Cherry Falls (2000)

Cherry Falls (2000)

Lose your innocence – or lose your life

A psychotic serial killer that only kills virgins starts a bloodthirsty murder spree at Cherry Falls High School. Deciding to organise a sex party to lose their virginity to avoid becoming the next target, a group of teenagers are unaware that the killer has found out the location.

 

Famously highlighted in Scream that ‘sex = death’, losing your virginity in a horror film has always been a big no-no, right back to the late 70s and early 80s. It’s one of the core rules of the slasher genre, and one which has rarely been tampered with…until Cherry Falls. It’s a film that ran into the MPAA in America (the censors) who rejected the film numerous times and demanded more cuts and was unfortunately relegated to becoming a TV movie. Things were better for Cherry Falls overseas and, here in the UK at least, it received a cinematic release. I must have had a slow day because I remember going to the cinema on the afternoon to see Cherry Falls when it was first out. Looking back after re-watching it, it’s disappointing that this was quickly lost in the shuffle amidst the copious amount of Scream wannabes that were released in the late 90s and early 00s.

Cherry Falls is a slasher which has one novelty over the rest – the role reversal of the ‘have sex and die’ – but does little else differently than the swathe of Scream clones. Post-Scream, teen slashers needed to be self-aware to appeal to the ‘hip’ audience otherwise they would appear behind-the-times, and thus Cherry Falls is only too quick to allow the characters to get in on the act of knowing that they need to lose their virginity to survive. It doesn’t make a big deal of it, though it’s inevitable that this self-aware moment is a cue for a lot of awkward sexual innuendo and one-liners from the teenage cast. But in focusing the bulk of the film on this central narrative, too little time is spent on other matters like characters and minor plot threads. Despite the little twist on the tale, there’s literally nothing else that is different here from the likes of Urban Legend or I Know What You Did Last Summer. Director Geoffrey Wright includes all of the usual tropes, from the settings to the camera shots he uses, with the film sometimes drifting a little too far towards becoming a parody due to some of the dialogue.

There’s the usual assortment of red herrings – the sheriff who just so happens to decide to go to West Virginia during the murder spree, a headteacher who harbours a shifty past, a young male teacher who is a little too eager to get to know his female students, a frustrated on-and-off boyfriend. The sad thing here is that, sheriff aside, all of these characters here are too thinly-developed and no matter who is finally revealed as the killer, it’s not as effective and shocking as it could have been. The killer does follow standard procedure such as apparently being in two places at once, having a superhuman ability to withstand damage that would knock down any normal person, and the knack of knowing who to kill and when and where. It is also essential for the killer to wear some form of mask or conceal their identity so as not to be identified by anyone who may survive (or so that the audience can get a good look at them) and the costume here is a bit far-fetched and impractical. I’ve worn wigs as part of a Santa costume every year and there’s no way they stay that perfect after a bit of frenzied activity!

In its defence, Cherry Falls has been cut to shreds by the censors after it was submitted and rejected numerous times to the MPAA in the US. Who knows what the final version looks like in comparison with director Wright’s original edit. It’d be bloodier that’s for sure, as it’s obvious during the kill scenes that something is being held back. There’s also the blatant issue of the film’s central set piece – a ‘Pop Your Cherry Ball’ where dozens of horny teenagers are having pretty much a big orgy – and hardly any nudity in sight. What we do get to see of the kills, and it’s not much, is fairly bog-standard stuff but there was clearly a lot more in the tank which was taken out. The ambiguous nature of the killer’s gender is a nice move but it’s hardly a Sleepaway Camp style shock reveal.

The late Brittany Murphy stars in the ‘final girl’ role and she’s likeable enough, with her wide-eyes conveying a nice sense of innocence and naivety in her vulnerable moments. But there’s something different about her to the usual teen heroines which makes her stand out. Michael Biehn plays her father/the local sheriff and is the sort of stern adult presence the film needs to anchor some of the more dramatic and serious moments. Biehn gets a fair amount of screen time too, which was pleasing, as the guy is criminally underrated and has been since his double turn in the 80s in The Terminator and Aliens. Those two apart, the rest of the cast is almost invisible such is their minimal screen time. The group of teenagers that make up the friendship group are virtually anonymous and there’s so many kids from the school that get one or two lines to make the orgy at the end make more sense in that everyone is there.

 

You’ve seen it all before and done better. You’ve also seen it done a lot worse too. Cherry Falls is as routine as they come, save for the twist on the old sub-genre trope, but a lot of that is purely down to the censors, rather than the filmmakers. There was a lot more underneath the surface but it’s been ripped out, leaving a rather tame and neutered remnant.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Doorway, The (2000)

The Doorway (2000)

…to hell

Four friends are given the chance to renovate an old, abandoned house after they find out that the owner is willing to pay a lot of money for someone to do it and allow them to stay there rent-free whilst they carry out the work. But what they didn’t realise is that in the basement is a doorway which leads straight to Hell.

 

The Doorway only stuck out from the mountains of low-grade rubbish on offer in the horror section in my local video store because of Roy Scheider’s name plastered on the front cover as ‘the star’ of the film. I’ve liked the guy since Jaws and he’s a criminally underrated actor (check out The French Connection for further proof). It’s a pity he was typecast as Chief Brody because the man had so much more to give as an actor. Unfortunately Scheider’s name also obscured the fact that Roger Corman was producer. Whenever Corman attaches himself to a project, you know that the results are going to be low budget and, in ninety-five percent of the cases, pretty rubbish. Clearly designed to capitalise on the ‘haunted house’ fad of the early 00s with The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill, the only scary thing is how much time you won’t get back after watching.

