Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

Frankenstein's Army (2013)

What is dead may never die

Towards the end of World War 2, a group of Russian soldiers pushing into German territory stumble upon a secret Nazi lab that has been conducting unthinkable experiments based upon the work of Dr Victor Frankenstein.

 

Are you old enough to have played any of the Wolfenstein games? They were a successful series of first-person shooters set during WW2 and had the player facing off against waves of monstrous Nazi experiments in Castle Wolfenstein. They played upon the weird and perverse fascination that many people have regarding the Nazis and their experiments on the occult. In the darker days of WW2, it was long rumoured that Hitler and his top brass were looking for ways to win the war and the occult was one direction that they tried to take. It’s proven to be a gold mine for filmmakers over the years with everyone from Hellboy to Indiana Jones confronting Nazis who were attempting some black magic rituals.

Frankenstein’s Army is Wolfenstein brought to life, an vividly imaginative and concept-fuelled horror film which not only follows in the footsteps of films which dealt with the Nazi occult but stamps its own madcap mark on the sub-genre. Forget Dead Snow, Outpost or Iron Sky, this is the new benchmark of Nazi-themed horror, a uniquely perverse assault on the senses which takes no prisoners, leaves no idea unturned and will have you cheering and squirming in equal measure.

First things first though – enough of the found footage horror films already! With The Blair Witch Project being fourteen years old and Cloverfield coming up on five years, it’s about time that filmmakers put that fad to bed despite the odd success (Troll Hunter, I’m looking at you). Frankenstein’s Army shoe-horns this gimmicky, over-exposed plot device into the film for reasons unknown and it’s a mixed bag as to how successful it is. The situations that the cameraman finds himself in are too contrived for him to feasibly hold the camera and record everything in the face of overwhelming danger (let’s face it, confronted with those zom-bot monsters, you and I would run a mile). Other situations have characters coming up with reasons for the camera to be recording the action (the finale springs to mind). It forces the script to become too focused on the camera and less about what is going on. There’s just no need for the film to use this gimmick and it would have worked better without it.

However, at other times, Frankenstein’s Army uses the technique brilliantly, with the camera sometimes swinging around to reveal a monster half-glimpsed down a corridor or something moving around in the back of the shot. But it’s nothing that couldn’t have been achieved with a normal camera and you get the sense that you’re missing a lot of the great stuff because the camera is shaking or facing the wrong way.

After the initially drawn-out sequences of the Russian soldiers going about their mission, all hell literally breaks loose as Frankenstein’s army of cybernetic monsters springs into life. Human remains fused with machine parts, these hideous monsters are steam-punk inspired  Nazi creations right out of Hell. Frankenstein’s Army then plays its aces, unleashing some of the most surreal and nightmarish creatures to emerge over the past ten years. Though filmed on a low budget, Frankenstein’s Army packs in some incredible production design that would put the majority of Hollywood mega-budget films to shame. The tour of Frankenstein’s laboratory that takes place in the final third is simply a fright-fuelled trip through the warped mind of director Richard Raaphorst. It’s like a walk through a Nazi/occult-themed Halloween funhouse and the first-person point-of-view really hammers this home. Gloomy, damp, smoky visuals with machines rumbling in the background, screams and monstrous moans happening around the camera, and with the sight of hulking robotic zombies with knife-fingers or propellers for heads staggering from room to room with bloody, dismembered corpses lying around the floor, it’s an unforgettable scene. Grotesque, gurgling creatures emerge from behind doorways or heave themselves up out of chutes with no warning. It’s a claustrophobic setting, with no escape and a deadly surprise lurking around every corner.

Where Frankenstein’s Army will win most plaudits with genre lovers is with this large variety of practical effects-based monsters. The only comparison I can make with them is to think of the Cenobites from the Hellraiser films and how uniquely outlandish and terrifying they were when they appeared for the first time – like nothing you had ever seen before. The selection of Nazi monsters here has that same ‘wow’ factor. You won’t have seen anything as unearthly and as abhorrent as these monsters, each individually unique in their composition. Frankenstein’s traditional fleshy patchwork experimentations take on new life when fused with mechanical parts. In different hands, these monsters could have turned out cartoony and ridiculous. But director Richard Raaphorst treats them with respect, refusing to allow their dubious nature to dominate, and keeps them grounded in as much reality as possible.

If there is a big drawback with Frankenstein’s Army, it’s that I doubt it will find much affection outside of hardcore horror fans. The plot is too simple, the characters are thinly-sketched stereotypes and the film does seem to power ahead solely on its conceptual ideas and the “I wonder what we’ll see next” approach. Those expecting a torrent of blood will be disappointed as well. The majority of the gore is from freshly-dismembered corpses lying about Frankenstein’s lab rather than any damage the creatures do to the Russian soldiers.

 

In case you haven’t realised by reading this review, I loved Frankenstein’s Army. It’s one of the most rewarding horror films I’ve watched for a long time and whilst it’s not likely to be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no denying how original and creative it is. Sadly the use of the found footage approach restricts the scope of the great visuals that we get to experience, leaving the audience wanting to see more. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing given how the film ends.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Lighthouse (1999)

Lighthouse (1999)

The brightest light hides your darkest fear

A prison transport ship carrying some notorious criminals, including serial killer Leo Rook, runs around during a storm and the crew are forced to abandon ship. The few survivors, a mixture of guards and prisoners, manage to take shelter at a nearby lighthouse but Rook also managed to escape from the ship before it sank. Now with no way off the island, the survivors are slowly picked off one-by-one.

