Crocodile 2: Death Roll (2001)

Crocodile 2: Death Roll (2001)

From the creators of Crocodile and Spiders

A gang of bank robbers on the run with some stolen loot hijack a busy passenger plane during a storm. But the plane crash lands in a Mexican swamp where the survivors are picked off by a giant crocodile.

 

Nu Image roll another dismal sequel off their ‘monster on the loose’ production line with Crocodile 2: Death Roll, an unrelated follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s forgettable Crocodile. After all, nothing sells tickets like another generic ‘when animals attack’ horror flick. Well, in the case of Crocodile 2: Death Roll, it’s not tickets but the bottom shelf in the video store or bargain bucket at your local supermarket that this will be selling from.

Instead of spending too much money by bringing back Tobe Hooper (though after the original, it’s no surprise they didn’t even consider him), Nu Image handed over the director’s chair to Gary Jones, fresh from making Spiders, another of Nu Image’s ‘when animals attack’ films. Spiders was an enjoyable little creature feature flick which was better than it deserved to be (and to which Nu Image also produced a sequel) but there is none of that sense of fun prevailing in Crocodile 2: Death Roll. It’s a dull, lifeless creature feature with limited entertainment value.

Crocodile 2: Death Roll hardly showers itself in glory from the start and makes its task in hand even more difficult. It seems content in playing to format, trotting out a load of generic action clichés as the hijackers take over the plane and it crash lands in the swamp. It wouldn’t be so bad if this section was over and done with quickly but it takes almost a third of the film to finally get to the crocodile. Here, the usual monster movie tropes come into play and the script sits back, clearly expecting the audience to do the rest of the hard work. It’s embarrassingly predictable and there’s never any real sense of horror at the situation the characters find themselves trapped in. Maybe that’s down to the fact that there’s hardly a likeable character amongst the whole cast. Veteran Martin Kove pops up here somewhere as a tracker and his performance is arguably the best part of the film. I always liked him as the evil sensei Kreese in the Karate Kid films and Kove brings a little of that intensity and menace to the role here. He’s along for an easy pay cheque though and it’s obvious to see. Kove’s role is way too small for him to save the film in any way but at least it alleviates some of the dullness for a bit.

The rest of the cast is shocking though. The criminal gang are particularly over-played and will instantly get on your nerves, particularly Darryl Theirse. The script has them swearing every couple of words which is not only tiresome but it highlights how limited the writing vocabulary actually was and how short on creativity the writers were. Did they really need to swear every few words to get across how villainous and evil they were? It’s cheap writing. Too much emphasis is placed upon these criminals and not enough on the other caricature survivors – hell I’d have taken the teenage characters from the first one over these any day of the week. Besides which, it always bugs me when horror films like this make a bunch of criminals their main characters and then subject them to a terrifying ordeal. I’m not sure where the empathy is supposed to come from the audience – an eye for eye is what I say – so the quicker these law-breakers receive a just punishment at the teeth of the crocodile, the better.

The animatronic crocodile looks mean enough when it’s called upon for a few shots. It’s not used very often and the remainder of the croc’s screen time consists of some ropey CGI. Whilst this wouldn’t be much of a problem if the film was shot mainly during the day like the original, the film is shot mainly at night where you can’t see much of what is going on anyway. It also rains a lot to further add a natural screen to hide the croc’s shortcomings. Not only does this hide the crocodile’s CGI deficiencies but it deprives the audience of some much-needed satisfaction with rather disappointing kill scenes. Let’s face it – this is the only reason anyone wants to see this type of film and hiding all of the big money shots in as much darkness as possible really smacks of not understanding your audience.

 

Barely memorable and with little to keep horror fans glued to the TV, Crocodile 2: Death Roll is a perfect example of the lowest that this sub-genre can reach when no one really seems to bother. Hooper’s film was a disappointment – this one is somehow worse. Funnily enough though, it’s still head-and-shoulders above the never-ending slew of Lake Placid sequels that would follow on Sy Fy!

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980)

Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980)

Hapless servant Cheung finds out that his wife has been having an affair with his rich master Tam. Wanting to get Cheung out of the way, Tam enlists the services of an unscrupulous priest to do the deed with black magic so that fingers can’t be pointed back to him. But Cheung turns out to be no pushover and he must battle the supernatural and the uncanny with the help of the priest’s more righteous brother.

 

Cult classics don’t come as any more clear-cut than Encounter of the Spooky Kind, an off-beat kung fu-comedy-horror flick which is sort of like Enter the Dragon meets The Evil Dead. Responsible for kick-starting a whole slew of Hong Kong cinema in the 80s, Encounter of the Spooky Kind is a crazy ride right from the opening scene until the classic showdown at the end. Mixing comedy, horror and martial arts in equal measure, director and actor Sammo Hung crafts a wonderfully ludicrous tale of hopping vampires, black magic and possession.