The Doorway is ultra-low budget which tries to do a lot of usual genre work but without half of the impact due to the lack of money. The house isn’t very big and sparsely decorated, Scheider aside there are no known names in the cast, there’s little in the way of special effects and some hokey gore in the final third. It’s not really bank-busting material and certainly something that doesn’t really do its plot justice. If you’re going to have demons and ghosts populating your film but don’t have the budget to show them, then you need to think creatively about how to scare people without showing them a lot – Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead tops the list when it comes to something like that. The Doorway fizzles out most of it’s scares, turning into unintentional laughter when you realise that these characters are terrified of things that are happening in the house, yet the audience hasn’t had much to go on. With a title like this, you’d expect some sort of Doom-style eruption of demons from Hell, not a few horny ghosts.

The Doorway saves most of its ‘top’ material for the second half around the time that Scheider shows up. I say ‘top’ material as it’s not riveting in the slightest at any point. The sad state of affairs is that you’ll get more excitement out of the copious number of sex scenes in the film.  The abandoned house wasn’t so abandoned a long time ago and it’s where demons had massive orgies. There is plenty of sex and nudity thrown around. Characters have sex with each other a lot and they also have sex with this female demon who does the rounds. She’s a bit of a tart. This is virtually the first half of the film. There are a few failed scares and attempts to generate some suspense and atmosphere but the amateurish production design really harms the mood.

I was wrong to be duped into thinking that someone like Roy Scheider wouldn’t accept a role in something as low budget as this. I can’t believe that he was that desperate to feed his family that he’d star in something like this but, unfortunately, I’ve been proven wrong. Scheider is the best bit of the film by a clear mile yet he has little to do and it’s little more than a glorified cameo. He’s in the film for a total of around fifteen minutes tops and gets his face ripped apart for his troubles. Scheider was in his twilight years here and was accepting roles in all manner of low budget action and horror films including Dracula II: Ascension and Dracula III: Legacy. His presence in this is solely to attempt to give the film some sort of credibility and to be fair to the guy, he does just that in his limited screen time. They should have stumped up some more money to give him a few more minutes.

The Doorway does have a decent script which seems like a contradiction given how badly I’ve been bashing it. The characters aren’t saddled with doing stupid things like going upstairs to investigate mysterious noises. In fact when they find out that the house is haunted, the first thing they do is leave! To prove my script theory wrong, they promptly return but at least they bring a ghost hunter with them to attempt to get rid of the demons. So common sense prevails and logic – you still wouldn’t get me going back anywhere near that house. They actually talk like real people too. It’s not a lot, but it’s something

 

I’m not much of a fan of haunted house films and The Doorway is no exception. Low budget and lame, there’s nothing to recommend in the slightest. Someone please close the door, there’s a nasty draught coming in!

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

In Space No One Can Eat Ice Cream!

Mike and Debbie, a pair of young lovers, decide to follow a shooting star that has landed outside of their hometown and they discover a mysterious circus tent in the middle of the woods. Exploring inside, they find dead people hanging in what looks like candy floss cocoons and sinister clown-looking aliens walking around.  Rushing in to town to alert the local police, they are frustrated when no one believes them and thinks it’s a prank. They don’t realise that the clowns have followed them into town.

 

An affectionate throwback to the 50s sci-fi flicks of the past that used to be shown in drive-ins (The Blob immediately springs to mind), Killer Klowns from Outer Space has garnered one of the biggest cult followings known. And there’s a good reason for that. For all its silliness and ridiculousness, it’s one of the most creative horror-comedies to come out of the 80s and certainly something that you’ll not likely to see replicated any time soon. This is a film which does anything and everything it can to live up to the promise of its title, a true labour of love from its directing team.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is the perfect example of a film which exists solely based on its central idea. Everything you can associate with clowns and the circus is brought to life and twisted into all manner of horrific forms – balloon animals come to life, pieces of popcorn are eggs for clown-headed snake monsters, cream pies are laced with acid, Punch and Judy shows take on sinister new meanings, giant shadow puppets eat spectators and the clowns make human ventriloquist dummies. It’s a film full of wacky and kooky ideas and your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether you can suspend your disbelief for a while and enjoy the sheer creativity on display. The film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to delivering on the absurd premise – these are aliens that just so happen to look like clowns after all. But for each of the bad taste kills, there is a nightmarish quality that lies under the surface once we find out just why the aliens have landed on Earth.

The plot is structured exactly the same way as those 50s sci-fi films, where the young heroes discover a threat, try to warn the adults, are ignored and then have to save the day when the threat comes to town. Of course, the audience are in on the act from the start as we see exactly what Mike and Debbie have uncovered but the dramatic irony is that no one else believes them for the stupidity of the story they appear to be concocting. Killer Klowns From Outer Space is extremely pacey and the klowns are on the screen right from the early going – no slow reveals here. The narrative can sometimes be too dependent on the loose collection of kill scenes and klown set pieces strung together, but it doesn’t really need to be doing anything overly dramatic. Simplicity is the key here.

The Chiodo Brothers were known for their effects work so it’s no surprise to see that the film’s strengths lie in the production values, the sets, the make-up and, of course, the special effects. With a low budget, the Chiodos know how to get maximum mileage from the tools at their disposal. Apart from some obvious miniature and composition work during the finale with Klownzilla, the special effects generally hold up. The ray guns that turn people into the cocoons are a simple effect and the spaceship itself looks decent as it takes off. The sets are colourful and wacky, like you’d get in some Halloween haunted house attraction, and really add to the aesthetics. Literally everything you seen on the screen to do with the klowns has been designed to perfection. It’s attention to detail on a grand scale.

