson is babysitting two children in an isolated house in the hills, owned by a rich couple. The night is going like any other babysitting night until a stranger starts phoning Jill and leaving weird messages. Jill eventually phones the police and they trace the calls to find out that they are coming from inside the house!

 

The 1979 film of the same name is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination but the opening act has inspired countless copies over the years, none more famous than Wes Craven borrowing it for the opening of Scream with Drew Barrymore (which has become a classic scene in its own right). But could that opening act, which runs for around twenty minutes, be fleshed out into a full-length feature film? Simon West obviously thought so and thus this remake becomes simply an extension of the original’s opening act. Pop in hot-to-trot Camilla Belle and Lance Henriksen’s silky voice as that of the caller and you can’t go wrong, can you?

Yes you can as a matter of fact. Stupid writing ruins most of what could have been a decent little thriller. For a start if you’re going to have one character be the sole focus of the film, you need to give her a bit of character so that we can root for her. Unfortunately Camilla Belle’s character is so weakly written, if this were a slasher you’d expect her to get chopped within the opening credits. Despite winning over plenty of male fans by wearing a tight orange top for most of the film, Belle doesn’t manage to do anything with the character baring whine and do stupid things. It’s not her fault that her character was lumbered with a pointless back story about splitting up from her boyfriend (just an excuse to throw in a red herring) but she does little to help matters with a performance she might as well have phoned in with (that’s a pretty poor gag given the film is about calling people).

Apart from one or two other minor characters, she is the only person in most of the film. Even the stranger doesn’t make an appearance till a good way through the film. Lance Henriksen goes uncredited but he is the voice behind the calls. If there’s ever one guy in the whole of Hollywood that needed to be a weird voice on the phone, it’s this guy. His voice is unmistakable and definitely adds a credible threat to the proceedings. The other problem with the film and the writing isn’t just with the main character, it’s the situations that she is put in. She’s got to be one of the dumbest characters I think I’ve seen in my time (and I’ve seen some corkers believe me). Everything in the horror rule book she does – checks on funny noises, asks who’s there and even ventures outside the safety of the house when she knows the caller is lurking nearby.

Tension is at a minimum and so is the violence. The film just devolves quickly into a repeating cycle of cat-and-mouse chasing around the house once the stranger is revealed to be inside the house. Before that we get plenty of shots of Camilla Belle walking along the corridors of the house investigating strange noises, usually to find out it’s either the cat or the washer or whatever – anything other than the killer! This isn’t a body count flick so don’t expect gratuitous kills. Even the stranger himself doesn’t seem that violent, just a bit weird. You’d have thought that after all of this, the film would get a bottom rung rating but it isn’t. There’s a few decent moments scattered throughout, including a great shot where the stranger is revealed to be hiding in the rafters, looking down. I also think that you watch this film in anticipation of something good happening but it never comes. However the fact you’re waiting for something to happen turns even the slightest bit of excitement into something heart-stopping. I’m being a bit sarcastic if you didn’t realise.

 

When a Stranger Calls isn’t a bad film, just a bland and generic one. It hasn’t got anything (violence, gore, tits!) to satisfy the harder horror crowd and it’s too light on the scares and teen drama to appeal to the under 18s. So who is this film marketed for? Beats me! If you’re really stuck for thrills on a Saturday night and there’s bugger all else at the video store then this will probably grab your attention…..but only after the last copy of Its A Boy/Girl Thing has rented out!

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Horror Express (1972)

Horror Express (1972)

Can it be stopped?

Professor Saxton has just found what he claims to be the missing link in human evolution and brings his find aboard the Trans-Siberian Express in order to ship it back to the west. Dr. Wells, a rival scientist, is sceptical and pays a baggage boy to drill a hole in the crate to see what it is. But no one knows that the creature is actually still alive and, by looking into the eyes of its victims, it can boil the brain and absorb their intelligence. What will everyone do with this beast running loose on the train?

 

Horror Express was made a time when Hammer still had a strangle-hold upon the horror market, with their period horrors featuring Frankenstein and Dracula still proving dependable, if somewhat repetitive, outings. This Spanish-British co-production was the third film that director Eugenio Martin had been contracted to make. So using expensive sets from Pancho Villa (notably the train and large sections of track), Horror Express was penned – sort of a scarier version of Agatha Christie’s famous Murder on the Orient Express, only this time with some sort of Yeti-like creature doing the killing. And when you add the two greatest horror stars of their generation, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, to proceedings, the end result is one of the best films of their pairing: Horror Express, a classic low budget horror which is every bit as weird and wonderful as its premise sounds.