 

A British film with a prolonged production? That’s not something unusual in an era where it seems to be harder and harder for talented British filmmakers to get their foot onto the bottom rung of the movie making ladder. Lighthouse started development in 1994, began shooting in 1998, was eventually finished by 1999, was released in the US in 2000 as Dead of Night, and finally ‘came home’ for the first time in 2002 for a cinematic release. That’s a crazy production schedule so it’s a good job that, for the most, Lighthouse comes out as respectable as it does. Well, as respectable as another generic slasher flick could be.

Lighthouse‘s main strength is its cracking location. The lighthouse and surrounding island is the perfect place to set a horror film. Set at night, the film does a great job of turning this environment into an intimidating, inhospitable place where the only light source is the constantly-rotating lighthouse beam. Inside is no better, with damp, dingy rooms and spiralling staircases leading to all manner of possibilities for the characters to play hide and seek with the killer. At times, director Simon Hunter is in danger of lavishing too much style into the film – this is a slasher after all, not some art house flick. But once this gets a little overbearing, Lighthouse ditches it all in favour of more routine slasher trickery.

It’s these early scenes with the characters exploring the island, blissfully unaware that Rook has beaten them there, which are the film’s strongest point. Before the decapitating gets underway in earnest, Lighthouse protracts the tension with a series of scenes which will get right under your skin: the highlight scene being where the ship’s alcoholic captain ventures off in search of the toilet only to have the killer enter a few minutes later, unaware of the potential victim hiding in the cubicle. What follows is a nerve-wracking few minutes where the captain peeks underneath the cubicle to see a pair of blood-splattered feet pacing up and down.

It’s good to see a British slasher try and deviate from the norm a little by choosing not to populate the film with teenage characters, instead giving us a selection of adult characters to root for (with a bunch of British character actors assuming the roles). Unfortunately just because they’re adults doesn’t mean to say that we’re going to like them any better and Lighthouse seems to go out of its way to make these survivors as bland and as lacklustre as possible. The leads, James Purefoy and Rachel Shelley, are saddled with particularly worthless characters. Thankfully, despite the victims providing little in the way of human entertainment, Christopher Adamson’s Leo Rook killer more than makes up for the short-change. He’s a sinister-looking character, physically imposing to boot, and more than capable (and willing) to kill and decapitate his victims. He likes to keep the heads as trophies. No attempt is made to give him any sort of back story other than the fact he’s a notorious killer but once he escapes, there’s no real need to turn him onto a multi-layered character. He’s a killer, plain and simple, in the classic mould of Michael Myers.

Novelty value of the setting aside, Lighthouse falls into many of the same pitfalls as its American cousins. Once the first couple of kills have taken place, Lighthouse drifts into a repetitive series of “is he there or isn’t he?” moments where the survivors are trying to guess where Rook is hiding. The atmosphere and tension from the first half gives way to predictable plotting, unnecessary explosions and forced romantic sub-plots. The dull characters begin to make silly decisions such as splitting up or venturing outside in the dark. As the number of survivors starts to dwindle and the creativity dries up, Rook begins to grow stronger and stronger, surviving the inevitable electrocution, burning and stabbing that the Final Girl throws his way. No amount of gore and rolling heads can make up for the stupidity and shoulder-shrugging nature of the script in the second half of the film.

 

Lighthouse is a slightly better-than-routine slasher, a bit more violent and gritty than most, set inside a novel location and with some decent technical skill surrounding it. Due to the nature of the material, it is never able to break out in the way that it should and the sub-genre conventions end up swamping the film towards the end. A solid effort from the Brits but nothing that will be rocking the foundations of the sub-genre.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Leviathan (1989)

Leviathan (1989)

It will leave you gasping for air…

Days before their undersea mining contract expires, the crew of a US deep-sea mining facility discover a sunken Soviet ship, the Leviathan, in a trench. Bringing a watertight chest back on board, the crew think that they have found some sort of treasure. However when they open it, they don’t realise that they are opening a Pandora’s Box of mutated genes which proceeds to infect one of the crew, transforming them into a hideous creature which then proceed to kill the crew one-by-one.

 

Whilst James Cameron’s The Abyss was in production, other studios assumed that it was going to be some ‘monster-on-the-loose-in-a-confined-space’ flick like Aliens but only underwater instead of space. Cameron was a rising star after Aliens and The Terminator and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Being ones to try and jump on the bandwagon, a handful of similar-themed films each featuring aquatic terrors were rushed into production in order to capitalise on the inevitable popularity. However, The Abyss was nothing like people expected it to be, especially after Aliens a couple of years earlier. So these films kind of floundered a little bit, trying to beat the other into the pool first only to find it had moved. Leviathan finds itself in a prominent position boasting a director hot from making a pair of Stallone action, a great cast of famous faces and modern day effects maestro, the late Stan Winston, providing the monster. It should have added up to a lot more than the sum of its parts though.

The problem is that Leviathan comes off more like an undersea version of The Thing than a straight-up Alien clone but it’s clear that the script is the combination of Scott’s sci-fi classic and Carpenter’s immense Antarctic shocker. It’s a film which has been assembled courtesy of the best pieces of both films just without the required glue to hold it all together. Outer space. The Antarctic. Underwater. Three places where help isn’t coming, the feeling of isolation is paramount and no one can hear you scream. Leviathan starts exactly like Alien with the blue-collared crew going about their day-to-day business before they encounter a situation which screams “avoid” at all costs. Then the film switches across to The Thing mode with the crew finding something nasty which has already wiped out a like-minded foreign power and proceeds to secretly infect one of the US crew. From there on, I’ll avoid the comparisons between the films. After all, Alien itself wasn’t an original idea. The only thing that matters is whether or not the films are any good regardless of whether it’s recycling ideas from another film.