But the undoubted stars of the show are the ‘klowns’ themselves. Believe me, if you ever had Coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) then you’ll want to stay well clear of this one as these creatures are terrifying. The demonic rubber masks give them human qualities, with just the right amount of Otherworldliness – you know these chaps aren’t local lads from Barnums! Generally tall and imposing, with huge red noses, sharp animalistic teeth and hairdos which must have taken ages to style properly, give the clowns a menacing physical presence despite the cartoonish appearance. The costumes look fantastic too and during the finale you really get to see just how many variations with both make-up and costumes they created for the film.

The cast isn’t particularly brilliant – both Grant Camer and Suzanne Snyder were hardly ever going to make it big after this but their relationship on-screen is good enough to pass muster. Likewise, for the annoying comic relief sidekicks Michael Siegel and Peter Licassi, though most of their irritability comes from the script trying to make them funny rather than anything they do personally. It’s veteran hand John Vernon who steals the show as grouchy Officer Mooney, the old-fashioned cop who believes in being sterner with the younger generation. Vernon gets to spout the infamous “You’ll never make a dummy out of me” line, oblivious to the fate that the klowns have planned for him.

Topping off the film is an excellent soundtrack from John Masssari, with plenty of calliope-style circus tunes suitably matching up what is happening on screen – the perfect combination of light-hearted fun and dark, brooding danger. There’s also a highly-catchy punk theme song by The Dickies, which bookends both sets of credits nicely. They just don’t make soundtracks like they used to!

 

In a genre filled with knock-offs, copy-cats and derivative rehashes, Killer Klowns From Outer Space is arguably the most unique and original comedy-horror ever made. The Chiodo Brothers had a wacky vision for a film and they saw it through to the very end with this fantastic amalgamation of ideas and practicality. Time has been extremely kind to this film and the whole production design still looks fantastic.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Blob, The (1958)

The Blob (1958)

Beware of the Blob! It creeps, and leaps, and glides and slides across the floor.

A meteor crashes to Earth near a small America village and a blob-like creature emerges from it, devouring the arm of an old man who touches it. Teenager Steve Andrews and his girlfriend find the old man and rush him to the local doctor, only to see both men attacked and eaten. However, the local police are sceptical of his story and think that he’s just playing a prank on them. With the blob growing in size every time it eats someone, Steve realises that he must do something soon to prevent the whole town from succumbing to the blob.

 

Everyone has heard of this cult classic from the 1950s, something a little bit different in the sci-fi driven era of alien invaders and atomic monsters destroying cities in abundance. Its non-too-subtle underlying Cold War message about a ‘red mass taking over the world’ is one of the most blatant from this entire sub-genre of films but The Blob isn’t about politics, it’s about cheese and ham and everything that comes in between. Originally part of a double-bill at the cinema, it soon became apparent that The Blob was the film that everyone was really paying to see and so it became the main feature. This was certainly the cultural phenomenon, at least in the States, for its time and day.

The Blob’s plot is now synonymous with this type of schlocky monster flick designed to appeal to teenagers: a menace which slowly grows deadlier and claims more victims whilst the rebellious main teenage character is ignored because of their age and must prove themselves to the authorities to save the day. Compared to a lot of the other 50s sci-fi flicks which featured military personnel or scientists in the lead roles, to have a ‘teenage’ main character was rather unusual and The Blob is something of a trend-setter in this instance. It makes the film more accessible than it might have been had the lead character been a general – these teenagers are more bothered about hanging out than they are anything else and so its up to the resourceful of youth to save the day.

The blob itself comes off as a lousy monster, though its existence and purpose is chilling – this is not a monster that has any reason or pattern, it just consumes things and grows bigger. The mix of red dye and silicone gives the blob an unusual appearance unlike other monsters of its time – certainly the alien is helped by the fact that this was shot in colour as opposed to black and white. In some sequences, particularly the infamous cinema scene, it’s clear to see how the special effects were created but in the earlier shots of it moving around the doctor’s surgery, it’s not so apparent. This makes the creature look rather ethereal and hard to decipher, adding a nice sense of menace and unpredictability to what it may do next.

The fact that it can’t be killed adds to the tension – just how on earth is the film going to end? Well there’s a nice open ending which promised (and got) a sequel. Being indestructible and unstoppable means that the set pieces throughout the film are tinged with an element of mystery. There are some decent moments, if somewhat fleeting, where the blob attacks different townspeople. Most of these are little more than brief glimpses of the character being attacked by something red and gooey and that’s it. Not really dwelling on the blood and carnage left over is more down to the budget and fact that in 1958, you were never going to see anything remotely disgusting, but it all adds up to the enigmatic nature of the creature.

Whilst the blob moments work reasonably well given their limitations, the bits in between with the teenagers and the police don’t work. One of the first films to capitalise on a teenage audience hungry to see representations of themselves up on the big screen, The Blob features plenty of scenes of the teenagers hanging out together, either in the diner or with their cars. No drinking, doing drugs or attempts to have sex – these are clean cut cats from the 50s who just want to be respected by their parents. I guess these are realistic representations of American youth of the day. Steve McQueen’s first starring role shows little of the talent he’d display in the 1960s when he would become one of Hollywood’s most famous icons. McQueen looks a lot older than he is (he was twenty-eight in this) so seeing him portray a seventeen-year-old teenager is a laugh, especially when some of the adults are trying to tell him off. He cut quite a good deal for his salary on this one and came out a few pennies richer for it too. It’s a good job he negotiated before the producers saw his performance as, like the rest of the cast, it’s woeful. However, you kind of give him the benefit of the doubt because it is Steve McQueen after all and he’s effortlessly cool, almost as if he’s in on the joke throughout the entire film.

