Furnace (2006)

Furnace (2007)

Somewhere between prison and hell lies the furnace.

A sudden spate of suicides amongst inmates occurs when a long-closed section of Blackgate Prison is re-opened to house an overflow of prisoners. Detective Michael Turner is called in to investigate these tragedies and slowly uncovers the real supernatural story: that a vengeful spirit has been unearthed and is out to get revenge.

 

Furnace is every bit as dull and as predictable as it sounds, just another generic ghost film which throws in the same one or two frame close-ups of ghosts, lots of nauseating camera work and a general sense of been there, done that. The Asians have pretty much cornered the market in creepy ghost stories featuring child ghosts and there’s nothing that Furnace has in its arsenal that even comes close to matching its international supernatural competition.

In fact there’s not a large amount of the supernatural on show here. Most of Furnace is grounded in the traditional cop thriller mould and there are lots of scenes of our heroic detective piecing together bits of the puzzle by questioning, reading up on articles and generally being a nuisance around the prison. When the film stays inside the confines of the prison, Furnace isn’t too bad. It was shot inside an old Tennessee prison so the realistic setting gives it some added impact above anything some stage sets could handle. Some of the scenes inside do manage to kick start the film into life, particularly the early ‘suicide’ inside one of the cells and there are some solid special effects including crawling severed fingers. But these are too sporadic and the film never really gets going, opting to stay within its limited scope instead of trying anything adventurous.

Michael Pare plays Detective Turner completely by-the-book. He’s action man when he needs to be, he’s tender and romantic when he’s wooing the ladies and he’s good at his job during the “let’s play cop” scenes. Pare is solid enough to do what is expected of his character in the film but there’s not an awful lot of depth to his character despite some attempts at back story. Tom Sizemore co-stars as one of the prison guards who has history with Turner. Naturally this sub-plot goes virtually nowhere and is simply another obstruction for Turner to get past in his quest to solve the case. Sizemore phones the performance in and, save for an unintentionally-hilarious scene where he completely flips and starting shooting inmates, the role is very poorly written.

Spare a thought for Danny Trejo, a man so entrenched in stereotype that you just assume he’s going to be playing the same role in every film he’s in. Trejo stars as, you guessed it, a tough guy inmate. He’s joined by rapper Ja Rule but both characters are so insignificant to the main story that it would have been better to cut them out entirely and devote a bit more time to the main characters.

 

Furnace is a lifeless ghost flick, trapped between playing up the horror aspects and playing out the crime thriller aspects. Lumbering along a dull path, it manages to do neither aspect very well.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Christmas Evil (1980)

Christmas Evil (1980)

You’d better take care…Santa is coming to town!

After witnessing his mother getting a little too friendly with Santa when he was a kid, Harry grows up to be obsessed with Christmas. Working in a toy factory, he keeps a record of which children in the neighbourhood have been naughty and which have been nice. Eventually he is driven over the edge after seeing his company’s disregard for the quality of the toys they make and he goes around town dressed as Santa, killing those who don’t believe in the magic of the festive season.

 

Often thought of as a slasher flick that latched onto the nearest free holiday-themed day that writers could find in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Christmas Evil is not THE film about a killer Santa which got American parents picketing cinemas, despite the similar poster featuring Santa about to pop down a chimney holding an axe. That, my friends, is Silent Night, Deadly Night. But by the time Christmas Evil has finished, you’d be wishing that you’d put that one instead to get your fill of foolish festive frights.

I think part of the problem here is the way in which Christmas Evil has been marketed, clearly painting itself as a slasher film and hoping to attract the blood-thirsty audiences. It isn’t anything of the sort though, ending up as some second-rate loner-turns-into-psycho movie which just so happens to be set at Christmas. I don’t know where the blame lies – the title was even changed from You Better Watch Out into Christmas Evil so whether it was a director’s thing or a producer’s decision remains to be seen. Whatever it’s called, the fact remains that it’s a dull affair. Like Christmas, you spend way too long waiting for it to happen and then it’s all over in the blink of an eye.

Christmas Evil is certainly, well, Christmassy. The theme is in full effect here – festive music, decorations, trees, snow and lots of guys in red suits and white beards. In many respects it does a better job at recreating this time of the year better than most mainstream schmaltzy Christmas films try to do. Shot on a low budget, one-time only director Lewis Jackson gives the film a decent polish, never once belaying it’s lack of cash. Along comes the mean-spiritedness of the film which, surprisingly enough, isn’t  aimed at the main character but at others around him. For all of his murderous moments, Harry  isn’t the Norman Bates of the holiday season – he’s a nice guy who loves Christmas and is sick of the way others treat it with contempt. He just wants to bring the true spirit of Christmas back to the masses. For this reason, the film tries to earn your sympathy for the character and it does a reasonable job of getting it. But it’s hard work getting there. Boy is Christmas Evil slow, arduous work.