In this respect, Leviathan does an admirable job of paving its own way. Over $20 million was sunk into this flick so Leviathan can’t argue that it was short of cash. There are some highly impressive sets and the undersea facility looks stunning. Sadly the confined setting isn’t fully utilized and there’s not a whole lot of tension or atmosphere cranked out within the bowels of this metallic, gloomy facility. The script follow standard conventions, introducing a diverse crew of male, female, white, black and Hispanic characters, and of various ages, so that there’s at least one or two characters that people should be able to associate with.

Leviathan‘s biggest strength is its all-star cast. Robocop himself, Peter Weller, stars as the commander of the vessel. There are supporting roles for Ernie Hudson (the black ghostbuster), Richard Crenna (Stallone’s superior officer in the Rambo films), Daniel Stern (in his pre-Home Alone days), Hector Elizondo, Meg Foster and Amanda Pays. Whilst it’s safe to assume that no actor will be placing this at the top of their credits list, they’re decent enough for what the limited script asks them to do. Hudson in particular makes more of an impression in his role here than he did across two Ghostbusters films. Don’t get too attached to any of them however as their shelf-life is very limited.

Whoever was cast in the film was always going to play second fiddle to the monster though. It’s the reason why people watch films like this. Stan Winston is the man pulling the strings with the special effects and comes up with an intriguing and original creature which doesn’t just look like another tall, black-skinned monster with sharp teeth (i.e. Giger’s unforgettable alien creation). In the days before CGI, the creature is brought to life all through practical make-up effects. You don’t get to see an awful lot of it which is a bit of a shame as it looks very real and imposing in the scenes that it’s in. However later in the film, it begins to change size and shape a little too much based upon whatever the script requires it to do. Its final reveal is overly disappointing and is a bit of a poor model from Industrial Light and Magic. Can’t all be winners I suppose!

The creature also has the ability to regenerate itself and contaminate others, and sets about absorbing the crew in grisly fashion. It takes about thirty minutes for the creature to start causing havoc and there’s some solid moments of gore as the process of absorption gets messy at times. Leviathan works better when it’s not just having the monster stalk and attack people down corridors but the back-up is there for when it does. The better make-up effects are those used when the characters are begin to change, such as a row of teeth and mouth appearing on someone’s hand. But then we’re getting into The Thing territory again.

 

Something of a minor cult favourite amongst sci-fi-horror fans, Leviathan is a film which doesn’t have a shred of originality running through its body. But it’s a polished production with enough goo, gore and gratuitous hamming up by some of the cast to keep it entertaining, rarely dull and with an odd moment which promised a whole lot more.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dinocroc (2004)

Dinocroc (2004)

It feeds on fear.

Scientists at the Gereco Corporation discover an accelerated growth hormone in the fossils of a prehistoric super-crocodile and extract the DNA to create new prototypes of the dinosaur back in the lab. However one of the infant crocodiles kills an employee and manages to escape into a local lake where it begins to eat anything and anyone in its path. The corporation hires a famous reptile hunter to bring it back but he isn’t the only one who is out to stop it.

 

It seems like an eternity since Dinocroc was released in 2004 but that’s been mainly down to the ridiculous number of ‘prehistoric creatures on the loose’ films that have emerged from the Roger Corman stable since. Dinocroc was one of the ‘pioneering’ efforts that paved the way for such classics as Dinoshark and Supergator and then the inevitable Dinocroc Vs Supergator. It sees that Corman struck straight-to-DVD gold when he began producing these cheap modern monster movies and has been mining it dry ever since.

This doesn’t mean to say that Dinocroc is in any way, shape or form an original film. To say that there’s been nearly ten years between it being released and this review, the formula has not changed one bit. So much so that you could quite easily swap out the dinocroc creature here and place in a giant snake or other carnivorous monster and there would be no difference to the overall narrative. The only reason any sane person would tune in to watch is to see what a giant prehistoric crocodile that can walk on two legs actually looks like. I was half-expecting some animatronic puppetry but Dinocroc joins the twentieth century by bringing its monster to life in CGI. It comes off looking like a low-rent version of the 1998 Americanised Godzilla. It bugs me that the monster is so alike – could effects man-turned-director Kevin O’Neill not have thought of anything more original? I mean he’s got a blank slate to design a cool-looking dinocroc and just wastes it by creating mini-Godzilla. There’s not a hint of crocodile in here at all.

Even with a generic look, the effects are really poor and there’s not too many variations on the animations. So whilst you see a lot of the monster, it’s always the same shots of it rampaging through the swamp. The CGI effects also lend it ridiculous speed and agility, a common fault with many modern monsters. Surely something this big and cumbersome would be slow and stealthy? But it can swim faster than a speed boat when it needs to and can outpace a jeep when on land. It is also given some silly Gregorian chanting music theme so whenever it appears on screen, this unholy demonic choir begin singing. I don’t know what the intention was with this but I’m pretty sure the resultant effect on the film isn’t what they wanted it to be. With severed heads and bloody limbs flying around and at the camera, the death scenes are at least gory and some come out of nowhere. It’s a shame that the effects don’t stand up to much scrutiny when they do happen.