A mixture of all manner of classic horror staples, Horror Express throws in stuff from zombies to brain-sucking monsters and religious hokum. There are plot holes a mile wild which are shoved aside, random occurrences which are just simply glossed over and a general sense that the film is heading in one direction whether everything makes sense or not. The isolation scenario is well-used and is a bit reminiscent of The Thing From Another World at times. The cramped hallways of the carriages are used frequently to create a bit of claustrophobia and the feeling that there is no way out even though it’s only a train. Dimly lit baggage cars and dingy lounges add to the notion that something loose on this train would be impossible to locate. For such a confined setting, the film does an admirable job of making it seem like the worst place in the world to be.

The monster itself isn’t around for long before it swaps bodies, which is probably a blessing because it doesn’t look too convincing in its normal Yeti-like form. However the damage it can do is pretty horrific and memorable with the images of its victims’ white, bleeding eyes being one that you certainly won’t forget after viewing. Nor will you forget about cutting someone’s skull open to see their brain as so ably demonstrated by Cushing in this film (a nod to Frankenstein perhaps). The gore factor is pretty high at times, though never over-indulgent, which adds to the 70s cheese of the film. The film is never about cheap thrills and though there are odd traces of camp lingering, the film never once strays into ridiculousness.

As so often in these horror efforts, it’s the stars of the film that make proceedings more viewable than they deserve to be and when you get the two best that the genre has to offer, even the most trite and absurd scripts could sound like Oscar-winning material – and above all, believable. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are marvellous here. The two men share such a chemistry when they’re on screen and it is clear to see that they were very good friends off screen too. Cushing’s wife died shortly before film started and it was Lee’s personal intervention which made Cushing agree to film (Cushing himself had stated that he was just killing time after her death until they would meet again – a tragic statement if ever I heard one). But despite looking a little frail, Cushing being the pro that he was manages to turn in another excellent performance. Lee is his usual bullish self as the more pompous of the two scientists. Through the course of the film, they manage to make the premise sound life-threatening, talking up the danger to everyone and treating the situation with the utmost respect and horror.

Telly Savalas pops up later on in the film and adds some boisterous, energetic demeanour to the film as a rogue Cossask commander who boards the train and arrests everyone. Also of worthy mention is Silvia Tortosa who plays Irina Petrovski – she’s a hottie and adds some glamour to proceedings.

 

Horror Express is a classic dosage of Euro-horror from the 70s: a solid mix of the Gothic Hammer approach with its more liberal Spanish trappings. You can’t go wrong with the two best actors that the genre has ever produced going up against a brain-sucking Yeti on a Trans-Siberian train!

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Severed: Forest of the Dead (2005)

Severed: Forest of the Dead (2005)

From the producers of White Noise and House of the Dead

A forestry company’s hormone experimentation goes horribly wrong as their genetically-enhanced tree sap inadvertently turns people into ravenous zombies. A group of environmentalists and lumberjacks in the forest must band together to try and get out of there alive.

 

The idea of a film involving ‘zombie lumberjacks’ isn’t exactly one which reached out and grab me by the throat so it’s no surprise to see that Severed: Forest of the Dead comes off as having lots of potential but fails to deliver it’s novelty idea with any real gusto. Maybe it’s because the overworked zombie genre has saturated the market so badly recently that it means that a lot of modern zombie films just don’t cut the mustard anymore. Or maybe it’s just evident that Carl Bessai loves the George A. Romero zombie films so much that he sees necessary to rip them off as much as he can. In doing so, he has forgotten to make his own zombie film and just rehashes plenty of tired clichés.

The film’s plot is just the usual MacGuffin to get the zombies unleashed. I’m honestly immune to criticisms of the ‘genetically-enhanced something’ plot now that I’ve seen it done for the thousandth time. As long as the resulting carnage is decent enough, I can forgive dodgy plots. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of carnage. In fact there isn’t a lot of plot. The characters just shuffle from one location to the next, always ending in the same conclusion – one character gets separated from the group and then swarmed by zombies before being killed. I lost track of the amount of times the group would run into a bunch of zombies, only for them to get overpowered and try to fight them off. It may work once or twice but not every ten minutes.

