War of the Gargantuas (1966)

War of the Gargantuas (1966)

Can a Country Survive When Two Gargantuas Battle to Death?

After the sole survivor of an attack on a boat tells the authorities that the rest of the crew were killed by a giant, a scientist is brought in to investigate the matter and concludes that fragments of the Frankenstein monster that was previously thought destroyed have mutated again. Only this time the fragments have formed into two new monsters or ‘gargantuas’ as they become known to the Japanese and they begin to

 

Was Frankenstein Conquers the World better than I assumed? One of Toho’s strangest kaiju films saw the beating heart of Frankenstein’s monster subjected to radiation during the atomic attack on Hiroshima, eventually giving birth to a giant boy and then squaring off against another giant monster. It was a terrible film, one of Toho’s worst, but somehow it spawned a follow-up. Thankfully, one does not need to have subjected themselves to the ordeal of watching the other film before sitting down to watch War of the Gargantua (in fact the American version does away with any links whatsoever).

War of the Gargantuas was helmed by regular Toho director Ishirô Honda and he puts his experiences with Godzilla and chums to good use. The film kicks off with a bang as a giant octopus attacks a boat and then one of the gargantuas shows up and fights the octopus. After ten minutes, there has already been more action than Frankenstein Conquers the World and the promise of more yet to come. This film gives us frequent giant monster action yet for some reason, you won’t be overly excited. These two gargantuas battle and brawl across Japan in a number of fight sequences but because they’re almost identical monsters and just look like two stuntmen in make-up, they don’t exactly garner the same interest as a Godzilla, Rodan or Mothra would. They’re not the most visuall interesting creations that Toho have ever come up with but at least you get to see more of them, given the nature of the make-up rather than bulky monster costumes. Thankfully, the miniature sets that they fight on are some of the most realistic that Toho created at the time and the Japanese army even gets in a few good licks on one of the monsters for a change! You win some, you lose some, so your interest in these fights will hinge on your ability to suspend disbelief as much as possible. The green gargantua has a taste for human flesh too and isn’t afraid to snack on whoever he can get his hands on, adding a slightly sinister element to the film.

The flipside to all of this monster action is that there’s not much plot to string it all together. The story for the previous film was already bordering on madness and this one follows the same idea of how the monsters were both created. And then that’s just about it – two monsters are created, they don’t like each other and they fight. The human sub-plots, some pointless and padded in most Godzilla films, are almost side-lined to the point of non-existence here. It’s hard trying to develop some characters to link together everything that happens and there’s no real meat or subtext to anything that goes on. You can almost see the characters looking at their watches, waiting for their little scene to finish so you can get back to the monster action.

In an attempt to break into international markets, Toho hired minor American actors, usually those on the wane, to provide a recognisable face for Western audiences (a trick they’d done all the way back with Raymond Burr in the original Godzilla). Nick Adams worked well in both Invasion of the Astro-Monsters and Frankenstein Conquers the World, but Russ Tamblyn here looks and sounds terrible. Looking so interested and giving a stoic, phoned-in performance, he reminded me of Bill Murray’s weary actor character from Lost in Translation. Tamblyn is virtually playing the same character as Adams, only with about a quarter of the intensity, and seems to be detached from everything that is going on, though this makes sense when you find out that a lot of his scenes had to be shot as extra footage to beef up his role.

Bizarrely, War of the Gargantuas was featured in flashback footage in both Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla: Final Wars, actually making this part of the canon. Of all of the monster films Toho made, why this one? Even more bizarre trivia comes in the knowledge that Brad Pitt cited this as the film that saw him pursue a career in acting and both Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro acknowledge the influence this film had on them.

 

Thankfully they didn’t turn this horrid, loose-fitting series of films into a trilogy. With no real depth to any of the on-screen carnage, War of the Gargantuas doesn’t really come recommended for casual viewers, though die-hard kaiju fans will no doubt find some glee with all of the silly action.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Cave, The (2005)

The Cave (2005)

There are places man was never meant to go.