Whilst Dinocroc wracks up the clichés and rigidly sticks to the rules for the most, there are odd moments where it threatens to break free of its shackles and become entertaining. It never does however, despite graphically feeding a young child to the dinocroc in one shocking scene. It gets well fed too with the amount of non-characters that find themselves trapped between its jaws. There are plenty of stereotypical characters on display but as they’re all sort-of essential to the story, there’s no chance of them getting harmed until the finale. From bitchy corporate villains, to no-nonsense local sheriffs, scientists appalled with how their creation has turned out and a local animal control officer who will no doubt find love with the hero of the piece by the time the credits roll (who also happens to be her ex-boyfriend).

Costas Mandylor, who went on to greater fame as Jigsaw’s protégé in the Saw films, stars in the lead role as the token ‘great white hunter’ character who is tasked with tracking down and killing the creature. Mandylor plays the Aussie role like a more jacked-up version of the late Steve Irwin. But whilst the role cries out for a tongue-in-cheek parody performance, Mandylor, and the film for that matter, keeps things all serious and dull. Veteran character actor Charles Napier is on hand as, surprise surprise, the local badass sheriff. Napier can do these roles in his sleep, which is most likely where you’ll be after an hour or so of this.

 

Dinocroc is what happens when Roger Corman decides to blend Jurassic Park, Godzilla and Alligator together. It’s pretty worthless overall but I know some of you out there won’t be able to resist the lure of another prehistoric creature feature flick.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Toolbox Murders, The (2004)

The Toolbox Murders (2004)

Every year, thousands of people come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams. Some succeed. Some go home. And some just disappear.

The Lusman Arms apartment block used to be the place to stay back in the early days of Hollywood but a series of unfortunate events forced its demise. But now renovations are taking place and residents are moving back in. Nell and her husband, Steven, are a young couple who are getting their feet onto the property ladder and see the block as the ideal place to start their lives together. However when they move in, strange things begin to happen and residents begin to go missing, brutally murdered at the hands of a supernatural killer.

 

Tobe Hooper somewhat returns to his old form with this throwback to the washed-out, gloomy drive-in horror flicks on the late 70s. A loose remake of one of the most infamous ‘video nasties’ during the 80s, The Toolbox Murders sensibly ditches the majority of the original’s story and forges its own path in the process, save for only the murderer’s multi-purpose toolkit. It’s a good job that it does manage to shape its own identity and act as a reminder to horror fans the world over that Tobe Hooper wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan who brought us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist but has consistently failed to deliver anything worthwhile since. Hooper needed this more than we needed it but as it turns out, The Toolbox Murders is a nice little compromise. It’s got enough going for it to satisfy genre lovers whilst not really breaking any new ground and Hooper manages to steady himself with a solid film in the hope that he can use it as a springboard to future success.

The Toolbox Murders has the bleak look of an older film, as if it has just been unearthed from a vault which was locked during the late 70s/early 80s. The film is washed out, tinged with a little darkness and purveys an overriding sense of doom throughout. Any thought that this may just be style over substance will be immediately smashed out of your thoughts within the opening few minutes as one unlucky victim falls prey to a pretty horrific claw hammer attack. It’s the sort of gut-punching opening which immediately hooks the viewer in, alerting them to the fact that this isn’t going to be a film for the faint-hearted.

Hooper toys with his audience for the first half of the film, unleashing slasher convention upon convention with the list of victims growing bigger and the methods of dispatch getting crueller and bloodier. For a slasher flick, it isn’t too bad. There’s plenty of uninspired filler but the stalk and kill scenes are shot with a clear eye for detail and atmosphere, and they’re gory (more on that in a bit). The Toolbox Murders, in a post-Scream era of hip, teen horror flicks, seems to be a glorious and defiant stand against the system. The cast isn’t filled with your usual walking, talking teenage clichés. It is made up with a curiously wacky bunch of older odd-bods that includes a voyeur, a failed actress, a sinister handyman and the lazy owner. Angela Bettis, fresh from her creepy but appealing performance in May, stars as Nell and, together with Brent Roam as Steven, they form a likeable husband and wife duo that the audience can get behind and root for. Though Nell does eventually fall into the Final Girl stereotype, Bettis keeps the role multi-dimensional with a few mannerisms and quirks to differentiate her from the crowd. Nell has to piece together what has happened at the apartment using her detective skills which leads to plenty of scenes of her walking around the building. Bettis is one of the most fragile-looking actresses I’ve ever seen and immediately gets your sympathy but the girl can act too so it’s almost impossible not to like her.

Halfway through The Toolbox Murders, Hooper just flips a switch and veers off down the supernatural route, throwing in some really daft plot twists and explanations which serve to confuse everything that has been previously built up. It becomes more of a haunted house film but doesn’t handle the directional change very well at all. Thankfully, even though the final resolution of the mystery is rather poorly-handled, there’s a lot of tension and a couple of decent frights as the killer, known as Coffin Baby, tries to put an end to Nell.

Coffin Baby looks the part of nightmares, sort of a distant cousin of Leatherface complete with a patchwork face. He is quite adept at springing out of practically anywhere in the building, with his first appearance being a right corker, and this adds a constant state of unease to the film. Not only that but he’s a dab hand at using the various implements from his toolbox. If he’s not snapping spinal cords with bolt cutters, he’s slicing off parts of skulls with band saws or using nail guns to utmost horrific effect. The make-up effects department has a field day in bringing these grisly DIY dispatches to life, with a face melting moment to be proud of. It’s no surprise to hear that a lot of these scenes had to be edited down for the limited theatrical release that the film received but thankfully they were included on the DVD version.

