Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004)

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004)

The hunters will become the hunted

A group of entrepreneurs and scientists set out down a jungle river in Borneo to search for the blood orchid, an extremely rare flower that blooms once every seven years and holds the key to eternal life. However, they are left stranded into the wilderness after an accident destroys their boat. They also soon realise that they are not alone in the jungle, as giant anaconda snakes lurk all around them.

 

With no connections at all to the original, no major stars in the cast and an approach which makes it far too serious for its own good, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid is about as unnecessary and unwelcome a sequel I’ve ever heard of. It’s like the original, minus all of the things that made that one such an entertaining ride – i.e. Jon Voight hamming it up and a decent animatronic snake. I’m guessing it was purely based on the reasonable box office success of the original, but I’m absolutely stunned to know that Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid received a theatrical release. Everything about it screams Sy Fy Channel.

Rather than ramping up the sequel by opening the purse strings, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid cuts back the budget and it shows. Anaconda was a financial success, making over three times it’s budget, yet the producers here opt to give this sequel even less money and still expect the team to work wonders with it. The first glaring thing you’ll notice is the cut-price cast. There’s no Jon Voight hamming it up (and this one desperately needed someone like that – Matthew Mardsen’s feeble human villain is no match for the original’s sneaky snake hunter). There’s no Latino in the form of Jennifer Lopez, so they cast an African American-Native American descendant instead to tick off a box. There’s no Ice Cube, though rest assured there’s a black man on the cast to spout off a loud of stereotyped dialogue. Heck, there’s no Eric Stoltz or Danny Trejo in a throwaway role. There’s just a bunch of lousy actors who any audience will struggle to recognise from anything else.

The second problem is that the story is so unbelievably contrived that it’s hard to ever be invested in it. The original was simply about a documentary crew who end up in the wrong stretch of river. This one borrows ideas from similar monster movies about science and experiments and ‘saving mankind’ and has this random assortment of suburbanites heading straight for the most remote place on Earth with little expertise. After establishing the fish-out-of-water scenario with the city slickers finding life on board the primitive boat to be difficult and then things like mobile phones not working, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid has more going for it during the first half of the film. The pacing is better and there are more incidents involving the snake (before the characters realise that there’s a snake) to build up the anticipation that the second half will continue to improve – regardless of the dumb MacGuffin stringing the narrative along. Sadly, that is not the case and the film sinks when the snakes do start to pick off the cast. But it’s not just the snakes they’ve got to contend with – the script writers saw fit to include a whole host of adventure movie tropes in here to throw in front of the characters (as if giant snakes wasn’t enough). They are obviously buying time here because they don’t want to show the audience the snakes.

This is where the third problem lies – the snakes themselves. The anacondas take far too long in thinning out the cardboard cut-out characters, but you’ll be glad they hold off on them for as much time as they do because they look lousy. Despite there being a seven-year gap between films, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid showcases even worse special effects than before. Let’s face it, the original snake didn’t look great in its CGI form, but the effects department did use a relatively sinister-looking animatronic snake for some of the shots. Here we have neither – there’s no ‘real’ effects to be seen and the CGI has gotten progressively worse. Considering that Anaconda was one of the big reasons that Sy Fy began churning out terrible monster movies with ever-worsening special effects, its not surprising to see that the film’s own sequel falls into the same trap.

 

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid is almost like watching someone try to remake a film with a lower budget, a lesser cast and a worse script. Oh wait, that’s what it is. This sequel should have gone to the dogs in straight-to-TV hell like the next two sequels. Something full of this many clichés, awful special effects, terrible writing and poor casting choices should never see the light of day in the cinema.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Student Bodies (1981)

Student Bodies (1981)

13 1/2 Murders + 1423 Laughs = Student Bodies

A murderer known as ‘The Breather’ begins to kill off students at Lamab High School. One of their classmates, Toby, inexplicably finds herself at each of the murder sites and becomes the prime suspect.

 

The recent Blu-ray release proclaims ‘Long before Scream, this was the original movie that asked audiences to tick-off the tributes’ and whilst that isn’t too far from the truth, Student Bodies has less in common with Craven’s seminal classic and far much more in common with the absurdity of the Scary Movie franchise (which in turn took it’s lead from the old Airplane and The Naked Gun style humour). It’s surprising to see that even in 1981, when the slasher flick was in peak form, that Student Bodies has enough wits about it to start to deconstruct the sub-genre, such was the formula that had already been established. Late 80s I could understand, but this came along during the same year as minor classics such as The Burning, The Funhouse and My Bloody Valentine.

Student Bodies tries to do to the slasher genre what Airplane and The Naked Gun did to their respective genres and that’s lampoon them in a million different ways; some funny, some not. This is a genuinely good-natured film which pretty much falls flat on it’s face with the sheer amount of misses in it’s scatter gun approach to comedy. Your enjoyment of Student Bodies will depend on your tolerance for really stupid jokes – silly one-liners, daft sight gags, groan-inducing puns and some utterly maniacal characters. Literally no stone is left unturned to try and elicit a chuckle from the audience. The humour has dated significantly (jokes about Africa for a start) but for every couple of fails, there are a few hits – though not as many as you’d hope for to keep the running time from dragging as badly as it does. Laughs get particularly sparse during the finale where the film opts for a crazier slant than it had been heading along.