Deep in the Carpathian Mountains, a team of scientists stumble upon the entrance to a giant underground cave system. Biologists believe the cave could be home to an undiscovered eco-system, so they hire a crack team of American cave explorers to help them investigate its depths. But what the team finds deep inside the cave is not just a new eco-system, but an entirely new, and deadly, species.

 

2005 was the year of the underground creature feature with this following hot-on-the-heels of The Descent, the superior of the two by a clear margin, but The Cave seems to draw a lot more of its inspiration from Pitch Black, complete with one of its stars in Cole Hauser and a similar creature design. Playing out like one of those generic sci-fi horrors shown on Sy Fy, only with $30 million dollars budget strapped to its back, The Cave was not a box office hit and just about managed to scrape its budget back in takings. There’s a good reason for that: it’s so averagely generic, that it’s almost a dictionary definition.

A routine plot. Cardboard characters. Production values which look sleek in the trailer but aren’t particularly brilliant in the full film. Monsters which are amalgamations of previous on-screen beasties. Action-set pieces which are dull and unoriginal. The Cave ticks a lot of boxes – it’s a shame that it’s all the wrong boxes. There’s nothing energetic about the screenplay. There’s nothing energetic about the performances. Everyone goes through the motions. I always have to ask the question in these circumstances – why bother in the first place? Whilst everyone will compare it to Neil Marshall’s superior spelunking shocker, the similarities with Pitch Black are more obvious. Regardless of which film you want to compare it to, The Cave fares equally as poorly on every single factor.

A major problem I have here is that they’re supposed to be deep underground in a subterranean cave system yet there’s always plenty of space, light and air for them to see, breathe and move around freely for most of their adventure. In fact, so little attempt is made to portray them as being trapped miles underground in this dangerous environment, that the setting looked like a beautiful place to go and visit – one of those secret tourist spots you see on random viral videos and you expect to see some tourist swimming by taking selfies. Only on occasion do you get the sense that these people are really in any danger of being cut off from the rest of civilisation. The film is just full of these caves, each time they go deeper into the network, the tunnels continue to have the same light and visibility. Only in one reasonably dark scene involving a large underground lagoon do you get the sense that they are somewhere totally alien to us on the surface.

Quite how the creatures have managed to survive for so long down there with very little in the way food is anyone’s guess. There are a few explanations thrown around to give the creatures some scientific basis, but no one really comes to any definite conclusion and we’re left with no further clue as to what they are by the end. Whenever the creatures attack, expect to see plenty of frenetic camerawork as the film does its best to avoid showing you anything remotely coherent, presumably to hide the creatures for as long as possible and to keep the gore to a minimum (this received a 12a rating in the UK, a ridiculous decision for an ‘adult-targeted’ action-horror). Once or twice is forgivable to build tension and the ‘less is more’ mantra, but consistently doing it throughout the film robs the audience of one of the key reasons why they bother tuning in to genre fare like this.  It’s hard to distinguish just how the characters are killed off here and what the creatures do to their victims and the attack scenes are poorly handled.

There’s a cast full of recognisable faces – Lena Headey (pre-Game of Thrones days), Morris Chestnut (drifting from one sub-standard creature feature flick in Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid to another one here), Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) and Daniel Dae Kim (TV show Lost) – but let’s be reasonable here, they’re not exactly given decent characters to flesh out and have to recite some truly awful dialogue – “Now we’re part of the food chain” being one of the most cliched amongst it. All of the usual tropes and stereotypes are here with the characters and their flimsy back stories and motives, but it matters little once the creatures come into play and the more expendable members of the expedition meet their fates first before one or two of the well-known faces are fed to the creatures. Hauser is a bit of a charisma vacuum in this, and his bug-eyed serious face looks to be the only trick he has in his locker. To be honest, none of them show anything like the range they can all portray, particularly Headey who went on to do some amazing work as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. If this was her audition tape, she’d have failed.

 

If you’re expecting anything other than a standard genre offering here, you’ll be disappointed. The Cave just about does enough during its running time to keep your interest but it’s instantly forgettable with its run-of-the-mill approach to literally everything. Best to keep this clunker buried as far below ground as possible.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Leatherface (2017)

Leatherface (2017)

Witness the beginning of your end.