The only redeeming factor to Christmas Evil is Brandon Maggart who jumps into the role of Harry as if he’s going for an Oscar. His slow turn into a psychopath is believable enough but it’s a shame that not much is done with it in the end. It takes too long for him to snap and when he does, he doesn’t really do anything that he wasn’t doing before – well with the exception of a few murders! This isn’t a body count film but when it’s bandied around in the ‘slasher’ sections I expect more than four deaths, three of which happen within thirty seconds of each other. I’m sure that it would take more than four people to die before the delusional Harry was satisfied that he’d got his message across.

Despite the film trying to play itself off as a serious character study, there are too many silly moments strewn throughout which beg the question of why the writers didn’t go for the black comedy approach from the get-go. From a bunch of kids making a human shield around the killer Santa to ward off a group of torch-wielding adults to seeing a load of guys dressed as Santa in a police line-up to an ending which presages the most famous scene from E.T. by a couple of years, the film plants its tongue firmly in its cheek when it deems it necessary. But then in the next breath we’re expected to take Harry’s human drama seriously. It’s an uneven line crossing an one which could have been made clearer at the start.

 

Like an unwanted pair of socks or a Christmas jumper, by the time Christmas Evil has finished, you’d wish that Santa had skipped your house completely. There is more character work in here than a dozen slasher flicks but there’s little else to go on and in the end, it’s so slow that you won’t need the glass of wine to doze off on Christmas Day afternoon – stick this on instead and watch the Zzzzzs start to fly.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Jack Frost (1997)

Jack Frost (1997)

He’s chillin…and killin!

Serial killer Jack Frost is on his way to be executed when his prison transport is involved in a nasty accident with a lorry carrying some experiment genetic material. Covered in the chemicals, his DNA becomes mutated, turning him into a snowman and giving the ability to freeze and melt at will. With his new found abilities, Frost sets off to get revenge on the sheriff who busted him and anyone else who gets in his way.

 

If you’re looking for the mushy, kiddie Jack Frost film with Michael Keaton then you’ve come to the worst place possible. This is about as far away in the opposite direction that you could be. But I know which I’d rather be sitting down to watch and it doesn’t involve ex-Batmans! With such an absurd premise for a horror flick, how can you really go wrong with this Jack Frost? If you’ve even made it as far as to putting the VHS/DVD in your player or downloaded/streamed the film, then you’ve passed the test and can sit back and enjoy what low budget film making can offer when it’s at its most creatively ludicrous!

Jack Frost embraces it’s outlandish theme and milks it for all it’s worth. You’ll hate this if you have a low tolerance for cheese and camp but look beyond that and you’ll see a true love for the genre and a desire to make this as credible as possible – we are dealing with a killer snowman but the film knows that too and runs with the prospect. Admittedly it’s a one-note premise but the script keeps things zipping along briskly enough and goes through the requisite slasher elements like a do-it-yourself manual. Basically moving from one clichéd character to the next, Jack slices his way across the town in a variety of Christmas-themed set pieces and accompanied by festive music, the highlight of which probably being death by Christmas tree lights. There’s also an infamous scene in which a nubile young woman (played by Shannon Elizabeth) is on the wrong end of Jack’s carrot when he re-materializes himself in her bath. It all adds to the fun.

The actual snowman suit looks hilarious – no CGI here – and you would never have thought that something like that could be so deadly. There’s not a lot of movement in it so most of the shots of Jack are just of the snowman standing there. He’s got the ability to melt and re-freeze at will which leads for great POV shot as he trickles across the floor in water form. Director Michael Clooney recognises how limited the suit is and uses the camera as best as he can to hide its weaknesses, with the only real problems coming in the finale when the snowman is expected to do more than just stand around.  How do you kill a snowman anyway? If you melt him, he can re-freeze and come back to life. The characters in the film try almost everything including attacking him with hairdryers. In the end it comes down to anti-freeze to put an end to his frost ways. Or not as the sequel would prove.