There’s something for everyone here and each of the different genres are treat well. The horror elements are mainly played out in the opening half. Being from a different culture than we are used to in the West, it may take a while to get used to the fact that the Chinese definitions of vampires are totally different to what we’re used to. Here, they look more like our stereotypical zombies and hop around in a weird trance-like state with arms outstretched. The crusty, decomposing make-up looks good though and there are maggots flying about too to reinforce the fact that these are undead beings. The historical period setting and lavish, colourful sets enhances the atmosphere and mood of the piece, giving it a few Hammer-ish vibes. In many ways, I was reminded of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a Hammer-Shaw Brothers production which laid much of the groundwork for this type of film to become successful. Despite the obvious low budget, Encounter of the Spooky Kind features some great make-up and the sets are excellent and the overall effect of the horror is, well, spooky.

With the horror flying around thick and fast to begin with, the action soon takes over in the second half and the kung-fu comes more to the fore. This leads up to a thrilling finale in which the forces of good and evil battle each other which is heavily dosed in Chinese folklore. Hung choreographs a number of impressive fight scenes, including between himself (and a possessed hand) and some policemen or two priests fighting it out with black magic. Playing out alongside both the horror and action is a nice comedic streak. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and there are some laugh out loud moments, particularly Cheung’s encounter with a reanimated corpse which copies his every move, right from taking a leak against the wall to slapping itself in the face.

Sammo Hung plays the role of bumbling oaf Cheung to perfection. You know that Cheung has a heart of gold but a brain the size of a pea and his reactions to the situations he’s thrust into are priceless. Hung demonstrates a Bruce Campbell-esque knack of convincingly portraying that part of his body has become possessed and is acting on its own during an amazing scene inside a restaurant which involves all manner of slapstick and high-octane martial arts. In fact, much of Hung’s comedy comes from physical slapstick and the larger-than-life actor utilises his size to his advantage in a number of hilarious scenes.

Lam Ching Ying also has a small role here as the police inspector. Along with Sammo, Lam was a major factor in this this surge of Hong Kong horror-martial arts and fronted the equally excellent Mr Vampire series until his untimely death. Whilst he’s not in his trademark Taoist priest role, he still manages to shine with a few moments of kung fu and comedy.

If there are quibbles with Encounters of the Spooky Kind, and believe me there are few, it is with the episodic nature of the film. Due to the fact that so many genres are all being blended together, the film does tend to become patchy and the framework linking them all together doesn’t really hold up, leading to long periods where the narrative dulls and the pace lags. You won’t have to wait too long before the pace picks up but the continual stop-start nature gets a little tiresome.

 

It’s hard to find a film which is as all-round fun and entertaining as Encounter of the Spooky Kind. If you have any sort of interest in any of the three major genres this film mixes together, then you should check this out. This, and many of its Hong Kong kung-fu horror comedies, aren’t exactly the easiest films to track down on the West but if you get the opportunity, take it!

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Larva (2005)

Larva (2005)

A terror that gets under your skin

Host, Missouri is a quiet ranching community where almost everyone earns their living from meat-processing company Huge Tender Meats. The company is secretly testing experimental new feed on the local livestock that is designed to make the meat healthier for consumption. But when local rancher Jacob Long calls out the new vet in town, Eli Rudkus, to come and check on some of his cattle that are behaving strangely, a strange mutant parasite is uncovered inside them that has been eating the feed. His attempts to warn the local community are thwarted by the owner of the company. But things are made worse when the parasitic organisms mutate further into bat-like creatures which deem human hosts as the new stage in the food chain.

 

I promised myself a while back that I would stop watching Sy Fy Originals for a short period of time, just to allow my brain the chance to let go of the resistance that I had built up to their overly repetitive and formulaic selves. I didn’t realise Larva was one when I sat down to watch but as soon as the title credits hit, I knew I had duped myself and had no one else to blame. One of Sy Fy’s earlier films, Larva plays out more like one of those ‘monster-of-the-week’ episodes of The X-Files but it never quite shakes free of its TV shackles.