On-going jokes involving a blind teenager will make you hate yourself for laughing, there’s a rolling on-screen body count number keeps the viewers up-to-date with the kills, helpful notes pop up to highlight points of interest, and there’s a public service announcement directed at the ratings people (who rated this R despite the fact there’s no explicit sex or violence) which ends in hilarious fashion to warrant the R-rating for profanity. Too many of the jokes go on for longer than they needed to and too many are repeated. Maybe there’s some sort of generational difference that my parents would have find some of the stuff in here funny (with 70s and 80s pop culture knowledge, in much the same way I would get more of the Scary Movie pop culture references that today’s teenagers wouldn’t) but a large chunk of the jokes, and I’m going to say 80%, are just not funny in the slightest. I’m not sure whether this was one person’s sense of humour forced onto the big screen or whether people had different tastes in comedy.

Due to the comedy falling flat on its face, you would hope that the other side of the film, the horror elements, would at least be bearable. Student Bodies’ narrative plays out like a serious slasher but without any of the tension or scares. There’s the opening scene similar to Halloween (and later, Scream), the introduction of the angelic Final Girl, killer’s POV shots, a load of red herrings (the film goes to great lengths to introduce as many potential killers as possible) and a constant flow of deaths without any real sense of atmosphere or suspense keeping everything working. There is little gore as you never get to see anyone killed, only a few bodies tucked away in bin bags. A plot twist at the end comes out of left field and feels like a total cop-out, clearly only being written that way to include a nod to Carrie.

The performances don’t work in conjunction with the material. This group of amateurs have hardly made another film between them since Student Bodies was released and there’s good reason – they’re not very good. Bordering anywhere from wooden to downright over-zealous, the group bumble their way through the script from one lame joke to the next crazy sequence. The deadpan nature of the material needs good, steady hands to deal with it. Look at how Leslie Nielsen, or to a lesser extent Anna Faris, did with their star turns in The Naked Gun and Scary Movie films respectively. That’s how you sell a parody like this to an audience. And yes, there is an actor actually called ‘The Stick’ in this (that is his name), playing Malvert the janitor. He’s an unusual specimen who will either make you laugh or creep you out to no end.

 

The trailer covers all of the best gags in Student Bodies and so you’ll spend most of your time groaning at all of the failed opportunities rather than laughing along. It’s not a horror film, and it’s a stretch to really call it a comedy. Student Bodies is a failed attempt to parody a sub-genre which hadn’t yet worn itself out enough to parody in the first place.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Lake Placid: Legacy (2018)

Lake Placid: Legacy (2018)

This trip may tear them apart

A group of eco-warriors looking to expose a secret area hidden behind electric fences find an abandoned science facility which had experimented with crocodiles and prehistoric DNA. They do not realise that one of the test subjects was never euthanised and is still living on the island, eager to hunt new prey to satisfy its appetite.

 

I’m not sure whether anyone back in 1999 would have thought that Lake Placid, for the decent horror-comedy timewaster it was, would become a long-running creature feature franchise which has outlived many more respectable horror series. Well, here we are with the fifth sequel!

Trying to shift the series from the low budget cheesy monster movies that the series had become into something serious and scary, Lake Placid: Legacy is a few shuffles in the right direction but a couple of big steps backwards too. Abandoning the continuity of what has come before it (and that’s a term I used lightly as the continuity between the other sequels has been ‘fluid’ to say the least), Lake Placid: Legacy ignores all of the sequels, briefly mentions the original, and promptly heads off to do its own thing with a new standalone story.

The film gets underway quickly, with little exposition to allow the characters to assemble in the place which will be their doom. Lake Placid: Legacy knows that it’s target audience won’t be bothered with the details and you’ll have heard the sort of set-up many times before. At least it isn’t a bunch of partying teenagers heading to the lake! Things get ugly within the first ten to fifteen minutes so don’t worry about waiting for too long. And to be honest, the film has a reasonably steady pace, even if there are large stretches without any sort of crocodile action.

In the previous sequels, Sy Fy’s shamelessly bad CGI monsters had become the focal points, with diets of people with increasingly-ludicrous reasons to be hanging around a lake known for having giant crocodiles. The crocodile takes a back seat here, with the appearances of the monster being restricted a lot more than you’d expect. It’s a silly move considering that’s exactly what people were still watching these films for – actually the only thing they were watching them for. I get the need to try and reign things in as there’s only so many times you can watch giant crocodiles eat people before it gets boring but they’re about three or four sequels too late. I’m guessing the lack of crocodile action was more a budgetary choice as the reptile looks awful whenever it makes its sporadic appearances. It’s a Catch 22 situation – they’ve tried to hold back on the crocodile to create some tension and atmosphere, but people will be moaning there’s not enough action, yet when the crocodile does appear it looks pathetic and you’ll be wanting them to not show us as much. It’s a sad state of affairs that the original from 1999 still features better special effects and a more convincing crocodile than all of the sequels put together. Time is not kind to the humble CGI croc – time to bring back an animatronic model.

