Mr Vampire Part 3 (1987)

Mr Vampire Part 3 (1987)

The Taoist priest Mao Ming uses his ghost friends to trick people into believing their houses are haunted so he can go in and exorcise them. However, the two ghosts humiliate Chiang, an assistant of great Taoist Master Gau, who quickly captures them in a jar as punishment and warns Ming to follow the right path. Breaking into Gau’s house to save his friends, Ming opens the wrong jar and accidentally releases the ghost of an evil witch instead. With the witch and her minions causing havoc across the village, it is up to Ming to join forces with Gau to try and stop her.

 

After the disastrous attempt to move the Mr Vampire franchise into a modern day setting with more of a focus on the slapstick and silliness in Mr Vampire II, director Ricky Lau goes back to some of what made the original such a hit in the first place. The good news is that Mr Vampire Part 3 is marginally better than its predecessor. The bad news is that it’s still far too silly for its own good.

There’s no storyline to follow from the previous films and, as these Mr Vampire films are unconnected, it should make it easier for the writers to come up with interesting stories for the characters to venture through. But there is no semblance of plot to Mr Vampire Part 3 at all. It’s purely a collection of madcap cartoon-esque sequences involving kung fu, magic and lots of annoying gurning and mugging for the camera by the actors involved. I’m not even sure it looked good on paper as the narrative has too many sudden stop-start moments where the story suddenly heads off in a different direction. At least there is one, admittedly flimsy, thread to follow throughout the film, even if it doesn’t really hold everything together that well. The problem is that there are too many supporting characters to go around – both monks have their own helpers, and both sets of helpers serve the same purpose in acting as comedic foil. They’re all fighting for the same screen time which is probably why the story goes in all manner of directions, just to keep as many of the characters happy as possible.

Being back in a period setting helps Mr Vampire Part 3 massively. The magic and mystic aura works better in a Republic-era China than it does in a contemporary environment, with all manner of superstitions and occult practices just fitting better into a more ignorant age without the benefits of modern technology. The corny 80s special effects fit the bill perfectly here too, with weird laser beams and flashes of light working well to create a real sense of the supernatural, even if the sound effects sound like a video game boss fight. They don’t detract from the action and are merely little add-ons, something a lot of big budget films in today’s era could learn from.

There are some decent moments of action anarchy in Mr Vampire Part 3, in particular an early sequence where fraudulent priest Mao Ming, having freshly ‘exorcised’ his ghost friends in order to trick a wealthy businessman, suddenly realise that there are real ghosts in the house. But then other sequences drag on for far too long and rely on the same joke – there’s no sense of restraint. A scene involving the invisible ghosts messing around with a bumbling idiot inside a restaurant goes on forever, as does a scene involving a melted ghost stalking Mao King inside a spa room. Billy Lau (I wonder if he’s any relation to the director) was funny in the original but his screen time was lower and he was never the focus of the scene, rather a supporting participant in it for others to play off. Here, he seems to be the focus of many of the film’s cringey slapstick sequences and overexposure to his goofy character is to the film’s detriment.

Lam Ching-Yang reprises his titular role, playing it straight for the most part but not taking things ultra-seriously and he has the deadpan down to a tee by this point in the franchise. It’s easy to see why he became typecast. One of Mr Vampire II’s biggest mistakes was keeping the character off-screen for as long as it did before he was introduced. He pops up earlier here, though still a little too late given he’s the main character and is given some fancy moves in an action sequence in the forest. We sometimes forget that these are kung fu films as well as horror and comedy and this is rectified with some well-choreographed fight scenes early on. The energy on display during some of the specific routines is ridiculous, something the rest of the film does at least manage to capture. Mr Vampire Part 3 is rarely slow and quiet, which can get a little in-your-face at times, especially when the punchline or the gag has outstayed it’s welcome.

And sadly, despite the title, there are no hopping vampires to be seen here at all.

 

Mr Vampire Part 3 was a step back in the right direction for the series, albeit a baby step. It does a few things right in getting back to the series’ roots but there is still much of a focus on the goofy supporting characters and the balance isn’t quite right between the comedy, horror and action. This is meant to about Mr Vampire, not the goofballs mugging for the camera around him.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

The Bogey Man (1980)

The Bogey Man (1980)

The most terrifying nightmare of childhood is about to return!

Twenty years ago, Lacey witnessed her brother murder their mother’s abusive boyfriend. Years later and suffering from nightmares, she decides to revisit their old home to lay to rest the past. But when she inadvertently shatters a mirror that was present on the night of his death, she accidentally frees his evil spirit from inside. This invisible prowler is now able to slice his way through the family of the people who caused his demise.

 

A cross between Halloween, The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, The Bogey Man is a supernatural slasher which emerged at the start of the decade just before the market hit saturation point with knife-wielding maniacs. Caught between this new wave of visceral terror and the late 70s obsession with the supernatural and the Devil, The Bogey Man is a weird mix of the two which doesn’t do either sub-genre the greatest lip service. The Bogey Man was also one of a batch of films which was blacklisted in the UK during the 80s as part of the ‘Video Nasties’ furore that engulfed a lot of the video market at the time. It is only recently that these films have become available uncut for the first time and genre fans who might have missed the likes of this in the cinema because they were too young can now appreciate their wonderfully offbeat charm in all of their glory. The grisly poster of the priest holding up a crucifix whilst blood drips down his face has long been etched on my mind but I never get around to watching The Bogey Man until the recent blu-ray release (which looked amazing I just say – congratulations 88 Films on the great job with the transfer). NB – I would also like to add that I’m watching the UK titled version of this, with Bogey having a single ‘o’ as opposed to the US ‘oo.’

