Tag Creatures/Monsters

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead (1988)

For each of man’s evils a special demon exists…

After his son is killed in a tragic accident involving some dirt-biking teenagers, country store owner Ed Harley enlists the help of a mysterious backwoods witch who conjures up the vengeful monster named Pumpkinhead to destroy those responsible.

 

Make-up man Stan Winston’s directorial debut, Pumpkinhead has always been of those films which every self-respecting horror fan has heard of, and most have probably watched, but never really lists in their top five, hell even top twenty, horror films. There’s a big reason for that – it’s not actually that good. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad. It’s just…average. Despite a hefty dollop of Southern Gothic spread all over the film, there’s very little to Pumpkinhead that you won’t have seen before.

My main gripe is with the notion of who the audience is meant to support here. The whole concept of the demon being summoned by Harley to get revenge for his son’s death is fairly standard issue but has one glaring problem – the antagonist/protagonist dynamic is all haywire and is confusing to really emphasise with a particular side. As a group, the teenagers aren’t actually that bad. Sure, the guy who knocks his son over is a jerk but the other teenagers are remorseful, upset and genuinely shocked at what happened. It’s hard to want to see them get killed for their actions and it’s hard to see them as the antagonists. Given that Harley is portrayed as a sympathetic character, by virtue of conjuring up the demon to kill these teenagers, most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing, he swaps over into antagonist territory. So where does that leave Pumpkinhead? It’s the monster, so it has to be the antagonist, surely? But then it was summoned by Harley to right a wrong, making it the protagonist? I’m not quite sure. Pumpkinhead’s main problem is knowing whom to support throughout proceedings – Harley, the teenagers or the monster. A few tweaks of the script to make the act of Harley’s son more malicious would have tipped the balance. But hey, this is Stan Winston we’re talking about here, and scripts weren’t his forte – monsters were!

Winston got this gig after his critically-acclaimed work on big budget box office hits The Terminator, Predator and Aliens but was clearly not trusted with a similar-sized budget. Instead, he has to make do with what limited resources he can and certainly does a fantastic job, particularly with the memorable titular creature, though Winston’s input in the creature was limited given his directorial duties. The crew he assembled to make it certainly don’t let him down. Pumpkinhead is a highly-original, towering, malicious creature with huge claws and a ferocious-looking face filled with revenge. The monster walks as fluidly as though it were really alive – it is impossible to spot how and where the model was able to move by itself. Due to the impressive-looking creation, Winston isn’t afraid to show it early and you get a good glimpse of it during the prologue. Opting to shoot the creature in an array of howling wind, eerie blue-tinted lighting, swirling fog and strobe effects, Winston maximises the appearances of the creature so that it comes directly out of the worst nightmare.

It’s a pity it doesn’t really an awful lot. It’s a good forty minutes of the way in before Pumpkinhead finally gets summoned and starts to dispatch the teenagers one-by-one. When it does turn up (surprisingly often it has to be said), all it seems to do is stand around and growl. Whilst other horror films of the late 80s were piling on the blood and guts to try and keep jaded fans coming back, Pumpkinhead doesn’t go down the same route and is a relatively bloodless affair, give or take a few clawings. Most of the kills are telegraphed, with little in the way of shock or suspense to them, and the manner of execution is rather tepid to say the least. I guess there were some limitations to the monster hence why it always seems to have a free run at its victims rather than jumping out at them.

Pumpkinhead’s other great strength is Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley. This was Henriksen in his 80s prime, before he succumbed to a life of playing grizzled old men in low budget horror films, and he is fantastic as Ed. You really feel sorry for him after his son is killed, conveying the right sense of anger and desire for revenge that we all feel after being wronged. He quickly realises his mistake after calming down, which has strong echoes for a lot of people and how they deal with their anger in real life – only whenever you get angry, I’m sure summoning a three metre-tall demon is not high on your priorities! The teenagers are the usual bland array of non-entities simply killing time in the script before their demise. As I’ve already said, most of them are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time as far as Harley’s anger goes and it’s a bit unlucky that they are killed. However, the script does not make them sympathetic in the slightest, it’s just the plot that does that.