 

The Toolbox Murders is fast-paced, slick and delivers a slice of more mature, adult-orientated slash at a time when the teenage audience is getting all of the attention. Hooper doesn’t exactly reinvent the slasher wheel but proves that the sub-genre can still provide decent thrills and spills with the right man behind the camera. Plus Hooper proves that, with the right script, he still has what it takes to make an effective horror film.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Monsters of mass destruction

Godzilla and the other giant monsters of Earth are being held on Monster Island, a virtual prison which allows them to live in peace but will not permit them to escape its boundary. But then suddenly the monsters start appearing all over the world, wreaking havoc on major cities from Beijing to New York. It turns out that aliens called the Kilaaks have taken control of Monster Island and are using the Earth’s monsters to destroy the planet.

 

Like Universal did when they ran out of ideas for their famous horror monsters back in the 40s, Toho studios turned to pitting their famous giant monsters against each other in order to bypass the creative drought that the long-standing series had suffered. With Godzilla having already destroyed Japan back in 1954, how many times could the giant lizard repeat the same trick without it getting repetitive? The answer was once because in the sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, the big G was pitted against Anguirus. From then on, Godzilla found himself competing against a slew of giant monsters from Mothra to Rodan and even King Kong. After a few lacklustre efforts, Godzilla’s popularity was on the decline and so Destroy All Monsters was dreamt up as an all-guns blazing swansong to end the series on a high. Ironically, the film made Godzilla more popular than ever before and it still ranks up there amongst many fans favourite Godzilla film.

I must admit that I’m one of those fans. Destroy All Monsters is not just the pinnacle of the daft 60s and 70s Godzilla films where the monster became Earth’s saviour but it’s also an entertaining sci-fi film which delivers a whole mix of light-hearted action, comedy and groovy special effects. But let’s cut right to the chase– there is one sole reason why this is one of the, if not the most, popular Godzilla films and that’s because of the massive roster of monsters that make an appearance of some kind here. Toho really pulled out all the stops for this one, assembling a gigantic cast of monsters from their vast catalogue of films. Not only do you get Godzilla, the monsters with their standalone films like Mothra and Rodan, and previous series baddie King Ghidorah, but you get appearances from Anguirus, Spiega, Minya, Gorosaurus, Varan, Baragon and Manda. Some have more to do than others: Anguirus and Gorosaurus play integral roles in the final battle whilst Baragon and Varan literally have blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos (due to how poorly-maintained the monsters suits both were). But the fact that they’re all here adds a uniqueness to the film that would not be replicated until Godzilla: Final Wars.

The vast array of monsters involved lends the film to all manner of destruction. Mothra attacks Beijing, Rodan does in Moscow, Godzilla takes on New York and they all converge on Tokyo for one of the series’ most impressive city-stomping scenes yet. Not one or two but four monsters unleash their rage upon Japan at the half-way point of the film. Director Ishirô Honda really puts on a spectacular show of destruction with the monsters first smashing Tokyo to pieces and then the army mustering whatever they can to try and stop them. This scene alone in Destroy All Monsters represents a high point for the Showa series of films (those made up until 1975) with its use of pyrotechnics and miniatures – the knowledge that had been employed in the previous Godzilla films all comes to fruition. All of the material is new and there’s no use of stock footage from earlier film, though ironically enough since the footage here was so good, it crops up again and again in future films.

These scenes of miniature city-mashing pale in comparison to the film’s finale, an all-out battle royale featuring the monsters fighting at the foot of Mount Fuji. Yes it’s just a bunch of guys in suits hitting each other but it’s the series’ most entertaining moment and something that the series really tried to emulate in later films to no avail. It’s a bit one-sided as the Earth monsters team up to fight King Ghidorah but the space monster holds his own. The editing during this scene is top drawer, there’s plenty of special effects flying around and the camera does a good job of capturing the mayhem and, as the news reporter covering the scene proclaims, the “monsters’ cries of horror and sudden death.” It’s a crazy fight which only takes up about six minutes of screen time but it’s the most memorable six minutes of the entire series.

You’ll be much more inclined to forgive the silly alien story when there is the promise of a massive monster mash at the end of the film but the plot about the Kilaaks trying to take over the Earth is one of the most charming of the series. Yes, the alien invasion plot had already been used in the previous film, Invasion of the Astro Monsters, and would go on to be a series’ stalwart over the coming years but this is the best incarnation of it. Its charming comic books antics pit long-time Godzilla actor Akira Kubo into the hot seat as an astronaut who leads his crew on the mission to put a stop to the Kilaaks’ plan. The aliens, whilst not displaying the greatest sense of fashion in the world, are slimy and cocky and it all adds up to a rousing sub-plot which enhances the monster action. The cast is filled with a whole array of regular Godzilla faces and they’re all great.

Series composer Akira Ifukube brings to life the film with one of his most famous scores. From the opening chords of the pumping title theme to the classic Rodan theme playing and more sinister musical numbers for the Kilaaks, Ifukube populates the film with some sterling music which accompanies the scenes brilliantly, enhancing the action with bombastic nature or underscoring the devious nature of the alien invaders. Say what you want about the nature of the Godzilla films but Ifukube’s work across the series is outstanding.

 

Destroy All Monsters represents the pinnacle of what the Godzilla films came to embody and has rarely been matched for its popularity since. Holding itself firmly on the right side of the camp border and delivering some of the series’ most memorable set pieces, for sheer spectacle alone this one has never been topped. It’s essential viewing for not only Godzilla lovers but fans of kaiju the world over.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Route 666 (2001)

Route 666 (2001)

On the road to Hell, there’s no turning back

A team of US federal agents are sent to retrieve a high profile mob witness who fled before he was supposed to appearing in court to testify. Eventually tracking him down in the desert, the agents aren’t the only ones looking for him as mob hit men are hot in pursuit. Deciding to take a shortcut down Route 66, nicknamed locally as Route 666, the agents encounter the murderous ghosts of a dead chain gang who were killed on the road years earlier.