Unsurprisingly, Larva runs like clockwork as per the Sy Fy norm. If it isn’t snakes which break free of laboratories, its mythical monsters suddenly appearing on Earth or beach resorts being attacked by new species of sharks. Flying parasitic blood-sucking bat monsters make little different to the overall narrative. The chain of events is still the same. The stock characters are still the same. The set pieces are more less the same. And the end result is the same: wafer-thin entertainment for an hour and a half. So let’s see what we have:

New doctor/teacher/sheriff arrives in a small town. Something sinister is on the loose. Random non-characters who appear in a scene only to be killed off at the end of the scene (or in the next scene) begin to disappear. New person is viewed with paranoia and mistrust. Evil corporate types refuse to believe there’s a problem until it’s too late (and usually end up on the receiving end of such problem). Cue some big local event which the evil corporate type had not wanted to cancel (town fete/fair/gala/celebration) but ends up regretting not cancelling as the ‘something sinister’ finally reveals itself to all of the doubters. Then new person takes it upon themselves to sort out the problem (usually after a close friend has been killed off in preceding town celebration). This leads to the inevitable confrontation between man and monster. All ends well for the humans…until a final plot twist where monster has laid eggs/survived/reformed and threatens sequel.

It’s been done to death so much that you could literally copy and paste that narrative into the majority of these Sy Fy films, given or take one or two minor alterations. At least Larva manages to tick off all the boxes without being overly generic and, despite me watching it after having seen dozens of more recent Sy Fy Films first, the material doesn’t feel as forced or stale as it does now. It appears that the cast and crew were at least trying with this one!

Larva features its fair share of splatter, though mainly in the form of mangled animal corpses at first. But then there’s a gory Alien-style chest bursting moment as the parasites finally decide to exit one unlucky human host via his stomach. It’s hardly x-rated stuff but at least there’s enough feeding on show. The monsters themselves are at least different to what you’re used to seeing in this type of film and are presented in a number of different forms. The earlier worm-like creatures are more skin-crawling than anything but the final bat-like form is too heavily reliant on CGI to really be scary.

Leading man Vincent Ventresca makes for a bland and weak hero, certainly not an inspirational figurehead for the film to base itself around. Rachel Hunter (more famous for being Rod Stewart’s ex than anything cinematic) co-stars as the token love interest/blonde heroine/pointless damsel-in-distress. Only she doesn’t become the love interest. She doesn’t save the day. She doesn’t even need rescuing. It’s a pointless part, presumably designed to put a ‘star name’ in the publicity campaign.

 

Larva is solid, if overly generic, entertainment which doesn’t really take too many missteps with its TV movie budget. It’s just that you’ve seen it all before. And, considering this was one of the earlier Sy Fy Originals, it’s a shame to see how cheap and tacky they have become.

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Harbinger Down (2015)

Harbinger Down (2015)

Terror is just beneath the surface.

A group of college researchers tracking whale migrations on board a fishing vessel in the Bering Sea discover a frozen Russian spacecraft in the Arctic ice. Storing the retrieved spacecraft and its frozen cosmonaut corpse inside the ship’s hold, the researchers argue over what the best course of action is: to claim it as salvage or contact the authorities to hand it over. Whilst they bicker, the corpse thaws and dormant alien bacteria is released

 

The back story to Harbinger Down is far more interesting than the resulting film: Special effects company ADI had been commissioned to provide the practical creature effects for the failed The Thing prequel and designed and built some superb monsters much more in line with Rob Bottin’s legendary creations for John Carpenter’s 1982 film. However, for whatever silly reasons, Universal decided to replace all of this fantastic work with CGI during post production. With thousands of fans across the world questioning what happened to the original effects (me included), ADI released a Youtube video showcasing the work which had been discarded. With such an overwhelmingly positive reaction, ADI decided to go ahead with their own film to prove to Hollywood big-wigs than there was still a place for practical effects. Using Kickstarter to get the project off the ground, Harbinger Down was thus born. With a reliance on animatronics, prosthetic makeup, stop motion and miniature effects rather than CGI, the film has been on my radar for a long time and I was waiting with baited breath to see the final outcome.

Advertised as being in ‘the spirit of two of the greatest sci-fi/horror films of all time, Alien and The Thing,’ it’s sad to see that Harbinger Down isn’t quite the revolutionary middle finger to CGI that I had really hoped it would be. Clearly hoping to trade on the attraction of the special effects and the monster, almost everything else regarding the film seems to have been cobbled together with barely a creative thought. Whether this is the fault of the writers or the director, Harbinger Down should have been a modern day cult classic but instead turns out to be a rather horrible mess where they focused so hard on developing the creature, they ran out of time to deal with anything else.