Watching The Bogey Man today, it’s hard to see why it would have been tagged along with the likes of Cannibal Holocaust and SS Experiment Camp back in 1984. More a supernatural thriller than a slasher, there’s nothing here both explicit or suggested to warrant a ban – perhaps it just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Bogey Man is also a bit of a misleading title. Not to be confused with the dreadful 2005 film Boogeyman, there is no actual ‘boogeyman’ physically going around killing people but rather a malevolent unseen spirit doing the handiwork. Whilst it does allow the film to free itself of the man-in-the-mask clichés, the idea of a supernatural slasher is one which isn’t well developed. The idea of the spirit possessing the mirror and then making people go mad or attack each other seems to have been tacked on half-way through the film as a money-saving option. And it’s definitely going to disappoint those who expected some actual physical boogeyman to be popping out of wardrobes and out from under beds to slice people up.

The influences of Halloween are evident, from the opening scene with the static shot of the Myers-like house, along with the child-killer murder scene, down to the voyeuristic first person camera work allowing us to see from the eyes of the killer as the supernatural assailant stalks his victims, and the generic synth score. The Bogey Man wears its influence on its sleeve and it isn’t too shy about it either, only this isn’t John Carpenter behind the scenes and Uli Lommel is no Carpenter 2.0. He doesn’t allow the tension to build, doesn’t frame shots to create unease and is happy to keep going back to the close-up shot whenever an effect sequence needs it, thus allowing the audience to clearly see that it is a make-up effect and not something more realistic. The only thing that is truly sinister is the house they’ve used, something out of The Amityville Horror playbook.

The pacing of The Bogey Man is awful, but the script does the film no favours at all, introducing characters and plot threads for no real purpose and failing to follow up on a lot of leads. Whilst the first half of the film is more supernatural and sets up the second half, it’s only in the latter part that the kills begin to mount up as the focus of the narrative shifts onto a group of thirtysomethings who are seemingly in the film to get killed off in grisly ways ala Friday the 13th. These are random additions who bear no relation to any of the main characters or the back story behind why the spirit is murdering people; they’re simply there to up the body count. Horror legend John Carradine pops up for a brief cameo which he filmed in one day – hey it’s good work if you’re famous enough to get it! His character and brief side story have no connection to the rest of the film either but at least it’s another name for them to add to the credits.

There is a streak of mean-spiritedness which runs through The Bogey Man though and it gives the film more of a punch than it should. You know that this evil spirit is intent on murderous revenge but what’s worse is that you get the sense that it knows it can’t really be stopped and begins toying with its victims a little bit. It isn’t fussed about who or how it targets people either: girls have their throats cut; kids have their necks broken; priests have their faces melted; and more. There is a decent selection of kills but as previously stated, the director has the annoying habit of shooting them with close-ups, taking you out of the film for a moment and allowing you the chance to see that you’re looking at a special effect. The idea is to make it look as real as possible, not show the audience how you did it.

 

Never as scary or interesting as it’s title and poster suggests, The Bogey Man clearly wanted to rip off a number of bigger and better films that preceded it and had no idea about how to bring all of them together under one banner. Switching between parts Halloween, parts The Exorcist and parts The Amityville Horror results in a big mess of a movie which you’ll desperately try to like given the year and era it was made but find difficult to love.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Slashers (2001)

Slashers (2001)

Are you game?

Slashers, Japan’s biggest extreme reality TV show, is having an American special where six American contestants play for the chance to win $12 million dollars. All they have to do is survive until the end of the show as three masked psychopaths stalk them around the set and try to kill them. There are no rules and anything goes.

 

In the 00s obsession with reality TV shows like Survivor, Big Brother and any number of low brow ‘fly on the wall of a famous person’ documentaries, it was only a matter of time before the film world would began to tap into the trend. My Little Eye was one of the first to hit the cinemas but with it came a slew of imitators and spins on the reality TV meets horror genre. Perhaps the most interesting and obscure is Slashers, a low budget offering from Canada, which plays out like a slasher version of Schwarzenegger’s 80s classic, The Running Man. I managed to source it back when I worked for Blockbuster and its now out-of-print as far as I’m aware so good luck in trying to track down a copy if this review makes you a tiny bit curious. Looking back in 2020, Slashers seems so far ahead of it’s time, it’s uncanny: reality TV is literally everywhere. How many people watch absolute trash like TOWIE, Geordie Shore, Love Island, etc? Or keep up to date with the Kardashians? Society has become obsessed with ‘real’ people in real situations on TV, despite the irony that these people featured are anything but ‘real’ or ‘normal’ everyday citizens.

Slashers introduces its silly, campy tone right off the bat with the Japanese gameshow, allowing the filmmakers to goof off plenty without fear of hurting the film. The opening scenes are cringe-inducing with their depictions of wacky Japanese game shows but funnily enough, they work to instil the sense of reality – as bonkers as everything looks, this is the sort of thing you could imagine the Japanese doing and we’ve all seen some of their crazy game show ideas. The killers are introduced in true 80s professional wrestling style, complete with goofy gimmicks and theme music: Dr Ripper, Chainsaw Charlie and The Preacherman.  I’m sure you’re already imagining what they look and sound like and you’d probably guess about right. These are simply employees working for the producer though, dressed up to take part in the show and to murder people. The contestants are fully aware of their surroundings, breaking the fourth wall on many occasions, as they point out the cameraman or how the music suddenly starts to increase in intensity, signalling the arrival of a killer. It’s very clever and very effective, towing the line between serious and parody without going too much either way.

