Monster in the Closet (1986)

Monster in the Closet (1986)

It’s Out! It’s Out! It’s Out!

A spate of unusual murders in a small American town prompt a news reporter to investigate the story in an attempt to get his big break. However he uncovers more than he bargained for when the perpetrator is a slobbering monster that lives in closets and kills unsuspecting victims in their own bedrooms. He enlists the help of the army and a local scientist in an attempt to stop this monstrous rampage.

 

Troma aren’t exactly renowned for their quality filmmaking. Granted they’ve had some cult hits like The Toxic Avenger but on the whole, I’ve found their infamous productions to be goofy, shoddy and generally unwatchable piece of rubbish which have found a baying cult audience but little else beyond that. Monster in the Closet won’t change my perceptions of the company however I must eat a bit of humble pie and say that this was childishly entertaining. It’s a “so bad it’s good” film which just about borders on the right side of being ‘so bad, it’s good’ and not ‘so bad, it’s awful.’ Just about…

Focusing on a childhood fear of there being monsters lurking in the closet (though I always had a wardrobe not a closet), Monsters in the Closet could have worked pretty well as a more serious offering but opts to goof around with the material. Bizarrely enough, I wonder whether Pixar had seen this before they made Monsters Inc. – the shared ideas of monsters entering our realm through closets and then ultimately being stopped from returning by destroying these closet portals seems too rare to be a coincidence.

Monster in the Closet starts off in the worst way possible. The first ten minutes or so is nothing but scenes of random characters being attacked in their closets. We don’t see anything except an off-screen stage hand tossing random clothes into the bedroom and we hear some cartoony noises of a monster eating. I was really wondering what I had got myself in for and whether or not it was prudent to continue. However I like to give films a chance and so I stuck with it.

Once the narrative finally settles down into something resembling a proper story and the monster is revealed (pretty early on it has to be said) then the film picks up some steam. Yeah this was never going to win any awards for quality control but what it turns out to be a reasonable timewaster which spoofs the 50s monster movies about a monster loose in a small American town down to a tee. It’s blatantly a one-joke film which repeats the same situations over and over again (monster is seemingly indestructible/army helpless to stop it) but there’s a decent amount of mileage to be had before it runs out of gas.

It helps that the film plays upon familiar tropes and there’s a lot of fun to be had in spotting the references. Amongst the spoofing, I could see Superman, War of the Worlds, Psycho, King Kong, Alien and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to name a few. The King Kong one is particularly hilarious, twisting around the notion of ‘beauty and the beast’ by swapping the sex of beauty, which also harks back to the less-than-subtle title and hidden messages in Monster in the Closet. This monster is well and truly out of the closet, if you get my drift.

The monster looks awful when it’s unveiled to the audience about twenty minutes into the film but this is part of the charm. The film knows it’s onto a complete turkey of a creation and you’ll laugh your head off when you see it. So instead of hiding it away, the film wears it on its sleeve like a badge of honour and shows us as much of the monster as it can, in many instances during daylight so you can see every inch of rubber. It’s original, I’ll give it that, and has an annoying habit of constantly growing but it’s ridiculously slow and cumbersome, giving rise to the question of how anyone could possibly be caught and killed by it. And despite the fact that it does kill quite a few people, the film is gore-free. This wasn’t meant to be a splatter fest and I think it works in the film’s favour.

There’s a decent ensemble cast here which was surprising given the obvious low cost nature of the film. Donald Moffat, Claude Atkins, Stella Stevens, veteran John Carradine, character actor Henry Gibson and a very young Paul Walker all feature at some point. Moffat’s blustering army general is a particular hoot. Kevin Peter Hall, famous for playing the Predator and ‘Harry’ from Harry and The Hendersons is the man in the suit.

 

Monster is the Closet is daft junk but it makes no bones about that. Quality levels are low and expectation levels are lower but if you stick with it past the opening twenty minutes, you’ll be rewarded with an 80s monster flick which works far better than it has any right to. You need to get the film and once you do, it gets stale pretty quickly.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Lake Placid: The Final Chapter (2012)

Lake Placid: The Final Chapter (2012)

It’s anything but tasteless…

Black Lake is swarming with giant crocodiles and so after the previous problems with people being killed, a large electrified perimeter fence is erected all the way around to stop the crocs getting out and people getting in. However that doesn’t deter a group of teenagers who sneak in whilst on a school trip and soon find themselves on the menu.