It’s such a shame as there are some promising set pieces here which have lots of potential but are let down by the poor effects and lack of croc action. One scene involving the crocodile stalking its victim through a dark tunnel, illuminated only by a flare, is something that deserves to feature in a better film. The idea of having the crocodile hunt them through the abandoned facility sounds like it has been lifted of an Alien movie rather but gives the narrative a few new places to explore. The previous sequels have all felt like the same film just blurring into one so at least the change of scenery here freshens things up a bit and gives the writers some new avenues to explore – in theory anyway. All you’ll get is frustrated at how the crocodile can appear to be gigantic outside but can squeeze through some of the smaller tunnels indoors.

Joe Pantoliano is the token ‘name’ on the billing and I almost forgot he was in this until his late, pointless appearance reminded me. Pantoliano was always good for a supporting character actor in bigger budget films but his role here just smacks of desperately needing a pay day – he’s there purely to explain the existence of the crocodile and that’s it. The bunch of annoying millennials who make up the rest of the characters are just as pointless and interchangeable. It’s the sort of expendable, cheap throwaway cast that Sy Fy love to build their films around. Award for the worst writing of the year goes to Craig Stein’s Spencer character. If there was ever a more appalling representation of the ‘token black man’ character, this guy is it. Close your eyes and tell me what colour the character is supposed to be – his go-to Afro-American stereotyping involves lots of things like “bring it bitch” and his whiny ‘full of attitude’ persona. He will head straight to your “favourite to die” list right from his first appearance. Sadly, he’s still got the most personality out of any of the other characters, just not the right type!

 

Lake Placid: Legacy tries to do something different to the previous sequels, but mainly fails on all counts. At the end of the day, these films continue to disappoint thanks to lousy special effects which continue to make the original look like a masterpiece. It’s time to kill the crocodile, make a nice pair of boots and briskly walk away from this lifeless franchise once and for all.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

All Through the House (2015)

All Through the House (2015)

There is a creature stirring

When Rachel Kimmel returns home from college for Christmas, she finds that her neighbourhood is struck by a reign of terror. A violent killer, hiding behind a Santa mask, is leaving a bloody trail of slaughtered women and castrated men behind them.

 

Ah the Christmas sub-genre, the festive fright fests which offer up holiday-themed hijinks that may offend some due to their anti-Christmas sentiments. From rampaging snowmen to murderous elves and the copious number of Santa slashers out there, it’s the most wonderful time of the year for some truly bizarre, mainly terrible, but sometimes downright glorious horror entertainment with a nice helping of sleaze and nastiness to counteract the seasonal saccharine soppiness. All Through the House picks up the killer Santa mantle from Silent Night, Deadly Night and runs with it in an 80s-slasher throwback kind of way. It’s not pretty but I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the better Christmas-themed horrors that have come my way in many years.

All Through the House is relatively average in just about everything it does, from the poor technical side of the film to the more obvious script issues, but just has that ‘it’ factor that is so essential in making a good slasher film. The director just gets it from the opening sequence, featuring a bloody double killing and a good look at the Santa slasher within the first six minutes. It’s a great way to hook in the demanding audience and get them on board. Let’s face it, the film needs you to get on board quickly. The script does fall into many of the usual sub-genre pitfalls of characters doing the silliest things and avoiding any sort of common sense and logic when trying to evade the killer. But it’s easy to criticise when that’s all these films can do – there wouldn’t be a story if the victims just ran away and didn’t look back. Stupidity is the name of the game to further the plot, as there’s little in the way of exposition or character development to do so. All Through the House features a bunch of shallow, one-note characters who are so thinly written that I had trouble remembering their names. From the Final Girl’s virtually anonymous best friends to her ‘we need an extra body in the finale’ ex-boyfriend and a whole slew of random neighbours, it’s hardly a film where the characters take centre stage. It’s a good job that Nunes knows what people paying to see this are wanting to see and ensures that they are not let down in this respect.

All Through the House gets it absolutely spot on with the gore and set pieces. This is clearly a production team who have seen their fair share of 80s slasher cheese and do their best to live up to the lofty standards that some of the previous works have set. The killer likes to use a pair of shears to do most their handiwork and there are some real doozies here – shears into the breasts, shears into the side of the throat, shears up into the chin and through the head, and some poor schmuck gets his manhood lopped off. The make-up effects are decent enough and the camera doesn’t mind lingering on the carnage for a little bit – the total absence of CGI gore is really noticeable and enhances that throwback vibe. There is a decent body count and the kills are spaced out enough to keep the pace of the film quite good. If there is one thing that is disappointing, it’s that the killer does make quick work of the majority of their victims, leading to a real lack of tension or suspense throughout the film.