 

In 1988, a first-time director by the name of William Wesley unleashed the cult hit Scarecrows upon the horror world but then disappeared off the face of the planet. Such a promising debut was never built upon and Wesley’s potential went to waste. That was until thirteen years later when Wesley returned with Route 666. The question has to be asked: if you’re going to wait that long between making films, why make something as average as Route 666 on your return? Why bother coming back for this?

Wesley hasn’t learnt any new tricks in his time away from the camera. In fact, Route 666 plays out in similar fashion to Scarecrows: an assorted group of people trapped in the middle of nowhere with a small group of very deadly things after them. Swap the scarecrows out, put the chain gang ghosts in and you’ve got a very similar film. That’s not maybe such a bad thing at times but it goes to show how little Wesley wants to experiment with a ‘winning’ formula (though it has taken years for Scarecrows to gain an appreciative following).

Route 666 is a timewaster, plain and simple. There’s nothing worth going back for. There’s little to warrant a first look. It just exists to pass away an hour and a half without too much fuss. Sometimes that’s all you want from a film. But given the debut pedigree of the director, it’s such a wasted opportunity. There’s little sign of the qualities that made Scarecrows such an atmospheric, moody horror flick. Route 666 is mainly set during the day which makes it difficult to generate much suspense. The barren desert plains that sprawl for miles don’t exactly lend themselves to things sneaking up on our heroes but at least they give the viewer that nice sense of isolation. If you were in any doubt that these people were in the middle of nowhere, then the nice desert cinematography will quell that doubt.

Shooting during the day not only removes the use of creepy lighting and shadows in order to build suspense but means that the chain gang ghosts are fully visible in the daylight every time they appear. That’s a gutsy move for any horror director in exposing your monsters in the sun for the audience to see them in all of their glory. Thankfully the ghosts look alright – well they’re basically in human form whenever we see them with a bit of fancy make-up slapped on and they have the ability to appear out of nowhere (which begs the question of why they don’t just appear behind the characters to take them by surprise all of the time). The ghosts like to use whatever tools they were using when they died so expect jackhammers, sledgehammers and other sharp and blunt objects used for stabbing and smashing the expendable cast. The film isn’t overly gory but the odd punctuated moment of blood is a welcome addition.

So the film has some alright-looking ghosts to unleash upon the cast and it wants to unleash them in a decent location…..so where does it all go wrong? Route 666 has a terrible script. The unspeakably dumb things that these characters do to put themselves in peril to begin with and then continue to do throughout the film just smacks of lack of ideas on behalf of the writers. It’s lazy writing that has characters doing things which fly in the face of what a normal, sane person would do in that situation simply to ensure that the plot is furthered. The dumb script keeps the pace of the film as flat as a freshly squashed piece of roadkill too, with the odd moment of violence and action being lost amidst a sea of talky exposition.

The cast isn’t great either. Lou Diamond Phillips has the personality of a wet paper bag and is never able to grasp the mantle of being the main star. Together he and co-star Lori Petty have zero chemistry and seem to be reflecting on how far their careers have nose dived. Steven Williams has one of those instantly recognisable faces where you’ll know what he’s been in but not remember his name. He had a recurring role in The X-Files as the shady Mr X for a start but genre fans will most likely remember him from Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Rarely the main man and always a good hand in support, Williams makes the most of some more screen time in a role mainly designed for comic relief. His motor-mouth mob witness character spouts off the film’s best lines and he brings a much-needed dose of energy to the film. It’s a shame that he couldn’t share it around.

 

Route 666 has fleeting moments of potential but they’re too few and far between to make any sort of lasting impression. Wesley’s eagerly-anticipated return to the director’s chair ends in a costly detour down Route 66, setting him back thirteen years at least.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Roasting Anything In Its Path!

A spotter plane pilot for a Japanese fishing fleet crash lands on a barren island where he witnesses two giant monsters fighting each other before falling into the ocean. He reports his findings to the Japanese government as soon as he is rescued and their worst fears are realised. Another giant monster, similar to the original Godzilla, is alive and well and there is also another giant monster. Without the oxygen destroyer weapon that killed the original Godzilla, the Japanese people must find another way to stop these rampaging monsters before they destroy Japan and each other.

 

Within six months of Godzilla smashing Tokyo to pieces in Godzilla, Toho had this sequel ready to go to ride on the success story that the original had turned out to be. Considering the special effects sequences involved in this one, that’s a staggering turnaround in such a short space of time. Like Son of Kong was to its predecessor, so too does Godzilla Raids Again suffer immensely from being too much of the same too soon.

The rushed production schedule is evident in the lack of a real story to the film. Yes, Godzilla films are hardly known for their intricate plots but this one literally just dumps a pair of giant monsters into Japan and has them fighting each other for a bit. At least the later Godzilla films introduced all manner of weird alien (who all looked Japanese anyway) races trying to conquer Earth as their human subplot to fill the human screen time. This has nothing of the sort and as a result, barely squeezes over the hour mark for running time. Given that there’s also some flashback footage from Godzilla, the whole thing smacks of being a quick cash-in.