Scott McDonald relishes the role of Jack Frost, briefly appearing in human form at the beginning but mainly cast for his sarcastic voice. Snowman Frost comes off as some ice-cold version of Freddy Krueger, firing off a series of puns and one-liners, most of which hit the mark but some of which are groan-worthy. Christopher Allport is a bit bland as the sheriff but can deadpan like the best of the film and makes sure that the ridiculous shenanigans seem funnier than they should be by his stoic reactions. There’s a killer snowman on the loose but it could be Jack the Ripper for the seriousness which with he takes his job. The rest of the townspeople are played up to be annoying caricatures and even the aforementioned Ms Elizabeth doesn’t appear fully nude in the bath scene, this coming before her big break in American Pie.

 

Destined to be a cult classic, Jack Frost is one of the few really cheap and tacky films that plays on its own ridiculous premise and turns it into something hilariously enjoyable. If you’re looking to a film about a killer snowman to try and be anything but cheesy fun, then get a damned life. It’s the festive horror flick which keeps on giving!

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Incredible Melting Man, The (1977)

The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

The first new horror creature

An astronaut returns to Earth from an ill-fated mission to Saturn and is stricken with an awful disease, literally melting away. Escaping his hospital confinement, he finds that the only way that he can stay alive is to kill and eat human flesh.

 

With a title like The Incredible Melting Man, what do you think you are going to get when sitting down to watch it? Well there’s a man in it and, yes, he does melt. 1977 may have been more noted for its other monstrous sci-fi hit (a film set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) but this low budget goop-fest showed that there was still life in adult-orientated shock-horror sci-fi that didn’t involve gold-plated droids and heavy-breathing bad guys. Don’t make any mistakes though – The Incredible Melting Man is not a good film and has been sent up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, though whether it warranted such an accolade remains to be seen.

The Incredible Melting Man sounds decent in concept – the idea of astronauts returning to Earth after being stricken with galactic diseases out of the limits of human knowledge has been a well that many sci-fi films have tapped in to (The Quatermass Experiment springs to mind). But the execution of that concept is woeful. With direction that is lifeless, a script that is as bizarre as it is terrible (with arguments about crackers being a random highlight) and overall production values that scream 70s movie, the film should never have been given the fame that it seems to have garnered.

Well that is until the make-up effects are called in question. When you sit down to watch a film about an incredible melting man, you expect to see an incredible melting man. Thankfully, and rather surprisingly given the poor quality of everything else on show, the special effects are marvellous but that’s expected when Rick Baker is behind them (he did the make-up inStar Wars the same year as this). The gradual decay of the ‘melting man’ is disgusting and you really sympathise for the character all the way through the film right through to the final meltdown.He is a gruesome sight to behold and the effects are done splendidly – at one point one of his eyes just drops out because the flesh and bone holding it in place has melted so badly.Though clearly not meant to have any deeper meaning in the script, the idea that by killing someone else you can preserve your own life is a moral dilemma that would make for interesting analysis. If you were in his position, would you kill to extend your life? Or just horribly melt away?

Unfortunately the special effects are the only positive in the film – the rest of The Incredible Melting Manis virtually a plot-less stalk ‘n’ slash film in which we’re introduced to a minor non-character, they are given a few brief moments to impress the camera and try and eek out some sort of personality before they meet their doom at the hands of Mr Gloop. Replace the astronaut with a guy in a mask and a machete and you have the sort of structure to the narrative.

The acting is shocking too, porn industry standards have been set higher. Undoubtedly the star of the show is of course Alex Rebar as the Melting Man who just stumbles around the woods like a zombie and doesn’t really do much since he’s usually caked up in make-up. The script says that he’s getting stronger as he melts and that he can kill people easier but surely if he’s losing body mass, bone structure and muscle tone, he’ll be getting weaker?

 

Ah who cares?The Incredible Melting Man is absolute nonsense with the exception of Rick Baker’s special effects and it has become a cult favourite because it’s so appalling. Check it out and have a good laugh at how a reasonable concept can make a trashy film when the makers of the film have no idea what to do with it.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Nazis at the Centre of the Earth (2012)

Nazis at the Centre of the Earth (2012)

Dead…But Not Gone.

A team of researchers at an Antarctica station are abducted by a mysterious squad of masked storm troopers and taken hostage deep into a lost continent at the centre of the Earth. They find that, in the dying days of the Second World War, infamous Auschwitz butcher Dr Joseph Mengele fled Nazi Germany and set up a secret base. Here, they have been planning for the return of the Third Reich, developing highly advanced weapons and prolonging their lives through grotesque skin grafting techniques. With the addition of the knowledge of the research team to perfect the invasion plans, the Nazis hope to conquer the Earth.