This is one of the underlying problems with Severed: Forest of the Dead – the script. It unleashes the zombies pretty early but then doesn’t know what it wants to do with everyone. Seeing people running around in the woods being chased by zombies for ninety-three minutes isn’t what I want to see. There is plenty of zombie action throughout the film but it rarely pauses to let you catch your breath. In trying to cram so much in, Bessai overloads the film too early and then has to keep regurgitating the same cycle of chase, stop, chase, stop over and over again. The attack scenes don’t work nearly half as good as they should do given the shaky camerawork on display. You want to see what is going on but the frustrating camera shifts focus too many times and doesn’t give you clear shots of what is going on. There’s not a major amount of gore on display either. Sure, a lot of characters get covered in blood spurts but there are no throat-ripping, neck-biting, limb-tearing goodies that other zombie flicks have in good supply. I guess the two things go hand-in-hand. Edit the attack scenes really quickly and no one will notice that there isn’t any blood on display.

It’s not all bad news though. The characters are pretty likeable, even if they do stupid things. You’ve got the hero who works for the company and the heroine who is an environmentalist. It’s not a shocker to see them hook up which clearly goes against her morals – how serious is she about saving the planet if she beds the boss’ son? There’s also Mac, one of the lumberjacks who is the token ‘elder’ character to look after all of the youngsters. There’s also the token weasel character that would rather save his skin than help out. It puzzles me to see him open the gates and let the zombies into the camp so that he can escape. Moments later, the other characters clearly know who did it but the survivors then risk their lives and try and help him from impending zombie doom. “Let him die” I was screaming.

Speaking of the weird script, there’s a bizarre twist in the film where the original characters meet up with a bunch of lumberjacks holed up in the forest in some Romero-esque vision of society breaking down. The lumberjacks play silly games like locking one of their own in a cage and seeing how many zombies they can kill. Given that the epidemic hasn’t taken the world over and for all they know the zombies are a local problem, these lumberjacks sure as hell break down into primitive savages with ease.

 

Severed: Forest of the Dead has a few moments of potential and there is a lot of zombie action but it’s just bogged down too much with a stupid script that seems more worried about it’s action quota than it is having a decent, common sense storyline with characters that behave normally.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Varan the Unbelievable (1962)

Varan the Unbelievable (1962)

From a World Below, It Came to Terrorize – To Destroy – To Revenge!

In an attempt to find a more economic means of purifying salt water, a joint US-Japanese military unit is set up on an isolated Japanese island where they find the perfect salt lake to test their experiments. However a giant monster lurks at the bottom and their experiments wake the creature, which goes on a destructive rampage.

 

After the enormous popularity and success of Godzilla in 1954, Toho decided to strike whilst the iron was hot and crank out a number of similarly-themed ‘giant monsters run amok’ movies. Godzilla received a second outing with a sequel, Rodan and Mothra both flew onto the scene and Varan was unearthed. For some reason (apart from the fact that this film isn’t very good), Varan never really hit it off like the others did. Rodan and Mothra both became staple enemies, and later friends, of Godzilla and made countless crossover appearances throughout the years. But Varan was never seen again, save for a token throwaway cameo in Destroy All Monsters in 1968. But the suit was in such poor condition by then that it was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

The version that I was originally reviewing here was the US version which was released four years later than the Japanese one, features a different director who presumably filmed the Americanised scenes, an entirely new musical score and a whole new cast of American actors. Much as what happened with the Raymond Burr bits added to Godzilla, the American version shows signs of being a totally different film to the original vision of Ishiro Honda who helmed the Japanese version. But having seen the Japanese one since my original review, I have to say that although the Americanisation is shoddy, it hardly makes much difference to the overall product. All they did was take a poor film and make it worse. Characters with pivotal roles in the Japanese version have been completely removed from the film and the new American actors given more screen time to ramble on and pad out proceedings. The scenes with Myron Healy seem totally out of place with what is going on as they hardly talk about Varan (the monster is never mentioned by name at all), dragging down the film’s pace dramatically. Despite the fact that new footage was shot for the US release, it still manages to clock in at seventeen minutes shorter! The Japanese version avoids most of these pitfalls but it still doesn’t hide the fact that film is low on budget, low on ideas and low on final product.