 

Pumpkinhead is decent for what it is – an 80s monster movie – but, Pumpkinhead himself aside, sorely lacks that memorable ‘it’ which is so essential in any horror film. It’s neither scary nor particularly exciting and once the novelty of the monster wears off, you’re left with a rather bland film which should have been better.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Larva (2005)

Larva (2005)

A terror that gets under your skin

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Harbinger Down (2015)

Harbinger Down (2015)

Terror is just beneath the surface.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Morlocks (2011)

Morlocks (2011)

A top secret time travel project leaves some U.S. marines stranded in the distant future in which human civilization no longer exists and the Earth is overrun by a vicious species of creatures known as Morlocks. A team headed by the scientist responsible for the project is sent to rescue them and retrieve the time travel device that become trapped with them.

 

You may know the name but you might not be able to place the film when I say Morlocks. One of the most infamous fictional species ever put to paper, they first appeared in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as one of the two future offshoots of the human race, hundreds of thousands of years after Earth had been ravaged by nuclear war. A cannibalistic species who lived underground, kept the peaceful, docile Eloi who lived in the surface fed and clothed, and in turn treat the Eloi like cattle and ate them, the Morlocks were blue creatures with white hair and big, glowing eyes. Wells’ metaphor for Victorian society where a huge underclass toiled and grafted for a privileged few to live a life of luxury (which still resonates in most developed countries today), the Morlocks became iconic cinematic monsters after their appearance in 1960’s The Time Machine, less so after the 2002 remake. With a hefty literate and cinematic reputation behind them, it is sad to see that Sy Fy has decided to wheel them out in one of their monster movies.

The rights to The Time Machine are in the public domain so anyone is free to use the work and anything written within without permission or the payment of royalties. Trust Sy Fy to find that out! In reality, Morlocks is just another generic Sy Fy Channel monster movie which has simply used the Morlocks as their ‘monster of the week’ and just gone through the usual motions of CGI nonsense, lots of gun-fire and very little story. Take away the name ‘Morlocks’ and call them anything else and the film would work exactly the same. The use of the name simply attaches a greater weight of expectation: people will watch this expecting some sort of link to The Time Machine. How wrong they would be! More Stargate SG-1 or Primeval with a dash of Aliens thrown in, Morlocks sees the usual ragtag bunch of nameless, non-entity marines fed to a monstrous threat with lots of guns, explosions and creature carnage ensuing.

There’s not a lot of story to go with this one and that which is left doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For every minute of ‘plot’ there are about ten minutes of action. I’m usually fine with this approach as long as every second of the plot makes a difference. But it doesn’t. Nearly every scene involves some sort of action and this gets tiresome after a while. Morlocks has a big fight scene early on in its running time and seemingly spends the rest of its running time trying to outdo that. I’d use the term ‘breathless’ to describe the film but the action won’t leave you gasping for air like, say the remake of Mad Max did after it’s amazing pursuit sequence. Most of these action sequences consist of horribly-animated Morlocks jumping through the air and tossing the nameless marines around like toys. A cut-scene from a computer game has more life and energy than this.

The Morlocks are given the CGI treatment here and look awful, more like some prehistoric-alien hybrid than any of the incarnations we’ve come to know them by so far in other media. They’re rendered poorly, with animation that looks about fifteen years older than it actually is. In fact almost every CGI shot in this film is awful, from the monsters to the splatters of blood to the explosions right down to the tanks and the time machine being activated and emitting light beams. Sy Fy really need to pick up their act when it comes to providing either the cash or the time for the animators to work on projects like this because the special effects borderline on embarrassing. They completely disconnect you from the action as you’re too busy laughing rather than being engrossed and entertained in the sights on-screen.

Ironically, the Stargate SG-1/Stargate: Atlantis comparison I made earlier was deliberate as David Hewlett, who played Dr Rodney McKay in the TV series, stars as the lead scientist here and Robert Picardo, who played Richard Woolsey in a couple of the Stargate spin-offs (also Star Trek: Voyager alumni), appears as a generic gung-ho military colonel. Picardo has taken a lot of these stern authority figure roles of late and it’s no stretch to see him doing the same thing again. I don’t remember too much about the other characters or actors in the film, save for the fact that they’re so badly written they won’t make any impression on you whatsoever.

 

If you were expecting Sy Fy to do any justice to H. G. Wells’ original story, then more the fool you. Morlocks is a shoddy, sloppy affair which goes for broke with the guns and explosions but forgets everything else that makes the guns and explosions necessary in the first place. Forget traveling into the future, you’ll want a trip back to the past before you even considered giving Morlocks the time of day.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Millennium Bug, The (2011)

The Millennium Bug (2011

What’s Bugging You?