 

The Asylum have done it again! With the recent release of Iron Sky, about a secret Nazi colony on the moon which plans to conquer Earth, the studio famous for its ‘mockbusters’ comes up with Nazis at the Centre of the Earth, a $200,000 cheapie about a secret Nazi colony in the centre of the Earth which plans to conquer the planet. Who said creativity in Hollywood was dead?

I’ve been hard on The Asylum for their ridiculous cashing in of higher profile films like Transmorphers and their never-ending slew of truly awful monsters films like Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus. Reality, logic, common sense and physics all get thrown out of the window with a ‘rapidly throw everything at the screen’ motto. They attempt to make their films look big budget but end up doing the exact opposite. But is the tide turning? For the first time, I can honestly say that I enjoyed an Asylum mockbuster better than the film it was supposed to be ripping off. Iron Sky promised a lot and looked fantastic, with some amazing set design for the advanced Nazi moon base and the simple fact that it had Nazis – from the moon! But it was all too daft to fully enjoy and it would have worked far better as a more serious sci-fi-horror film (if you could buy into the premise, which isn’t all as daft as it sounds).

Nazis at the Centre of the Earth takes the idea of a hidden colony of Nazis and runs with the ball like Iron Sky should have done. After a bit of a sluggish start to set characters up, once the group are captured by the Nazis and taken underground the film turns into one of those trashy Nazi Euro-horror sleaze fests of the 70s. In mean-spirited scenes, there are forced abortions, shower gang-rapes and un-anaesthetised surgery to name a few instances of brutality. Its unpleasant stuff, kind of out of character for The Asylum’s usual ‘cheap and cheerful’ approach but completely in synch with the character of the Nazis and what they did in real life. This is exactly the sort of perverse sadism that Iron Sky should have been revelling in: playing upon the Nazis’ reputation instead of turning them into clowns.

Nazis at the Centre of the Earth is still dogged by The Asylum’s usual cheap special effects. Outdoor scenes in the snow are in fact shot in studios in front of green screens which will convince no one watching of their authenticity. Vehicles, planes, spaceships and buildings look like computer game effects. Think of how much CGI George Lucas used in the Star Wars prequels and multiply that by ten (but subtract loads of points for the quality) and you’ll get the gist of how overworked the special effects guys must have been for this film. Pretty much everything you see except the human actors is computer-generated. Usually these effects have been to the detriment of the film but because everything that happens here is so completely off-beat and insane, there’s little time to even stop and think about how terrible everything looks.

The worst special effect is saved for one very special moment which happens two-thirds of the way in. I honestly can’t reveal anything else here except that this part comes out of nowhere and its one of the most brilliantly bonkers things I’ve ever seen. Words alone can’t explain how ridiculously amazing this moment is. It’s so crazy that it’s worth watching the film for on its own. It’s at this point where the film jumps the shark. Up until this point, it had all been dark and depressing but the gear shift around thirty-five minutes from the end is just totally out of the blue. Laser beams, robots that look like Autobots and Decepticons, flying Nazi spaceships and more all going hurtling around the screen.

Out of the cast, Jake Busey is the only real notable star and he looks almost bewildered as to what is going on, like he wondered in off another set. It’s the performance of Christopher Karl Johnson as Joseph Mengele which really menaces the screen. Though it seems like everything else around him is turning into a nightmarish acid trip, Johnson keeps the genuine fear factor throughout as the chilling Auschwitz butcher. Don’t get too attached to the rest of the cast either – the Nazis take good care of the majority of them.

 

Nazis at the Centre of the Earth is arguably The Asylum’s best film to date. By any criteria, it’s one of the worst films ever made. Ultra-camp, ultra-silly, utterly insane and completely unmissable. The last thirty-five minutes feature some of the most mind-bending low budget movie moments of all time. Stop reading and go and watch it. Love it or hate it, you’ll never forget it!

 

Invisible Man, The (1933)

The Invisible Man (1933)

Catch me if you can!

Jack Griffin is a scientist who has developed a way of making himself invisible but he does not know how to reverse the process. As the drugs he had experimented with slowly make him go insane, he recruits a visible partner in the shape of Arthur Kemp. But the invisibility has granted him unlimited power and he begins a reign of terror unlike anything seen before. As the authorities close in and Kemp becomes an unwilling co-conspirator, Griffin must struggle with his sanity and find a cure before its too late.