The decision to replace Akira Ifukube’s original score has to be the worst decision made though. Whilst the Godzilla series has received its far share of critics over the years for its scripts and production values, it was Ifukube’s outstanding scores which always deserved to be in films of far better quality. Critically acclaimed, Ifukube’s work was rightfully recognised as superb even if the films they were apart of were not up to the mark. He produced another great score here but it was sadly replaced.

You hardly see Varan throughout the film but when you eventually get to see him, he looks like a giant squirrel. In fact he flies in the Japanese version – so a giant flying squirrel. Rightly so, the American version cuts out this scene and keeps him grounded as the effects work in the original cut is so appalling that you can see wires and all sorts hanging down. Varan doesn’t get to do a lot of city-stomping either. After Godzilla and Rodan have laid waste to Tokyo, Varan has to contend with knocking over some small towns in poorly-filmed sequences. Not least there is the fact that Rodan was shot in colour two years earlier – the cost-cutting decision to go back to black-and-white further underlying Toho’s original desire to make this film as low maintenance as possible.

 

As it turns out, Varan the Unbelievable is a horrid mess no matter which version you get your hands on. The Japanese version is slightly better than the ridiculous Americanised version but both copies of the film would prove why Varan has disappeared from kaiju lore without so much as a whimper. Considering how some of the more popular Toho monsters have never received their own film, the decision to give Varan his own vehicle is mind-boggling.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

People That Time Forgot, The (1977)

The People That Time Forgot (1977)

FIRST ‘The Land That Time Forgot’. THEN ‘At The Earth’s Core’. NOW a fantastic incredible world of savage mystery…

After finding an SOS message in a bottle, Major Ben McBride organises a mission to the Antarctic to search for his friend, Bowen Tyler, who has been missing in the area for two years. But in order to find him, the search party must brave Caprona, the hostile prehistoric land populated by dinosaurs and cavemen.

 

Amicus seemed to hit a winning, if somewhat shallow, formula in the late 70s with a string of loose adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs books starting with The Land That Time Forgot in 1975 and following on with At the Earth’s Core in 1976. Starring Doug McClure and featuring a load of plastic dinosaur on miniature sets, the films were modest hits and to a young, impressionable child like me, they were the best thing since sweets. The imagination and scope of the films extended far, far beyond their meagre budgets and so what you ended up with are films with wear their hearts on their sleeve and try their hardest but at inevitably let down by the stodgy special effects.

Following on from The Land That Time Forgot, this sequel does a reasonable job of continuing the story of Bowen Tyler and how he survived in Caprona. It’s good to see Doug McClure back in the role to add continuity to the series. McClure starred in all four of these Amicus fantasy films and takes the films by the scruff of the neck. Nothing phases him and he emits cool whilst kicking caveman ass. McClure’s characters always had an uncanny knack of instantly understanding and communicating with primitive cavemen before falling in love with scantily-clad cave girls. McClure doesn’t turn up until half-way into proceedings, such is the nature of the rescue mission plot, but when he does, he immediately bosses the film.

There’s a solid cast of familiar actors in supporting roles too. Thorley Walters does another of his ‘bumbling brainy person’ roles he used to do all of the time for Hammer, Shane Rimmer is there as the token American whilst Patrick Wayne must have been hoping that his attempts to become a dashing hero would have more success with Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger because he makes for a bland lead. Also of note must be Dana Gillespie’s cleavage as the cave girl Ajor. If all cavewomen were as hot as she is (and Raquel Welch was in One Million Years BC) then it must have been a grand time to be a man alive on the planet. The characters are decent enough, if somewhat one-dimensional, and they all do the necessary jobs of either explaining the plot or provide the physical attributes to keep the plot flowing.

But for all of the talking that the characters do, it’s the dinosaurs which are the real attraction here and the special effects look just as cheap as they ever did. Combinations of stop motion, model work and men-in-suits are tried with various degrees of success. But no attempt has been made to make the dinosaurs even resemble actual dinosaurs. The clay, plastic, cardboard and pipe cleaner monsters aren’t scary in the slightest. The pterodactyl at the start clearly has no movement apart from an opening and closing jaw and in a later scene there is a hippo-like monster which explodes and is clearly just an immobile prop. There are lots of miniature sets too for these model monsters to stomp around on and there’s a few toy planes and ships flying and sailing around for good measure. This is 1977, the year of Star Wars, for goodness sake, not 1933! For all of the scope and imagination that the film tries to convey (and the cinematography for this ‘lost world’ is nothing short of amazing), it’s let down by the shoddy special effects.

