Octopus 2: River of Fear (2001)

Octopus 2: River of Fear (2001)

Out of time…out of breath!

Dead bodies begin to wash up on New York harbour and no one knows what the cause is. That is until cop Nick Hartfield sees a giant octopus in the harbour but no one will believe him. With the Mayor wanting to keep the harbour open for the Fourth of July celebration, it spells bad news for anyone getting too close to the water.

 

This tacky monster film is a sequel in name only – oh yeah, apart the fact that it has a giant octopus in it – to the original Octopus. At least that one was more Crimson Tide than Jaws even if it was a complete load of rubbish. Octopus 2: River of Fear goes straight for the predictable monster-on-the-loose jugular with predictably dire consequences.

I guess the writers have seen Jaws, or at least a handful of this ludicrously over-saturated ‘monster-on-the-loose’ sub-genre. So what do we have here: monster-on-the-loose – check; character who sees monster and tries to convince everyone else of its existence – check; local authority figure who wants to keep the town/beaches/harbour open for some holiday/festival/event – check; token set piece at said holiday/festival/event where the monster shows itself and proves the person right all along – check. I could keep going on but no doubt if you’re reading this review, you’re familiar with the tropes of that particular sub-genre. Needless to say, Octopus 2: River of Fear has them all except the ‘great white hunter’ character.

Nothing in this film is original in the slightest but I guess that’s your straight-to-video monster flick nowadays. No one can be bothered coming up with creative ideas anymore so they just keep rehashing old ideas. Don’t get me wrong, some of these films can be entertaining when done properly with a decent cast, decent script and reasonable looking monster. But here? I don’t know where to start. It looks dated, almost as if it was filmed back in the late 70s or early 80s such is the grimy nature of the New York setting.

The characters are all so uninteresting and you don’t want to root for anyone, especially the ones who are just so ignorant to everything that happens. There’s no developing these characters at all. They’re just there for the sake of it. Even the actors know this and so don’t put anything into their performances. The story gives them little reason to put any energy into the film, with the police investigation into the discovery of the bodies taking up the majority of the screen time in the first half. Where’s the octopus?

Well you might regret pondering that question when it eventually turns up. The octopus itself looks awful, with big rubber tentacles being used in attack scenes and the underwater sequences are badly filmed and edited together so you can’t see what is going on. I guess they’re good in a ‘old school rubber monster’ sort of way which continues the 70s impression that I alluded to early.

The worst part of Octopus 2: River of Fear comes in the finale with about fifteen minutes to go – the octopus is seemingly ditched and the film turns into some sort of Irvin Allen-style disaster flick as the cop tries to rescue some kids trapped inside a collapsing tunnel. The octopus returns for a brief cameo with about half a minute of the film remaining but the big pay-off finale is sorely lacking. I had to re-check the cover box to make sure I was watching the correct film and that someone hadn’t taped over the proper ending with Daylight.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Octopus 2: River of Fear is its use of landmarks and its depiction of the Manhattan skyline – by the time it was released in 2002 the skyline had been dramatically changed by the events of the preceding year. Surprisingly, the octopus does attack the Statue of Liberty at one point but this is only during a dream sequence, proving to be irrelevant to the overall story. Thinking back to Ray Harryhausen’s classic It Came From Beneath the Sea only makes me wonder what could have been with this scene, in fact the entire film.

 

There’s so much wrong with Octopus 2: River of Fear that it’s hard to end this review without going off on a complete tangent. Nu Image, the brains behind this mess, also made the Spiders films and the first of them was semi-decent so it’s not like they don’t know how to make a good creature feature film. Just not this time around!

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

He’s gonna break your heart.

Ten years ago, inexperienced miner Tom Hanniger caused an accident in which led to the deaths of five miners and sent the only survivor, Harry Warden, into a coma. Exactly one year later, Harry woke from his coma to head to the town of Harmony and murder twenty-two people before he was killed. Ten years later, Tom Hanniger returns to Harmony, struggling to cope with the past. His ex-girlfriend has now married his best friend and he is unwelcome in the town. But no soon as he returns to the town, the murders start up again. It seems that Harry Warden isn’t so dead after all.

 

I’m not a fan of remakes. That’s a bit of an understatement but I’m just sick of the current Hollywood trend to constantly remake older films instead of actually using it’s imagination to create new material. There are remakes which modernise classic films that everyone knows well. For horror fans, this is the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Classics which have no business being remade as the originals still pack a punch today. Then there are those remakes of films which hardly anyone outside of the genre saw in the first place or aren’t as well known. You’ve got your likes of April Fool’s Day, Night of the Demons and The Toolbox Murders. I don’t usually mind these type of films being remade as usually the originals aren’t much cop and the majority of the audience don’t have the same affinity to the originals as they do the classics mentioned above.

The original My Bloody Valentine could arguably fall into either category. The original, whilst not well known outside of the genre, is a classic slasher and is one of the genre’s true greats which was savagely treat by the censors and is usually seen as one of the poster boys for the anti-censorship bandwagon that began rolling in the 80s when horror films were being cut left, right and centre. However it wasn’t perfect and whilst it’s clearly adored by many horror fans, the fact that it’s not mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th meant that it was less likely to receive a big backlash against remaking it. At least not from me anyway.