 

Will this series ever stop? This is the fourth entry into the Lake Placid series, each getting progressively worse. I don’t see the attraction. Lake Placid was a slightly diverting little timewaster back in the late 90s which probably garnered more attention that it should have done given the high profile cast but was sliced to bits by the critics and performed poorly in the box office. It has since gone on to receive some minor cult acclaim but let’s face it: it wasn’t good enough to warrant a sequel, let alone three sequels!

Following on from the previous instalment by bringing back Yancy Butler’s bad ass hunter character in a new job as the game warden (even though it looked like she was dead), Lake Placid: The Final Chapter at least tries to connect itself with the previous films. Butler was the best thing about the last film and is arguably the best thing here, continuing her overacting through spunky delivery with a host of cracking lines that tell it how it is to the other characters. Unfortunately she’s the only one in the film to even try which is a real pity as genre legend Robert Englund has a small role but completely phones it in.

So what’s new in the series? Well not a lot. After ditching its original North American location shoot, these films now use a Bulgarian lake to double up for its Canadian counterpart. Though the setting looks beautiful, it still reminded me of every other Sy Fy film that had been shot in Bulgaria as they tend to use the same locations. Given the recycled nature of material on display, it’s hard to distinguish between what happens here and what happens in similar creature feature films. And that’s Lake Placid: The Final Chapter‘s most obvious problem – it’s not memorable in the slightest. No standout performer. No standout kill. No standout nudity. No standout soundtrack. No standout monster. Nothing. Just another off the production line. This time next year, I’ll no doubt be saying the same thing about the umpteenth killer crocodile film.

Frequent creature attacks with dubious CGI effects are the hallmarks of the overwhelming wave of Sy Fy / Asylum monster movies of late and if you think you’re going to get through Lake Placid: The Final Chapter without seeing some, think again. The crocs look terrible, some of the worst I’ve seen (and that’s saying something). There’s always something a bit more realistic and believable in actors being munched down by animatronic models but when you’ve got massive CGI crocs that can run nearly as fast as a truck and sneak up on people without making a sound, then you’ve got an entirely different style of film. This one doesn’t play to the laws of nature, having the crocs do all sorts of things that real crocs wouldn’t be able to do as easily, if at all. Sadly, this just disconnects the film from reality – we’re never going to be scared of anything that we know isn’t possible and seeing the crocs move as fast and stealthily as they do here will generate chuckles rather than scares.

The crocs are well fed, which is a given with these films now, but the attacks come too regular, are over with too quickly and follow the same pattern. Would one slow, brutal mauling be more effective to the audience than continually showing us the same thing which over and done within a couple of seconds? Think back to Jaws and how few people the shark kills but the attack scenes aren’t just over and done with, the camera dwells on them for a few minutes to revel in nature’s cruelty. Lake Placid: The Final Chapter, and the rest of these creature feature films, equate the number of people killed on screen with scaring the audience. There’s no emotional attachment to anyone in the film. The slew of minor non-characters who are introduced only to get killed moments later detaches the carnage from any empathic connection.

Films like this need filler too and before the crocs are well and truly unleashed upon the cast in the second half of the film, the first half of the film is devoted to building characters, exploring back story and generally trying to pass the time as generically as possible. Single mom with a teenage daughter and a single father and a teenage son who are drawn together in the midst of a crisis sounds like the sort of yucky material that the film needs….oh wait that’s what happens. Pass me the sick bucket as I wait for the crocs to finally start snacking.

 

It should be said that no one in their right mind would sit down to watch Lake Placid: The Final Chapter without having a) a tolerance for truly woeful films, b) the desire to see every film in a series no matter how terrible they are, or c) actually enjoy this sort of rubbish. I kind of fall into all categories but even so, Lake Placid: The Final Chapter pushed me to my limits. The worst thing is that despite the title, the end shot promises more to come……..urgh.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Cabin in the Woods, The (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

If you hear a strange sound outside… have sex.

Five friends head off for a weekend at a secluded cabin in the woods. As they settle in for the night, the door to the cellar mysteriously swings open. Deciding to investigate, the group head down where they find a startling array of old artefacts, ornaments and antiques. But after one of them reads out a passage from a journal, they awaken a family of undead killers who used to live in the cabin. But they are the least of the problems that the group will encounter over the course of the night.