Teenager Jed Sawyer escapes from a mental hospital with three other inmates, kidnapping a young nurse and taking her on a road trip from hell, while being pursued by a lawman out for revenge.

 

Did anyone really ask for this? I mean was there a massive clamour for people to get another origin story for one of cinema’s most iconic horror characters? We already had, the admittedly weak, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning which didn’t do a particularly good job of the origin stuff and left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. Now with eight films in a franchise that has zero continuity, Leatherface comes along to try and shake things up once more.

The last entry in the franchise, Texas Chainsaw 3D, was woeful and pointless enough to exist as it did, so there was no need for yet another film featuring everyone’s favourite face-wearing, chainsaw-wielding psychopath. Serving as a direct prequel to the original 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre rather than any previous sequel or part of the modern remake universe, Leatherface pans out more like a bad road movie, with Leatherface tagging along with some other psychos escaped from a mental hospital, and ending up crossing over into Rob Zombie ‘white trash’ territory with a dash of Natural Born Killers thrown in for good measure. It’s utterly uninspiring and a total wasted opportunity.

For a film that is titled Leatherface and is meant to be about Leatherface, you don’t get to spend much time with him throughout the film. The writers purposely try to keep which of the characters turns into Leatherface a mystery for the audience, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you couldn’t spot the obvious from the first time they appear on screen. The focus always seems to be on other characters, though given how poorly Leatherface is presented here, maybe that’s not such a bad thing that they didn’t make him the focal point. Hooper’s version of Leatherface back in 1974 deserved a more twisted, vile origin story than the one we’re presented with here – one has to question whether this was simply designed as a ‘clean sweep’ reboot to kick off a new series of films unshackled by the restraints of previous instalments. However, little of the material we’re presented with over the course of the film gives us any further insight into how Jed becomes Leatherface.

Don’t expect to see the trademark get-up till the end of the film – Leatherface, for the most part here, is a gormless teenager, as far detached from the classic horror icon as he can be. Just like Rob Zombie did with Michael Myers in his version of Halloween by showing us his infant days, and even what George Lucas did to Darth Vader by showing us whiny teenager Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, French directing duo Maury and Bustillo kill any sort of integrity and fear factor that Leatherface may still have had by showing us this watered-down pre-mask version. I come to a Texas Chain Saw Massacre film to see fully-grown and angry Leatherface causing carnage; not some depressing silent emo kid version. It’s so easy to forget that this is actually a Texas Chain Saw Massacre film, such is the change in direction it takes the standard franchise narrative. You could give the makers of the film some props for attempting something different instead of just rehashing the same backwoods formula – but you’d only give them those props if this was even half-decent, and it’s not.

The film does pick up steam when Leatherface is ‘born’ and the narrative drifts into familiar territory in the final fifteen minutes, which will no doubt leave you thinking why they just didn’t stick with this approach all the way through. The chainsaw comes into play which finally gives us a couple of trademark gory kills, but it hardly matters by this point. Most of the gruesome moments involve bad taste scenes such a sex sequence on top of a rotting corpse. As the rest of the film exists as an almost unconnected separate entity, you’ve most likely disengaged with the story and are simply going through the motions waiting for it to end.

The older cast members do their bit to keep the film ticking over. Stephen Dorff is a good watch whenever he’s in a snarling, psycho character mode as proven with his great turn back in Blade and he steals the show as the obsessive sheriff, reminding me a lot of Dennis Hopper’s ‘Lefty’ from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Lily Taylor, as the Sawyer family matriarch, also does what she can to chew the scenery. But they’re not likeable characters and the film has a dearth of people you want to get behind – the main group consisting of the escaped inmates are wholly unlikeable. It’s almost as if the film tries to make the future Leatherface the most sympathetic character here by surrounding him with some of the worst, most despicable kinds of characters imaginable. It doesn’t work to generate any empathy, only confusion and anger that such a notoriously deranged maniac from film lore has been given a free licence purely because he was brought up in a culture of hate and violence.

 

The worst film in the franchise to date (and that’s saying something considering the steaming pile of horse manure that was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation), Leatherface doesn’t just do a bad job of messing up what should have been a simple and straightforward back story but it also fails on many levels as a standalone horror film. A completely pointless franchise entry which does more harm than good.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Banana Splits Movie, The (2019)

The Banana Splits Movie (2019)

Tralala Terror!