Truth be told, My Bloody Valentine does exactly what it sets out to do. It hardly insults the original but it doesn’t change the formula much to be able to do that. Faithfully sticking to the majority of the original’s premise, this remake not only succeeds in bringing it to life in a more modern setting but also improves some aspects of the original in the process. That’s not to say that it’s an overall improvement as some of the key ingredients from the original are sorely lacking here, in particular the sombre mood which is virtually absent in this one and is instead replaced by a lighter tone. Of course the polish and gleam of modern day slashers also detract from the gritty, low budget feel of some of the earlier 80s slasher greats. The holiday itself doesn’t play a huge part in this one either which is a bit of a shame but once the action starts heating up then this is a minor inconvenience.

If you’ve been lucky to catch the 3-D version then you’re in for a right treat with blood and guts flying around the screen like confetti. If you think you’re going to survive without a pickaxe being aimed in the direction of the audience then think again. The gore is one of the film’s strongest points and great use is made of the pickaxe – in fact the killer hardly uses anything else. Despite this sounding repetitive, there are all manner of creative kills involving the pickaxe from decapitations to eye-gougings and impalements so you’re never going to see the same thing time and time again. It’s obvious that whoever came up with the kills was having a blast doing it and this enjoyment is reflected on the screen. You shouldn’t cheer when they happen but they’re so damned entertaining that it’s hard not to applaud. There is a solid body count too so once the killer miner gets doing what he does best, the pace of the film rarely lets up. The film may run for about ten minutes longer than it needs to but it’s never boring.

The cast isn’t particularly great but they’ve been cast for aesthetic reasons alone. The norm for this day and age is to cast hot young actors from teen-targeted TV series and this time they’ve recruited Jensen Ackles from Supernatural and Kerr Smith, formerly of Dawson’s Creek, into the fold. I guess the target demographic will be happy with that casting. Thankfully, though their appearances smack of cheap casting techniques to attract a certain audience, the characters that they portray are a bit older than usual: young adults as opposed to teenagers. They spend less time with the mushy making out and shows of teenage petulance that bog other slashers and instead focus on the different directions that their lives have taken. Hardly riveting stuff and you’ll want the miner to intervene in some of the dramatic scenes to silence the cringe-worthy dialogue but at least it’s different to the norm. Veteran Tom Atkins has a small role as the local sheriff and he’s one of the best things on show, firing off some witty lines and adding a touch of class. The role is meatier than I expected which at least shows that someone had an ounce of sensibility to cast a genre character actor in it.

 

Half of the enjoyment from My Bloody Valentine comes from the 3D so make you sure you can catch it in that format to get the full package. As it stands, My Bloody Valentine works far better than it has any right to do with some inventive kills, a nice pace and general sense of good nature surrounding it. It nails the traditional slasher elements down to a tee, provides a few twists and turns along the way and delivers way more than it promised. It will at least put a mean-spirited smile on your face on Valentine’s Day.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of Horror: Pro-Life (2006)

Masters of Horror - Pro-LifeA young teenager is found along the side of the road by two doctors who work at a remote abortion clinic. Taking her there for an examination, they discover that she is pregnant. It isn’t long before her deeply religious father and his fanatical sons turn up to save the baby and get her out of there. But as the armed mob lay siege to the facility, the doctors inside come to the realisation that the unborn baby is abnormal and that the girl’s claims of being raped by a demon may not seem as far-fetched as they originally sounded.

 

John Carpenter returns to the Masters of Horror TV series for Pro-Life, his contribution to the second series of the horror show in which ‘masters of horror’ direct what are essentially hour-long short films. I wasn’t overly impressed by Cigarette Burns, his contribution to the first series, and was keen to see what he could come up with this time around in more familiar territory. The end result is a sort of cross between The Thing, Prince of Darkness and Assault on Precinct 13.

Pro-Life is hardly classic Carpenter although there are glimpses of what made him a ‘master of horror’ in the first place. It’s just that the script is so pedestrian and slap-dash that it makes everything else in the film seem second-rate. After a promising opening few minutes which sets the scene nicely and gives everything an ominous, religiously-fanatical mood, the script then literally jumps the gun too quickly, blowing away its potential with an ill-advised headshot and then proceeds to run through the motions too fast. Instead of a slower build-up, Pro-Life gets down to the dirty too soon and then has to find ways for its characters to kill time in this small location before the big finale.

Case in point is when the fanatical father, Dwayne Burcell, and one of his sons corner the doctor inside his office after a shoot-out and proceed to inflict the same abortion techniques upon him as he does his patients. It’s a drawn-out scene, rather bitter and gratuitous and which does nothing to further the story only adding in a moment of petty revenge – and it’s there to pad out the running time too. You almost wonder whether Dwayne forgets about saving his daughter with the amount of time he spends with the doc. Carpenter and the script also toe the line here, never once taking sides in the whole abortion debate. It’s probably a wise choice to avoid offending anyone but it means we’re never really able to sympathise with or hate either side as they’re both guilty of some pretty nasty things.