 

Very dated, dreadfully slow and highly cheesy, The Blob might be a cult classic to some but it’s just awful viewing nowadays. Ironically in a day and age where terrible and pointless remakes are all the go, it’s the remake of The Blob from the 80s that stands out as a rare effort which betters the original by a mile. Check that one out if you want to see some gooey extra-terrestrial nastiness done properly.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Abominable Snowman (2013)

Deadly Descent (2013)

Attempting to track down a long-lost friend who went missing whilst climbing, a group of skiers head off into the snowy wilderness. However they find the cause of his disappearance to be a group of giant abominable snowmen and must find a way to escape the mountain alive.

 

There aren’t enough films about the legend of the Yeti. Hammer touched on it early in their heyday with the excellent The Abominable Snowman and the 70s saw TV movie Snowbeast make little impression. Unlike their hairy cousins Bigfoot/Sasquatch who have starred in countless horror films over the years, the Yeti were rarely considered to be horror-film worthy. That is until recently and the birth of the Sy Fy Original. Within the space of a couple of years, the channel has produced a number of Yeti-themed horror films including Yeti, Snow Beast, Rage of the Yeti and now Abominable Snowman. It has been renamed Deadly Descent in some countries. Some countries have allowed it to retain the original title. And some countries have just thought ‘screw this’ and given it the massive title Deadly Descent: The Abominable Snowman. Some countries have made the title plural. Bottom line is: it’s the same film and it still majorly sucks.

For those familiar with Sy Fy, watching Abominable Snowman will be like putting on an old pair of slippers. Granted a pair of slippers that have been worn and worn and worn and have become frayed, stained and generally useless. But old slippers none the less. The films all follow the same formula and it’s now tiresome beyond belief after about the hundredth time of asking. Abominable Snowman could have featured any killer animal or mythical monster and it would have been precisely the same film. The key to these films becomes the monster and the monster alone. Not having a shark or snake or crocodile in the piece, lovers of this type of rubbish will be tuning in solely for the novelty factor of seeing something different. Characters and plots become irrelevant and secondary to the monster action. Abominable Snowman doesn’t get this memo and spends a large chunk of time drawing out its back story before we get any giant furball fury. Do you like skiing sequences? Great, you’ll love the padding that this film throws in.

Actually, the padding makes little different in the long run. As per usual, the biggest disappointment with a Sy Fy film is when it comes to the monster. These are the reasons people like me watch these films and yet again we are short-changed. The CGI for the Yeti is poor and there are only about four animations which are repeated over and over again in the limited number of scenes in which they’re present. They look like overgrown Critters, gigantic balls of fur which roll around the place like the incoherent blur of black graphics that they are. Not sure which bright spark decided to give them black fur in the middle of snowy mountains. Evolution has told us that animals adapt to their surroundings so surely these legendary creatures would have blended in with the snow or else how have they been hidden away for so long? They’re also stunt Yetis and have the ability to do things like jumping tall distances and clinging on to the legs of helicopters like they’re starring in an 80s action movie. Can I emphasise again just how bad the CGI is in this? Straight from the PS One onto your TV screens in 2013. If you’re going to half-attempt to do a job, don’t do it at all and just design a monster suit for someone to prowl around in on set.

It’s not just the monsters which are poorly rendered on the computer but there’s terrible weather effects and a CGI helicopter which has to be seen to be believed. In trying to go all out and entertain, the film becomes too outlandish. It doesn’t help when the characters are particularly unlikeable and one-note. If most of them don’t irritate you, then you must have enormous patience. Despite wishing death upon the majority of the characters, they don’t exactly get killed off in style or deserving of their annoying personalities. The deaths are bland and something of a non-entity. If you’ve got giant ape-like creatures with sharp claws and teeth, let’s see the damage that they can do! The characters go all Home Alone on the yeti at a late point in the film, setting up a number of traps around the chalet to stop them. I’m not sure what it worse: the thought that these people would actually think the yeti would be as stupid as the Wet Bandits and fall for the tracks or the notion that little Kevin McAllister could wipe out the world’s native population with a bag of Micro Machines, some rope and a can of paint.

 

By far and away the worst of the recent yeti films, Abominable Snowman is just abominable. It has to rank down there with the worst of Sy Fy’s creature feature films. That is saying something!

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Tales from the Crypt (1972)

DEATH LIVES in the Vault of Horror!

Five strangers visiting some old catacombs find themselves separated from the rest of the group and end up in a chamber with a mysterious man who details how each of the strangers will die.

 

No doubt you’ll have heard of Hammer (and if not, why not?) and their contribution to the horror genre. The studio ruled the horror land in the late 50s and 60s, single-handedly reinventing the genre with such timeless classics as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. Less known were their British rivals Amicus, who found fame in the 60s and 70s with a series of horror films based in the present day rather than the period gothic settings of Hammer. It’s easy to mix up who made what between Hammer and Amicus during their peak periods as they used many of the same actors (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee) and directors (Freddie Francis, Roy Ward Baker). Amicus found success in their anthology horror films – films featuring four or five short stories which were linked together by an overarching plot, usually with a narrator or central figure. More spooky than scary, the films were inspired by the old EC Comics which featured macabre stories where people would suffer an ironic fate/mishap as a result of something they had done. Given how many of these anthology films have used the comics either as direct source material or as an inspiration to devise fresh stories, it’s always been my mission to check some of them out for real.

Tales from the Crypt was Amicus’ fifth anthology horror film and arguably their most famous, no doubt due to the heavyweight cast full of big names. All of the stories here are directly lifted from EC Comics rather than original ideas and like all of these anthology films, it’s a veritable pick ‘n’ mix selection. Some people will prefer one story, other people will prefer another. There’s something for everyone and with the stories only being about ten minutes long at best, they’re snappy enough for you not to get too saddled with something you don’t like.