However, I did not watch this for a multi-layered, complex story featuring fully-fleshed out characters. I knew what to expect from that side of the film and Harbinger Down did not let me down. The plot is flimsy, the characters barely more than one-note stereotypes and the narrative brings up predictable plot twists and routine set pieces. If you’ve seen one The Thing/Alien-style sci-fi horror knock-off, you’ve seen pretty much all of them and Harbinger Down is no exception. There are rather weak attempts to generate tension or suspense and whilst the cinematography is decent enough, with the crabbing ship being a dark, damp place to have something sinister lurking around, it’s just not enough to keep the film from floundering at every opportunity. It takes ages to get going and even when it does, it’s held back by clichés.

Sadly, it’s the creature effects, trumpeted as the main selling point, which are a massive let down. This isn’t because they’re not fairly impressive but because you hardly get to see them due to the awful way in which they’re shot. Between some appalling lighting choices (i.e. it’s very dark in most of the monster shots) and even more appalling camera tricks (constant shaky, blurry or quick zooms to obscure the frame), it’s virtually impossible to get a good, solid look at the creature. On the ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ occasions when the creature can be seen for more than a micro-second, it looks half-decent and one could only imagine how successful ADI’s special effects for the much larger-budgeted The Thing prequel would have turned out in the final edit. At least some of the gore effects are reasonably presented, with plenty of slime and splatter thrown in for good measure.

I’ve been comically critical of Lance Henriksen’s role choices over the last decade or so. Far from the glory days of the 1980s, Henriksen has been reduced to starring in a ridiculous number of low grade shockers and phoning in his performances. In Harbinger Down, Henriksen is far better than he has been for years, giving his role as the grizzled captain some spark and energy. That’s compared to the rest of the cast who fail to generate much excitement or chemistry between them, save for the attractive Camille Balsamo who is the best of a bad bunch.

 

Harbinger Down is such a disappointing missed opportunity that it’s really hard to see practical effects ever coming back into fashion any time soon. Whilst I admire the passion and desire of all those involved, and I personally hoped to see this succeed due to my loathing of CGI, the bottom line is that too much focus went into the special effects that everything else was barely given a second thought. It works as a half-baked throwback to the 80s monster movies but even the likes of Leviathan did it with more conviction than this.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Lake Placid Vs Anaconda (2015)

Lake Placid Vs Anaconda (2015)

Crocs on the dock. Snakes on the lake.

Wexel Pharmaceuticals enlists the help of local poacher Jim Bickerman in obtaining a giant crocodile from the famous Lake Placid nature reserve. During a procedure to extract blood, the crocodile awakens in the lab and causes havoc, unleashing a special variety of giant anaconda snake. With both the crocodile and snake on the loose in the wild, it poses further problems for the previously-besieged community.

 

The fifth film in the Anaconda series, and the first to be made since 2008, as well as the fifth film in the Lake Placid series, Lake Placid Vs Anaconda is just about the sort of film you’d expect to get when you combine two fading franchises whose attraction faded long ago. Did anyone really care about either series after the originals? I’m amazed that either series lasted as long as it did, though in reality they’ve been on life-support on the Sy Fy Channel for so long that it’s hard to remember they were originally both big hits in the late 90s.

Lake Placid Vs Anaconda is exactly the same sort of nonsense that both respective franchises have been churning out for a few years – only now that they’ve merged into one crossover universe, I’d hope that we are saved from individual sequels from now on. It’s virtually a Lake Placid film with a giant snake added into the mix as the narrative runs almost like the previous few films in that specific franchise. The plot is flimsy at best and I’m not even sure I got why the pharmaceutical company was desperate to obtain a giant crocodile when their snakes were gigantic. I’m not daft and realise it was just an excuse to allow the snake to get loose but I’d rather see writers attempt to give me a convincing reason for all of the carnage.

This isn’t well-written, if written at all – it almost runs like someone just slapped together a load of deleted scenes from the aforementioned franchises and I struggled to really care about anything on show. Predictable death scenes are set-up a mile away. The creatures do damage that they shouldn’t physically be able to do. Apart from a few main characters, the rest are just non-characters who show up only to die in the same scene. Even the main characters have very little to do and rely almost solely on your knowledge of their characters from the previous Lake Placid films. Again, the film is so heavily one-sided with the Lake Placid stuff that you forget there is supposed to be a giant anaconda in there somewhere. Sy Fy has been churning out almost the same film for the last ten years or so across various ‘monster of the week’ guises and it’s all so, so, so, stale now.

Featuring an all-star line-up of Sy Fy regulars including Corin Nemec, Yancy Butler and Robert Englund, Lake Placid Vs Anaconda delivers the expected star power and a sense that at least some effort went into the film. In a rare bit of continuity with Lake Placid: The Final Chapter, both Butler and Englund reprise their roles. Englund’s character is a particular delight to welcome back, with a few less body parts after his last ordeal with the crocodiles, and he hams up proceedings with a typically enjoyable performance. The three of them have clearly been cast to add some names to the front cover, Englund especially trading on his past glories as Freddy. The other members of the cast, particularly the sorority girls, are awful actresses designed to provide mild titillation to the male audience before being eaten (and mild titillation just means they parade around in bikinis).