Carpenter isn’t afraid of getting nasty when it matters as we know from experience and Pro-Life does feature some gore. But sadly the majority of it is of the CGI variety and the aforementioned head-shot early on in the film looks terrible. There is a bit of blood elsewhere but the bulk of the grisly scenes shy away from showing anything outright and leaving the rest to the imagination. The baby’s father does eventually show up at the end and the practical make-up effects make it look like something from the video vaults of the 80s (but in a good ‘man-in-a-suit’ way, I think it looks pretty bad ass). The same can’t be said about the baby itself, who looks like one of those ‘altered’ toys with the spindly legs from Pixar’s Toy Story.

Ron Perlman stars as Dwayne, the man who will do anything to protect the baby as he believes “God told him too.” Perlman’s probably the best thing about the episode but mainly because you think he’ll whip out some Hellboy-like ass kicking on anyone who gets in his way. He plays upon his typecast nature, using his brute physicality and gruff delivery to good measure but is always being held back by the thinly-sketched character he’s given. The rest of the cast make no impression whatsoever and there are way too many superficial characters who don’t contribute to the story or even provide fodder for Dwayne and his sons or the monster.

 

Pro-Life seems to be one of the favourite whipping boys from the second Masters of Horror series and this is unwarranted as it’s a decent enough timewaster if taken in context with the rest of the series. The only problem is trying to acknowledge that John Carpenter, formerly of Halloween and The Thing, managed to direct something so forgettable.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Clown At Midnight, The (1999)

The Clown At Midnight (1999)The lead singer of an opera house was brutally murdered after one of her fellow performers proclaimed his love for her and went into a jealous rage when he saw her with someone else. Years later and the singer’s daughter is now a college student who is now a part of a theatre group renovating the old opera house as part of a summer project. But the jilted killer is still lurking and proceeds to kill off the group one-by-one.

 

I had flashbacks to the entertaining Italian slasher Stagefright when I watched this. Not too many horror films are set in grand opera houses and it’s an underused setting in the genre. But forgetting the obvious comparisons with Stagefright, the most blatant bedfellow for The Clown At Midnight is Scream. Made in the wake of Wes Craven’s classic post-modern slasher, this one has all of the hallmarks of the teen slasher only without the self-referential nonsense and with more of an old school feel to it. Even the cover art for the UK DVD release looks like an unashamed knock-off, with glum-looking head shots of the young attractive cast plastered around the outline of the mysterious killer.

The Clown At Midnight is hardly the most memorable slasher out there but it’s actually half-decent for what it is. Derivative characters who are not unlike every other slasher character every conceived, a story which Stevie Wonder could see coming, twists and turns which would surprise no one and scares that wouldn’t frighten a patient waiting for a heart by-pass mean that the usual clichés are all present in abundance. This is a slasher after all and a sub-genre which is not known for its cutting edge take on new material. You’ll never once get behind any of the characters. You’ll never feel in danger for the Final Girl. You’ll expect everything to pan out in a linear manner and the film will gladly deliver those expectations.

But there are a few positives. For a start, the use of a clown as the killer is a bit of a cheap scare tactic. Most people hate clowns with a passion and so already there’ll be people squirming around in horror at the thought that their worst fears will be brought to life. This isn’t IT or Killer Klowns From Outer Space but those with a fear of clowns will most definitely not be sat comfortable throughout this one.

As I stated at the beginning of the review, the opera house setting is a nice touch. There are countless hidden passageways and secret entrances for use in the plays that the opera house would have hosted but are now used for the sadistic purposes of the killer. The opening half does a good job of building up a decent level of suspense and mystery. It’s not hard to guess who the killer is – like the typical Scooby Doo episode, there are only so many people that it could be and once the cast start to thin out, it’s practically impossible not to see where the film is heading. During the second half, the suspense is ditched in favour of cheaper gore tactics. Those looking for an old school 80s throwback will be disappointed – The Clown At Midnight handles its gore like the majority of post-modern slashers – minimal.

Quite what Christopher Plummer is doing in something as low brow as this is a mystery but he’s the requisite experienced hand to steady the ship alongside the young cast. Plummer is head-and-shoulders above everyone else in the way of talent and he doesn’t even need to try to better them. Margot Kidder, most famous for her stint as Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve Superman films, also stars but time hasn’t been good to her and she’s wasted in a pointless role, destined to be high profile fodder for the killer. The rest of the cast are your typical fresh-faced teenagers and whilst they’re all not particularly great in their one-dimensional roles (you know the type: the bitchy girl, the jock, the rebellious one, etc), they’re not overly terrible. It’s like an anti-version of Noah’s ark. Instead of taking two of everything, the script makes sure that only one representative from each of the typical school social groups is represented. Why not two bitchy girls? Or a whole group of rebellious teenagers? These films never fail to amuse me in that respect.

 

Non-horror buffs may want to give this one a miss, but The Clown At Midnight is solid viewing for slasher fans, if somewhat unoriginal and remarkable in the genre. It’s got the feel of an Americanised giallo (if that’s possible) which isn’t a bad thing in all honesty.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Final Destination, The (2009)

final-destination-3D-posterDuring a visit to the racetrack with his friends, Nick has a premonition that one of the cars would crash, leading to a chain reaction of events in which most of the people watching would be killed. Convincing his friends and a few bystanders to leave, they get out just in time to watch the horrific premonition come to life. Shortly after, two of the other survivors are killed in tragic accidents. Nick and his friends realise that they may have cheated death once but it has come calling for them again.