Despite initially being shocked at the look of Slashers, another of those low budget ‘home movie’ style films which had plagued my DVD player during that time period (Camp Blood, Killjoy, Hell Asylum, etc. to name a few), I found myself intrigued by it all. The production values are very low-rent and the sets look sparse and almost empty. It’s like being let loose inside a cheap homemade haunted house, where a few cardboard boxes have been painted, daubed with some cobwebs or flashing lights and erected with minimal expense. So whilst the low budget makes everything look amateurish, that’s exactly the vibe that the film is going for – this looks like a cheap reality TV show rather than a feature film. It’s one bold idea that the $200,000 budget doesn’t actually impede but improve.

The acting is extremely amateurish, and I mean amateurish – these people look to have been pulled off the street and told run around in front of the camera for a few days of filming. The actors make no attempt to even make themselves sound professional because they’re constantly moaning, whining or talking trash to each other. Now in any other low budget film, I’d be ripping them apart for their lack of talent but, like a lot of stuff in Slashers, the poor quality of the performances actually makes the whole thing look real, as if they were pulled off the streets, told someone was going to kill them and had a camera crew chasing them around for a few days. Just like a lot of reality TV shows feature people who are not trained actors and have become famous by being terrible on camera, Slashers makes sure its cast isn’t ‘too good’ for the film. However, Neil Napier is a hoot in both the roles of Chainsaw Charlie and Preacherman and hams it up massively underneath plenty of prosthetics and make-up. He’s that good that I didn’t realise it was the same guy until I’ve come to do the review.

Of course, what film would be called Slashers without a bit of slashing? There are some kills here (not everyone survives the gameshow) and they do have their fair share of red to be splashed about. But they look cartoony and this is one area where the low budget doesn’t feel quite right, working against the ‘realistic’ approach and takes you out of the action somewhat. The ’live’ nature of the film means that whenever there is a commercial break, everyone involved has to stop what they’re doing and wait for the show to recommence. This leads to some wonderfully dark moments as the killers, in the middle of attacking their next victim, are forced to stand and wait for the camera to come back on them, allowing the survivors the chance to taunt, plead or simply develop a plan of escape.

 

This almost goes against everything I’ve ever reviewed but the premise of Slashers necessitated a low budget, reality TV-like approach and that’s exactly what it delivers. In some alternate, ‘not-too-dissimilar to our current society’ dystopian vision of the future that easily would find a home in The Running Man or Robocop, we may all be settling down to watch Slashers rather than X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent on a Saturday night (not that I watch either of them, just talking in generalised terms!). A really underrated hidden gem if you can ever find it.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Last Horror Film, The (1982)

The Last Horror Film (1982)

She’s dying to be in his film…

Vinny Durand is an New York taxi driver who obsesses of becoming a big-time film director and heads off to attend the Cannes Film Festival in the vain hope of making beautiful actress lady Jana Bates the leading lady in his horror film. The problem is that he has never made a film before and no one knows who he is. His arrival coincides with a series of violent killings of the actresses’ friends.

 

Reuniting Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro from 1980’s Maniac, I can see the intentions here a mile away, especially with the underlying plot – besotted man with mother issues and on verge of a complete psychotic breakdown stalks attractive woman who wants nothing to do with him – being virtually the same, with a few different bells and whistles tacked on. Maniac was one of the 80s best exploitation slasher films, a truly grimy and grubby experience with a fantastic performance from Spinell and some superb make-up effects courtesy of Tom Savini. The Last Horror film is clearly an attempt to see if lightning will strike twice.

Sadly, it won’t, but that’s not to say that The Last Horror Film isn’t worthy enough to stand on its own two feet. It’s not as well-made and the lack of William Lustwig in the director’s chair could be a big part of this, but the tone is generally lighter with more black humour and it’s not as seedy (though it does have its moments). It’s clear there was little pitch to this film aside from “let’s make something similar to Maniac with the same actor and actress” and the story feels very much put together at the last minute. One of Maniac’s issues was trying to buy how someone as stunning as Caroline Munro’s character would fall for an overweight, out-of-shape fruitcake like Spinell’s character and it did take you out of the narrative trying to accept that. Here, the two revert to stereotype with the ‘beauty and the beast’ characters more familiar to audiences. There is a whole lot more going on in The Last Horror Film though so having this traditional set-up allows some of the other story to get a bit sillier and madcap because believe me, things do go crazy.

The Last Horror Film is almost experimental in its approach, almost as if it was made up as shooting went along based upon what they able to film. Most of it was shot without permits at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival and so a lot of it has been filmed guerrilla-style, in secret, around the festival itself. With all of the glitz and glamour of the Cannes Film Festival on display in the background, The Last Horror Film appears to have a bigger budget than it actually did, though its obvious which footage has been shot for a narrative purpose and which has been shot documentary-style to pad out the running time with footage of limos, cheering crowds and people enjoying themselves on the beaches. The beauty of the film is that this plays perfectly with the story in that no one knows who Durand is and so watching him try and get into events, pretend to be famous and make his film on the sly is just exactly what was happening in real life – Spinell and the crew would wait until the real celebrities had left, gate-crash the scene pretending to be a big star, with all of the real paparazzi flashing their cameras and real doormen and security guards stopping them from entering, and make sure it was all caught on camera. It’s smart, maverick filmmaking which gives the film an unpredictable, rough edge, though I could have done without the twist-of-a-twist double ending.