The film also gets it right with the killer. Too many slasher films fail whenever their killer gets on the screen – too hidden behind a mask, too gimmicky or simply not intimidating enough. Thankfully, the Santa slasher here looks and acts the part. Whilst they are stuck behind a creepy grey mask for the duration of the film, the actor behind it manages to convey a lot of emotion through the eyes. There’s also something particularly frightening about seeing a hulking Santa popping out from a darkened corridor when you least expect it.

Ashley Mary Nunes, the sister of the director (so no guesses how she got the part) is the Final Girl and she’s a bit of a revelation. She’s not only a looker but she can act the part well and makes a decent heroine. Like everyone else, her role is underwritten but it’s to Nunes’ credit that she at least comes off with more depth than the others. Melynda Kiring just narrowly fails to steal the show as the barking mad Mrs Garrett. Her house full of creepy Christmas-dressed mannequins deserves pride of place at Halloween let alone the festive season but Kiring pulls off the nutty proprietor to perfection. It’s elements like this which add a sense of uneasiness to the film and I wished they had focused a little more on this side of the film to really give the audience the creeps.

 

Despite a few black comic moments, All Through the House plays the slasher material straight, simple and effective. The natural way with which Nunes manages to show his love and respect for the old 80s slashers is clear to see and I can see All Through the House becoming a cult favourite in the years to come, in much the same way as Silent Night, Deadly Night has become. It’s not quite on the same level as that controversial 80s classic as far as holiday horrors go, but it’s the best we’ve seen for some time.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Monster Squad, The (1987)

The Monster Squad (1987)

You know who to call when you have ghosts but who do you call when you have monsters?

A group of young children are members of the Monster Squad, a club who idolise anything monster-orientated in their treehouse hideaway. When they find out that real monsters including Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster have invaded their small town, they realise that it is up to them to save the day as the adults would never believe them.

 

‘The Goonies with monsters’ is how most people view The Monster Squad and whilst that comparison is largely accurate, it does do this fantastic film such a disservice as there’s far more going on here than being a horror-based version of Spielberg’s kids classic. Co-written by Fred Dekker and Shane Black (considered one of the pioneer screenwriters of the action genre with the Lethal Weapon films under his belt), the smart script both pays homage to the old films and brilliantly brings them up-to-date for the then-modern era of the 1980s. This is a film which plays upon the premise that monsters, and all things horror, are the coolest things to a bunch of twelve-year old boys. They are falling in love with the genre for the first time here in their little monster club, and the audience is reminded of their first forays into the genre.

There is something quaint and innocent about this whole film that has attracted such a cult audience over the years. It wasn’t very successful upon its initial release, but time has been extremely kind to The Monster Squad over the years. I’ve never been entirely sure who the film is targeted at – I think it is meant to be a children’s film, though there is far more bad language and serious action (quite a few people die in this one) than you’d probably want to subject your own kids to. Perhaps it’s this confusion which led to both adults and children thinking it was for the other age group and deciding not to watch it. Regardless of who the film was geared towards then, it’s clear that adults have taken this to their heart, particularly those in the thirty-forty demographic who will have been young when this was doing the rounds. There is a real love and affection for the genre shown across almost every aspect of the film and it’s this endearing concept which has kept it feeling fresh.

The Monster Squad is by far from perfect and this is largely down to the plot, which is fairly loose and coincidental and harks back to the monster mash team-ups from the 40s, where the narrative was just a sketchy mess of ideas designed to throw the big monsters together. The prologue is little more than a MacGuffin to give the monsters a reason to be in suburban America, but the film assumes you don’t really care about that and just proceeds to go with the flow. The Monster Squad borders on being funny and scary from herein out. It’s funny in places, though you wish it was funnier in others. Legions of fans across the world won’t help but raise a laugh whenever they hear the “Wolfman’s got nards!” line but the film really needed more silliness like that when it matters.

Stan Winston provides the updated make-up jobs on the monsters and they all look fantastic. Frankenstein’s monster is probably the easiest one of the group to get ‘right’ and Winston opts for the classic look here. It’s the revamped versions of the Wolfman, the Creature and the Mummy which look great, particularly a brief werewolf transformation sequence that deserves more appreciation. It’s a pity that the latter two don’t get much to do in the film at all. The bulk of the monster action involves Dracula, portrayed by Duncan Regehr, and the Monster, played by Tom Noonan. Regehr’s Dracula isn’t the best incarnation of the bloodthirsty count you’re ever going to see but he manages to switch between the elegance and menace of the role well. However, it’s Noonan’s Monster who steals the show, as the lumbering brute develops a sweet relationship with a little girl. Throwbacks to the infamous scene in which the Monster stumbles across a little girl next to a lake in the original 1931 version, The Monster Squad develops the innocent bond even further here, leading to a heart-warming moment during the finale which will have even the most hardened souls reaching for the tissues.

At under eighty minutes long, The Monster Squad is one film where you actually want the production team to have rolled with it a little longer, even for another ten minutes. The film is pacey and light-hearted for the most, so you’ll be able to sit back and breeze through it. Surprisingly, the youngsters cast in the lead roles are all excellent – Andre Gower, Michael Faustino, Bobby Kiger and Brent Chalem (as ‘Fat Kid’) will not get on your nerves like the know-it-all kids from other horror films, and work together well. However, it’s little Ashley Bank who steals the show as the sweet, good-natured Phoebe who steals the Monster’s heart with their touching, though short-lived, friendship.