Young Harley is a massive fan of The Banana Splits TV show and is thrilled to be given tickets for his birthday to attend a live taping. Arriving on the day with his family and a diverse audience eager to see the Splits live, Harley couldn’t be happier. However, behind the scenes, the show has just been cancelled and the robot performers are acting a bit strange due to a glitch in their programming. The Splits don’t want the show to end and will do anything to remain on the air, even if that means murder.

 

If you’ve never heard of The Banana Splits, you were either born after 1982 or don’t live in America – I’m in the UK, born in 1981 and only briefly knew them in passing through pop culture references. Produced by legendary animating duo Hannah-Barbara (the people behind The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, Wacky Races and a whole host of others), The Banana Splits, sort of a bizarre cross between The Muppets and The Monkees, were a band of animal musicians who hosted a variety show for a few years back in the late 60s. Yeah, it sounds as weird as it looked. They sang a catch theme song which will no doubt stick in your head once you hear it.

Wherever they are buried, William Hannah and Joseph Barbara will no doubt be turning in their graves to think that one of their beloved creations has been turned into a horror film, over fifty years since it was made.  I have no idea how the makers of this film managed to secure the rights to the furry characters and audiences who’ve seen this are sure to look at them from a different point of view from now on. Bizarrely though, the Splits look and act more sinister in the original TV series than they do here – there is something just not right about them in the older footage from the 70s. On paper (and in the promo trailer released a few months prior), The Banana Splits Movie looked and sounded like a sure-fire mix of crazy ideas, silly fun and gratuitous gore. It is anything but.

The Banana Splits are a little too old to be appealing to a younger generation who will literally have no idea who they are, and for those who are old enough to remember them, they will no doubt be offended that such beloved childhood characters could be brutalised in such fashion. For people my age in the UK, this would almost be like watching a horror version of Fraggle Rock or Sooty turning into a knife-wielding slasher. And this is the crux of the film’s problem: it has no idea who its audience is meant to be. The Banana Splits Movie attempts to straddle too many approaches and appease too many audiences and ultimately fails to hit any of them. It doesn’t go all out enough on the adult elements, plays the set pieces far too safe and tame and isn’t intense enough to generate any real scares, appearing very childish at times. On the flip side, I still wouldn’t show this to any younger kids because it is too gory for them and will give them nightmares (some of the shots of the robots are pretty creepy).

Aside from the inability to decide on just what type of horror film it wants to be, The Banana Splits Movie falls into the worst kind of trap in that it’s just dull. Half of this down to the cumbersome titular foursome, slow-moving killers without any sign of personality or character that just walk around, say some of their catchphrases and kill their victims with little fervour. Attempts at black humour fall flat in 90% of the attempts and there is a cartoonish goofiness about everything associated with the robots. You just can’t take them seriously as a threat. The film was crying out for some sort of Chucky-esque passion and delivery to really convey how evil the Splits are.

I’m not sure having kids as some of the main characters was a good idea either – you know that they’re never going to be harmed in any serious way and the plot armour that they develop is so strong, that it takes the fun out of the film. Despite all of the carnage, they never appear to be scared of the Splits or even show any sort of genuine reaction to seeing dead bodies around them. The adults are all fair game but there’s little meat to any of the characterisation – disgruntled employees, cheating slime ball fathers, pushy parents, etc. They’re the ones who keep the body count topped up. There is some gore, including a rather cheap-looking set of intestines as a character is sawed in half, but the film doesn’t go all out on this, leaving everything look very timid. The Splits use some of their regular routines and equipment to kill their victims, including an obstacle course shown in the TV show, but the screenplay isn’t twisted or fiendish enough to put a black spin on them. It’s a total waste of some inventive deaths but, given the state of the rest of the film, wasted potential is something this film seems to thrive on. The sequel-baiting ending would only work if everyone learns their lessons from this. Fingers crossed.