 

If ever a franchise was going to jump on board the 3D bandwagon then the Final Destination series, with all manner of ridiculously contrived ‘accident’ set pieces, would be the one to showcase its multi-dimensional wares in the fad of the moment. Virtually a franchise built up around the ‘slasher’ formula. the Final Destination films simply follow the same structure but replace a masked killer with that of the Grim Reaper. Gratuitous set pieces with machetes and chainsaws are substituted for meticulously-planned  mishaps in which unlucky teenage characters find themselves being buffeted around as if they were a participant in the old board game Mouse Trap (not sure whether it as out in the US or what it was called over there but Google it if you don’t know!).

Whilst the original seemed highly original, fresh and exciting (second and third viewings less so), the film still managed to eek out a small niche which has then been milked for every penny possible leading to a variety of sequels with diminishing returns in the novelty stakes. What were once unpredictable chains of events have been so elaborate that the set-ups are now so obvious. The third sequel to the 2000 hit, The Final Destination (I’m not overly sure why they ditched the sequel numbering) is a rush job from beginning to end and you can tell that whatever flimsy story it develops has been built up around the set pieces. There’s no room for character development here. The film just doesn’t stop to take a breath in between the contrived action.

Things get off to a poor start with some dodgy CGI in the opening scene at the race track and go from bad to worse with a barrage of overblown gore effects. What is going on? Who are these people? Why should we care for a redneck who says about ten words in the entire film? The script is atrocious and coupled with some awful delivery,  the dialogue comes off sounding dull and is in existence purely because you can’t just sit and watch set pieces in silence. The token ‘rule explaining’ scenes are done quickly and the characters assume too much and add everything up too easily. Mykelti Williamson seems to have been cast solely in the role of Tony Todd’s replacement – one black actor with a deep voice replacing another one – to be the person who provides the necessary ‘You can’t escape Death’ monologues. But the scenes are skirted over quickly, such is the desire to keep the non-stop flow of the film going. You know at some point Hollywood is going to have to put the brakes on films and get them to slow back down and build themselves up like they used to. None of this rapid fire, all guns blazing nonsense – it’s just all spectacle and no substance.

Even the death scenes, once an ingenious concoction of bad luck, sod’s law and ill-fated timing, are now so lazy and run-of-the-mill that it’s hard to see where the series can go after this. Some of the set pieces in the previous entries took their time to build the suspense, foreshadowing the horror of what was to come and throwing in some red herrings as well before pulling the rug out from under you with a sucker punch. Here, there’s little attempt to draw out the chain reaction of mishaps beforehand and everything goes through the motions as quick as possible. It would have made more sense for a guy in a mask to come and wipe out the teenagers, such is the speed at which they’re all killed off.

Another huge problem that this film suffers from is the over-reliance on some really poor CGI effects. The set pieces designers have cut corners by using CGI as a way to avoid being creative with the practical effects. By being able to show more carnage on-screen as opposed to more convincing set-ups, they lose any sort of realism, ending up as a barrage of cartoon violence with which the audience will never once believe are real. The fact that they’re all telegraphed a mile away serves up little suspense and it’s more a case of “get on with it” when some of them drag on for too long. But hey, when this is just evident of the series itself – dragging on for too long.

 

As with traditional ‘slasher’ sequels, The Final Destination sees a higher body count, more elaborate kills and more blood. But the heart of the series has been sucked out, stripping the film of the character and soul that at least made the first two watchable entries. What we wind up with here is a loosely-connected series of 3-D set pieces which no doubt titillated the target under-17 demographics but offended even the least-demanding horror fans who want more substance to their slaughter. The series is scraping the barrel here and it’s time for Death to catch up and do us all a favour.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Killer Mountain (2011)

Killer Mountain (2011)

On top of the world there’s no one to save you

When an expedition to find the mythical land of Shambala in the mountains of Bhutan goes missing, a second research team is organised to go and find out what happened. High in the cold mountains, they find that the team has been killed and soon they too find themselves being hunted down by mysterious creatures.

 

And so we roll with another Sy Fy Original in Killer Mountain, about as bland a film that they’ve ever produced. Part Cliffhanger, part crappy monster movie, Killer Mountain is the a-typical low budget Sy Fy film down to a tee: not engaging in the slightest, cheap to make and with the lack of cash being evident on the screen, featuring a bunch of actors from other Sy Fy programmes and with ropey CGI monsters. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, worn the t-shirt over and over again until it dropped to bits, went back there to do it again, got a t-shirt and so forth.