 

To go into any other detail regarding the plot as this stage would be to defeat the object of watching The Cabin in the Woods, quite simply one of the most unique and genre-bending horror films of recent memory. Believe the hype because if you’re a genre fan, you’re going to love this film. Written and produced by Josh Wheldon, the fan boy favourite behind the likes of cult TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and, more recently, the big budget blockbuster The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods continues his fandom-pandering, genre-deprecating sense of humour with a film that can be appreciated on so many different levels. At its core, we have a film that has two simultaneous stories running along side-by-side and it’s up to you to try and piece together the links (before the film does it for you in the final third). But there’s so much more going on underneath.

I don’t think I’ve ever found a review as hard to write as this one. The Cabin in the Woods is best viewed without any faintest hint of what happens in it and, since the bulk of the enjoyable experience is to be constantly screaming “what the hell is going?” at the screen when things take an unexpected turn between the two concurrent stories, then it’s best if you don’t know anything. No spoilers. No clues. Nothing. Even the trailer gives away too much in my opinion. So trying to talk about a film without revealing anything or even given faint hints is really hard and I’m going to purposely avoid talking about one of the stories for that matter as I feel it would give too much away.

The Cabin in the Woods is a clever film, or at least thinks it is for the most part, which will surprise you, shock you and appease the horror nerd inside of you. For genre-busting meta-horror films, I’d say this was up there with Scream for its attempts to break through the fourth wall, only this works a lot better than Craven’s film in many aspects. Though by the sheer insanity that fills up this film’s final third, I can’t imagine wave of copy cat films coming hot on its heels like the post-modern slasher craze which followed Craven’s classic. Co-writer Drew Goddard seems to be as knowledgeable as Wheldon when it comes to horror and together the two craft a film which is high on clichés and even higher on manipulating and breaking them. It requires audience awareness of such clichés in order to succeed and even then, spells some of them out in plain English so that non-genre fans could ‘get’ the film.

But this isn’t done at the expense of the integrity of the film, far from it. This is a film which unleashes the clichés for the viewer, playing upon audience expectations of them in a way which hasn’t been done before but at the same time continuing to put the characters in serious jeopardy. It may be a game for the audience but it’s certainly not a game for the characters who have to try and survive this nightmare ordeal. With one of the major twists of the film, the audience suddenly realise they have become complicit in something that only the five characters are unaware of.

At first, The Cabin in the Woods smacks of been there, done that, got the t-shirt – a bunch of good-looking, stereotypical twentysomethings head off to a remote location for some shenanigans and hanky panky, bumping into the local whackjob on the way who warns them against going. Then of course, his predictions of doom come true and they find something that they shouldn’t really be messing with. The first third of the film is very reminiscent of The Evil Dead film with its whole ‘cabin in the woods, reading a supernatural verse and being trapped with the confines of the valley’ structure. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s just a self-aware re-tread. To say anything else on that matter would be to do you a disservice if you watch it.

Taken on its own merits without the genre in-jokes and twists and turns, the film works reasonably well as an effective horror film. There are some unexpected moments of terror, the film has a decent creepy atmosphere (though there are specific reasons for that!) and there is enough gore to keep fans happy. Some of the make-up effects are brilliantly done, including the zombie Buckner family who come alive to terrorise the teenagers. The teenage characters appear to fall into stereotype at the start but over the course of the film, they develop into fully fledged characters who defy any real stereotyping. Again, to divulge more would be to ruin the enjoyable of the film.

So there you have it – a review which doesn’t say too much about the film, only that you should expect plenty of twists, turns, unexpected happenings, predictable outcomes. Everything you can think will happen, will happen. And everything you think will happen, won’t happen. It sounds confusing but sit down, watch it and let it all pan out. It will make sense then.

 

The Cabin in the Woods is definitely a one-watch only deal as once you ‘get it’ then you’ll find little to go back over, save for perhaps spotting all of the genre references. But your first run-through with it will provide you with some of the most entertaining horror moments that cinema has had to offer for a long time. Ingenious at times, infuriating at others, The Cabin in the Woods is going to be a hard act to follow.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Trackman (2007)

Trackman (2007)

A small group of bank robbers are forced to flee into abandoned underground metro tunnels in Moscow with a handful of hostages when their heist goes lethally wrong. Legend has it that the tunnels are home to a maniacal Chernobyl victim said to be hideously deformed. As the group begin to disappear one-by-one, it turns out that the legend was right.