The link segments involving the five main characters coming across a mysterious stranger in the cave is rather silly and legendary thespian Ralph Richardson looks like he’d rather be anywhere else except the daft set that he’s stuck on. Once you’ve seen one Amicus anthology film, you’ve seen them all as far as the final twist goes so it’s little surprise to find out why they’re all gathered in this place.

… And All Through the House stars Joan Collins as a woman who kills her husband on Christmas Eve and then attempts to hide his body. Unfortunately for her, a homicidal maniac dressed as Santa is on the loose outside the house but she is unable to call the police without exposing her own crimes. This is the most remembered story, no doubt in part to the sight of a murderous Santa Claus long before Silent Night, Deadly Night came along to upset parents. Also no doubt in part to the glamorous appearance of Joan Collins as the equally-murderous wife. There’s a decent bit of tension in this episode as the Santa peers through the windows and the Christmas theme gives it that extra edge. There is very little dialogue and so Collins has to act with her eyes and body language, which she does so very well. Despite the crime she has committed, you do feel like rooting for her. Sadly, it ends quite abruptly but there was nowhere else for the segment to go at the time.

Reflection of Death stars Ian Hendry as a man who leaves his wife and children for his mistress. However on his way to meeting her, he’s involved in a horrific car accident. When he emerges from the wreck, everyone he sees runs off in horror and he is not quite sure why. This is arguably the weakest of the stories because it all builds until the final payoff. The clever use of POV and lack of dialogue from the main character keeps the big twist of this story hidden until the end – we know that something has happened to Ian Hendry’s character, we’re just not quite sure what – but the results are underwhelming to say the least. Thankfully, the story isn’t drawn out too long as the nature of the entire segment means that once one or two people have reacted to Hendy’s character, it gets tiresome to see others do the same thing.

Poetic Justice sees a father and son take a disliking to an elderly neighbour and conduct a hate campaign against him to get him to leave their street. He hangs himself instead. A year later on Valentine’s Day, the old man returns from the grave to get his revenge. This is my favourite of the five stories and this is down to Peter Cushing’s memorably poignant turn as Grimsdyke, the old man. Known for frequently playing strong, knowledgeable figures, it’s interesting to see Cushing’s weaker and more fragile side as he plays against type somewhat, but this was made shortly after his wife died and it was well-known that this affected him greatly. The hate campaign that the characters stir up against him is a little far-fetched and the pair of David Markhan and Robin Phillips are given horrible one-note characters with no redeeming characteristics – the sooner they get a bit of karma, the better. The zombie make-up on Cushing looks particularly effective for 1972.

Wish You Were Here sees businessman Ralph Jason struggling to make ends meet until his wife uses a Chinese figurine that offers its owner three wishes. They ask for a fortune and receive it but Jason is killed on his way to collect it. She then wishes him back to life, only to find that he has since been embalmed. This is arguably the weakest segment out of the lot and that’s purely because there’s no real purpose to it – we never find out just what the man has done to deserve his punishment and so seeing him suffer isn’t as powerful as it could have been. The story is a nice alternative to The Monkey’s Paw tale and the final twist to the tale is nice, even if it looks like an innocent man is going to suffer eternal pain!

Blind Alley is the final story and sees a former army major become the new director for a home for the blind. However rather than looking after the residents, he introduces rationing and heating cuts to fund his own luxury lifestyle. Ignoring the ongoing suffering of the residents, it isn’t long before they decide to turn the tables on him. The segment goes on for a bit too long but most of the time is needed to pad out the character of Rogers and make you hate him for what he’s done to the blind residents. If you can ignore the fact that the blind residents are able to use some fantastic DIY skills to make their instrument of revenge (Jigsaw would have been proud of it!), then the segment at least finishes strongly. Patrick Magee, as the leader of the rebellious blind residents, has his usual intensity and imposing presence. The film then finishes with the not-so-subtle plot twist that you’ve seen a mile coming with regards to the Crypt Keeper.

 

Tales from the Crypt is another solid Amicus anthology film which delivers more stronger stories than weaker ones, has a fantastic cast of British talent and enough macabre twists and turns to keep you interested. The seriousness with which the stories play out certainly adds a nice sense of menace to go along with the mild chills.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Demons (1985)

Demons (1985)

They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and the cities will be your tombs.

A pair of students decide to ditch their evening class after being given two free tickets to an unknown movie at the recently re-opened Metropol Theatre in Berlin. During the screening of the movie about people turning into demons after opening a tomb, one of the attendees cuts themselves on a prop metal mask from the film that is being displayed in the theatre foyer. This causes them to be transformed into a demon and they start slaughtering members of the audience, who in turn become demons too. When the other people in the audience try to escape, they find that the exit doors have been sealed and that they are now trapped inside the theatre with a horde of demons after them.

 

Demons was one of my first forays into Italian horror – I think Zombie Flesh Eaters was first – and I certainly had no idea what to expect. Growing up on a strict diet of British (good old Hammer) and American horrors, it can be a little jarring to dive into the world of Italian horror cinema, where plot is less rigid, logic is not as strictly adhered to, and writers aren’t confined by well-established tropes. Demons is the perfect embodiment of everything that made the Italian horrors of the 80s so ridiculously entertaining, yet so perplexing and puzzling at the same time.