Never what you’d consider a leading man or even photogenically camera-friendly, Joe Spinell was nevertheless an effective character actor who managed to find roles in some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the 70s (Rocky, Taxi Driver and The Godfather), worked with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Sylvester Stallone (Spinell was even made godfather to Sage Stallone) and was friends with Steven Spielberg. This should give you an insight into how well-liked he was and how rated he was. He finally broke into the limelight with the sleazy and grimy 1980 exploitation slasher Maniac, which has become a cult classic and made Spinell a firm favourite in the genre. Like Maniac, The Last Horror Film is Spinell’s platform to shine and whilst Vinny Durand, his character here, doesn’t meet the same crazy levels as Frank Zito, he’s still capable of delivering a great performance and is central to the film at all times. Durand has a genuine likeability that it’s hard not to root for him as he tries desperately to make his film – given that he’s playing an obsessed stalker, it’s a feat in itself that Spinell manages to get the audience to actually get behind him but that’s a credit to the man’s intensity and genuine talent in front of the camera. The scene where he finally comes face-to-face with Munro as she is taking a shower is a tour-de-force of genuine acting, so much so its hard to know where Spinell is performing and where he’s really going insane. The character has lots of hallucinations of being famous and some do borderline on complete camp, with Spinell overacting massively. I will admit, Spinell is not for everyone but it’s in the quieter, more down-to-Earth moments where he can calm down a bit and showcase his skills. Sadly, Spinell was taken far too early, having been found dead in his home after accidentally cutting himself and bleeding to death at the age of 52.

Finally, with this being a horror film and all, there are some kills. Disappointingly for slash fans, the body count is lower than anticipated but there’s some cool make-up on show for the kill scenes here including burnings, stabbings and a chainsaw attack in the finale. What blurs reality is the film-within-a-film moments so some of these sequences are in fact part of the horror films that Munro is starring in. An interesting side-note to end on – the fictional film that Munro’s character has made is none other than Scream and promotional posters around Cannes advertise a film called Stab. Horror fans will recognise the links with a certain Wes Craven 1995 post-modern teen horror and its sequel.

 

As I praised him highly in Maniac, I’ll praise him highly again here. The Last Horror film isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination, a messy scrapbook of ideas and set pieces which has been ad-libbed and winged as much as possible, but it’s a great vehicle for the supremely-talented Spinell to showcase his bug-eyed range and it has some inspired moments of magic which would never have occurred had they filmed it ‘properly.’

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return To Horror High (1987)

Return to Horror High (1987)

School spirit has never been this dead.

In 1982, a mysterious serial killer caused panic at Crippen High School but was never caught. Five years later, a movie company decides to make a feature film about these events – on location at the now-abandoned school. But when members of the cast and crew start to disappear without a trace, it seems as if history is repeating itself.

 

1987 and the slasher boom has already come and gone. Any ounce of originality, and let’s face it there was hardly any to begin with, had been bled dry. Audiences had been subjected to the same formula over and over, with lessening results. Unless you were one of the big hitting franchises like Friday the 13th, no one was flocking to the cinema to see your second-rate slasher and the best you could hope for was some prolonged shelf-life in a video store. There is this weird era between the ‘golden age’ and the post-modern 90s horror that is just a void of any truly remarkable slashers. With subtle hints that this would be something of an early precursor to the meta-horror of Scream, Return to Horror High looked to do something a little different and go for the film-within-a-film route, trying to subvert the genre with varying success. There had been other attempts earlier in the decade, with Student Bodies being one that springs to mind, but nothing had really worked.

Sadly, any real pretence this had to become something satirical and witty quickly evaporates once you realise Return To Horror High is literally a one-trick pony, where you’re not sure what you see on-screen is part of the film or part of the film-within-a-film. Far too often, there’s an elaborate kill scene filled with gore but then it is revealed to just be part of the film getting made and that the character isn’t actually dead. This works for the first instance, but then it grows tiresome as you realise the writers don’t have anything else up their sleeves. One scene is hilariously interrupted by the sleazy producer who pops into frame complaining that the camera should be focused on her breasts as that’s what the fans want to see, prompting the actress to go on a bit of a feminist rant at him. As well as the film-within-a-film structure, the whole narrative is framed around the sole survivor recounting the story to the police and also linking it back to the original murders, making the story even more confusing with a series of flashbacks to two different times and then back-to-presents. The combination of the two gives Return To Horror High a haphazard flow, pulling you out from a particular time to go backwards and forwards, or whether it’s real or not. It’s confusing to say the least.

Return to Horror High is messy though and not afraid to spill the red stuff. Given that this was made in 1987, the slasher film was living up the stereotypes that the producer in the film wanted – tits and blood – as there was nothing else left for it to do to shock audiences. Whether the gore is ‘real’ or part of the film-within-a-film concept, it’s effective enough and looks to have a sizeable budget. The best sequence involving someone tied upside down with a giant fan propeller moving towards him is like something out of a Saw film, albeit without the seriousness. There is a stronger emphasis on the humour over the horror throughout, so the goofy nature of the film can become a little overbearing with the amount of slapstick and one-liners. This contradicts with the horror elements as the slashing side of things can get quite serious. The two are weird bedfellows here, neither fitting well with the other.

With the story all over the place, the actors try their best but it’s a tough ask. George Clooney makes his screen debut here but blink and you’ll miss him as he’s quickly ‘written’ out of the film. Lor Lethin plays three different roles in the film, rather confusing given that the only noticeable difference between her characters is the wigs she wears, making it difficult to know just which character she is playing in a certain scene. Highlight of the film is by far and away Alex Rocco, who famously played Las Vegas casino owner Moe Greene in The Godfather, who is an absolute riot as the sleazy producer who just wants to see more tits and blood on the screen. He is almost like the inner voice of many of the target demographic. The problem the characters have is that there are so many of them and it isn’t until the halfway point before you realise just who the main characters are meant to be. By this point, you won’t really care less about them, and the rest of the story, as a result. The twist ending is ludicrous (you’ll never spot it a mile away though!) and another kick below the belt after you’ve tried to stick with the story for so long.