 

Trackman might well be the first Russian horror film, actually the first Russian film period, that I’ve ever watched. So it’s a bit of a novelty to sit down and experience something made from another country for the first time. Thankfully the DVD came with the original Russian soundtrack and not some terrible dubbing so I was able to experience this in all of its intended national glory – made in a foreign language for a foreign market. One look at the cover and you’d be mistaken for thinking that this was the Russian version of My Bloody Valentine and the similarities aren’t too far from the truth. Sadly Trackman just proves that American influences in the horror genre have infiltrated everywhere across the world. Originality is dead. Instead of being themselves, foreign horror films have the tendency to ape their US counterparts and that’s a bad trend.

Trackman starts off promisingly as a good-looking, atmospheric film which disastrously falls apart once anything ‘slasher’ starts to happen. Right from the moment the group of robbers and hostages head into the tunnels, the film goes into stylistic overdrive with its constant use of flashy lighting, tilting camerawork and copious shots of the tunnels looking all eerie. The tunnel sets look great and really hark back to the mine from My Bloody Valentine. Damp, claustrophobic and with sinister-looking shadows in every corner of the camera frame, this is not the place you’d want to lost in, let alone stalked by a maniac.

But then once the gloss and sheen has rubbed off, what you’re left with is a derivative slasher which borrows more from American slashers than it does from some of the more gritty, down-to-earth European horrors that have been arriving in the West over the last few years. It’s by-the-numbers stalking and slashing which delivers little of the harsh brutality you’d expect a Russian film to portray. It takes a little too long to get the slashing underway and the film can only run for so long on the fumes of the fancy presentation before it grinds to a halt. There’s natural suspense and tension because the sets are created that way but without anything meaty happening in them, it’s wasted potential. Things do pick up slightly when the Trackman starts killing off the cast. But even then there’s little energy to the proceedings.

Trackman falls into the trap like so many horror films in that it doesn’t provide any sympathetic characters for the audience to relate to. The main characters are all bank robbers and the three hostages they take are helpless women and a useless cop. So just who are supposed to root for? The script tries to turn one of the robbers into the anti-hero of the piece but we can never forget he is a criminal – though it seems one of his female hostages overcomes this rather quickly so that they can forge a Final Girl / rescuer relationship. It’s not fair or me to talk about performances given that the actors were speaking in their native Russian and I was watching with subtitles.

The film overdoes the flashy effects whenever the killer makes an appearance. Gliding through the tunnels in shadows and slow motion with some trippy camera work to accompany him, the effect looks good the first time but by the tenth time, it’s gone into overkill and it gets really tiresome. He tends to spend most of the first half of the film posing and preening for the camera in this fashion. Go and kill someone already!

Eventually he starts doing what we expected him to do – kill. From the book of slasher lore comes a killer that at least looks and dresses the part. With goggles, headwear and boiler suit, and with his penchant for pick axes and collecting human eye balls, the writers have definitely made an effort to make him stand out from the pack. The hulking, methodical killer lacks any sort of personality or memorable character quirks but for the benefits of the film, provides a suitably scary presence in the tunnels. He’s also one of those teleporting killers who can be behind someone one minute and halfway down the tunnel in front of them the next.

Aside from the occasional eyeball-wrenching moments (not nearly as graphic as it sounds), the film is pretty dry when it comes to spilling blood. Even though the killer sports a pick axe (and a flamethrower at one point), Trackman tends to shy away from the gratuitous stuff, resulting in a film which fails to deliver even the easiest of slasher goods. Given the nature of the characters, this isn’t a film where the females are going to get topless either (although judging by how quickly one of them falls for her captor, another half an hour and they’d have been getting married). So the gore and violence should have been Trackman‘s saving grace. Alas it fails to deliver on both counts.

 

There’s nothing overly wrong with Trackman and it’s not a complete dud but given its Russian origins, I was expecting a lot more than another derivative slasher. It’s got the atmosphere and it’s got the killer but it’s a chore to sit through and comes off feeling really lethargic, tired and uninspired. Stick to distilling vodka, comrades.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)

Trapped On A Lost World of Prehistoric Monsters

A group of astronauts escape the imminent destruction of their starship on board an escape pod and head for the nearest planet which appears to be capable of supporting human life. After crash landing on the surface, the survivors find that they have no way of signalling for a rescue and set off to find a safe place to set up camp. However the planet is inhabited by an array of carnivorous dinosaurs which see the new arrivals as food.