Fearing that the Y2K Bug will bring about the end of civilisation as the year 1999 draws to a close, Byron Haskin takes his new wife and his daughter camping at an old ghost town in the Sierra Diablo Mountains. But whilst there, they are kidnapped by a bunch of inbred hillbillies who need new breeding stock for their family. However, the arrival of the millennium also coincides with the once-every-thousand-years appearance of a giant monster which starts devouring everything in its path.

 

Part The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, part low rent Sy Fy creature feature movie, The Millennium Bug is a strange independent horror film which has come around about ten years too late. The Y2K Bug was THE talking point in the months running up to New Year’s Eve in 1999, with thousands of people across the world barricading themselves up in shelters, arming themselves with guns and stocking up on food in case the world ended thanks to the perceived-inability of some clocks to compute that 2000 was actually 2000 and not 1900. As it turns out, nothing happened that night and those people suddenly found themselves looking a little bit silly and wasting a lot of time, energy and money preparing for the apocalypse that never was.

Continuing along with this silliness comes The Millennium Bug, the directorial debut from Kenneth Cran, which delivers a plenty of low key fun without ever threatening to turn into a full blown cult classic. Those expecting the monster of the title to be the main focus of the film will be disappointed, at least for the first half of the film. The Millennium Bug plays out like a poor man’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes at first, introducing the standard genre tropes of a bunch of middle-class Americans being subjected to an arduous ordeal at the hands of some inbred hillbillies. Though it’s played tongue-in-cheek, it’s still very much run-of-the-mill backwoods horror material which has been played out to death over the last ten years or so. Banjo-strumming rednecks with mutant kids are hardly innovative inclusions into an overcrowded genre pool but that’s about the only characterisation you’ll get from them, or any of the characters for that matter. I’ve seen a few people say that they were about to switch off at this point and I was one of them because it’s not really what you’re expecting.

However, things do go a bit crazy when the titular big appears halfway through and the film changes gears. Heading into more traditional monster movie territory, The Millennium Bug suddenly gains the momentum it urgently needed in the first half and begins to showcase the obvious talents of the filmmakers across a number of areas. Whilst the script is still pretty muddled, at least the focus of the film is now squarely on the monster and the gory goodness that it brings with it.

I had expected the bug to be on the same size and scale as the usual Sy Fy or Asylum creature feature flicks so was surprised to see it looking like some reject from a Godzilla film. The thing is huge! The makers of the film, going under the moniker of No CGI Films, clearly set their stall out from the beginning and eschew any form of CGI, opting to bring to life the monster through the use of old school techniques including using miniatures and Godzilla-style man-in-a-suit moments. The use of these practical effects over CGI has its perks and pitfalls but at least gives the film a low budget, almost drive-in quality. This looks like it could have been some late 80s/early 90s straight-to-video monster movie. If you’ve been brought up on a diet of CGI extravagance then this may not be to your liking. But the mixture of miniatures and models and some clever camera tricky really go a long way to sending you right back in time to an era of simpler filmmaking. Major credit needs to go to the effects department because they do a far better job of bringing to life this gigantic fiend than 90% of big budget blockbusters have done using teams of animators on computers.

It isn’t just the monster that is ‘au natural’ but the gore is very much of the Sam Raimi / Peter Jackson old school variety.  The bug does chomp down on a few people, with an animatronic mouth filled with rows of massive teeth being used to good effect, but there is also lots of human on human violence as the hillbillies and family fight it out too. Expect axes to the face and a few stabbings with a generous helping of blood to go with them.

 

The Millennium Bug is a frustrating film. On one hand, you have a really solid monster movie with some excellent effects and lashings of gore. But on the other hand you have a poor backwoods horror film which comes off more campy than threatening. The two elements never work well together and the muddled approach that results from this really stops the film from breaking through to the next level. It’s a little rough in places, to be expected given that it’s a debut film, but you could do a lot worse.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Axe Giant (2013)

Axe Giant (2013)

This Tall Tale is Murder

A group of young adults serving their sentence at a first-time offenders’ boot camp discover that the legend of the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan is real but is much more horrifying than they could have ever imagined when they disturb the grave of his treasured blue ox.