 

After scoring a hit with the ultimate landmark horror film, Frankenstein, director James Whale was called upon to helm this adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel and it was highly anticipated after his earlier success. Using a similar template to Frankenstein, with a triangle of main characters and a lead character who suddenly acquires God-like powers which corrupt them, Whale sets out to tell one of literature’s most famous stories in what has now become one of cinema’s most famous films. The Invisible Man is, if you’ll pardon the pun, like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The film opens with a gripping introduction – the shadowy figure of Griffen, all gauze-bandaged and waterproof-coated up, trudges through the snow towards a guest house before opening the door to the busy bar area and demanding a room in front of the shell-shocked regulars. There is no gradual transformation – we arrive in mid-story as Griffin has already transformed into the Invisible Man. Everything is much more interesting to the audience at first, not knowing who Griffin is, how he came to be and why he wants to be left alone to continue his experiments. The rudeness and aggression in his voice instantly singles him out as unlikeable but there is something utterly compelling about the character. The assuredness that he commands those around him with and the brash confidence that he has in his own abilities is too hard not to like, or at least respect.

As the film progresses and Griffin descends into total insanity, the horror of the chilling events that unfold comes to life. He has no qualms about taking life to prove a point. By the end of the film, Griffin is responsible for the deaths of over one hundred people, with his most heinous act being the derailment of a train. A far cry from the physical monstrosities associated with Frankenstein and Dracula, the Invisible Man is a monster for the new age – human, corrupted with the thoughts of absolute power. But running concurrently alongside the terror, there is a distinct comic tone with supporting characters, particularly the townspeople, playing up the comic relief. From bumbling police constables to a landlady who does nothing but incessantly scream, the comedy aspects shouldn’t work alongside the absolute horror but bizarrely enough, they make them seem worse.

The effects work is nothing short of outstanding, near flawless at times. Even in today’s CGI cinematic world, these practical effects from the 30s look believable, bordering on the ridiculous at times for just how hard it must have been to pull them off back in the day. From footprints appearing in the snow to bicycles riding themselves down the street to the sight of the Invisible Man smoking a cigarette or undressing himself in front of a mirror, they are the stuff of science fiction come to life on the screen. The last shot of the film with the reappearance of Griffen on the hospital bed is still fantastic. Granted some of the effects do look a little gimmicky in today’s world – the stuff that you’d see at a ghost train ride or circus haunted house – but put together they have lost none of their magic. Most importantly, the special effects never detract from the quality of the human drama. As good as they are, it is the characters and their conflicts with each other that are the real stars.

Claude Rains is excellent as Jack Griffin, though at times the script does him few favours and forces him to overdo the melodramatic fervour with some grandiose lines of world domination-like intent. You only get to see his face in one shot throughout the duration of the film. For one half of the film, he’s buried beneath a layer of bandages and for the other half, he’s invisible. So Rains must act with his voice alone and that he does admirably. It’s a strong, commanding voice which demands the attention of the viewer. Through his voice alone, Rains turns Griffin into one of cinema’s most evil characters, following this up with his actions later by callously pushing men over cliffs or causing trains to derail. A couple of throwaway lines in the film by his employer, Dr Cranley, states that Griffen never used to be this way and was a kind, caring man before the drugs started to make him go insane. This takes the edge off the character somewhat, softening him up for audiences and getting us on board to sympathise with the character. But this doesn’t detract from the monstrous nature of Griffin when he’s invisible. No remorse. No pity. If you needed further proof, his maniacal laughing after he’s committed a heinous act will leave you disgusted.

 

It is the mix of H.G. Wells’ unforgettable story with a wonderful voice-only performance from Claude Rains and a bevy of incredible special effects and technical feats which make The Invisible Man one of the all-time classics. To this day, there hasn’t been a single film about invisibility which has managed to top this one for sheer spectacle – the first and the best.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Navy Vs The Night Monsters, The (1966)

The Navy Vs The Night Monsters (1966)

All-Devouring Carnivorous Trees That Move On Their Own Roots!

A scientific expedition to the deep Antarctic discovers unusual tree specimens and they are to be shipped back for further study. But the plane carrying them is involved in a mysterious crash on Gow Island, home to a small US naval weather station, and the trees are accidentally introduced to the soil there. The ‘trees’ soon reveal themselves to be acid-spewing monsters that live by night and soon the garrison on the island find themselves under attack.