The story is nothing special – just an excuse to isolate a bunch of people away from civilisation before monsters are set upon them. Predictably shallow characters are introduced and the “take a number and join the soon to be killed” chronology is obvious from the get-go. Anticipated events take place the way they’re supposed to. Dialogue is constantly forgettable. Nothing happens out of the blue here. There’s no depth to anything despite the lure of the mystical foundation of youth in Shambala. It’s all sooooo run-of-the-mill. Would it hurt these writers to get a bit creative from time-to-time? A lead character with a tragic past that must face up to his inner demons and overcome them. Dodgy business guys who are in it for themselves. Native guides who are there to provide the first monster fodder. It is as insulting as it boring. Since these films draw their characters from a vat of monster movie tropes, the audience comes with a set of pre-expectations about how they’re going to pan out as characters. And as Killer Mountain proves first hand, these expectations are always spot on.

Killer Mountain is not only bland in content but it looks bland as a film. The cinematography is bleak and murky and the colours are dark and dull. There’s not an ounce of life in this film from the camera and the same constant greyscale appearance of the film doesn’t lend itself to any form of life or energy. If it’s dull and boring to look at, it’s going to turn the viewer off even quicker. At least attempts have been made to make it look like it was shot on location even if it wasn’t. The CGI weather effects will convince no one but there are rock-climbing scenes (well more like rock-holding, as the characters don’t seem to climb up whenever the camera is on them) and the caverns and underground passageways of Shambala look believable enough. Dark enough for low budget special effects anyway.

Sy Fy has brought more or less every single creature known to man alive in their ‘creature feature’ films at some point and they’ve got to the point now where they can’t even be bothered giving them any sort of identity or explanation for their existence. The creatures, which resemble some sort of lizard-snake-dragon thing, appear out of the blue, menace the cast for a bit and are then defeated. No one is really shocked at the discovery of a new species and the monsters are only named as ‘drucks’ which means nothing to anyone. It’s a shame because the monsters aren’t the worst-looking CGI creatures that Sy Fy have created but they don’t give me any reason to care for them or fear them. They’re just there on the screen. The worst CGI effect this time around is for the helicopter and subsequent crash.

 

I think after my current batch of Sy Fy Originals have been watched, I’m going to have to put them on hold for a while. I can’t keep watching the same stuff over and over again because in turn I’m then repeating the same reviews over and over again. Killer Mountain isn’t the worst Sy Fy Original but it’s just a-n-other of the same old shebang. If that is your cup of tea then go for it.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Stir of Echoes (1999)

Stir of Echoes (1999)

Some doors weren’t meant to be opened

Sceptical Tom Witzky allows his sister-in-law to hypnotise him at a party because he doesn’t believe she can do it and takes her up on a dare. She manages to but shortly afterwards Tom begins to hallucinate and has visions of a dead girl around his house. It seems as though something in his mind has been unlocked and he has become a receptor of supernatural forces. He begins a quest to find out what happened to the girl and why she is haunting his dreams and his house in order to put a stop to them.

 

Stir of Echoes had no chance to succeed at the box office because it was inevitably going to be compared to The Sixth Sense. Supernatural horror-thrillers had seen little mainstream success over the years and it was a relatively untapped genre. So when a couple of similar films came along at once, the later one was always going to be labelled as a clone or knock-off, even though Stir of Echoes was out the same year and thus went into development at the same time. Released at the wrong time in 1999 by coming hot on the heels of The Sixth Sense, audiences already had their supernatural thrill with M. Night Shyamalan’s overrated hit and thus Stir of Echoes only managed to gross in its entire run not even as much as the The Sixth Sense had grossed in its opening weekend alone. It’s a pity because Stir of Echoes is by far the better of the two in my eyes as it’s a more satisfying whole and more even film, constantly producing the goods instead of relying on one over-exposed twist.

I’ll go on record and state that ghost stories have never been my favourite sub-genre – see how few films I’ve reviewed from this sub-genre as proof. I tend to find their approaches to be somewhat slow and plodding and I really need to be in the right mood to watch one. They’re not exactly full of memorable moments as their effectiveness usually relies upon an assured build, cranking tension and atmosphere up as the film goes on. I’m a simply man of simple pleasures and prefer to see people ripped apart by monsters or psychos so patience sometimes is not my virtue when confronted with ghostly goings-on. However I must say that Stir of Echoes had been hooked all the way through.

The underlying story is predictable and Stir of Echoes proceeds along the lines of a typical murder-mystery, with various cryptic clues scattered around to assist Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) in solving the crime. The major problem here is with the finale and it was always going to be a let-down as we can see it coming a mile away courtesy of the familiar build-up. But thankfully the film has done a great job of keeping things flowing quickly that your interest will remain right until the last frame. A number of great scares are strewn throughout the film with the ghostly figure of the little girl popping up on a number of occasions in surprising locations. Never outright nasty, the film at least manages to keep a rather menacing tone going meaning you’re never sure whether the film is about to hit you with a brutal sucker punch or not.

The more effective scenes are those which involve little in the way of ‘boo’ scares and more in the way of eerie build-up. Bacon’s character, Tom Witky, begins having premonition dreams which leads to a number of creepy moments, in particular an effective sequence involving his neighbour, his son and a loaded gun which is a dream to begin with but then Witzky starts to notice all the details from the dream are happening in real life. The audience is on edge having already seen the outcome of the dream – will it occur in the real world in the same manner? The hypnosis scenes also draw the audience into the film. They are filmed as if we are present at the event, the camera acting as Witzky’s POV – as he closes his eyes, the screen goes blank and we can only hear what is going on. It’s a great scene and one which is made all the better for the actor behind Tom Witzky.