 

The People That Time Forgot is a decent sequel and good cheesy fun with plenty of plot holes, special effects disasters and ridiculous dialogue. For the kids (or the adults who saw this as a kid), this one is pretty harmless and entertaining. It’s got a perfectly timeless quality to it which creates a mild sense of awe and wonder that many a modern blockbuster lacks.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Sorority House Massacre (1986)

Sorority House Massacre (1986)

Who’ll survive the final exam?

A killer escapes from a psychiatric ward and returns to the home where he killed his family years earlier. The home is now a sorority house filled with teenage girls and the killer wants to finish off the job of killing his family – by slaughtering his sister who is one of the girls.

 

Halloween anyone? Alarm bells should be ringing in your head at the sound of that plot. And if not then the title alone should send your imagination going into overdrive. A sorority house full of teenage girls and there’s a psycho on the loose….in an 80s slasher….surely a recipe for exploitation cheese at it’s finest. Well don’t let the title fool you into thinking that, Sorority House Massacre is nowhere near as sleazy as its title would suggest, which is to the detriment of the film.

Sorority House Massacre is a low brow attempt to muscle in on the slasher craze of the 80s but whereas a lot of films in this era went for goofy charm, lashings of gore and ample nudity, this one plays it straight – a little too straight and serious. Considering that director Carol Frank was an assistant on one of the 80s more fondly-remembered slashers, Slumber Party Massacre, it’s a shame to see that none of the charm or appeal from that one has been transferred over. I can appreciate that the people who made this wanted to go for mood over mayhem but they haven’t the faintest clue about how to achieve that.

Very little happens for the first three quarters of the film and then most of the kills are crammed into the final quarter as the film drifts into the more traditional slasher territory we expected from the get-go. For the rest of the film, we’re given plenty of uninteresting scenes of girls talking, girls dressing up in each other’s clothes, some more girls talking and then some guys talking to the girls. Boredom is the only killer here, not some crazed psychopath.

When the psycho finally turns up at the house, the ‘massacre’ of the title is nothing more than a below-average couple of quick kills, all done with the same pitiful knife. There is very little gore and there is no creativity to the kills whatsoever – this guy is as boring and unimaginative as the film. ‘Massacre’ this is not. There’s a decent body count (just under ten I believe) but you’ll be hard pressed to remember anything about the kills. He does start off as some normal human but as the film progresses and he starts to receive some damage from his actions, he turns into a Jason Vorhees-esque killer who is seemingly indestructible and can dive through windows on the top floor of houses without even so much as a scratch. The fact that he’s on-screen a lot kind of diminishes any sort of mystery or tension the film could have had by keeping him confined to the background. We know what he looks like now and we know that he’s not the most intimidating of characters. This is despite the film continuing to hammer home Beth, his sister, having dream sequences about a secret past. We know already, just get on with it.

As I’ve already said, the kills are uninspired and there’s little in the way of that other exploitation staple – the nudity. With a sleaze-ridden title like this, there’s no way that the female cast should have remained clothed. Sorry to sound like a lecherous fan boy but the film skimps on the two key elements that the 80s slashers were notorious for. If the film had managed to nail the atmosphere, throw in some scares and keep things running smoothly until the end, then I’d be able to let this go. But when a film is this dull, plodding, badly acted and generally tough to sit through, then these small mercies would have gone a long way to livening things up. Some fast food for the eyes before the main serving was dished out would have gone a long way.

 

I was hoping for some exploitation slasher escapism like Slumber Party Massacre but instead got a really lame waste of time. Don’t be fooled by the box art and promise of some T&A, gore and groovy death scenes – Sorority House Massacre has very little of all three and seems to be wasted potential more than outright terrible film making.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Gamera Vs Viras (1968)

Gamera Vs Viras (1968)

Gamera falls under the influence of aliens using a mind control device and they order him to destroy Earth. Two young boys manage to stop the aliens and Gamera then has to fight the aliens’ leader, Viras, a giant squid.