Director Lamberto Bava cited this as his personal favourite out of all of the films that he has directed and it’s easy to see why. The simplistic plot, sort of like a Night of the Living Dead-style siege flick with demons instead of zombies, is easy to follow though incomprehensible to fathom out. Its utterly absurd, with the writers using literally anything they can think of to write themselves out of a hole and expecting the audience to buy it (the helicopter crashing through the roof for no other reason than to provide the survivors with a way to escape is the obvious example). Even the characters make no sense – a shifty-looking usherette appears to be ‘in’ on the whole thing at the start with a load of dodgy close-ups only to fall victim to the demons like everyone else, whilst don’t even get me started on why there’s a blind character going to the cinema. Even the story itself radically changes direction at the end, from a Night of the Living Dead-style siege flick with demons to a post-apocalyptic nightmare in the final scenes. But until you get to that point, Demons has a cracking pace and is full-throttle for the majority of its running time. It does sag a little in the middle once the demons have taken over the theatre and killed off a lot of people but picks the pace back up considerably towards the end where everything-but-the-kitchen-sink is thrown at the screen.

Bava does creating some striking images throughout the film. Used on many of the film’s posters and DVD covers, there’s a brilliant slow-motion shot of the demons walking up the stairs, shrouded in dry ice and eerie blue lighting; their yellow eyes glowing in the dark. The filmmakers used a closed-down movie theatre to shoot inside and it really adds to the production, giving it a sense of scale and grandeur that studio sets would have inhibited. Bava clearly learnt a lot from his famous director father, Mario Bava, and his cinematography is generally atmospheric. Neon lighting, dry ice and shadows and darkness are all used effectively to create plenty of tension and suspense within the confines of the theatre. It’s hardly a film that is going to be known for its atmosphere though and Demons has become an ultimate crowd-pleaser in the gore stakes.

Demons is gruesome and gory, with violence being the name of the game. People don’t just instantly turn into demons, but the transformation is slow and painful. Close-ups of fingernails being forced out of cuticles and teeth being brutally pushed through by sharp fangs will have you squirming. The demons are slobbering monsters, dripping blood and green goo, with pulsating neck wounds, and that scratch and claw away at their victims, ripping apart throats and, in one particularly nasty scene, the eyes of a victim and the scalp of another. The gore is cheesy in some places, but it’s far more convincingly brought to life than plenty of the zombie and cannibal films that Italy was churning out during this time. The body count is high, and the kills are all evenly paced out to keep things exciting and unpredictable. Some characters meet earlier demises than you’d expect. A standout set piece involves a demon hatching through someone’s back – certainly as impressive as any sort of transformation sequence you’d get from Rob Bottin or Rick Baker.

The energetic performances from the cast are embodied by the scene-stealing turn from Bobby Rhodes as a pimp who is only too quick to take charge when things go from bad to worse. I’m not sure whether it’s just the dubbing job done to his character but he’s so aggressive and assertive right from the first scene until his last. Rhodes would return as an unrelated character in the sequel and steals the show again. The two young couples who form the bulk of the main cast are all decent in their roles given the circumstances – trying to comment on acting in a film which is dubbed is a tall order!

Demons not only has a terrific original soundtrack from Claudio Simonetti, one of my favourite Italian composers, with some really catchy tunes (including the title music which is a real earworm), but it also has a bizarre collection of 80s rock and heavy metal from the likes of Motley Crue and Billy Idol which doesn’t quite fit in with some of the sequences they’ve been matched up with. There is an extended sequence featuring a guy on a motorbike with a samurai sword whilst a thundering heavy metal song blasts away in the background.

Like many Italian horror films of the late 70s and 80s, Demons has spawned a ridiculous number of ‘sequels’ – only one true sequel but a whole host of other films which have alternate titles using ‘Demons’ in them.

 

Demons is one of my favourite guilty pleasures – an immensely entertaining horror film with lots of spark and ideas, utterly ridiculous and beyond fathoming at times, and buckets of blood and grisly special effects. A roller coaster ride of epic 80s Italian splatter at it’s finest.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Evolution (2001)

Evolution (2001)

Have a nice end of the world.

Ira Kane and Harry Block are wo science lecturers who investigate reports that a meteorite has fallen in the desert. They quickly discover that the meteorite contains organisms that evolve at an enormous rate, crossing two million years of evolution in a matter of hours. Once the military get wind of the discovery, the site is cordoned off and Kane’s work is taken, preventing him from further studying the evolution of the organisms. Unfortunately for everyone involved, they discover too late that the aliens have advanced to the reptilian stage and begin to burrow up through tunnels to emerge on the surface. With the creatures rapidly evolving and developing human-like abilities, it is up Kane and Block to stop them.

 

Evolution can be best described as Ghostbusters-lite with aliens. Director Ivan Reitman tries so hard to replicate the same lightning-in-a-bottle as he conjured up back in the 80s, almost in lament at not being able to ever get Ghostbusters 3 off the ground. Heck, he tried to repeat the trick with Ghostbusters II – though I think it’s an underrated sequel, it’s still nowhere near the quality of the first one. The way the narrative develops here is rather similar, with lots of similar set pieces and scenarios for the three heroes to deal with, as well as coming up against an uncooperative authority figure and battling a larger-than-life threat in the finale. It’s not very original but what Evolution lacks in these stakes, it makes up for with an easy-going charm which makes it hard to dislike.

Reitman’s films are usually pacey and energetic, and Evolution is no exception. There’s little time wasted on non-essential storytelling, even if a lot of the plot makes little sense when you think about it (like why two college professors like Duchovny and Jones’ characters would continue to be kept in the loop long after it’s been established that this is a serious threat to the survival of life on Earth), and the set pieces flow fairly frequently. However, there’s rarely a memorable set piece that stands out. Reitman throws lots of special effects at the screen to bring all the various aliens to life and the CGI is as good/bad as you’d expect it to be for a film made in 2001. The main characters have plenty of problems to overcome as they encounter the aliens at different stages of their evolution from the fungi right up to the giant amoeba in the finale. It is just that Evolution never really manages to get into its rhythm and it feels like it’s over before it gets going. The action sequences all make sense from the progression of the story, but they never really generate any sort of excitement or tension. Everyone on the screen and behind the camera is trying, it just never clicks together.