 

Save for Ray Harryhausen flying a flag for stop motion monster movies, I didn’t think anyone else made these type of stop motion effects-driven films in the late 70s. But after recently discovering Planet of Dinosaurs and The Crater Lake Monster, I was wrong and look forward to uncovering more of this dying breed of film. Planet of the Dinosaurs is a cheap and nasty drive-in movie by definition but hides within it a fantastic array of stop motion special effects that would have Ray Harryhausen giving them a round of applause.

Straight from the off, Planet of Dinosaurs looks to be a blatant Planet of the Apes clone as we head into familiar territory. As well as the ‘Planet of…..’ title, here we have a spaceship which crashes into a lake in a remote location on a barren planet and the crew are forced to escape before their ship sinks. Stranded without hope of rescue, the crew then set off in pursuit of shelter, food, water and some form of civilisation. Only this is where the comparisons then end – instead of intelligent simians, these unlucky astronauts come face-to-face with a whole host of hungry dinosaurs. And this is where the fun begins. Far from being a serious science fiction flick, Planet of Dinosaurs descends into a cheese fest of epic proportions.

After being harassed by the dinosaurs for the first half of the film in which some of their number are picked off, the survivors decide to fight back and let the dinosaurs know who is in charge (as humans as a race have a tendency to do in science fiction films). From about the half an hour mark, the film is almost a non-stop collection of sequences involving various humans battling against the dinosaurs using spears, bow and arrows and stockades. If you came along thinking that you’d be cheated out of plenty of dino-action, then you’re completely wrong.

Planet of Dinosaurs‘ strength lies in the quality of its monsters. The dinosaurs are old school stop motion. And there are a lot of them. I can’t believe how frequently they appear on the camera. To say that this made outside of the studio system and given how low cost the rest of the film is, the special effects look fantastic. The T-Rex is the standout monster, looking suitably menacing, and could easily have been lifted from a Ray Harryhausen film. There are a stegosaurus, a triceratops and a brontosaurus to name a few others which are all animated with precise skill and technique. A few familiar names crop up in the effects department including Jim Danforth who worked on films like Jack the Giant Killer and assisted Harryhausen in the original Clash of the Titans. With talented people on board to produce some quality special effects, it makes a nice change to actually see where the money has gone.

The script and the acting do the most harm to Planet of the Dinosaurs. Whilst the story itself is basic and sees the ‘futuristic’ humans having to revert back to hunter-gather mode (which is perfectly completed by the abrupt final scene), the dialogue is appalling , though thankfully there’s not as much dialogue as I was expecting given how much action there is. These lines are delivered just as badly by the cast. Made up of gruff, bearded-men and good-looking, busty women, the film could be mistaken for some low rent porno flick. But it adds a little goofy charm to proceedings, especially as one male character spends almost the entire length of the film without his shirt on.

It isn’t just the quality of the dialogue and the delivery of them which is frustrating but the manner in which characters constantly put themselves in danger by making really stupid decisions. The females are the worst – if they’re not forgetting to pack communications equipment when their escape pod sinks, then they’re dropping the group’s food supply over the edge of a cliff. With the captain being an ineffectual dweeb who wants to run from the dinosaurs, another crew man wanting to beat his chest and do his best caveman impression, and another character just generally annoying the hell out of everyone by moaning about everything, there is dissent among the crew. Unsurprisingly, we never get to really know any of the characters in any great depth other than their stereotypes and so our support lies squarely in the dinosaurs, on whose planet these annoying characters have been dumped.

Planet of Dinosaurs also comes off like Tour of the Planet of Dinosaurs during the many scenes of the survivors walking around the desolate landscape looking for safety. There are far too many scenes of them climbing rocks, walking through swamps and scouring through bushes. There’s little attempt to drive the narrative in any direction and by the end of the film, whilst you may have had a fun time, you’d wonder what the point in it all was.

 

Planet of Dinosaurs is a curious film which didn’t sound particularly great but ended up being a lot of cheesy fun. Though it’s supposed to be set in the future, this is 70s camp at its purest. It’s got its fair share of problems but the quality and sheer number of special effects throughout the film should guarantee stop motion fans a great time.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Psycho II (1983)

Psycho II (1983)

It’s 22 years later, and Norman Bates is finally coming home

After twenty two years in an institution, Norman Bates is finally deemed sane and released back into the wider world, much to the disconcert of Lila Loomis, the sister of Marion Crane who was brutally stabbed to death in the shower. However due to budget cutbacks, Norman isn’t sent to a halfway house and instead finds himself returning home to the Bates Motel, where a social worker pops in to see him from time-to-time. He gets a job working in a local diner and befriends a young waitress who agrees to move in with him. But it isn’t long before he starts getting mysterious phone calls and notes left for him by ‘Mother’ and homicidal feelings that he had managed to suppress begin to resurface.