 

The Monster Squad is not perfect but it’s close. It’s rare example of a film which will have you reverting to your twelve-year old childlike state once again no matter how many times you’ve seen it. It brings back your own memories of watching horror films for the first time, whilst delivering a solid slice of 80s horror-comedy action at the same time.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

House by the Cemetery, The (1981)

The House by the Cemetery (1981)

BEWARE THE DEMON FORCES OF THE…BLOOD BEASTS

A New England home is terrorised by a series of brutal murders, unbeknownst to the guests that a gruesome secret is hiding in the basement. It seems that the previous owner, Dr Freudstein, hasn’t quite vacated the premises.

 

Released way back in 1981 (the year of my birth), The House by the Cemetery is the third film in the Italian director Lucio Fulci’s ‘Gates of Hell’ series, a loose trilogy of horror films that also includes City of the Living Dead and The Beyond. It was one of the films that suffered greatly in the wake of the ‘Video Nasties’ frenzy in the 80s and was actually one of the thirty-nine unfortunate souls to be prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions. It beggars belief that it was finally released uncut in the UK in 2009 – showing everyone how ridiculous the prosecution was in the first place but also how much our tolerance for on-screen violence and gore has gone through the roof.

I never quite got The House by the Cemetery and it’s by far and away the weakest of the three films by a considerable distance. If you thought the others were bad as far as logic and sense goes, you haven’t seen anything yet because this one makes even less sense, even if the underlying story is far more straightforward. There is a lot of unnecessary supernatural stuff floating around, inadvertently creating massive plot holes, when actually it could have worked purely as a simple slasher flick. But like most Fulci films, things happen without a real point and the copious violence and gore on show is pinned together with thin narratives. Best not try to piece together too much of the flimsy story because you’re only a few scenes away from something completely turning that upside down. There’s rarely any character development, ideas that are introduced are never fully fleshed out and the endings are open to interpretation (meaning you won’t have a clue). Some of this might have worked with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond due to their nightmarish doomsday-like scenarios but not here with the more traditional story.

For Fulci, this is restrained stuff. There are his trademark gore set pieces – the film kicks off with a suitably-visceral death – but they’re too few and far between, with the time being filled with some truly lethargic padding. Surprisingly, there is a lack of his trademark ‘eye trauma’ moment where something sharp sticks into a human eye. But this time around, the jugular is the prime target for the killer of the piece and there are a couple of gushing kills to make even the most hardened horror fans squirm. The gore splashes around at much-needed moments of aruduous pacing but Fulci fails to really build upon true suspense. A frustrating trademark of Fulci’s is to have one of the characters being menaced simply stand there in fear and wait for whatever is terrorising them to get closer and kill them. It doesn’t exactly crank up the tension.

Whilst City of the Living Dead and The Beyond featured lots of zombie and supernatural forces, The House by the Cemetery features just the sole protagonist. An unseen assailant is responsible for some of the on-screen kills early in the film and it’s only in the final third of the film where we actually see Dr Freudstein in all of his Frankenstein-like glory in the basement. The nice twist here is that the mad scientist has actually become the monster as he harvests body parts to keep alive. Gianetto De Rossi has done a super job in bringing to life Freudstein and the doctor’s first grisly appearance is definitely worth the wait. Sadly, all he does in the final third is groan and shuffle around like a typical Fulci zombie, and it raises the question of how he’s managed to kill so many people when he groans loudly and shuffles along at a snail’s pace. Don’t even get me started on how no one has ever checked the basement in the newly-bought house. He wasn’t even hiding behind a fake wall, just down there in plain sight of the stairs!

Fulci regular Catriona MacColl returns, having already been tormented in both City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, and is the usual dependable hand. The least said about little Giovanni Frezza, as her young son Bob, the better. Frezza’s dubbing has been given to a woman and his screams and cries are laughable, and his incessant whimpering in the finale is the most annoying sound you’ll hear for a long time. You’ll be wishing Freudstein does him in, and quickly too!

 

The House by the Cemetery is fairly tough going for any horror fan but die-hard Fulci lovers will no doubt appreciate his attempts to move away from the more overt gore outings into something supernatural akin to The Shining. Those who aren’t use to his brand of Italian horror are better off viewing his earlier works.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Burning Dead, The (2015)

The Burning Dead (2015)

Death will engulf the world

A sheriff must rescue an estranged family from a mountain during a volcano eruption and fight off a horde of lava-filled zombies brought to life by a curse.

 

Originally titled Volcano Zombies, The Burning Dead is the latest in the fad of making horror films so outrageously ridiculous by combing trashy bog-standard horror sub-genre entries to make something a little sillier and nonsensical. Sharknado is the obvious example, but you’ve got stuff like Piranhaconda, Lavalantula and Zombie Shark to stink up the joint. The Burning Dead is just the latest entry to a wave of films which only bring a wry smile to my face when I read the title and see what ingenious Frankenstein-like creation the producers have come up with. The films are generally atrocious however, and The Burning Dead is no exception.