 

A weird cross between The Thing from Another World and Day of the Triffids, Navy Vs The Night Monsters has rightfully been heralded as laughable camp but taken into consideration the troubled shoot that it endured, the end product isn’t as outright terrible as it should have been. Co-writer and director Michael A. Hoey got into disagreements with the producer during filming and extra scenes were shot and added by other directors as a result, leading to a jarring juxtaposition of tones and themes. In some instances, Navy Vs The Night Monsters plays the laughs for all it can with some ill-thought out comic relief. At other times, the film tries to be deadly serious with its gory content. You can tell that this was a film with more than one director as the film is all over the shop.

Part of the problem with Navy Vs The Night Monsters are the overly colourful sets and costumes which turn the film into a constant visual eyesore. The island (some unconvincingly small sets) is very garish and bright, adding an unnecessary level of loudness which makes it all the more cheerful and happy even when people are being killed. Hark back to some of the cheesier 50s sci-fi flicks like The Monster That Challenged the World and Tarantula which were all filmed in black and white and you get the impression that this may have worked better by ditching the colour to keep it serious.

Who am I kidding? This wouldn’t have worked in black and white either. The script is terrible, the film is slower than the walking foliage and the acting is more wooden than the trees. The cast of characters assembled are just bland military types whose names you’re likely to get mixed up, science guys who are there to provide the token explanations and a huge-chested nurse (the voluptuous Mamie Van Doren) to add some sex factor to the film as well as the requisite love triangle with two suitors vying for her affection (like they had anything else but her chest on their minds). It’s dull exposition but when you’ve got a low budget, you need to pad it out as long as possible before your money gets sucked out by special effects.

Killer plants aren’t exactly top of anyone’s ‘most feared’ lists but they’re an underrepresented enemy in the horror and science fiction genre and can be quite effective if used properly. You get the feeling that there was potential here but with the film only being shot in ten days, it was always going to be up against it. The acid-spewing plants like to dissolve their victims so there are plenty of scenes of corpses with melted skin and in the finale, one unlucky chap is melted away by wrestling with one.

Keeping the trees confined to attacking at night was a smart move too simply because they’re only men in tree suits and look every bit as silly as they sound. But, in one of the most brutal things I’ve seen for the era, the plants do get to rip one unlucky soldier’s arm right from out of his socket. The special effect is pretty pathetic but it’s the intent which is the shocking thing – I didn’t think these old school films showed that level of brutality! Plus the trees make this eerie whistling noise when they are nearby, adding a little bit more suspense to some of the scenes of the characters walking through the jungle.

 

Made ten years earlier, Navy Vs The Night Monsters might have gotten a pass by fitting in with the other 50s sci-fi monster movies. But this is one of those films where you’ll sit and keep watching in the hope that something good happens. Apart from the odd moment of brutal inspiration, nothing good happens. For 1966, this is too daft, incompetent and above all, dull, for it to work.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Black Swarm (2007)

Black Swarm (2007)

Intelligent. Deadly. And Out To Destroy Us. Meet The Ultimate Buzz-Kill.

Ten years after leaving the small town of Black Stone when her husband died, Jane Kozik returns with her young daughter to take up the role of sheriff. Shortly after returning, a homeless man is found dead with what appears to be a number of wasp stings. An entomologist and the local exterminator, who also happens to be Jane’s ex and the twin brother of her dead husband, are called in to investigate. But these aren’t ordinary stings and the trail leads them to Eli Giles, a scientist who developed a genetically engineered wasp as a weapon for the army but is now on the run.

 

A bizarre offering from the Sci-Fi Channel as part of their ‘Maneater’ series, Black Swarm meshes the traditional insects run amok in a small town story with some random zombification side-story. Despite the weirdness of the story, Black Swarm still runs very much the same as every other film of its type. Only it’s all very lightweight. There’s just something lack with this film which never gives it any ‘oomph.’ There’s not a massive amount of action (or excitement for that matter) and the horror elements are kept to a bare minimum. Black Swarm isn’t a film which goes through the motions rather it skims over them.

At the bottom line, Black Swarm is dull and that’s probably being generous. There’s just no real tension or visual stimulation to get the audience involved with what is going on. I’m not sure whether this is the fault of the editing, which is jerky and disjointed at times and seems to skip whole swathes of plot out from time to time, leading to jumps in continuity. I’m not sure it’s just the fault of the script. Caught between wanting to be a killer insect flick and a zombie flick, Black Swarm doesn’t juggle either element properly. These wasps don’t just kill their victim, they turn them into some sort of zombie-like drones that they can control and then burst out from whenever they need a sneak attack moment. Don’t ask me, I didn’t write it. There are some vague attempts to explain that the wasps use humans as ‘hosts’ to do their bidding but it’s never really given much conviction so you just have to take it for what it’s for – a daft part of the story which no doubt sounded good on paper.