 

The dual storytelling approach of Return To Horror High creates a disjointed narrative, difficult to follow and leaving the audience spending most of their time figuring out just what the hell is going on. It’s a shame as there is some decent material here but despite the script thinking it was smart in trying to constantly fool the audience, it just trips them up one time too many.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Screamers (1981)

They Fight and Live on the Bottom of the Ocean

They Fight and Live on the Bottom of the Ocean

The survivors of a prison ship, which has sunk at sea, find themselves stranded on a hostile island, where its only human inhabitants appear to be the sinister Edward Rackham and his female companion, Amanda. After some time on the island, it turns out that Amanda’s father, Ernest Marvin, is a brilliant professor whose genetic engineering work has led to the creation of a race of humanoid fishmen, who work for Rackham by diving down to the deep depths and retrieving valuable buried treasure from the remains of Atlantis.  Marvin believes his work is for the good of mankind but is unaware that Rackham plans to double cross him with all of the loot that has been discovered so far.

 

Screamers was originally released in 1979 as Island of the Fishmen but after being acquired by New World Pictures in the States and falling into the hands of legendary shock horror producer Roger Corman, over half an hour of footage was culled, a new opening sequence was added to spice things up with plenty of grisly gore to and the film renamed not once but twice. The version of the film I watched goes under the second moniker of Screamers, not to be confused with the 1995 Peter Weller sci-fi horror. This is definitely a ‘kitchen sink’ type of film with so many ideas and stories floating around in the vain hope that something sticks.

Screamers starts off promisingly enough, as a group of treasure hunters come croppers at the hands of the fishmen – throats ripped, heads torn off, the usual gory dispatches. It is ironic that the part of the film that most appealed to me was the totally unrelated introduction shot two years later! It promises a lot of old school cheese, some nice 80s gore effects and reasonably well-shot and atmospheric moments (ok, so they did go a little overboard with the dry ice machine). But, as this is totally unrelated to the rest of the film, none of these characters will be seen again and so their fate is obvious. For a gore junkie like me, the film is downhill from here on in regards to the violence.

From there on, Screamers turns into some weird Island of Dr Moreau-like fantasy adventure with the doctor and the prisoners arriving on the island, quickly succumbing to a number of pitfalls including toxic water and deadly traps straight out of a cannibal flick. The production values are decent and the film itself is well-shot, with the island looking a fairly inhospitable place to live. But the pacing is all over the place and after this frenetic opening salvo which kills off plenty of characters (both with the new footage and the original film), the film grinds to a complete halt once the survivors meet up with Rackham and Amanda. Things plod along with the secrets and mysteries of the fishmen slowly being revealed, gearing up for the inevitable final confrontation between the hero, villain and anyone and anything else involved in the story. The last fifteen minutes or so aren’t bad, with the action picking up a notch and director Sergio Martino works wonders with his small budget. The only thing vaguely disappointing is the tacky miniature sets doubling up for Atlantis.

Lead actor Claudio Cassinelli is one of the better leading men from this period of Italian filmmaking and he has a nice intensity – it also helps that he self-dubbed for the English language version so it’s his actual voice. Barbara Bach never really convinced me much as a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me – she was pretty enough but her delivery was always wooden. There’s no change here and Bach plays upon her strengths (her attractiveness) whilst her failings are all too apparent (she’s a terrible actress, truth be told). Richard Johnson twirls his moustache well as the slimy English villain, although the script gives up his real intentions too quickly for my liking and he comes on far too viciously and aggressively early on – a more restrained approach could have kept his secrets under wraps a little longer and draw out the mystery of the island. Martino would use most of the principal cast in his monster movie The Big Alligator River, with Cassinelli, Bach and Johnson all starring. I guess it was a two-for-one kind of contract!

I’m a sucker for some of the cheesy monster effects that they were using in the 70s and 80s, giving the creatures at least a sense of realism that CGI effects can’t, and an old school vibe where you know at least the effects team put some effort into creating something that didn’t look like a fancy dress costume, even if the end results didn’t quite match up with the vision. The fishmen don’t look that bad in all honesty and it helps that most of the time they are shown on camera, they are semi-submerged in the water. The only issue I have is the daft eyes which seem to goofily roll around their big bulging white sockets whenever they walk, making them look cross-eyed. Just like the underwater scenes from The Creature From the Black Lagoon, it’s to the credit of the performers inside the suits that they are able to swim so convincingly and majestically through the water. Screamers is surprisingly low on gore, save for that opening act, which makes it all the more disappointing given the potential for some serious carnage during the finale as the humans lose control of the fishmen and they run amok.

 

Screamers isn’t the type of genre film I was expecting and, though I was a little disappointed with the lack of gratuitous gore and violence that I was lured into wanting after the opening blood, the eventual fantasy-sci-fi-horror hybrid is a quirky little film that has a lot more going for it than you’d realise. Not great but definitely not the dud it sounds like – Island of the Fishmen is a ridiculous title!

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon (1997)

Infinite space. Infinite terror.

When the Event Horizon, a spaceship lost for seven years while exploring the boundaries of the solar system, suddenly reappears, a rescue ship is sent to search for survivors and find out what happened to her. After an accidental explosion renders their own ship unusable, the crew has no choice but to board the Event Horizon and attempt to pilot her back to Earth. However, the crew begin to experience strange hallucinations and through slowly piecing together what happened to the original crew, they realise that they are about to share the same hellish fate.

 

What if? That’s the big question on my lips having watched Event Horizon and realising that it was brimming with unfulfilled potential. A big budget b-movie is basically what this is, with the lavish special effects and star-studded cast adding some glossy sheen to what is essentially a ‘haunted house in space’ story. But considering just what this film went through, it is amazing we get something even half as entertaining as the final product is.