Godzilla Raids Again introduces what would become the staple of the Godzilla film for many, many, many years to come – that of Godzilla fighting another giant monster. It’s perennial fan-favourite Anguirus who makes his debut here, giving him the distinction of being only the second kaiju to appear in the long-running Toho franchise. Anguirus would later go on to become one of Godzilla’s most faithful allies (and would regularly get his ass kicked by King Ghidorah or Mechagodzilla). Whilst later fight scenes between Godzilla and his giant monster opponents were more drawn out affairs, the fights, or I should say scraps, between the two monsters are pretty timid affairs. They claw and scratch at each other a lot, more primeval and animalistic than the later tag-team cheese fests, and the fight scenes are strangely filmed at a faster rate, giving the impression of a Benny Hill sketch. The monster suits also look a bit cheap and nasty, especially Anguirus. But the first fight scene between the monsters is a historic moment marking the first time that any two monsters did battle in a Japanese kaiju flick.

It’s clear that everything was done quickly and some of the effects look really dated, even in black and white. But I’ll give credit to the miniature makers as the city sets look fairly detailed and there’s plenty of buildings being smashed to bits. A common failing of later Godzilla film was that the monsters started fighting in the city but conveniently ended up in fields and hills where the studio set consisted of little more than a grass floor. Here, the monsters tussle with each other right in central Osaka, making sure that no buildings are left in their wake.

Bizarrely, the big fight between the two monsters, usually the epic finale of these films, comes at the halfway point in the film which means that for the rest of its running time, Godzilla Raids Again plays out like a poorer retread of the original with Godzilla getting back to finishing the job he started on Japan. Osaka is the target this time around, presumably because Tokyo was still in such a mess from before. That said, Godzilla than handily hops across to a couple of remote islands in order for the finale on top of a glacier.

Like the original Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again was re-edited for American audiences and released under the strange moniker of Gigantis, the Fire Monster. Taking away Godzilla’s name took away the fact that this was a sequel. I don’t get the logic in that but hey, I’m not a producer. Either way, the film still serves little point in existing. There’s no new story to tell, the nuclear messages have been toned down and the monster fights are grossly underwhelming.

 

Make a sequel that’s virtually the same as the one before it with less money and told to do it in six months is no mean feat so it’s a good job at least something managed to click with Godzilla Raids Again and it stumbled upon the template for many Godzilla films to come. Few fans would regard this in their top five Godzilla films with the opposite being more likely. It’s the weakest of the first few films in the series by a long way.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Jack Frost 2: The Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman (2000)

Jack Frost 2: The Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman (2000)

He’s Icin’ & Slicin’

A year after killer snowman Jack Frost struck terror into the town of Snowmonton, Sheriff Tyler is still in therapy after what happened. Few believe his story about the snowman and so his therapist advises him to take a vacation to somewhere tropical in order to get over his snow worries. In the meantime, some government officials have dug up the remains of Jack Frost but a freak accident brings him back to life. Seeking revenge and with a new-found imperviousness to heat, Frost follows Tyler on holiday to cut short his vacation…permanently.

 

The absurd killer snowman flick Jack Frost is one of my all-time favourite guilty pleasures. A truly corny idea which appeared just as silly as it sounded on the screen, Jack Frost worked because you went in with such low expectations that when it finished, you realised that you had just watched a really entertaining low budget slasher with a novel idea, a nice tongue-in-cheek approach and bags of creativity. But the idea of a killer snowman was pretty much a one-trick pony and the original milked the obligatory anti-freeze, yellow snow and hot air gags for all they were worth. So what was next for Jack Frost to do? Why not send him to a hot tropical holiday resort? No one would ever believe a snowman could survive there! It’s an even more preposterous idea than the initial thought of a killer snowman. This sequel proves that the joke has run thin.

Jack Frost 2: The Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman is a major disappointment. The original’s novelty value helped it overcome a lot of its shortfalls and managed a decent balance of silly, serious and downright camp. This sequel tips the scales a little too far in favour of goofing off and is all the worse for it. The first thing that’s different about the two films is how they were shot. Jack Frost, whilst not having the greatest budget, was shot on regular movie film which at least gave it a polished, professional look. Jack Frost 2: The Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman skimps on the costly shooting and opts to go for the digital video route, instantly producing a more amateurish look. The cheap sets certainly don’t help the look of the film.

Jack Frost 2: The Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman pretty much tells the same story as before  with Frost wanting to get revenge on the sheriff for busting him when he was human. The fact that the film is set in a different place matters little to the story. Cue the disbelieving populace who refuse to accept that there is a killer snowman on the loose.

At least the two important characters return – Christopher Allport reprises his role as Sheriff Tiler and Scott McDonald is back as the voice of Jack Frost. Whilst McDonald’s voice still provides Frost with enough sarcastic relish at his dastardly crimes, Allport looks bored to have returned. He was great in the deadpan role in the first one but this time around he’s not the same as the script opts to up the ante for the camp antics of not only him but the rest of the cast. Sadly Allport lost his life in 2008 in, of all ironic things, an avalanche.

Frost gets an updated appearance for this one but he’s nowhere near as fun as he was before. For an start, we see less of him. As immobile as the Frost model was in the first one, at least we got a good look at him. He’s conspicuous by his absence for a large swathe of running time here, no doubt to keep costs down. Classic lines from the original such as “I only axed him for a smoke” are replaced with some woefully unfunny lines and groan-inducing puns. Again it’s the tipping of that balance between being likeably corny and being overtly rubbish and it’s one which the film gets wrong time and time again. But Frost wasn’t all about the gags and despite his lack of real arms, he was able to do some serious damage to his victims.