 

Gamera, the poor relation to Godzilla (the dominant statesman of kaiju films) sees his prospects slump to a new low in Gamera Vs Viras. Released in America as Destroy All Planets, the film was no doubt re-titled to cash in on Godzilla’s highly memorable Destroy All Monsters. Calling this whatever else it wants makes no difference because Gamera Vs Viras is disappointing. It’s worse than disappointing though, it’s appalling. The Gamera series was always aimed more at the younger demographic, featuring a couple of Japanese school kids in the lead roles and being the ones to help Gamera save the Earth. As a result the films come off more juvenile and cartoony than they should and certainly dafter than the majority of Godzilla films. But I guess with this being aimed towards kids, the goofier the better, right?

The other Gamera films never had much of a budget in the first place but this entry seems to have no budget at all. Instead of using new footage to show some of the things that the plot has Gamera do, they’ve simply cut bits out of the previous films and used the stock footage. This leads to all manner of terrible continuity issues as one moment Gamera destroys a dam in glorious Technicolour and then a moment later he’s smashing up Tokyo in black and white footage. Not least there’s the problem of the minor changes to the suits in between Gamera films. And no one is supposed to notice? It’s only kids watching remember – surely they won’t fall for the oldest trick in the book to keep costs down?

The ‘aliens trying to conquer Earth’ theme is the staple diet of a kaiju film – this time they dress like surgeons and wear berets. Their ship is a couple of painted-over plastic bottle tops stuck together. Their control systems look like kaleidoscopes. And of course, they’re all Japanese-looking aliens. But again, no one is supposed to notice. It’s for kids! They are pampered by overly cutesy dialogue, the fact that the lead school kids are boy scouts and one of the most awfully ear-splitting songs ever made, the ‘fight song’ that the kids sing.

Gamera looks quite cheap again and his opponent, Viras, looks awful. The giant squid doesn’t have much movement despite the numerous tentacles. The fight scene at the end between him and Gamera isn’t bad but with limited movement from both parties, the action mainly consists of static dummies being thrown through the air. They fight on land and underwater and it’s the sort of daft entertainment that one should be getting from the Gamera films, not kids in tight shorts fending off Japanese aliens in surgeon outfits. The main problem is that Viras just doesn’t get enough screen time. Yes the suit looks awful but like all special effects, their initial effect wears off over time as the audience becomes accustomed to it. If we’d have seen a lot more of the monster, we wouldn’t have been too bothered about seeing the zipper because we’d be too focused on the monsters duking it out.

 

Gamera Vs Viras is a mess of a monster flick. Too much stock footage. Too many silly goings on. And not enough monster action. I think even the kids that this is aimed at would see right through the empty shell of this sorry kaiju.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Skeeter (1993)

Skeeter (1993)

Earth is the final breeding ground.

As the result of a local businessman illegally dumping toxic waste, the residents of a small desert town find themselves under attack by a swarm of giant mutated mosquitoes.

 

Though massive in the 50s, films about giant insects have never really made it back into the spotlight despite odd threats of resurgence every now and then. But in the glory days of the straight-to-video B movie market of the late 80s and early 90s, low budget creature feature films were all the rage. Be they Alien-style sci-fi horrors in outer space, post-apocalyptic creatures in futuristic landscapes or mutated monsters on the loose in small towns, it was a glory time for the video rental market. So in the early 90s, a handful of low budget giant insects films emerged and instantly reminded everyone of why there hadn’t been many of them made.

Skeeter is a pre-Sy Fy Channel flick before the company gained the monopoly on such rubbish monster movies. You know the score: small town, corrupt businessmen/scientists, monsters on the loose and any number of clichés regurgitated. Not only content with providing the heroes of the piece with a monster menace to face off against, these films also conjure up some human villains to bite into screen time and keep the plot focus firmly away from showing the monsters. In this case it’s a businessman and a corrupt sheriff but it could have been a mad scientist and mayor, a gangster and a doctor or any number of characters that crop up in these films. The bottom line is that providing a human villain allows the film to pad itself out greatly. He/she becomes the main focus and the monsters become almost secondary. That’s the case here as the mosquitoes get very little to do and it’s almost thirty minutes between the first attack and the next attack. There are a few numerous sub-plots (including the stereotypical big company trying to buy everyone out and cover it all up) and a lame romantic side story, which adds absolutely nothing to the film, except a non-graphic sex scene.