When Paramount realised Titanic would not meet its release date, filming and editing on Event Horizon was rushed through to fill the gap in the schedules and allow the studio to make the most of the free slot. Usually films get a ten week editing period after filming for the director to produce a first cut of the film but this was shortened to six weeks for Event Horizon, with Anderson having to shoot a further two weeks with the second unit effectively meaning he had one month to come up with a coherent and workable print. The original 130-minute cut of the film was heavily edited at the demand of the studio after test audiences apparently fainted during some scenes, with the extreme amount of gore being something Paramount deemed unacceptable and the excessive run time too long. To his dismay, Anderson trimmed out thirty minutes worth of footage, a decision he has since said he regrets, in order to meet their demands. So all in all, from being given the green-light to total completion, the film took ten months to make, a staggeringly short time for such a complex and effects-driven film and the end result is the potentially brilliant but ultimately flawed Event Horizon.

Things start off well enough, the script creating a genuine sense of foreboding and imminent danger as the crew arrive on the Horizon and began fathoming out just what went wrong. There are shades of Alien at this point, with an expendable crew of varied stereotyped characters responding to a distress call and going investigating something they’re not fully educated in. But the script manages to avoid too many clichés at this point – not going along the obvious space-monster-on-the-loose route for a start. The quality ensemble cast with Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs and more adds plenty of depth to the characters during the earlier running time. Neill has always been grossly underrated as an actor and delivers another quality performance throughout. Fishburne channels his inner Morpheus here a few years before The Matrix. They all do a decent job of portraying the effects of the psychological horror and the mind games that the ship has on them.

Despite a really strong opening half that promises a lot, Event Horizon quickly degenerates into an exercise of style over substance and falls into the clichés it was trying to steer clear of – flashy special effects and gratuitous gore are substituted in as the script begins to stutter and the direction becomes muddled. The story doesn’t do anything with the concept of Hell once it is unleashed, simply replacing the traditional monster-on-the-loose approach with characters meeting demonic demises at the hands of unseen supernatural forces. There is plenty of hellish imagery on screen which is more reminiscent of the Cenobites’ domain in Hellraiser than anything else – I quite expected Pinhead to waltz out from the shadows at one point and start preaching to the survivors (ironically, the Hellraiser series had already sent Pinhead into space the year before with Hellraiser: Bloodline). The make-up effects on show for some of the mutilated corpses are superb and give the audience a glimpse of just what Anderson had to cut out – it’s a brief glimpse into the nightmarish Lovecraftian vision that Anderson originally had for the film which was canned for its lack of broad appeal. Coincidentally though, it’s around this point in the film where the slow-burn psychological horror that had been building is jettisoned and it soon becomes more standard issue horror. This is probably where a sharper, more focused script from pre-production would have come in handy and any kinks ironed out before filming began. Disappointingly, the finale is your run-of-the-mill protagonist vs antagonist showdown which didn’t appear to be on the cards early on.

One aspect of the film which can’t be faulted is the superb production design and special effects, which add a whole level of scariness themselves. The Event Horizon herself is a mesmerising Gothic construction, modelled on the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, with its long, darkened corridors resembling a church nave at night and the warp drive core looking like something out of a medieval torture chamber, with a rotating black sphere in the middle. Despite the vastness of the ship, it has an unnerving claustrophobia to it – you just want to get off as soon as you can. The exterior shots of the ship, silently and majestically gliding along through space, are wonderful at both highlighting the beauty of the ship but also its eeriness and dark side. The ship isn’t the only fancy effect though. The opening rotational shot which pulls out from the space station overlooking Earth took nearly a third of the film’s visual effects budget, but every single penny is up there on the screen. Event Horizon is without question one of the best-looking films of its kind and the effects not only look wonderful, but allow the Horizon to become a character herself.

 

Despite borrowing heavily from the likes of Alien, The Shining and Hellraiser, Event Horizon is one of the best marriages of science fiction and horror going and is certainly an entertaining and chilling watch for most of the duration. Given its difficult production, Event Horizon is way better than it has any right to be although the tantalising glimpses into Anderson’s original vision offer the missing pieces of the puzzle which could have turned this into a grade A classic.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Devils of Darkness (1965)

Devils of Darkness (1965)

He’s a Vampire with a Cult Following.

A secret vampire cult, which has its headquarters beneath the cemetery in a town in France, searches for victims for its human sacrifice rituals. When English tourist Paul Baxter picks up a strange talisman, he returns to England unaware that it belongs to the cult who follow him across the Channel to begin their Satanic practices there.

 

An obscure British horror from the 1960s, Devils of Darkness is one of the few horror films to emerge from this era that was not produced by the big hitters Hammer or Amicus. Made by Planet Film Productions, who made a couple of sci-fi horror films during this time with Hammer director Terence Fisher at the helm (Night of the Big Heat and, one of my favourites, Island of Terror), Devils of Darkness does hold the distinction of being Britain’s first vampire film set in modern day, with Hammer keeping their fanged fiends firmly in the historical until the 70s. That’s about the only remarkable thing about this dreary vampire film which lacks any sort of engagement or excitement. It is by-the-numbers without the faintest hint of horror or terror.

Devils of Darkness tries desperately to pass itself off as a Hammer flick, with the lavish Technicolour details matched by some nice sets and general sense that a lot of money went into making this look good. However, the writing is so dull and boring and there is zero atmosphere from start to finish. There is no real sense of focus to the story and the plot shuffles along from scene to scene with no real direction or excitement. It’s almost like they had a beginning and finale mapped out but just winged it throughout. The main character, Baxter, spends too much time hanging around waiting for stuff to happen and then when he’s back in London, he spends his hours researching in the library. Whilst he’s doing this, the Count is simply shadowing him, waiting for a moment to strike. I mean come on, the guy is bookworming it 24/7 and all this Count wants to do is sit and wait until he’s finished? As a result, the ‘hero’ spends the bulk of the film simply skirting around the periphery of the story when he should be the main focus.  The talisman becomes the Macguffin of the story, with Sinistre desperate to get his hands on it for some reason (he seems able to do everything he wants without it) but then coming up with a convoluted way of slowly bewitching a woman in order for her to then slowly seduce Baxter and steal it off him. With a whole cult behind him, there are probably quicker, easier and more violent ways to get the job done.