The same can be said for the comedy aspects of the film. Unless you like laughing at the sight of a man having an alien insect removed from his rear end (and the younger version of me did find this scene funny), then a lot of the humour here will make you smile, rather than laugh. Evolution is mildly amusing – you’re desperate for it to get funnier and a few scenes and gags really fall flat on their face. The script tries too hard to make the film funny and this isn’t a knock on the writers or the actors involved, it’s just that sometimes a comedy film like this needs a group of actors who can improvise better on the spot during filming. Imagine working with Bill Murray on set and the sort of improvisation he would be capable of. Now compare that to someone like Sean William Scott, perfectly fine for a role like this, but doesn’t really come across as a quick-witted individual who could come up with some genuinely funny and witty dialogue on the spot. Not the first film to be guilty of this – if you’ve seen the trailer, then you’ve probably seen the funniest moments.

David Duchovny, Orlando Jones and William Scott make for an amiable threesome, though they lack a real sense of camaraderie and never quite gel as a trio. Unlike the comic timing and sheer brilliance of the three main leads in Ghostbusters, for all their efforts, both Jones and Duchovny just can’t quite get the same level of hilarity from the story. Perhaps it is because Reitman has pitched the comedy of the film at a lower demographic, hence the inclusion of William Scott who was making waves in a number of teen comedies in the late 90s and early 00s. Jokes about sex, bodily fluids and farting pander to the lowest common denominator (though I’m not suggesting that we don’t all like a good fart joke) and lack the finesse of more sophisticated humour. Funnily enough, it’s Julianne Moore who displays some nice comic timing as the scientist/love interest that makes the biggest impression upon the audience. Dan Aykroyd shows up in an unnecessary cameo role as the governor – how the film could have done with one of his famously fast-talking and intense speeches.

And if you think you’re going to get through Evolution without some sort of nod or reference to The X-Files and Duchovny’s most famous role, then you’re totally wrong.

 

Easy-going summer films such as Evolution have a time and place and it seems that they’re few and far between nowadays in the 2010s, which is a bit of a shame. It’s likeable enough, innocent enough and entertaining enough, just not as enough as you’d like it to be.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

House (1985)

House (1985)

Ding dong, you’re dead.

Author Roger Cobb is a troubled man, having been separated from his wife; their only son Jimmy disappeared without a trace and his aunt committed suicide by hanging. On top of everything else, he has been pressured by his publisher to write another book. After his aunt’s funeral, Cobb decides to move into her house for a while to write his new novel about his experiences of Vietnam. He quickly becomes haunted by visions of demons from his past and wonders if he is going crazy.

 

No this is not a change of genre for me as I review Hugh Laurie’s TV drama. House is the first instalment of a horror series which I’ve never really gotten around to watch. There’s four of them in the House series but the front covers and posters never did it for me, and I’m not the biggest fan of ‘haunted house’ films – my query is why someone would willingly choose to stay in a house that is being tormented by ghosts and spirits when they could run for the hills at the first opportunity. Thankfully, House isn’t your typical run-of-the-mill haunted house film, gaining something of cult status upon its release back in the 80s, and the end result is something a million miles away from what I was expecting.

A trio of good hands from the Friday the 13th series get together here to make a screwball film which could only have come about in the 1980s. With producer Sean Cunningham, director Steve Miner (who directed the second and third Friday the 13th films) and composer Harry Manfredini, as well as a story by director/writer Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad), House is a silly 80s cheese fest which is a lot of fun if you like your horror and comedy rolled up together with a knowing wink and shrug of the shoulders. Unless you stick with it past the first third, you’d never think that House would turn out the way it does. Its almost as if the script originally had the film panning out as a serious supernatural thriller but then the writers seem to give up that idea and just throw in a load of rubber monsters and goofy humour. It works! There’s a vibe here along the lines of some Raimi-esque The Evil Dead film, though House never quite reaches those levels of silliness or scariness.

The tone is light-hearted and not too overtly frightening – think of Dekker’s The Monster Squad for something along a similar tone and atmosphere. Take for instance a scene in which Cobb chases a little child around the house – a child who has a dismembered hand crawling up his back. The slapstick approach to the scene allows the tone to remain light, despite a child being in danger. Other scenes involving Cobb trying to stop said hand from attacking his attractive neighbour who is flirting with him and blissfully unaware of the corpse in the bags add to the slapstick approach. But it never quite goes all of the way with the comedy, holding back from really going the extra mile. This is a big problem with House – it’s fun without being hysterical. You’ll sit and smile at some of the goings-on, but you’ll rarely crack out into fits of laughter.

Despite lacking a killer instinct with anything it throws at the camera, House does get its make-up effects spot on and has a lot of fun with them. The copious number of latex monsters that inhabit the house and attempt to kill Cobb keeps things flowing nicely and the pace is film is swift. They look ridiculous but the practical rubber effects do lend the proceedings a goofy charm and have that unmistakable 80s look, despite the obvious limitations. It’s here where a bit more pushing of the envelope and the rating would have worked. More blood and guts, particularly with the disposing of the demon version of his ex-wife, would have worked wonders to add more hilarity and ludicrousness. I guess House was never designed as that kind of film. The less said about Big Ben, the hulking zombie remains of one of Cobb’s old Vietnam comrades, the better. He turns up in the final third and supposedly links all of the little narrative strands together in his “it was me all along” speech. He looks like a rejected version of Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th films (or at least the later ones where he was actually a walking corpse). He’s easily the weakest-looking of the monsters on show here, though that’s probably because actor Richard Moll is a little more recognisable underneath the make-up than some of the other actors in make-up are.