It’s not worth discussing the plot because it’s virtually non-existent – volcanic eruption prompts locals to evacuate and zombies appear out of the flaming lava to kill off the stragglers. I mean what is wrong with just having the zombies rise-up out of some graveyard on the mountain side? Why the need to add the volcano? Oh yeah – ‘high concept’ idea. There’s far too many gaps and questions with the plot – the most blatant one being why are the zombies so perfectly preserved in the lava rather than being incinerated to a crisp? But I just opted to ignore this and watch the carnage unfold as it’d break my brain trying to figure it out.

Overlong prologue aside, it’s a good thirty minutes in before we even get a hint of the zombies turning up. I won’t tell a lie, but the resurrection sequence wasn’t too bad, with the zombies rising out of the ground reminding me very much of some old Italian horror film. The make-up effects are decent for something so low budget and there’s a nice red glowing effect added to their eyes with CGI. Aside from their usual modus operandi of biting necks and clawing at intestines, these zombies are also able to drip holt molten rock from their mouths (don’t ask me why the rock immediately burns things upon impact yet doesn’t seem to burn the zombies from the inside, or the ground they walk on, or anything else for that matter – just human flesh) which makes for one or two moments which are different to the usual zombie attacks. But the effects are crude and unconvincing. The film is bloody during the attacks, but the gore looks really fake and these are some of the most elasticated-looking intestines of all time – the zombies spend more time chewing on guts than they do brains. The less said about the volcanic eruptions and the lava flows, the better. Whoever thought the CGI looked half-decent is just as idiotic as the person who decided they should show it as often as they do.

Usually this type of flick features some C-list actors but even The Burning Dead struggles to round out the cast with anyone you’ll remember from elsewhere. Danny Trejo is plastered all over the front cover of the DVD like he’s the main star or something, but he’s got a tiny cameo role, used for a couple of wraparound scenes that could easily have been left on the cutting room floor. Trejo has become a caricature of himself nowadays – he stars in roles that are just him doing his schtick. The only other notable cast member is Jenny Lin, solely for the fact that she provides the token nudity for the film in the most pointless sub-plot ever put to horror.

 

I’m even struggling to write something worthwhile about The Burning Dead, something unusual for me. It’s pretty darn awful from beginning to end and given how many zombie films, TV shows, video games and books are out there right now, its sheer madness to think anyone would give this the time of day.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Sharknado (2013)

Sharknado (2013)

Enough said!

Hurricane David approaches the Southern California coastline, bringing with it every shark in the Pacific Ocean along for the ride.  The hurricane hits land and, as the violent storm rages throughout Los Angeles, with each crashing tidal wave comes a bloodthirsty shark, carried throughout the city by storm drains and waterspouts everywhere.

 

You must have heard of Sharknado by now, a film so infamous that it has transcended our pop culture thanks to the ‘benefits’ of social media – during its initial screening on Sy Fy, Twitter nearly imploded with hashtags and it became an overnight sensation, even securing a limited theatrical release as a result. It’s not like Sy Fy (who produced it) and The Asylum (who distributed it) hadn’t been making dozens of really awful sci-fi monster movies for the past decade or so but for some reason Sharknado just caught on.

I’m sorry but it’s impossible to view Sharknado as anything but truly atrocious filmmaking which attempts to mask it’s sheer awfulness by pretending to wink at the audience. There is no way in hell that the guys behind Sharknado would have ever thought it would get to the point of infamy that it has and so the utter stupidity of the film was not planned to be ironic as it’s now made out to be. Even as ridiculous as the concept is, there were always possibilities that the film could succeed to embrace the camp but it’s a case of throwing in a load of generic killer shark and disaster flick tropes together in the hope they somehow stick. Funnily enough, the disaster scenes work slightly better than the shark scenes because it’s not as difficult to flood actual sets as it is to replicate a hurricane or get a shark to do what you want it to do. But this is definitely a case of the studio hedging all of their bets on the silly title and featuring enough clips of extravagantly over-the-top shark action to get vloggers using clips from the film on their “OMG look how bad this is” highlight videos.

And it does look bad. The CGI effects are awful. I know this was made-for-TV but there’s so much pixilation in every single frame of computer-generated footage that you’ll think your television is going on the blink. It looks so out-of-focus during some of the daytime scenes and the amount of fuzz that fills the screen is nobody’s business – this is a grey film and the filter goes into overdrive, meaning the screen is devoid of energy and life. The sharks look like every other single The Asylum / Sy Fy shark out there, which means little in the way of realism and plenty of fake grey blobs with teeth. Even the storm looks pathetic. Actors try desperately to emote in front of a green screen but there’s little the effects department can do to prevent these scenes from coming off as anything but pure comedy. Director Anthony C. Ferrante even looks to throw in some real footage of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina to try and fool us into thinking that what we see is as realistic as possible. However, he utterly fails on every single count. Sharknado cost around $1m to make which is a fair price for a film made by either The Asylum or Sy Fy – but it somehow comes off looking like one of the cheapest films The Asylum or Sy Fy ever produced.