 

How do you follow up one of the most influential films of all time? Well you wait until the original director has died before you tackle the material. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the most critically-analysed films ever made but a sequel whilst the director was alive was never going to get off the ground – Hitchcock would never given the green light to a sequel for any of his films. So out of respect, it was only after Hitchcock died in 1980 that attempts were made to follow up his landmark Psycho with a sequel, a daunting task for anyone.

Psycho II was made at the height of the slasher era where Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and soon-to-be Freddy Krueger and their numerous copycat killers were slicing and dicing their way across hordes of the teenage landscape. So what better era in which to bring back the original slasher himself, Norman Bates? Psycho II could have pandered to the masses and turned Norman into a bodycount maestro but director Richard Franklin resisted the urge to cash-in on the current trend and instead crafts together a masterfully-conceived horror film which does Hitchcock’s original huge justice.

Right from the start (well technically not true as it recaps the shower scene from the original but you know what I mean), Psycho II never once pretends to be aping Hitchcock. This is its own film, not designed to recapture the artistic talents of Hitchcock but to further on the story of Norman Bates, nothing more. With this mindset in place, Psycho II then proceeds to deliver a gripping story which continually asks the question of whether Norman has slipped back into his insanity or whether he is being played for a fool by someone who wants to see him back in the asylum. Wisely constructing the film around another standout performance from Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, the film weaves an intricate tapestry of questions which don’t leave you with the answers until late in the day. One minute you think he has snapped again but the next minute you’re not so sure. The film keeps pulling the rug out and introducing new evidence for and against both scenarios and isn’t happy until the final reel. It will keep you guessing right until the end and even then, you’re not so sure.

This said, there are plenty of nods to the original. The homecoming scene where Norman finds himself coming face-to-face with the creepy house on the hill for the first time in years is fantastically spooky. Seeing the motel again, that shower, the stairs where Martin Balsam was murdered….it all brings back powerful memories of the original for not only Norman but the audience. The running shots of various knives around the diner and the house keep our expectations firmly at the forefront of our minds. We expect Norman to go crazy at some point and use them. In a perverse twist of logic, we the audience actually want Norman to be turn out to be crazy. It’s a fine line between protagonist and antagonist that the film keeps skirting over by reflecting on our memories of the original and our preconceptions of what is going to happen here.

Psycho II is  a character-driven film which avoids capitulating to the 80s requirements of over-the-top splatter and gratuitous nudity. Whilst Psycho II resists the urge to turn Norman into another Michael Myers, the success of the slasher film during this decade didn’t go unnoticed here and so the film is slightly more violent and graphic than the original but nothing overly gory. The time lapse between the original and Psycho II really help the authenticity of this one to shine through. Though the original would have been replayed countless times on the television over the years, the gap between cinematic releases (and thus allowing for the natural aging of Anthony Perkins and returning actress Vera Miles) keeps the film feeling fresh – this isn’t just a rush-job sequel made two years later.

Anthony Perkins owns the film. Whilst his Norman Bates isn’t the fresh-faced, seemingly-innocent young man he was in the original, he has managed to retain the nervous stutter, twitchy eyes and general sense of likeability. Norman has been through hell in the asylum and goes through hell as he tries to readjust to normal life. Perkins’ performance has the uncanny ability to draw sympathy from the viewer. We know he’s guilty of the horrific crimes he committed in the original yet we can’t help but feel sorry for him as his fragile mental state breaks and he slowly slips back to being a complete fruitcake.

Helping him along the way is the immensely likeable Meg Tilly who plays the waitress who moves in with him. For all intents and purposes, she is the audience for the film. At first she’s apprehensive of Norman after finding out about his past. But then as the film progresses, she grows to like him and feel sorry for him as he seems like a decent guy deep down. But then towards the end, she’s not so sure whether it’s all an act or not. Tilly’s character arc travels the same way as the audience and it’s effective in eliciting a response from us.

The only thing that is missing is the infamous Bernard Herrmann score. It is like having the Jaws sequels without John Williams’ infamous shark theme, the Star Wars sequels and prequels without the Imperial March or the Halloween sequels without John Carpenter’s trademark theme. Granted there is no replication of the shower sequence for it to re-appear but you’d have thought they would have found somewhere to put it, even for posterity.