William Katt makes for a decent lead role, handling the serious elements just as easily as the comedy and action moments as and when they are required. There are other actors in here with supporting roles, but they don’t really contribute a whole lot to the narrative – this is Katt’s film from the start. He does have rather dull one-note delivery, but it works to convey the different moods and feelings that Cobb experiences. Seeing his facial reactions to some of the sights and sounds he faces is one of the highlights of the film – the scene where he sets up a row of cameras and dons his Vietnam gear in preparation for midnight is great. Unfortunately, the big pay-off in the finale where Cobb redeems himself is underwhelming but that’s because the film had shifted gears from the emotional thriller aspects to willingly embrace the cheese and dorkiness of the whole thing.

 

If there’s one thing you can say about House, it’s that it manages to deliver a fair amount of silliness, though without any true laughs or scares. Some of the effects have aged badly and the film is a little too lightweight for its own good, but it’s rarely boring. You just don’t seem to get enough of anything good whenever it crops up. It’s not for the want of trying but I guess rose-tinted glasses will make fans who grew up on this remember it in a lot better light than it probably deserves.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Colony, The (2013)

The Colony (2013)

When the earth froze, the rules of survival changed forever.

By the year 2045, humanity has been forced to live in huge underground bunkers, known as Colonies, due to the onset of a new harsh Ice Age which wiped out the bulk of the world’s population. The survivors face troubles controlling disease and food supplies – anyone with so much as a cough is placed into quarantine after a bout of flu could decimate a colony. After receiving a distress call from Colony 5, a group from Colony 7 make the perilous trek to the colony to establish what happened. There, they discover that the colony received a message from another group of people who claim to have fixed a weather machine and have started thawing the snow. The team return to Colony 5, without realising that a group of hungry cannibals have followed their tracks and now lay siege to the bunker.

 

In many respects, The Colony reminded me a lot of 30 Days of Night – both films featuring decent build-ups in desolate, snowy landscapes and then both falling apart reasonably quickly once the main threat has been established. Fortunately for 30 Days of Night, the film was at least gory and not afraid to splash the blood. The Colony starts out with great promise but fizzles out with a juddering tonal shift when they cross the cannibals. There was a vision here for something a bit grander in scale, but the low budget keeps the impressive ideas in the development phase, rendering the film rather generic and tame.

The post-apocalyptic future is well-presented here within the first fifteen minutes, with the eternal snowy landscapes invoking thoughts of The Thing and its harsh Antarctic isolation, and the underground bunkers and ramshackle way of life being very similar to something you’d find in The Walking Dead. The CGI used for the outdoor scenes is pretty impressive, albeit aided by the fact that the majority of the green screen is filled up with snowstorms. Scenes of the team crossing a frozen bridge provide the effects department with some excellent opportunities to showcase the reality of the situation the characters find themselves in. They have a very ‘Game of Thrones north-of-the-Wall’ type of atmosphere of constant biting cold and overriding evil dread just around the corner. It also helps that the production team were allowed access to a decommissioned NORAD facility in Canada, giving the colonies themselves a far greater sense of realism than the budget would otherwise have allowed. We get a glimpse into the lives that the survivors of this new ice age have had to adapt to, both is only a glimpse and we never become fully immersed into this futuristic setting before the film shifts gears.

The limited creative juices are quick to run out when the film moves into more traditional sci-fi horror territory. The team reach Colony 5, discover just what happened and then make a hasty retreat before things get too hairy. There’s some effective atmosphere as the team search around the now-abandoned colony but once the gang of cannibals make their presence felt, the film doesn’t know what direction to go in. There must be something about gangs of these mutants/cannibals/vampires and their leaders who growl, snarl and scream loudly every time the camera goes on them in films like this – Ghosts of Mars and 30 Days of Night being two of the biggest offenders. The cannibals are simply faceless villains, able-bodied minions designed to be thrown into a number of generic action sequences where the heroes shoot, scrap and struggle to survive. If you’ve seen them or any other ‘under siege’ style horror flick, then you’ll be in familiar territory in the second half of the film, where a bunch of the thinly-developed survivors are killed off, as well as a few extras who were loitering in the background the majority of the time. The problem here is that it’s not gory or violent enough for hardened horror veterans who no doubt will be making up the majority of the paying audience. There’s a big build-up but as soon as the cannibals start to attack Colony 7, it’s all very anti-climactic. The running time of ninety-five minutes doesn’t drag but considering how much time is spent building up the cannibal threat and the trip to and from Colony 5, you’d expect there to be more punch when it matters. The ending smacks of being rushed at the last minute – “You’ve got a minute of screen time left to round up the narrative” springs to mind.

Heavyweights Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton star as the feuding leaders of Colony 7 but both are woefully underused. Paxton fares the better out of the two and the film is more powerful during the opening third when they share plenty of screen time, stares and solemn speeches about how best to survive. In fact, with the murkiness of the corridors, the frenzied action scenes and Paxton looking increasingly worried, Aliens sprung to mind – The Colony plays out too seriously for self-awareness, but I’d have loved some throwaway line referencing one of Pvt. Hudson’s classic lines. Kevin Zegers has to carry the film for the most part and does alright, though his bland vanilla hero could have been played by any young male actor.

 

I’m not sure whether this was geared towards a sequel, with the ending being a little open-ended but The Colony would have made for a better mini-series than a full-blown feature. There are enough decent ideas floating around the production values belay the limited budget, its just that it falters badly right when it needs to be kicking into gear. A fair timewaster at best but don’t expect to be blown away by anything on offer.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