He’s got some new moves too such as the ability to churn out killer snowballs which look like mini-Frosts and take their cue from Gremlins and Critters by causing mischief and getting up to some shenanigans. These little creatures get more of a look-in than the snowman and can get a little aggressive with their sharp icicle teeth. Comically, they have little movement and so whenever they attack someone, said actor has to hold them and shake them around vigorously to give the impression that they are being threatened. The least said about the CGI version of the snowball creatures, the better. The snowballs do star in the film’s best scene in which they attack people at a party. Cue slow motion and melodramatic music to give it the impression of a Vietnam war flick.

The end credits tease us with the promise of a third Jack Frost film, subtitled Jackzilla, in which the snowman turns into some Godzilla-style destroyer of cities. Due to how badly this one faired, that idea will never see the light of day.

 

Jack Frost 2: The Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman tries too hard to outdo the first one for silliness. But whilst that featured a fair helping of grinning and groaning. this one will have you groaning far more. Michael Clooney’s idea of a killer snowman was great for a one-off film. Twice was pushing his luck.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Shark Attack II (2000)

Shark Attack II (2000)

The killer is back

Dr Nick Harris works for a new aquatic park in South Africa but the owner is desperate for a big-named tourist attraction. So when a great white shark is spotted near the shore, Harris is tasked with capturing it so that it can be put on display. Harris is surprised at how easily he is able to capture the shark but there is a fatal accident on opening day and the shark is free once again. Teaming up with a shark hunter and local diver Samantha Peterson, whose sister was killed by the shark, Harris sets out to track it down. But to their horror, they realise that the shark is the offspring of one of the genetically mutated great white sharks which managed to escape from captivity…and it is not alone.

 

It’s hard to see how a TV movie, which was widely-panned, manages to get a sequel but here we are with Shark Attack II. Remember that low budget thriller with Casper Van Dien and Ernie Hudson about genetically engineered sharks? No? I don’t blame you. However a couple of men did – Avi Lerner and Danny Lerner – and decided that a sequel would be in everyone’s best interests. They are some of the big wigs behind-the-scenes at Nu Image Films, who have graced the creature feature genre with such series as Octopus, Spiders and Crocodile, as well as a ridiculous number of killer shark films in the years following this one. Yeah, I could have guessed where this one was going to go.

Well I can at least say one thing – this is a sequel which surpasses the original (and not in the derogatory sense). Shark Attack II is infinitely better than the first one and whilst that’s like saying you’d rather take a cyanide pill instead of drinking sulphuric acid, it’s at least a step in the right direction. Ditching the more thriller-orientated approach of the original for something that resembles more of a gratuitous creature feature flick, Shark Attack II makes no bones about where it draws influence from: Jaws. Shark Attack II not only lampoons the first film but is happy to borrow copiously from Jaws 2 and Jaws 3Jaws 3 for crying out loud! No one in their right mind would ever try and copy something from that abomination. But with the capture of the first great white shark to it escaping in the aquatic theme park and even to the accented shark wrangler who turns up, Shark Attack II tries to get as much mileage out of Jaws 3 as it possibly can before the lawyers got involved.

Shark Attack II works slightly better when it’s doing the standard “sharks on the loose – close the beaches!” formula. The standout sequence, in fact the only highlight of the film, sees the pack (or should that be swarm?) or sharks head towards a surfing contest where a handful of people are attacked and killer within the space of a few minutes, some attacked by multiple sharks. It’s mildly diverting and is the sort of scene that Shark Attack II really needed to produce more of. Whilst the kills aren’t exactly gore-filled feeding frenzies, there’s enough violence and cheese to make them entertaining.

The original Shark Attack suffered from a distinct lack of shark action, and even then when it did come along it was little more than stock footage and a cardboard fin. Thankfully Shark Attack II rectifies that problem. Whilst the stock footage is back (and hopefully The Discovery Channel getting paid for it), this time it is joined by some CGI sharks and even a basic animatronic model which does little more than breach the surface every now and then to claim a victim. Some scenes attempt to build up suspense with the use of ‘Fin Cam’ where a camera has been attached to the side of the cardboard fin as the shark sails towards it’s intended target. It looks ridiculous as the shark swims in a completely straight line, juddering and spluttering as if the fin is about to grind to a halt.

The CGI sharks look terribly cartoony as well and they have an annoying habit of growling, which is impossible as sharks have no vocal organs to produce sound. This is a trick that is repeated constantly throughout these Nu Image films – as if growling sharks make them even more menacing. The silent predator approach works wonders for their real life counterparts so I don’t see why they’re given comical voices. I don’t need to hear a shark roaring towards its victim – the sight of a great white in feeding mode is enough to make even the hardest man wet their pants at the thought of being in the water with them.

The cast is filled with a bunch of low rent actors who are given the task of trying to make this script sound remotely interesting. But even De Niro or Pacino in their prime couldn’t bring these one-dimensional characters to life. German actor Thorsten Kaye stars as Dr Harris and he’s like a really low rent Harrison Ford. Nikita Ager fulfils the dumb blond heroine role which doesn’t involve a great deal except standing around looking good (which thankfully she does). It’s blatantly obvious the direction that these two single characters are going to take and it’s no surprise to see that arc pan out exactly the way we expect it to. Dan Metcalfe is the shark hunter, sort of a cross between Steven Irwin and Quint – according to his IMDB lists he’s starred in such awesome roles as ‘Guitar Dude’ and ‘Secret Service Bobby #2.’ Hands up if you think this guy is going to be any good in a speaking role….

 

You’d assume that I hated Shark Attack II from the overall negative review I’ve given it here. It’s not as bad as I’m making it sound, though that is coming from someone who watches so many low quality films that it’s hard to make a valid case for any sane person to watch it. Better than the first one by a fair distance but still coming a long way off being classed as watchable.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