 

Psycho II is perhaps the most underrated sequel of all time and really deserves more critical acclaim than it has had. When it’s only major flaw is that it isn’t Psycho, then you know you’ve got a great film on your hands. A worthy successor to Hitchcock’s film which stays true to its spirit, Psycho II continues the story of Norman Bates with delicious menace and skilful delight.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Piranhaconda (2012)

Piranhaconda (2012)

Part Snake! Part Fish! All Killer!

A scientist discovers the eggs of a mythical snake whilst on an expedition to a remote part of Hawaii and steals one, incurring the wrath of the creature which sets off in pursuit. Meanwhile, a film crew shooting a low budget horror film on the island are captured by a bunch of gun-toting kidnappers who plan to ransom them off. When the scientist stumbles into their clutches as well, it isn’t long before the piranhaconda begins to spoil their plans.

 

So another month, another ludicrously-titled, over-the-top creature feature comes along. Sharktopus not only set the ball rolling with these crossover named monsters but also set the benchmark – whilst it will never be remembered as a great film, it ran with its silly premise and was a lot of fun. But now they’re all the rage and seem determined to out-do the last one in terms of throwing away common sense and reality. From the mind of infamous cult classic producer Roger Corman, the directing prowess of B-movie and exploitation maestro Jim Wynorski and with the Sy Fy Original tag of death comes Piranhaconda, the next of these films off the conveyor belt.

Part piranha, part anaconda (yeah I don’t get it and the film doesn’t bother explaining the cross breeding process either), the novelty value of the title and the monster alone won’t even manage to sustain your interest past the title credits let alone survive until the final reel. But these Sy Fy films rely on their titles to sell – the rest of the content is almost indistinguishable from the rest: tropical locations, similar sets, some of the same actors, repeated scenarios, etc. Piranhaconda falls into the same pitfalls as the likes of Dinoshark, Sharktopus and Dinocroc Vs Supergator in that when the title monsters aren’t snacking on humans, then the films blur into one with no identifiable differences between this one and the next. For all intents and purposes, you could swap the monsters around and it would make little difference to the outcome.

Piranhaconda is meant to be terrible because let’s face the blatant truth – it’s a filmed called Piranhaconda. There’s no beating around the bush as to what you’re going to get here. But the way in which it’s made is just shoddy and sloppy. Taking the easy way out, the film shows you the monster in all of its glory within the first fifteen minutes. No build-up. No gradual reveal. Just the money shot out of the way. So what’s left to get excited for? You see the monster so much throughout the film that you’re numbed to the sight of it by the time the finale comes. Though the title promises a unique creation, the eventual design looks more like an average snake with a weird head than any real hybrid of the two. Would it surprise you to find out that the CGI is awful? No, didn’t think it would. The same animations are used over and over again and it gets boring really quick. At least provide some variation in how the monster is going to kill its prey.

Corman’s best days are long behind him and though its highly commendable that he’s still giving many folks a chance to break into the business who may not get a proper shot in Hollywood, the film quality seems to have diminished greatly over the years. Compare these recent creature features to some of his earlier 80s sleaze and cheese fests like Forbidden World and Galaxy of Terror and the difference in quality is amazing. Back then, the films were still low budget and pandered to the lowest common denominators of blood and boobs but at least they were serious and treat the material with respect.

Nowadays, these films seem to be about goofing around too much and trying to be too clever with the silly ideas on display. Though quite why the script felt it necessary to throw in a load of kidnappers to act as human villains when there’s a big snake-thing slithering around the island eating people every five minutes is another matter. It increases the potential number of victims for the monster but the film features enough non-characters (characters who turn up in a film, maybe say a line or two and then get killed within the same scene) to feed an army of piranhacondas.

Another obstacle facing Corman, Wynorski and co. are the constraints within which they have to work for the TV audience – so that means no boobs. For men who have built careers on the exploitative market, these new films are stripped of the ingredients that pandered to the male demographic. Piranhaconda features a bevy of beautiful women yet a couple of them in bikinis is the raunchiest the film will get.

Michael Madsen pops up looking as bedraggled scientist and seems to be wearing a ridiculous toupee under his cowboy hat. As bad as he is slumming here, I still keep picturing Reservoir Dogs to remind myself not to go too hard on him. Rachel Hunter (more famous for her marriage to Rod Stewart than anything noteworthy in Hollywood) co-stars as one of the kidnappers but her character has no purpose whatsoever. I guess these two were cast for name value but both are easily upstaged by stunning co-star Shandi Finnessey who parades around in a yellow bikini.