 

Teletubbies Meets Westworld is the best analogy I can use when writing about The Banana Splits Movie. I wanted to really like it after the trailer showed promise and there’s a good film waiting to burst from the crazy concept. Sadly, this isn’t it. I have no real clue as to who or what the makers were thinking of when they made this. It’s meant to appeal to everyone but ends up appealing to no one. Such a wasted idea if I ever saw one.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Valentine (2001)

Valentine (2001)

Remember that kid everyone ignored on Valentine’s Day? – He remembers you.

Five women are stalked by an unknown assailant while preparing for Valentine’s Day. When they each receive a sinister Valentine’s card, they realise that the person responsible is Jeremy Melton, a nerdy classmate who they tormented and tortured for asking them out at a Valentine’s dance when they were in sixth grade.

 

I shudder to think that I actually paid to go and see this at the cinema back in 2001. Not that it’s terrible, just so derivative and captures a post-Scream moment in teen terror that is probably best forgotten. Scream introduced the post-modern, self-aware slasher where the characters all knew the rules of the genre, what to do and what not to do, etc. But that quickly became tiresome as a slew of clones were rushed out, and so then-modern slashers went back-to-basics, ditching the jokes and self-referential humour and trying to emulate the 80s by returning to the serious scares – these quickly outstayed their welcome too. Valentine emerged at the end of that cycle and it clearly shows.

Director Jamie Blanks, having previously helmed the equally-forgettable Urban Legend, returns to the sub-genre and regurgitates the same run-of-the-mill nonsense, albeit it with the classic seasonal-themed twist so popular back in the 80s. The whole whodunnit mystery element to the story throws in plenty of characters to interact with each other and attempt to bamboozle the audience with red herrings (particularly the male characters who all come off as very self-absorbed, cocky or inconsiderate) but for anyone remotely intelligent, it’s blatantly obvious who the killer is right from the first moment you see them on-screen. There’s also a lack of urgency surrounding a lot of Valentine’s run time and the whole plodding pace of some of the stalking and ‘hide from the killer’ scenes slam a brake on to any sort of momentum the odd moment of brilliant inspiration provides. Valentine is never outright boring, but some of the scenes move far too slowly for their own good. When the set pieces appear, they’re devoid of any real energy and everyone in front of the camera goes through the motions – the female characters put up a heck of a fight in their self-preservation but ultimately succumb to the inevitable.

True to form, Valentine features a swathe of young-ish, good-looking American actors such as Denise Richards, David Boreanaz and Kathering Heigl to pad out the cast so that the audience are clueless about who is going to die next (this started and peaked with Drew Barrymore’s infamous scene in Scream). Rather than worry about that, I spent the duration of the running time trying to figure out how a bunch of gorgeous, supposedly twenty-five year old best friends are all still single. Their characters are fairly one-dimensional, generally arrogant and wholly unsympathetic (only one of them shows anything resembling remorse for their actions towards the young Melton). You do wonder why they’re all friends given the way they treat and talk to each other. There’s no real sense of friendship between them, something that Scream at least managed to develop between the lead teens.

The sad thing is that Valentine has production values way better than it deserves. This isn’t some slapdash low budget effort but something which has a bit of money behind it. There’s a really cool arty sequence inside an exhibition hall which smacks of Argento and the whole thing has a polished look to it: a far cry from the grainy, low budget slashers it’s seeking to emulate. Valentine was also heavily cut after its initial rating was given, in response to school shootings in America, and it shows in the relatively dry approach the film takes towards the gore. I think you see more blood from the cherub’s nosebleeds throughout the film than you actually do from any of the victims. Aside from some half-memorable kills involving a hot tub and power drill, and the obligatory bow and arrow (given the killer wears a Cherub mask) murder, there’s nothing to really get worked up over. The final revelation of who the killer is doesn’t come off as a shock in the slightest: as I’ve already said, you’ll have it worked out from the start – unfortunately for the characters, they spend far too much unnecessary exposition trying to piece together the clues. Well, something had to fill up the screen time.

 

A dull-looking killer, mediocre murders, a plodding pace and some pedestrian writing turn Valentine into a rather bland ninety-minutes of slasher action.  It’s not the worst example of the sub-genre you’re ever going to stumble across but it’s hardly going to get your pulse racing.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