Even in their zombie state, the infected townspeople continue to go about their daily business. Uninfected characters don’t bat even the faintest of eyelids at the likes of the gaunt-faced, boil-ridden priest who grunts and staggers around the church as the mayor attempt to converse with him or a zombified traffic cop being asked questions as if the glazed look on his face was normal. To see these zombies walking around town without anyone questioning them is just crazy writing. Though this writing is more lazy than anything, proven with the sudden aggression and act of murder of the morgue zombie which is totally out of synch with what the rest of the zombies in the town were doing.

Horror legend Robert Englund gets the token ‘mad scientist’ role though his eventual character arc is somewhat different to what one would expect from the man behind Freddy Kruger and many other just as detestable horror characters. Sarah Allen makes for a likeable and attractive lead as Sheriff Kozik and equally as appealing is her on-screen daughter Kelsey played by Rebecca Windheim. Normally I’m the first to complain at the inclusion of a child as one of the main characters but little Miss Windheim is as sweet as they come. Some of the scenes she shares with Englund have a nice warm feeling to them. In fact all of the main characters are decent enough, from the twin brother exterminator to the blind babysitter and everyone in the roles makes the characters nice and friendly enough to want to see survive. This doesn’t happen all of the time so I’ve got to take some small mercies from Black Swarm!

The awkward love story that develops between the sheriff and her ex-flame and previously-deceased husband’s twin brother is as contrived as it comes. Everything falls together just the way you’d expect it to, though the inevitable scene in which the two characters declare their feelings for each other and reveal some home truths about the past could not have been timed any worse. Even Englund’s character uncomfortably looks on as the two love birds kiss and make up and generally spend ages doing it whilst they should have been doing something life-saving like getting out of the warehouse in which the wasps have nested. The wasps are all CGI – understandable given our inability to control real life wasps – but you rarely see a close-up of one, save for a few shots inside the secret lab. The rest of the time, the wasps are just shown in their swarm form. They don’t really do that much during the course of the film.

 

Black Swarm makes an effort to develop characters in the beginning of the film so it’s interesting to note that this is the only part of the film worth highlighting. They’re likeable enough to make you care for them but it’s a pity that they don’t have much to work with or go up against. Half-assed zombies and cameo-role wasps aren’t exactly riveting to watch.

 

Frost Giant (2010)

Frost Giant (2010)

In 1825, the HMS Fury went missing during a disastrous expedition to the Arctic Circle. The modern-day descendant of one of the explorers has devoted his career to finding the sunken remains of the ship. So when he and his team finally excavate the wrecked hull from the ice, they discover that the ship was sunk deliberately to act as a frosty tomb for an alien which could threaten the planet. Now they have released the monster to bring terror to the world once again.

 

Sy-Fy drum up their usual clichés in abandon with a new monster in the form of Frost Giant, the same sort of monster-on-the-loose film that they’ve almost cornered the market for. It’s really hard to get motivated to write a review for this, such was the lethargic nature of the film and the nondescript plot. Even trying to write this review literally moments after finishing watching, it is hard to remember anything of note to talk about. Frost Giant isn’t so much a film that will kill you with its icy grasp but more likely to bore you into oblivion.

For those who have seen any previous Sy-Fy creature feature flicks or if you’ve seen The Thing or any other polar-based horror film, Frost Giant will be all-too-familiar and all the script has done has work the elements of the two together. There’s the team of researchers at the polar station. An icy menace is unearthed. Cue lots of “there’s a snow storm coming so we can’t be evacuated” and “the temperature will drop to such and such degrees so we’ll all freeze to death” moments. Couple all of this with Sy-Fy’s ridiculous attempts to generate tension, the uber-low budget vibe that everything emits, one or two ‘named’ actors simply milling around for an easy pay day and the less-than-stellar CGI monster which never once looks like it exists in the same dimensional plane as the rest of the cast. With a structure that runs like clockwork, the only real danger in Frost Giant is just how repetitive everything gets.