The film isn’t even that gory. Yes, there is some blood on show but the vast majority is the cheap CGI variety. It’s pretty rare to get anything as nasty as a leftover limb as the crocs and the snake swallow everything they see up. The CGI for both the snake and crocodiles is a marked step down in quality from their previous outings, which isn’t saying much as they were awful then and are even worse now. The crocs fair a little better, presumably because it’s easier to give the skin and scales some form and shape, rather than the long, slender and smooth snake skin that is on show. The creatures are well-fed, though as previously stated, the death scenes are set-up from a mile away and far too predictable. The worst problem is that they’re dull – you’ll not find any excitement or cheap thrills from the attack scenes.

 

Just because two franchises are owned by the same company doesn’t mean to say that a crossover film should happen. To quote Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm character from Jurassic Park, the studio was “so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Lake Placid Vs Anaconda is a painful attempt to milk the last few drops of money out of the respective franchises before both animals are finally sent to that big pet shop in the sky. One can only hope.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Night of the Lepus (1972)

Night of the Lepus (1972)

How many eyes does horror have? How many times will terror strike?

Farmer Cole Hillman has a rabbit infestation on his ranch and they’re eating away the vegetation meant for his cattle. Enlisting the help of scientist couple Roy and Gerry Bennett, Hillman insists that he doesn’t want to use poison which would ruin the natural ecological balance of the area and so an alternative solution needs to be found. Roy suggests using a hormone that interrupts the breeding cycle of the rabbits and needs a bit of time to see how the drug works. However, his daughter unwittingly frees one of the test rabbits from the lab and the hormone has unforeseen side effects on the local rabbit population, turning them into giant man-eating monsters which then attack the town and threaten Phoenix.

 

Only in the 70s could something as cuddly and innocent as a fluffy rabbit be turned into a ferocious killing machine but this was the era in which nature ran amok and everything from frogs to insects and bears was portrayed as being out to get humanity for the way in which we were treating the planet. So your enjoyment of Night of the Lepus will depend on whether you can buy into the prospect of a bunch of giant rabbits terrorising Arizona. If you can’t, you’ll spend most of the running time giggling away at the silliness of everything (to be fair, even if you can buy into it, you’ll still be in hysterics).

To be fair to Night of the Lepus, and maybe unwisely, it plays everything straight. Kicking off with a documentary-style news report about nature and the delicate ecological balance of the planet that the plague of rabbits in Australia has threatened to disrupt, the film rarely pulls any punches and never once attempts to wink at the audience and say “this is stupid and we know it.” This is doom-and-gloom from the offset however the film never truly convinces of its intentions.

The fact of the matter is that it’s inherently dull. Though the rabbit attacks are reasonably lively, the bits in between with the humans droning on about how to stop them is tedious and disengaging to the extreme. They seem to take the threat of the killer rabbits in their stride as if it’s just another plague of locusts or rats. There’s no urgency at the fact that loads of people are being killed. Even when the army gets called in at the end, you never get the feeling that anyone here is that bothered at the sight of a giant rabbit. Plus there’s the issue that the rabbits only show up about a third of the way in, meaning you’ve got to slog through some tough scenes to get there. Pacing is a real issue.

Maybe they’re all so stoic and serious because the main characters knew that they were safe from the bunnies. At no point do any of them ever really get put in danger, though if you’re a supporting actor then I’d suggest you find a better agent because few of them make it out alive. For such an obscure film, there’s a cast full of names on hand and they all treat the material deadly seriously. DeForest Kelley, forever to be known as Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy from Star Trek is on hand for what was his last non-Star Trek feature film. Janet Leigh, from Psycho, gets a pointless role but top billing and Stuart Whitman and Rory Calhoun, with hundreds of film and television appearances between them, try to keep a straight face amongst the giant rabbits they’re forced to confront.

Most of the shots of the rabbits are real, they’re just parading around on miniature sets. If you see one slow-motion shot of the rabbits charging towards the camera along the set, you’ve seen them all…and there are a lot of shots of them doing that here! I guess the film does the best job it can of portraying them as a threat but when most of them just sit around on the miniature sets, looking like they’d rather be elsewhere, then you’ve got problems. One or two close-up shots of the rabbits have them gnarling their teeth to the camera with some blood smeared across their fluffy noses but even here you’re not likely to run behind the sofa.