There are a bunch of actors in Hollywood that I can guarantee are value for money in their films. They may not be the biggest paid names, and rarely headline their own big budget films, but they’re good quality supporting actors who are grossly underrated and really get into their roles, especially when they’re given the starring role of a smaller film like Stir of Echoes. Kevin Bacon is one such actor. He’s always worth a watch in whatever he’s in (OK so maybe the new ads he’s starring in on UK TV are a bit annoying) and Stir of Echoes is no exception. He channels the intensity, paranoia, frustration, confusion and near insanity of his character down to a tee. There are elements of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining here and Bacon does well to keep things on the ground without coming off as too over-the-top. Kathryn Erbe, who plays his wife in the film, is an excellent foil for him. The two have a good chemistry and create a believable and workable view of marriage and family life in which to unleash this ghostly menace. No pretentious teenager leads here. No caricatures. Just honest, hard-working family people we can associate with which really hammers home the horror of their situation when it all goes pear-shaped – just the way horror films should be.

 

Stir of Echoes is not appreciated enough and I wonder if that’s down to The Sixth Sense effect. Who knows what would have happened had the film releases been swapped around. Whilst this may not contain the shocking twist ending of its counterpart, it does a better all-round job of delivering the supernatural scares. The finale lets Stir of Echoes down but the rest of the film is chilling stuff.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Waxwork (1988)

Waxwork (1988)

Stop On By And Give Afterlife A Try.

When a mysterious waxwork museum comes to town, the enigmatic owner invites two teenage girls to bring a few friends along to a special midnight screening of the exhibit. Once in the museum, the group split up to look at the exhibits but when they cross over the ropes to examine them closer, they find themselves actually in the horror scene on display. Forced to battle vampires, mummies, werewolves and more, the group realise that if you die inside the scene,  you die for real.

 

Ah the 80s. Only in this decade could such a frankly shallow premise have spawned such a gloriously over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek comedy-horror fest. Waxwork is like a warped cross between a slasher film, featuring a group of 80s caricatures being picked off one-by-one in a strange place, and a loving homage to the classic horrors of old. Never scary in the slightest and filled with so much camp, it would make a drag queen blush, Waxwork defines the 80s comedy-horror to a tee. And let’s face it, if you’ve ever been to a waxworks (especially a decent one) then the figures can look a little too life-like for their own good. It’s perfect horror material to mine!

Ok, so the plot sounds a bit daft and it’s a very sketchy premise which isn’t overly well-explained (like just who is the waxwork owner, Lincoln, and why is he out to destroy the world). But the beauty with Waxwork is that because the film is basically a series of short films interlocked by the MacGuffin plot about the exhibits coming to life, then every five or ten minutes a new ‘scene’ comes to life which keeps the film fresh and fast-moving. So if werewolves aren’t your thing, then sit tight because a few minutes later you’ll have vampires and then a bit later on some zombies or a mummy. It’s a ‘something for everyone’ approach which is reminiscent of the old Amicus anthologies and works, even if the lesser scenes are unfortunately dragged out longer than the more exciting scenes.

Each scene works on different levels. The zombie scene, with its black and white throwbacks to Night of the Living Dead, adds some much-needed sinister mood and some great zombie make-up but it’s all way too brief. The werewolf scene is well executed, featuring a pre-Lord of the Rings John Rhys-Davies as the man afraid of the full moon and providing some decent werewolf make-up effects as well as a whole batch of deliciously over-the-top gore.  I’ve never been a major vampire fan but the segment here works well, living up to the usual clichés of the sub-genre and featuring some silly comedy moments involving a man chained to a table with half a leg missing. It also stars the stunning Michelle Johnson as the target of the vampire’s affection so it’s easy on the eyes. The mummy scene does what you’d expect a mummy film to do – the numerous Universal Mummy sequels of the 40s proved that the limited narrative couldn’t stretch out too far – and provides the requisite stuntman-in-bandages and Egyptian curses come to life.

The most out-of-place segment comes when the virginal girl (Deborah Foreman of April Fool’s Day fame) enters the sadistic realm of the Maquis de Sade. He’s hardly known as an iconic horror character and the perverse nature of the scene involving sexual torture seems a bit of place with the comedy-horror throwbacks to the wolf man and the mummy. Foreman’s acting in this scene is mesmerizingly erotic but leaves a bit of a weird taste afterwards. It is Waxwork ‘s ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ finale that really spoils the film as ex-Avenger (not the Marvel superhero team but the old TV series) Patrick Macnee and his band of do-gooders storm the museum and engage in mortal combat with the wax exhibits that have come to life. The scene is in total disarray, with people doing what they like on camera and there’s no choreography or anything – just loads of extras fighting each other with anything they can lay their hands upon. It’s hard to keep track of what is going on and it’s almost as if the director just sat back and soaked in the chaos without a clue as to what was intended. All the while Zach Galligan, of Gremlins, has this dozy look on his face an seems almost bemused as the audience as to what is going on.