Sharknado is surprisingly boring. You’d think with all of the crazy goings-on that the film would keep the pace firmly set. But there’s a few periods of exposition and attempted character development which comes off as awkward padding to kill time between shark attacks. The script is woeful, with the series of events in the film never really meshing well. For instance, shortly after a swarm of sharks has attacked an entire beach full of people, the beach bar is still absolutely teeming with visitors who seem totally oblivious as to what happened earlier on. Even the main characters just brush it off like nothing really happened. But this happens a lot in the film, when characters are killed off or some seriously silly stuff has just happened. Also count the number of Jaws references that the script fires off. It’s a reminder that you’d be better off watching Spielberg’s all-time classic for the one millionth time than attempting to tackle Sharknado.

Finally, we come to the cast, and surprisingly I’m not going to be too harsh here. There’s not a lot anyone can do when faced with such mediocrity – Pacino and De Niro would struggle to get a rise out of the script. So, it’s probably for the best that a load of lesser known C-actors fill the main roles. You’ll recognise John Heard as the dad from Home Alone. Tara Reid looks a million miles away from her breakthrough years in the American Pie films but is surprisingly not the worst thing about the film. Cassie Scerbo does little but dart around in a bikini for the duration of the film (I’m not complaining as she’s literally the only thing worth looking at in the entire film) and former US soap opera star Ian Ziering plays everything as straight and serious as possible – it’s almost as if the in-joke completely passed him by.

 

A truly woeful film which pretends that its irony was pre-meditated creative genius, Sharknado is even worse than the usually-dreadful Sy Fy nonsense that it continually spews out. Don’t be fooled by the hype, Sharknado is one of the worst films you’ll never see – a film so desperate to become a cult classic that its embarrassing.

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Just when you thought it was safe to be dead.

Two canisters of Trioxin, the ‘zombie gas’, fall from the back of a military convoy as it passes through the town of Westvale. There, a group of kids accidentally open one of the canisters as part of an initiation. The gas quickly spreads through the graveyard and soon the town is overrun as the dead start coming back to life, seeking the brains of the living.

 

Following up what many people believe to be one of the best zombie films of all time, not least one of the most entertaining horror-comedies ever put to the screen, was always going to be an impossible task. And it’s a task that director Ken Wiederhorn sadly fails at in Return of the Living Dead Part II. Return of the Living Dead was a fresh, exciting take on the zombie genre which combined some hilarious comedy with some truly effective scares and atmosphere and managed to perfectly balance the two together with a punk rock mentality to go with it. Return of the Living Dead Part II doesn’t manage to get the balance right and is all the worse for it. Though this can easily be attributed to the loss of Dan O’Bannon, the director and writer of the original, who didn’t return for this one. His input is sorely missing here.

Bizarrely, Return of the Living Dead Part II comes off more like an inferior remake than any true follow-up and it significantly tones down the violence and gore. With the combination of a kid in one of the main roles, something suggests they were targeting a younger audience who clearly enjoyed the lure of the video cover of the adult-orientated original in the rental store. In place of the violence and gore is a more comedic approach, which barely works. Too much slapstick and not enough smart writing is this film’s main problem, though that comes down to a director who is obviously not comfortable with the comedy material he’s been presented. Ken Wiederhorn previously directed atmospheric Nazi zombie flick Shock Waves so he’s got the horror credentials, he just lacks the finer touches of the funny bone to go with it. A dancing Michael Jackson-esque zombie and a severed hand which gives someone the middle finger are among some of the cheesier moments I can remember. They’re just not particularly funny and come off as a little desperate to make the audience laugh.

Return of the Living Dead Part II isn’t scary as a result. There was something genuinely terrifying about the situations the characters in the original found themselves in, from the paramedics getting mobbed by zombies to a guy having to throw himself into a crematorium to avoid turning into a zombie. There’s nothing even close to that here, despite the characters finding themselves in tricky life-or-death situations, and the feeling of repetition from the original just continues to dominate proceedings here. Only a different finale, involving the surviving characters luring the zombies to the electricity plant with a fresh batch of brains, gives the narrative any sort of new life and direction. By that time, it’s too late.

James Karen and Thom Matthews, arguably the two breakout stars of the original as the bumbling employees who caused the entire outbreak, are back but as totally new characters. Whilst the dynamic between the two isn’t as good in this one, as the script is weaker, they do share a few decent moments. As before, Karen is by far the funnier of the two and his incessant whining is funny, even if it’s a bit overplayed now. There’s a few nods to their prior roles – “I feel like we’ve been here before. You… Me… Them!” – but these characters just stand out as much. Only Phillip Bruns as a barmy doctor makes any sort of impression from the new characters, with Michael Kenworthy’s young Jesse being one of those annoying know-it-all kids who frequently popped up in the 80s.