Like the ridiculous giant monster films of Bert I. Gordon (such as Empire of the Ants), some of the rabbits have been enlarged and superimposed upon the film so that they can appear in the same shot as the actors and look to be the same size. When the rabbits do attack, it’s clearly obvious that there’s a guy dressed in a bunny suit wrestling around on the floor with the actors. But you know what, this adds a little old school to the film. Nowadays this would be done with CGI but here you just have to suspend your disbelief at how they used to make things work. It’s no surprise to find out that producers removed all evidence of the killer rabbits in the promotional material for the film.

 

Classic bad B-movie fare from the 1970s doesn’t get any cheesier than this. Night of the Lepus is notoriously obscure but it’s a pity because there are far worse entries in the killer animal genre. Having said that, Bugs Bunny dressed up as a girl would be infinitely scarier than these fluffy fiends.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

3-Headed Shark Attack (2015)

3-Headed Shark Attack (2015)

More heads, more deads

A group of scientists are attacked in their underwater lab by a killer 3-headed shark. Then the shark moves on to attack a cruise ship full of partying teenagers. The survivors must band together to try and stop it.

 

I really can’t be bothered wasting my time trying to make the plot sound more exciting than it was because it’s just a mess of appalling writing. OK, so 2-Headed Shark Attack was hardly a high art concept and sold itself on the ludicrous premise alone with predictably dire results. How do you top something so silly? Just add an extra head of course! 3-Headed Shark Attack is somehow even worse than its predecessor. It’s a film which exists solely based upon its premise and where the makers of the film clearly thought “we don’t need to bother with making a coherent narrative which logically moves from A to B because there’s a 3-headed shark in it.” Whilst 2-Headed Shark Attack revelled in its absurdity, treating proceedings with tongue firmly in cheek, this one tries to be too serious.

3-Headed Shark Attack falls straight into The Asylum’s typical formulaic approach – no real plot exposition, gets right into the thick of the action from the opening scene, throws a load of characters with no development into the mix and then just attempts to butcher it together with some awfully choppy editing. There’s literally something going on in every frame of film and it’s a constant assault on the eyes, with some frames lasting seconds before the next edit kicks in. In Asylum films, there’s little room to take time out, get to know characters or build plot – it’s just full steam ahead and it’s so annoying. All you see are people on the screen running away or swimming away from something that’s so badly rendered in CGI that it isn’t even funny. Names? Backgrounds? Relationships to other characters? Nope. Forget that. They’re just faces on film. All they have to do is look into the camera, pretend to stare at something off-screen and then attempt to emote when the time dictates…and they even fail at that.

There are almost three separate films crammed in here and all could have been expanded further. There’s the opening twenty or so minutes with the shark destroying the underwater lab (again, there’s no real point in introducing a load of these one-note victims to kill them off a few minutes later) and forcing the characters to leave the safety of dry land and into a boat (I know, it makes no sense). It’s almost like watching Deep Blue Sea but rushed through in a quarter of the time. Then the few survivors from this end up on a boat full of partying teenagers and the next ‘mini-film’ commences. Finally the survivors from this part then meet up with Danny Trejo’s fisherman character for the last ‘mini-film.’ But that’s what you get with the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach from The Asylum. Just take a chill pill and stretch things out a little more to generate some suspense or tension. At no point during this film did I feel remotely scared, tense or even worried because there’s so much going on, and so much that doesn’t make sense, that it’s hard for your brain to compute. Films need to retain some element of realism in them to allow the audience to comprehend even the silliest of storylines, characters or special effects yet 3-Headed Shark Attack is devoid of realism.

The shark just turns up in the opening scene with no explanation or build-up and then just wreaks havoc, smashing up the lab and eating as many people as possible over the course of the film. It gets to the point of overkill because the shark is always killing people. Remember when only four people (on-screen that is) were killed in Jaws? You don’t need to keep feeding the shark to make it a threat. In fact the opposite happens and it becomes almost a drinking game to see how many people the shark will eat within the next ten minutes of film. The shark looks reasonably good when it’s swimming around doing nothing – the heads are pretty scary and it does look freakish. However as soon as it’s required to do something like breach the water, bite someone or flip into the air, the ropey CGI kicks in. Coupled to this is a soundtrack which doesn’t fit the action and is just there to artificially generate tension and excitement.

Danny Trejo and professional wrestler Rob Van Dam are the two ‘names’ in the film. Trejo is seemingly on a quest to star in every single low budget straight-to-DVD film made in the last two years and has clearly been cast in this for one particular sight gag involving the shark and a machete. RVD proves he should stick to wrestling.