Waxwork looks to be a decent production though. The museum looks suitably creepy, the individual wax sets look top drawer on their own and then the individual scenes (when the sets come to life) look good as well. Gore is plentiful in that gratuitous 80s style so expect plenty of ludicrous squishy moments, including the mummy crushing a guy’s head under his foot and a werewolf ripping the head off an old man. The gore doesn’t take itself seriously so neither should you. And rounding off the madness is David Warner, who is dressed up like a sinister Willy Wonka and has a hoot as Lincoln, and his two servants: an Eastern European-speaking midget and a giant Lurch-like butler.

 

Nothing really makes much sense but then the film feels like a dozen films all rolled together anyway so just sit back and enjoy Waxwork, a great slice of 80s comedy-horror with a large side-order of ‘fun’ slapped into it. It’s an enjoyable cult film which is sadly hampered from total greatness by a weak plot and disappointing finale.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Piranha 3DD (2012)

Piranha 3DD (2012)

Double the action. Double the terror. Double the D’s.

Marine biology student Maddy returns home to find that her stepfather, Chet, has turned the friendly water park that they both inherited from their late mother into a seedy resort called Big Wet which features strippers as lifeguards, wet t-shirt contests and topless pools. In order to provide cheap water for the park, Chet illegally drilled into an underwater lake. Unfortunately for everyone, the underwater lake is home to the prehistoric piranha which attacked nearby Lake Victoria. On the opening day of Big Wet, the piranhas swim up the drilling pipes and into the pools.

 

Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3-D was one of the highlights of 2010: a delightfully gratuitous middle-fingered salute to the bastions of cinematic good taste with its unhealthy array of fishy violence, a year’s supply of fake blood in just one shoot, more boobs than a porn convention, not to mention a strong cast who weren’t afraid to send themselves up and a story which finely balanced itself between parody and serious. A definitive B-movie with a big budget and even bigger promotional juggernaut behind it, Piranha 3-D was the rare instance where everything seemed to align perfectly for the ultimate success story against all of the odds. With a strong box office performance, even better DVD/Blu-Ray sales and more importantly, pretty resounding critical acclaim, the film was a shoe-in to receive a sequel.

Only Alexandre Aja wouldn’t be back at the helm and, leaving with him that real sense of perverse violence. If you’ve seen any of his serious horror films, then you’ll know that he can deliver the grim and the intense in equal measure and for all of its cartoon comedy and overblown excess, Piranha 3-D still had a warped sense of the extreme flowing beneath where you knew that you shouldn’t laugh and smile at the violence and gore but it was a nervous laugh because of the underlying cruelty. And that was why Piranha 3-D worked better than it had any right to do.

John Gulager, fresh off the Feast trilogy, was handed the reins to direct this sequel and if you’re familiar with those films, specifically the two junky sequels, then you’ll know exactly the sort of direction that Piranha 3DD is heading. Going into overdrive with the absurdity and ridiculousness, Piranha 3DD is quite possibly one of the worst sequels of all time and easily one of the biggest disappointments of the year. How hard was it for Gulager to mess up the key ingredients that made the original work?

Virtually a lower budget, scaling down of the original, the film’s first mistake is confining the bulk of its action to a small, self-contained water park as opposed to the rivers and lakes of the original. Not only does this lead to incredulous plot devices of how the piranha manage to infiltrate the park in the first place, but it shortens the life span of any tension that may come from the attack scenes. Having piranha attack a flotilla of partying teenagers in a deep-water lake is one thing – having them swim around in small, man-made ankle-deep pools is just not scary in the slightest.

The film barely comes home with a time of eighty-three minutes as well, a disgrace when you consider that there are ten minutes of outtakes and bloopers tagged on to an overlong credits sequence. With such a short running time, you’d think that the rest of the film would go at it like a bull in a china shop to make sure not a second is wasted but there’s plenty of filler throughout. I think it’s simply a case that someone had a couple of clever ideas about the piranha in a water park and then built up an entire film around them.

The main problem with Piranha 3DD is that it tries way too hard to be hilarious and outrageous. In trying to out-do the original’s tongue-in-cheek approach, Gulager is guilty of making throwaway moments a major deal. Take for instance Jerry O’Connell’s severed penis from the original, a scene which provoked laughter (and a great deal of seat-shuffling and leg crossing from the male audience) and terror at the same time. That scene is rehashed here with more focus on the deadpan and comedy instead of the horror of male castration, with the resultant scene providing one of the  worst lines of all time. The majority of the film’s comedy just falls flat on its face because it is too stupid to laugh at – funny to drunken frat boys maybe, not to anyone else watching. Piranha 3DD almost turns into a parody, something that the original was always keen to keep away at arm’s length.

There is a well-cast line-up of characters to bring life to this story though. Christopher Lloyd and Vang Rhames add continuity by reprising their roles from the first one and it’s a shame that some of the others couldn’t return. Rhames’ role is somewhat pointless (didn’t he die in the original?) but at least Lloyd is able to get a few more minutes screen time than he did before. It’s still a criminal waste of his talent to be shoehorned into a five minute cameo but at least he’s back. As far as the newcomers go, David Koechner makes for a particularly unpleasant loudmouth and is perfectly cast in the role of the slimy Chet. He gets one of the film’s best and most distasteful scenes as he tries to make a getaway from the chaos at the park. The younger cast aren’t particularly impressive, with the majority of them filling the usual token teenager roles. Danielle Panabaker is likeable enough in the lead role but the gorgeous Katrina Bowden steals the show with a line of dialogue that would make John Barrowman’s infamous line from Shark Attack 3: Megalodon sound like Macbeth (Youtube it if you don’t know).