Devils of Darkness has this massive problem of not really knowing how it wants to get to its end game because there is no real central focus to keep things glued together. For all stories, the finale is where the payoffs lie and how the audience will remember it long after watching or reading. Devils of Darkness doesn’t even build towards the finale well, so when it arrives and Baxter and the police gate-crash the cult about to sacrifice a woman, there’s literally nowhere for it to go. There’s no dramatic tension. No cliffhangers. No sense that anything is on the line. The film ends rather abruptly with a ‘we’ve only got ten minutes to shoot this so hurry up’ mentality that literally smacks the audience in the face. We’ve invested our time in this, unwisely on hindsight, so the least they could have done is provide a more satisfying ending. Still, Devils of Darkness is not alone in this and many of the British horrors from this period suffer from endings which leave a ‘is that it?’ sensation tingling all through the body. Not only that, but the finale kind of renders Baxter’s contributions to the story almost non-essential. Just what his purpose in the film if not to be the protagonist and the one to defeat the antagonist at the end?

French actor Hubert Noel is given the unenviable task of trying to pull off a suave and sophisticated vampire – by this point, Christopher Lee had nailed the role of Dracula to a tee and any other male trying to emulate was falling well short and simply coming off as an cheap imitator. Hammer found that problem when they featured other male actors as the main vampire: David Peel in Brides of Dracula, Mike Raven in Lust for a Vampire, Noel Willman in Kiss of the Vampire, Robert Tayman in Vampire Circus and John Forbes-Robertson’s ill-gotten attempt to replace Christopher Lee in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. They just failed to replicate the same gravitas and attraction to the role that made vampires so cool and popular thanks to Lee – Noel falls at the same hurdle. He looks like a dodgy wife-stealer but has little charisma or screen presence to hold the film. It would be unfair to single out Noel for criticism though: William Sylvester fares little better in the ‘hero’ lead role as Baxter (though ‘hero’ is using the term loosely here) and the females Carole Gray and Tracey Reed are little more than eye-candy. How this film ached for someone of the calibre of Peter Cushing or Barbara Shelley to liven up proceedings.

 

Incredibly dull and ultimately a slog to sit through, Devils of Darkness might be on your radar if you’re into obscure British horror from this golden era but it’s not exactly a shining example of the genre at it’s most energetic and satisfying.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Body Count (1986)

Body Count (1986)

The woods are alive with the sound of screaming

A group of teenagers roaming around Colorado in their RV pick up hitchhiker Ben, who offers them a place to stay at his parents’ campsite as a way of thanks. However, the group are unaware that fifteen years earlier, a murderous Native American shaman killed a pair of teenagers on his land and Ben’s father is convinced he is still prowling the woods.

 

Italy’s answer to Friday the 13th, Body Count is an apt title if ever there was one for a slasher film which ratchets up the kills as much as this one. It’s a routine campground slasher which I’d hoped would put more of a European flavour to the usual American trappings but rather plays out in exactly the same way as one would expect, just with plenty of extra Parmesan. By 1986, the slasher formula had been entirely played out, with the entire cycle of serious slashers followed up by themed holiday slashers and then finally the self-aware/spoof slashers all being done to death. That never stopped the Italians though, who were always late to the party and constantly tried to jump on horror bandwagons that had already long-gone in the US.

With no overlong build-up or messing around, Body Count gets straight down to butchering work and keeps a fast pace going, spreading plenty of kills over it’s running time (I counted thirteen, although one is left ambiguous) without worrying too much about characters or overarching story. It’s very much a case of getting the victims all assembled as efficiently and quickly as possible and then unleashing the shaman upon them, many times before I’d even worked out who was who. The copy available for streaming on Prime was quite dark and so its difficult to see who is being attacked from time-to-time. To be fair, it matters little when the characters are this sketchy and there’s little to no plot – people like me are just here to see the shaman get down to work.

Director Ruggero Deodato, most infamous for grisly exploitation flick Cannibal Holocaust and notorious revenge flick The House on the Edge of the Park, helms this one so you would expect a tsunami of violence, blood and guts. Whilst the murders are graphic in comparison to a lot of other slashers, you would not expect Deodato to hold back as much as he does here. The kills are fairly routine, most copied from its American counterparts (you can spot the Kevin Bacon kill from Friday the 13thcoming a mile away) and with little real suspense or tension to build up. The characters don’t seem to notice that their group of friends is dwindling one-by-one and even when they find themselves in dangerous situations, they do the most stupid things. Said ‘Kevin Bacon kill moment’ involves one character opting to run upstairs in an abandoned house and lie on a bed rather than fleeing out of the front door to go and get help. There is sticking to the formula and then there’s lazy writing. Surely it wouldn’t be too hard for the writers to give her character some degree of brain power so they could set up a kill, rather than do what they do here. It’s repeated throughout the film – characters do the most insane things at the wrong times. Or the killer comes up with the most ‘out of nowhere moments’ purely so the script can set up the next kill. Either scrap the kill at this point or find writers who can come up with these things. Thankfully, the writers at least know that nudity is a key ingredient to a successful slasher flick and the script throws almost all of its female cast into the shower at some point of the film.

Deodato’s old buddy David Hess is given an extended role as the slightly-deranged father (when was Hess ever anything less than deranged in this type of horror flick?) to add a potential red herring into the mix. Clearly along for a nice Italian holiday, American character actor Charles Napier pops up in a trademark authority role, this time as a police officer rather than an army officer. As for the rest of the cast, it’s mainly your usual array of Italian actors with bad dub jobs imposed over the top. The problem with Body Count, in fact the majority of Italian horrors pretending to be set in the US, is that the dialogue is cringy beyond belief, as the middle-aged Italian writers think they know what teenage Americans sound like. I’ve had the same issue with Nightmare Beach, another Italian slasher set in America, and watched in the same sitting as Body Count. These ‘teenagers’ couldn’t be anymore square if they tried.