There’s little urgency. There’s little excitement. Nothing more than a series of identikit kills, the film just trudges through the snow from dull set piece to dull set piece. You get the impression at times that everyone was too cold to put any effort into the film, not least Dean Cain who must have fallen foul of some dodgy contract somewhere because he makes a habit of popping up in these tedious monster movies. There are some really over-exaggerated English accents in the film too most notably from English actor Steven Waddington who spouts off his scientific jargon with all of the verve of a Shakesperian thespian. Just because someone talks in a posh accent doesn’t make the dialogue any more sophisticated or intelligent. Waddington is a decent actor but this over-the-top approach makes him look daft. Between him and Cain, the two men try their best to make wine of water with the script but it’s just not to be. When characters appear dead-on-arrival thanks to the script, there’s nothing that can save them.

Even the introduction of a different monster isn’t enough to rescue this frost-bitten flick from breaking apart. The ‘frost giant’ in question is hardly a giant and is little bigger than an ordinary man. Rendered with CGI, the monster is about as good or as poor as you’d expect it to look in something like this. Not a lot of thought has gone into creating it – the creature exists solely to live off heat so that it can return to its original form. There’s no other reason or logic behind it. Coupled with the CGI, the alien never once comes across as some sort of serious threat, just a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. Though not content with animating the alien with poor CGI, the effects team also see fit to give us CGI snow and a laughable climax involving a CGI digger.

 

Frost Giant is the type of film you’ll put on in the background and do something infinitely more exciting because even if you had the best intentions in the world and attentively sat down to watch, you’d still be drawn to doing other things, glancing up every so often whenever the monster killed someone. By-the-numbers nonsense which no doubt will be forgotten about once the next cookie-cutter Sy-Fy flick is made.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Iron Invader (2011)

Iron Invader (2011)

One man’s junk is another town’s nightmare

A Russian satellite infected with some form of space bacteria crash lands in the small American town of Redeemer. Two local brothers take the scrap metal to a local junk dealer who plans to use the material to finish off his seventeen foot tall ‘Golem’ that he has been building for the town’s centenary. The Golem comes to life when it is exposed to the bacteria and it proceeds to wreak havoc around town, sapping its victims of their life.

 

Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man gets a big aggressive Sy-Fy makeover in this middling offering which is about on par for the channel’s usual produce. Fresh out of flesh-and-blood monsters, the writing team have come up with an unusual and rather unique threat in the form of the metal monster but saddle it in an enclosure of lame genre clichés. But hey, those of you familiar enough with Sy-Fy Originals should know by now that their name is not a seal of quality – more so a death certificate.

It would be pretty easy to substitute the iron monster for any other creature: a dragon, a snake, a tiger, a crocodile, etc. The plot runs exactly the same way that any other creature-on-the-loose film does which is a shame as the concept, though slightly off-beat, could have worked properly had it been given more of a free reign instead of having to stick to type. But there’s not really much to the wafer-thin plot anyway – all bases are covered within the opening fifteen minutes and then it’s just waiting for the Golem to start doing it’s intergalactic robot thing. The trouble with Iron Invader is that it’s played too straight. Right from the moment the Golem comes to life and starts plodding around town, this film needed a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek. The film knows how over-the-top it is yet never really plays upon this in the script.

The Golem looks like a low budget Transformer though the special effects to bring it to life aren’t too shabby, certainly better than they deserved to be. I guess it is easier to animate metal than it is flesh and so the monster looks shiny, smooth and inorganic but I guess that’s the idea – it is just a cobbled together bunch of metal and the animators don’t have to bring to life flesh, blood and spontaneous movements of an animal. Apart from it is look, the monster isn’t well-thought out. No consideration is given to how it moves, why it’s got eyes and why it has an uncanny ability to sneak up on people despite being huge and metallic. The script points out how big it is so why doesn’t it leave footprints in the mud or cause minor tremors when it’s pounding down the road? It kills people by grabbing hold of them and draining their life which is kind of weird the first time but gets repetitive very quickly as the same thing happens over and over again.

Nicole de Boer is the token ‘name’ in this, more famous for her role as Ezra Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. She plays a biology teacher who not only provides the token knowledge and explanation scenes for the existence of the creature but also the love interest. Coincidentally, her character was a childhood sweetheart with one of the brothers but left town marrying someone else. Now she’s back and looking down the barrel of a divorce. What do you reckon the odds are that facing nightmarish scenario like facing a giant metal monster will allow her to reconcile with her sweetheart and make everything perfect by the end of the film? De Boer is way too lovely to be relegated to Sy-Fy junk like this and is way better than the material on display.

 

Iron Invader is marginally better than its Sy-Fy counterparts but that’s more down to the fact that a giant Transformer-wannabe is the star of the show here, not a giant snake or crocodile. It came from the scrap yard and it should be sent back there pronto.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