The main star of the film is the turn by David Hasselhoff. So often the butt of jokes about his acting ability, ‘The Hoff’ has now gone full circle and embraced his deficiencies, playing up on these jokes and becoming self-aware of his own limitations as an actor. His self-mocking performance is a riot, tearing apart his Baywatch role as a lifeguard completely out of his depth when the piranhas attack the water park. Worth sitting through the rest of the film for? Not quite, but those who have stuck through the rest of the film will at least find themselves finally being entertained.

 

Piranha 3DD is a catastrophic flop. The decision to debut it in less than 100 theatres in its opening weekend in the US (a travesty considering that the original made $83m in the box office) shows that little faith was instilled in it from the start by the suits in the boardroom and this is reflected in the final product – a shallow, shameless rehashing of the original. Good-natured gratuity has been replaced by ill-fated juvenility and no doubt sounding a death knell to a possible resurgence of big budget splatter comedies.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Gappa, The Triphibian Monster (1967)

Gappa, The Triphibian Monster (1967)

Even mightier than ‘King Kong’!

An expedition to a remote tropical island leads to the discovery of a baby reptile unlike anything seen before. Ignoring the protests of the natives, the expedition takes the monster to a zoo in Japan. This prompts the baby’s significantly-larger parents to go searching for their offspring leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

 

Japan’s oldest major movie studio, Nikkatsu, had decided to jump on board the ‘kaiju’ bandwagon of the 60s. This was an era in which Tokyo had been destroyed countless times by the likes of Godzilla, Gamera, Mothra and Rodan courtesy of the folks over at Toho and Daiei studios. Even London had received the wrath of Gorgo and Copenhagan had drawn the short straw with the laughable Reptilicus spewing its green goo all over the capital. Giant monster movies were all the rage, so why not get in on the act and potentially spawn a whole franchise of popular monster movies? Well the idea was good in theory but the execution is woeful. Gappa, The Triphibian Monster could well be one of the worst giant monster movies to ever come out of Japan and over forty years later, that still holds true.

Gappa, The Triphibian Monster (also known as Monster From a Prehistoric Planet, a title which makes no sense whatsoever as they’re not space monsters) is, to put it bluntly, a terrible entry in the kaiju cycle. It borrows heavily from Gorgo about a baby monster which is taken from its home and put on display only for its parents to come looking for it – well borrowing is a bit gentle, more like stealing. Unfortunately it also borrows Gorgo’s sluggish pace and even manages to slow that down. At the end of the day, it’s a film about giant monsters smashing cities which takes about three quarters of an hour to get them down to business. Even then, the action is quickly skirted over and is lacking in energy and passion. Kaiju films should never be this dull and insipid.

In the meantime, the film throws in a couple of human sub-plots to keep the monsters off-screen for as long as possible. There’s the obligatory scenes of the ‘cute’ baby monster, which is ugly as hell but it’s meant to be cuddly and stuff, in captivity and making the audience all gooey-eyed over it. Throw in one of the native kids who hitches a ride back to Japan (and who has, rather alarmingly in today’s politically correct world, been smothered in shoe polish to make him look ‘native’) and a greedy editor (of a magazine called Playmate – but alas it’s not the one featuring naked chicks) and you have enough padding to keep the Gappas off screen for as long as necessary. And believe me they’re off screen for a good deal of the running time. The lousy international dubbing doesn’t help matters either though I’m pretty sure that it’s the same voices as those behind the Destroy All Monsters dub and that added a goofy touch to the film. Unfortunately there’s no such added bonus with this one.

Let’s face it, the Gappa monsters sound good on paper – giant bird-like monsters that can fly (well they do have wings) and swim and they have Godzilla-like breath weapons. Once you see them on the screen, this positive image is completely thrown out the window with some of the worst monster suits ever designed. These are the type of suits that bring up the phrase “if you look carefully, you can see the zipper.” Not only do they look pitiful but the miniature cities upon which they unleash their wrath look exactly like miniature cities. When they start smashing the place up, they do like the men in suits that they are. Whilst not every Godzilla film managed to maintain this illusion, at least effort was made to portray the monster as real and not as a hokey special effect. Complaining about the special effects is a waste of time really. I wasn’t expecting much and it’s on par with the worst of the Godzilla and Gamera films as far as these go. It’s just that the effects are done without any hint of enthusiasm and the effects team look to be going through the motions at every opportunity.

 

Gappa, The Triphibian Monster is a clunker of a kaiju film, no better or worse than some of Toho and Daiei’s worst efforts, but a clunker nonetheless. The effects have become somewhat of a joke over the years, even appearing as stock footage monsters in a hilarious scene in BBC comedy show Red Dwarf where the characters mock the quality of the suits.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