Composer Claudio Simonetti has always been one of my favourite Italian maestros, responsible for some rocking soundtracks to the likes of Demons as a solo artist but more famously as the keyboardist for Goblin, the progressive rock group who scored such massive Italian horror hits as Suspiria. Simonetti works miracles again with some excellent music that would have befitted a far superior film and certainly adds something extra to the ambiance and vibe.

 

Body Count is by no means the worst slasher film out there but given the director’s resume, this should have been bloodier and messier if not more competently made. With so many clichés, you wonder where the director was just slumming by this point or whether he thought he was making something different. Either way, Body Count is for die-hard slash fans only.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Nightmare Beach (1989)

Nightmare Beach (1989)

The beach of terror

After the execution of motorcycle gang leader Diablo who was convicted of murder, a helmeted biker mysteriously appears and goes on a killing spree during spring break in Florida. As the bodies start piling up, the authorities try and keep everything quiet to avoid scaring people away.

 

An utterly bonkers slasher with a difference, it is impossible to dislike Nightmare Beach, no matter how hard I’ve tried when I’m writing this review. Its almost as if the people behind it scraped up the leftovers from both the goofball teen sex comedies of the 80s and whatever remnants of the slasher genre that had been unused by 1989 and slapped them into a blender. It is difficult to get a hold on things when the behind-the-scenes shenanigans was just as confusing. Original director Umberto Lenzi, of Nightmare City fame, allegedly backed out shortly before production began and screenwriter Harry Kirkpatrick stepped in to direct. But he apparently asked Lenzi to stay on set as an unofficial advisor. Some say Kirkpatrick was an alias used by Lenzi. He denied it. Some say he refused to sign the credit after he’d finished shooting. I guess no one will know. All I can say is that has all of the hallmarks of a Lenzi film – madcap moments with plenty of graphic gore and no real sense of direction.

Nightmare Beach follows the typical slasher narrative simply and effectively. Introduce the tiny bit of back story needed, have the main characters arrive at their destination early on, unleash the killer and start to crank up the carnage as red herrings are tossed across the screen, blood drips copiously and breasts jiggle for the gratuity of the male audience. The wafer-thin narrative is stretched out to its utmost length and even with a number of sub-plots that go nowhere, Nightmare Beach outstays its welcome whenever the killer isn’t doing his thing. From pickpocketing teenagers, a buxom blonde who lures rich men to her hotel room, a peeping tom caretaker, a corrupt mayor desperate to cover it all up, a practical joker who is always pulling pranks (what are the odds he’ll wind up dead and everyone else thinks it’s a prank?), a reverend’s rebellious daughter who doesn’t want to pray with him…..the list goes on and on of characters who are given screen time and something resembling characterisation but the majority have virtually zero interaction with each other or the main characters and are there simply for fodder.

As alluded to in my introduction, Nightmare Beach is a film with two very distinct parts: the slasher and the screwball comedy. When it is slashing, it is a riot. When it is screwballing, it is horrendously dated. There’s plenty of footage of teenagers partying on spring break – diving in pools, drinking in bars, sunbathing on beaches, and ‘Lenzi’ even throws in a token wet t-shirt contest. But none of the major storyline happens at the beach and this is all filler to pad out the running time. Like many horrors from Italy in the 80s, Nightmare Beach tries and fails desperately to convince anyone that this is typical America. It is but as seen through the eyes of foreigners as they assume this is how the youth speak and act. The writers do a terrible job of making these characters look and sound American despite trying so hard, with the obvious exceptions of the American actors in the cast like John Saxon. The two young leads aren’t very engaging and don’t have any screen presence whatsoever. Thankfully, the older actors in the film like Saxon and Michael Parks have much more fun in their roles. Saxon, who appeared in a fair few Italian films in the 80s, is particularly good at chewing the scenery as the sheriff who framed Diablo.

Like most slashers, the real joy of Nightmare Beach is seeing how wacky the kills are. Seriously, this biker is one creative person who has meticulously planned every single detail and possible outcome of murdering someone. If they’ve not pimped up their motorcycle to only electrocute the person riding on the back, they’re hiding on top of a lift and waiting for someone who has just discovered a dead body to enter so they can finish them off too. What if they’d taken the stairs? Or hadn’t found the body for another few hours? Were they just going to lie patiently on top of the lift? The practical effects, usually involving someone being electrocuted or burnt to a hideous crisp, are excellent as layer upon layer of make-up is applied to some, whilst obvious dummy heads are blasted with fire for a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style head melting for others. The biker outfit is also a nice change to the usual mask-wearing psycho. The problem with how madcap some of the build-up is, is that the finale was always going to be a disappointment and the almost Scooby Doo-like revealing of who the biker really is comes totally out of leftfield – a complete contrast to the way the character had behaved in the film up until that point. It’s hard to care about the character and their motivations given that they were non-existent earlier on.

One thing you can’t help but remember from Nightmare Beach is the soundtrack, full of classic 80s-style hair metal and rock ballads and a great score by Claudio Simonetti. The songs get repetitive as they’re played throughout but they do add a certain charm to the film which reminds its audience of a simpler time of horror filmmaking. There’s no mistaking which decade this came from!

 

Nightmare Beach is silly slasher fun which is even less concerned with characters, cohesion, plot and sense than most of its kind. I lost a few brain cells watching it and a few more whilst writing this review but I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy the ninety-minutes of mayhem.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