Though to say that there are big gaps between attacks, Skeeter seems to even make this time seem like an eternity with a pedestrian pace which just hinders any attempts to get any momentum injected into proceedings when the mosquitoes do attack. That said, when they do appear they look poor. Dragged along by invisible string, they are a far cry from the huge mosquito as pictured on the front cover and there aren’t that many of them. They’ve also got thermal vision (think Predator) which leads to a couple of POV attacks. A necessary ingredient of big bug flicks is to have plenty of goo and gunge when the bugs are destroyed and expect to see a decent amount of make-up effects as slime and all sorts of nasty fluids are dripped and splashed across the screen. It’s not an all-out gunk fest but does the job it needs to do.

Skeeter has little else going for it except Charles Napier who (surprise, surprise) plays the bad ass local sheriff. Napier can play these authority figures in his sleep and he’s on cruise control here. It’s a clichéd role but the rest of the parts are too. They’re so clichéd that the clichéd character is in danger of being a cliché itself! George ‘Buck’ Flower and Michael J. Pollard also appear in small roles, peppering the town with its customary collection of bums and weirdos to feed to the mosquitoes. I think back to the similarly-themed Mosquito which featured a throwaway but decent part for Gunnar Hansen (of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fame) and played up the laughs and cheese a bit more and was infinitely more entertaining. Skeeter’s best hope would have been to turn itself into a light-hearted, self-aware romp instead of trying, and failing, to go down the serious route.

 

Never mind the giant mosquitoes – Skeeter alone will suck the life out of you. I don’t think it deserves the place it used to hold in IMDB’s Bottom 100 (it was there at time of original writing a few years ago) but it’s still pretty awful from the off.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge (1989)

Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989)

Be nice to Eric. Or Eric won’t be nice to you.

When a rich businessman opens up a new mall in town, everything seems great for all involved. However the mall hides a terrible secret. A year earlier, the site was occupied by a house whose owner, Eric, refused to move to allow construction to take place. The house was burned down in mysterious circumstances and Eric was presumed buried inside. But Eric is still alive and lurks around the air ducts and corridors of the mall, taking revenge on those responsible for his grisly face.

 

By the end of the 80s, the humble slasher film was all but dead and buried amidst years of over-saturation. Here we have Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge limping along aimlessly at the end of the decade, devoid of fresh material and even opting for a Phantom of the Opera-like spin on the slasher formula. Hokey and derivative right from the start, Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge doesn’t have a great deal going for it.

One of the first things to strike me is that there’s little substance to all of the carnage. The film kicks off with Eric killing a security guard and then proceeds to provide little explanation as to who, what and why Eric is and does what he does for a good portion of the running time. All it seems to be is Eric killing people without any sort of connection. Of course if you’ve read the plot summary on the DVD or read the synopsis elsewhere then you’ll know why but should the audience really need to find out from other sources – the film should be doing some sort of explaining. I don’t expect to be spoon fed the plot but at least let us know what is going on before it’s too late. Towards the end we’re finally told of the fire and the cover-up but the random nature of the opening half is pretty disjointing.

Eric is some sort of half-assed Phantom of the Opera: presumed dead in a fire, wearing a white half-face mask and listening to power ballads in his secret lair (this was the 80s after all). He’s also extremely bitter and kills a lot of the characters simply because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. He uses the requisite supply of 80s slasher weapons to kill his victims including king cobra snake, crossbow and even slices a guy’s face off by shoving it into an air conditioning fan. Unfortunately because the film is pretty dimly lit, you don’t get to see a great deal of splatter. As with most of the 80s slashers, the only reason to watch Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge is to see a variety of unappealing characters being killed by a maniac in various grisly ways. The film really disappoints in this respect, although as the film goes along, the more annoying and cartoon-esque characters (including the sleazy businessman, hired goon and corrupt mayor) all get their comeuppance. Despite the innovative dispatch methods, they’re not fully satisfying enough had they been a bit gorier and messier.