On a random side note, I have the same scarecrow mask that the killer in the ‘Head Chopper’ film-within-a-film was wearing. Good choice whoever chose it!

 

I know this review has sounded more like a rant on this burgeoning sub-genre rather than any individual criticism of the film in question but Piranhaconda is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with this type of film. It had the potential to either be a complete joke or a right laugh and the eventual result in somewhere in the middle. It’s far from anyone’s greatest work but neither does it plumb the murky depths of the bottom of the barrel. It just seems like another complete waste of a fairly entertaining premise which is indistinguishable from every other CGI monster Sy Fy film.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Terror Within, The (1989)

The Terror Within (1989)

It Wants To Get Out!

A plague has destroyed most of the world’s population aside from small groups of survivors who have holed themselves up in underground military bunkers across the planet. When a routine patrol to the surface to look for food come across a human settlement with a pregnant female survivor, it appears that a cure has been found. They take her back to the bunker but they discover that the woman is pregnant with the baby of one of the hideous gargoyle-like monsters that roam the planet’s surface. After a failed abortion, the baby rapidly mutates into a full-grown monster which then begins to kill the group off one-by-one.

 

Roger Corman had been producing these low budget Alien rip-offs since the early 80s and so by this point, the clockwork, almost-cumbersome nature of proceedings had been perfected down to a tee. The Terror Within may change the setting from outer space to underground but, save for obligatory shots of the desert as opposed to the stars, the results are almost identical – cheap sets, copious gore, sleazier undertones and a clear set of eyes on Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi horror classic.

There shouldn’t be much point in trying to review a film like The Terror Within. It’s a blatant Alien rip-off which cuts down on the expensive eye-candy (all those shots of the Nostromo drifting through space for instance), avoids spending too much money on high profile actors, skimps on the non-essential story and ramps up the more exploitative elements such as the gore, the alien and the suggestion of alien-human rape. With Roger Corman on board as producer, you at least know what you’re going to get. And The Terror Within pretty much delivers on all three of the latter – only it’s been done better before, even by Corman himself. His far superior Forbidden World puts this one to shame. This feels tame and lacklustre in comparison.

The Terror Within has clearly been built up around a number of set pieces or ideas and so the script suffers from a stop-start cycle. For every action sequence, there are at least three sequences of people sitting around staring at computers or walking around the corridors looking for the creature. Whilst I understand the need for such sequences (especially the walking scenes) to establish the setting, the technology and maybe create a bit of tension as you wonder what is around the corner, there are just too many and there’s no pay-off to them.

The sets are also way too bright and fail to create any sort of atmosphere or intimidating location. There’s no illusion that the creature could be lurking in the corner of the room or strike at any time. As is typical of these films, there is also an obligatory ventilation shaft scene where one of the cast encounter the creature in a tight spot. However, everything is way too bright and ‘in your face’ which is the problem with the film. There’s no chance for the audience to use their imagination and picture in their head what is happening – the film spoon feeds everything in at a rapid rate.

The monsters in here kind of reminded me of the monsters in the recent Feast films – not only big, shabby and horny but sharing a similar kind of look. Unfortunately the suit never once manages to convince anyone that it is anything but a guy dressed up but when director Thierry Notz has decided to shoot the creature in brightly-lit sets most of the time, it never had any chance. Keeping it in the dark would have worked wonders given that the guy beneath the make-up seems to be quite tall and intimidating. The origins of the gargoyle creatures is never explained – are they mutated humans or a new form of life brought on by the plague? They’re not too fussy when it comes to killing and some of the kills, while rather routine, are at least caked in splatter.

Andrew Stevens plays the hero role and he’s not too bad for this sort of nonsense in a low-rent action man sort of way, so much so that he was brought back to write and direct the sequel. It’s George Kennedy who is the most famous name in the cast but at this point in his career, he was just taking any roles for cash and his appearances in the horror genre around this time are rather embarrassing. It’s not his fault – Kennedy seems to be trying to lift the material – but the character he’s lumbered with comes off as cold, detached from the other survivors and rather useless.

 

The Terror Within is a crude relic of 80s low budget horror which is designed to pander to the lowest denominators of the genre at the cheapest possible cost. Cheesy and entertaining if you like your brainless Alien rip-offs but there are far better examples out there to enjoy.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