 

It’s like pulling teeth trying to enjoy 3-Headed Shark Attack and considering that there are a lot of teeth on display, that’s a lot of pain to suffer. Those who like The Asylum’s specific ‘brand’ of filmmaking will find more of the same here but for those who want something a little more down-to-Earth, realistic and generally better made, the hunt for a decent killer shark flick continues.

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Sand, The (2015)

The Sand (2015)

This beach is killer

After an all-night beach party, a group of teenagers awaken to find that everyone else has disappeared. It turns out that some kind of creature has appeared beneath the sand and is devouring anyone and anything that sets foot upon the beach. Trapped on the beach, the group must find a way to escape without touching the sand.

 

Straight from hearing the synopsis of The Sand mid-summer last year, I immediately thought back to 1980’s Blood Beach, a feeble Jaws clone which featured an underground monster that sucked people into the sand before they could even get to the sea. Blood Beach did have a decent premise, even if it was a load of rubbish, and it’s a premise which Tremors, particularly the first one, did very well. The Sand picks up the mantle years later to fly the flag of underground monsters and does a fair job whilst it’s at it.

However, despite the similarity in the nature of the ‘being swallowed into the ground’ monster, The Sand ends up being one of those horror films where a group of people become trapped somewhere and spend the majority of the running time trying to escape without dying. I can think of the likes of Rogue, Black Water or Beneath where characters become trapped by some deadly creature and devise a load of crazy schemes to get themselves to safety, no doubt leading to the deaths of one or more of the characters in the process. Unfortunately, this type of film means that the characters are stuck in the same location for a lot of the film. So the success of The Sand relies upon the writer’s ability to come up with ingenious ways to keep them stranded – after all, it’d be a rubbish film if the characters just sat and waited for help to come along. However, writers Alex Greenfield and Ben Powell quickly run out of ways to keep things interesting and The Sand does begin to overstay its welcome rather earlier than you’d have liked.

Thankfully, The Sand doesn’t waste any time getting down to business and within the first ten minutes, the set-up is complete, characters are already being killed off and little time is wasted getting down to the good stuff. The set-up is treated seriously and, though the characters are all too quick in assuming that there is a monster in the sand, the threat is established early on and maintained throughout the running time. There’s not a great deal of tension or suspense during some of the scenes of the characters trying to come up with different ways to escape the sand but at least they come to a messy end when it goes wrong.

The Sand’s reliance on CGI for its special effects is a bit disappointing given that the way the creature kills its victims would have been easily replicated using practical effects and made to look far more convincing. Still, the effects (particularly the memorable first kill) are decent enough for what they need to do and will actually get you second-glancing at the sand the next time you’re at the coast. Though the prologue at the party promises a massive body count, it’s a pity that most of these partygoers have already been killed off by the time the real action starts. However there are still enough victims to feed to the sand throughout the film. The monster is unique and is kept off-screen for the majority of the running time but in all honesty – it doesn’t need to be fully in your face. Just the thought of being sucked into the sand and seeing how some of the characters die is enough to leave the monster’s design to your imagination. Sadly as the kills become more elaborate and the monster shows itself more and more, the effects begin to cheapen and really look out of place. The simple, early effects worked far better because the audience does most of the hard work.

The picture-perfect cast of women have clearly been cast for their looks and their ability to fill out bikinis and tiny shorts. Lead actress Brooke Butler is pretty, though her acting leaves a lot to be desired, and the same goes for the other actresses. They’re not going to win any awards for their performances but they’re not overly terrible. Cleo Berry is not only the token black guy, he’s the token comic relief and the token fat man so expect him to get a tough ride. He spends the majority of the film wedged into a barrel with a crude penis drawn onto his face in black pen. There is an awful cameo from Jamie Kennedy, whose beach patrol character seems to have walked in off the set of a Spring Break frat comedy rather than a film which is attempting serious horror. At the end of the day, they’re all just one-dimensional characters waiting to be eaten, devoid of any real personalities or defining qualities save for the size of their chests (and that goes for both the women and men). Despite the script’s attempts to put forward a love triangle, there’s no real drama between the characters.

 

The Sand is fairly decent for what it is. Don’t expect the wheel to be reinvented. Don’t expect to be blown away with the next big thing. Just expect an entertaining timewaster which plays itself seriously, features some decent (if too CGI-heavy) gore moments and a unique monster and set-up which hasn’t been done to death like killer sharks or gigantic snakes.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

The arrival of a stranger in tiny Western town of Bright Hope sets off a chain of deadly events for Sheriff Franklin Hunt. After confronting his suspicious actions, the stranger tries to flee and Hunt shoots him in the leg. Overnight, the town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer is brought to the jail to tend to his wounds but when Hunt returns in the morning they, along with a deputy, have disappeared. When a local Indian identifies the attackers as a tribe of Indians he calls Troglodytes, Hunt sets up a posse to go and rescue them. Joined by aging deputy Chicory, Samantha’s husband Arthur who is desperate to go despite having a broken leg, and former soldier John Brooder, Hunt sets off in pursuit, totally unprepared for the fate that awaits them in the territory of the Troglodytes – the Valley of the Starving Man.