The acting is also as bad as you’d expect it to be. Derek Rydall, as Eric, has his voice masked by a voice box making him sound like Darth Vader at times. For some reason, becoming the Phantom of the Mall has turned him into some martial arts expect, although I guess it’s because that’s all he does in the basement. No wonder he wants some female company down there. Jonathan Goldsmith hams up the evil businessman role and the few females in the film provide a little glamour but nothing else, not even the nudity. Ken Foree, of Dawn of the Dead fame, pops up as a pervert security guard but I’m sure the whole purpose of his presence was to provide a token nod to the mall setting from Romero’s masterpiece. And for added cheese, the mall has its own explosives store (!) which is in the film for the sole purpose of providing Eric with a place to find a bomb to blow the mall up in the finale.

 

You should know the 80s slasher drill by now. No scares, suspense, story, acting or characters – just novelty death scenes and a psychotic villain. Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge isn’t the worst slasher out there but by the time it was released, it was scraping the barrel for material and it shows.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Rats: Night of Terror (1984)

Rats: Night of Terror (1984)

Mutants of a nuclear disaster

Hundreds of years after a nuclear war has devastated the planet, a group of nomadic bikers stumble across an old research lab filled with essential food and water – and thousands of rats. In the years since the war, the rats have become flesh-eating monsters and the bikers find themselves top of the menu.

 

Finally I have found time to check out this infamous Italian low budget classic and it’s every bit as stupendous as it’s made out to be. It’s precisely the sort of Italian exploitation nonsense that gave the country its reputation for producing dodgy films during the late 70s and 80s. Rats: Night of Terror could only have been made in Italy – the premise mixing up the post-apocalyptic scenario made popular at the time by the likes of Mad Max and throws in one of cinema’s worst representatives of the nature-runs-amok genre – the rat.

Let’s face it: rats aren’t the scariest things in the world. They may make people jump on the furniture or tuck their trousers into their socks but they’re not up there alongside sharks or crocodiles when it comes to pant-wetting. Leave it in the less-than-capable hands of notorious hack Bruno Mattei, the man responsible for such diverse horrors as Zombie Creeping Flesh and Monster Shark, and the end result is one of the messiest films to emerge from Italy in its long, varied history of horror. Obviously you’re not going to swallow the idea of killer rats without having your tongue in your cheek at the time. And after watching Rats: Night of Terror, your mind will have been changed little, if at all.

It kicks off with some stock footage of some desert and runs down the story of the nuclear war and how life has changed. Cue the Mad Max moments with the biker gang, each member having one-word names like “Chocolate,” “Duke” and “Lucifer” and sporting the ‘futuristic’ look that only the 80s could have provided. It all comes off looking like one of those early 90s side-scrolling beat-em-ups like Streets of Rage where hordes of enemies were given generic names like “Scarab” and “Dwight.” No attempt is made to give the characters any further identity barring these one-word names so their originality is the only characterisation you’ll get here. They’ve all got bad dubbing jobs too and coupled with the banal script, it makes for some unpleasant characters. It isn’t long before this gang fall afoul of the killer rats and this is where the film becomes interesting.

Bizarrely, the film runs like your standard zombie flick from this point onward where the characters barricade themselves inside from an onslaught, only this time it’s an onslaught of rats. They get well fed in the film so there are no complaints there. The highly ludicrous attacks simply consist of the actors being swamped by a bucket load of rats, seemingly poured in by stage hands off-screen. Some people will actually squirm at scenes of people being covered in the rodents so maybe it’s not all that ridiculous, even making me cringe in a few moments. The rats manage to get pretty much everywhere as well, including a sleeping bag with a nude female.

But due to the low budget, there are only a limited number of rodents on-screen at any one time and in one laughable scene (well the whole film is laughable, just this scene is a little bit more), about twenty rats manage to blockade a staircase and stop the characters from using it. When you see how docile the rats are, you’ll be amazed at the fear they produce in the characters who are petrified for their lives. They could just run past but no, they decide to tremble. In a further sign of budgetary setbacks, a scene in which the rats attack looks like a load of toy rats stuck onto a conveyer belt. Yes, it’s that type of film.

 

For some reason, Mattei claimed that this was his personal favourite out of all of the films he made. I can’t honestly see why! The gore levels are low and there’s little in the way of gratuitous nudity, save for the token sex scene. I know he was used to working on low budgets but this was one takes the biscuit. Rats: Night of Terror is on par with his other work, with the advantage for this being that we all expect a film about killer rats to be as awful as it turns out to be.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