The zombies look more cartoony than scary – even the famous Tarman zombie looks like a cheaper knock-off costumed version. From some weak-looking puppets to a bunch of extras wearing some low rent Halloween masks and make-up, these zombies don’t look like they’ve been rotting in the ground for too long, with the majority of them all still nicely suited-and-booted in their Sunday best. The gore is virtually non-existent here and what little we get is far too timid to be effective.

 

You almost want to like Return of the Living Dead Part II more than you do because of it being a sequel to the original but any sort of originality and novelty value that the original had has simply been frittered away here with some poor choices of tone and direction. It’s not overly terrible, but if Return of the Living Dead Part II didn’t want to be compared to the original so badly, it should have tried to do its own thing rather than recycle the same thing.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Night of the Demons 2 (1994)

Night of the Demons 2 (1994)

No one leaves this party. Ever.

Six years after Angela’s party at the haunted Hull House went wrong and a group of teenagers were slaughtered, her sister Melissa is now living at a religious school. When a group of her friends decide to visit the house on Halloween, Melissa has reservations about joining them. Whilst there, they accidentally resurrect Angela who wants to reunite her family and turn Melissa over to the dark side too.

 

1988’s Night of the Demons was the perfect embodiment of an adult Halloween party flick – a campy low brow fright fest which piled on the genre staples to deliver a lot of mindless fun but was fairly forgettable. A crash course diet in junk food horror summed it up best. Night of the Demons 2 feels like a second course with even more cinematic sugar and fat thrown in. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith (who has Leprechaun 4: In Space on his list of credits so you know what you’re getting yourself in for) serves us more of the same junk food here and it’s a blast, although not as satisfying as the original. Sometimes you just need something inoffensive and innocent to pass the time.

I’m surprised to see that this was made in the mid-90s as Night of the Demons 2 has the same 80s feel as the original all over it, save for the hairstyles and fashion. A bunch of big-boobed and six-pack laden twentysomethings standing in as teenagers at a Catholic school in America has obvious warning signs written all over it and yet the film manages to keep its daft premise in check as much as possible. It’s simple, straight-to-the-point and doesn’t really care less about a lot of things such as well-developed characters or common-sense storytelling. This is a story you’ll have seen countless times before, just replace demons with a guy in a mask and a machete and you know exactly the sort of scenarios the characters will face. Night of the Demons 2 runs like clockwork but has a lot of fun in doing so, partly played for laughs and partly played seriously. There is a thin line which the film sometimes goes too far over one way or the other.

Night of the Demons 2 moves the bulk of the action away from Hull House to the school campus and with it, a lot of the atmosphere of the original is lost. Hull House’s spooky ambiance was one of the key reasons why the original worked so well in the scare stakes – the long, dark corridors, and broken and boarded-up windows bathed in eerie moonlight were perfect Halloween locations. The school campus is less effective in conveying this demonic threat, although Night of the Demons 2 does pick up significantly more steam when it moves back to Hull House for the final third. There is more focus on comedy in this one, as the first half of the film and the ridiculous Porkies-style sex humour demonstrates as well as some silliness involving holy water and water guns. But once The Evil Dead-style roaming POV shots, the dry ice and the blue lighting kick in, you soon forget that this was being played out as a comedy. The jokes stop and it looks like everyone tries to play it seriously, despite some of the set pieces they’re put through.

There is some effective make-up on display and the demons all look nice and, well demonic, when they’ve transformed – long, gnarled teeth and puss-dripping sores add to the nastiness. Night of the Demons 2 isn’t particularly gory and what you do get to see (a decapitation springs to mind) is done more cartoony than realistic. Case in point comes when a voluptuous young lady’s exposed breasts turn into a pair of hands and burn her would-be groper. The lipstick from the original returns, though the scene involved is nowhere near as memorable. The sad thing is that it takes nearly an hour for all of the good stuff to be wheeled out, and some viewers may have already tuned out by that point.

Amelia Kinkade returns as Angela and it’s apparent that the producers of the series were trying to create a female supernatural villain to compete with the likes of Freddy and Jason – Angela is one-liner central, equally at home with a cutting barb as she is with a cutting blade. She’s not in this one as much which is a shame as both the character and actress had a lot of mileage left. The rest of the cast fill the token roles of the slut, the jock, the nerdy kid, etc. The cardboard cut-out characters simply come pre-programmed with traits that you’ll be familiar with and they all play according to type. The performances aren’t bad, nor are they particularly good. This is hardly an actors’ film, so the cast just do what they need to do in between getting ripped to shreds by demons. Future Mrs Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, is one of the bitchy girls (and I’m sure she pretends this isn’t part of her CV) and Bobby Jacoby is here as the demon-obsessed nerdy kid (forever to be known as Melvin from Tremors for me). Its Jennifer Rhodes as the Meryl Streel lookalike nun who steals the show, playing the part as straight as possible whilst clearly being in on the fact that this is a jokey movie.

 

Night of the Demons 2 is a daft, silly sequel which does deliver the requisite genre goods and is a faithful follow-up to the original, even if it does stick too closely to the same storyline and approach. I’m not sure what anyone could possibly expect from a film like this other than the obvious T&A and gore and mindless cheese.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