 

Bone Tomahawk can easily be summed up as cowboys versus cannibals. In today’s mix-and-match genre pairings, where all manner of genres are being juxtaposed together to freshen up a stagnant market (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies immediately springs to mind), it wasn’t going to be long before the western was back in the sights of filmmakers given that Quentin Tarantino was ready to burst back into the genre with The Hateful Eight in 2015. There have been sporadic attempts to mix westerns and horror over the past few years but none have been particularly successful. I can think of a couple like Jonah Hex or low budget ones like Undead or Alive but generally the genre made famous by John Wayne hasn’t been a source of inspiration for budding horror filmmakers to make a crossover film. It’s a pity because Bone Tomahawk works very well as a western before the horror elements kick in during the second half.

If you only say one thing about Bone Tomahawk, you have to say that it’s gritty. The western influence rides head and shoulders above the horror and for the better. This is a harsh world, alien to us living in the 20th and 21st centuries, and one with certain codes and conducts which seem brutal and cruel to us and where logic and reason don’t exactly go hand-in-hand with compassion and love. There’s no over-dramatisation of anything. There’s little Hollywood-esque glamour and glitz. This is an unforgiving world where it’s survival of the fittest. Be warned through: this gritty approach is rather leisurely and many horror fans will most likely tune out before Bone Tomahawk ever gets close to its gory surprises. At around two hours in length, almost unheard of for something like this, the film doesn’t exactly burst forth with energy. The narrative sets up the eventful rescue mission by introducing the characters and spending time with them as they trek across the countryside. Very dialogue-heavy, the bond between the posse is constructed with the end game in mind – not all of these characters are going to survive the eventual encounter with the Troglodytes – so that we care about them as fully-developed characters, rather than just one-dimensional cannon fodder to be served up on a platter.

Director and writer S. Craig Zahler has assembled a great cast for such a little-known film. The leading light is obviously Kurt Russell, who effortlessly slips into the moustached-wearing lawman role he had in Tombstone back in 1993. Russell has such power and gravitas in this type of role and delivers a great, no-nonsense performance, far better than he has done for a long time. The supporting players are all equally as good. Richard Jenkins is excellent as the elderly, dim-witted deputy and the rapport he shares throughout the film with Russell is one of its highlights. Patrick Wilson tackles the role of the crippled husband with vigour and really gets across his character’s desire to rescue his wife. Rounding off the four main actors is Matthew Fox who hasn’t been this entertaining in, well, ever really. His ex-soldier without a moral code and a hatred of Indians is definitely one of the standouts of the film. The chemistry between the four men is fantastic and you really get emotionally involved in each of them. There are also small roles for the likes of David Arquette, Sid Haig and Michael Paré to name a few. How Zahler managed to get this cast together is beyond me but it works wonders for the authenticity of the film.

Sadly, a lot of Bone Tomahawk’s great build-up work and sense of overwhelming dread, particularly when the group enters the Valley of the Starving Man, is undone somewhat when they actually encounter the Troglodytes. Almost everything that happens from this point, save for some great gore moments, is rather matter-of-fact. The film resolves itself rather quickly, and without a lot of major fuss, which kind of detracts from the hard work that had gone in before it. I was expecting something that packed a little more punch and delivered a few more thrills than it did. The eventual show-off with the cannibals is disappointingly brief.

Speaking of the gore, Bone Tomahawk features some disgusting moments. An opening throat-slit and early arrow-to-the-head moment hint at the brutality to come but it doesn’t really prepare you two of the images later in the film. The best thing is that the effects have all been done with prosthetics and so there’s not a hint of CGI in sight.  Don’t expect an all-out gore-fest though as the violence is sporadic but really hits home when it happens. You really get the feeling that these men are fighting for their very lives.

 

Bone Tomahawk features a simple tried-and-tested Western scenario which is then pushed into the extreme by nature of the horror threat the characters face. It works far better than it has any right to work but when you get a director/writer who clearly knows what he’s doing, a fantastic cast who really make their characters shine and some horrific moments which would rival the meanest scenes from the likes of The Hills Have Eyes, then what do you expect? Check it out if you get the opportunity.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