 

Ah American folklore. Fresh off watching two films about the mysterious Bunnyman and his antics, I’ve now stumbled upon a film about another character from legend, this time more rooted in history than the more recent floppy-eared fiend. Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack from American folklore, has been the subject of various literary works, musical pieces and commercial productions and now finds his way into horror films. Though I’m sure the same Paul Bunyan who featured in a number of children’s stories is a far cry from this axe-wielding brute with a face only a mother could love.

I thought I’d seen the start of Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunya before but then I realised I had: whenever a film has introduced its main characters as juvenile offenders having to serve some sort of rehabilitation programme/community service (see Grizzly Park, See No Evil, etc.) then it follows the same “roll call” scene which basically provides us with all of the character depth that they are going to have. One supporting character even asks the duty officer “is this necessary?” when he reads out their names and past crimes. As a member of the very limited target audience, I can say no it isn’t as I’ve seen this film before and know which characters are supposed to be the slut, token black guy, jock and so forth. But we get spoon fed it anyway just in case you weren’t sure! The set-up is quick and painless and the character development brief and merciful yet it still takes the film ages to get going.

Despite the title giving away massive clues as to what sort of threat these characters are going to face, it is quite happy to shield the brute from us for as long as possible. You’ll get glimpses of him and, for one unlucky bear, more than a glimpse. I kind of figured that the director and writers would have gone in for the kill early and given us the money shots from the start, such is the norm for these type of films now. Gone are the days of directors crafting the monster before the final reveal (Jaws anyone?) and whilst I’m arguing in favour of films following Axe Giant’s path by holding back a little, it just seems silly to do it when the POSTER SHOWS US THE MONSTER! Paul Bunyan is given some back story and it’s too daft to take seriously (the disease he contracts sure has lots of side effects!) but provides token flashbacks for more gore and shenanigans, including the brutal dispatch of Dan ‘Grizzly Adams’ Haggerty.

Funnily enough, Axe Giant wins pretty much all of its star rating with the practical effects it uses for the giant. Think back to the 50s with The Amazing Colossal Man and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and you’ll get a sense of how this effect is rendered. It’s a guy in make-up who has been superimposed onto a number of sets courtesy of some green screen work (rather that than some dodgy CGI giant like the dreadful Ogre). Though the two techniques don’t mesh together well, the fact that it’s an actual actor gives the giant a real physical presence. Credit must go to effects man Robert Kurtzman’s Creature Corps for designing the make-up, ‘borrowing’ the demented, inbred hillbilly look from the Victor Crowley character from the Hatchet films to create a rather large, aggressive beast who has sculpted himself an axe just as big and powerful as he is.

But the practical effects stop there and that’s a big disappointment as the blood and guts is mainly CGI from there on it. Limbs chopped off, characters sliced into half and other nastiness involving the axe is all brought to life with the ‘wonders’ of CGI. It looks awful – so artificial and ‘clean’ if there is a word best to describe them. Some of the kills could have looked amazing if they had gone down the old school route but instead they’ve taken the quicker, cheaper CGI route and ruined some potentially-awesome moments. And whilst Bunyan looks good on his own, as soon as he starts appearing in front of green screens, the CGI falls apart. This is not a good film to watch for cutting edge special effects. The team have tried to punch above their weight but sometimes knowing where you stand is better. When the effects provoke laughter rather than fear or tension, you know something is wrong.

Joe Estevez, young brother of Martin Sheen and uncle of Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, gets one of the top billed roles. Sadly, Joe, unlike his older brother, has not had the glittering film career and has been appearing in low rent rubbish like this for years, no doubt using his name to make his way. Joe sounds like Martin a lot so close your eyes in a few scenes, pretend it is him and kid yourselves into thinking this is some glossy production. Grizzly Adams aside, there’s no one else that stands out in the cast. Most of the young cast are so anonymous that it’s a wonder they even bothered reading the script. Replace the actors with the same ethnic disposition and you’d be hard-pressed to notice the change. But hey, some of them meet their match at the hands of a giant axe!

 

Axe Giant is a film about a giant, killer lumberjack that turns into a giant lumbering mess of bad writing, laughable special effects and general boredom. It’s almost as if the writers thought of the crazy central premise and then struggled to really pad it out, opting to use the tried-and-tested slasher formula in the end. The result is a film which had potential to be a silly time-waster in the right hands but from the man who brought us Crocodile 2: Death Roll and Planet Raptor, I expected nothing and was rightly given it.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Stuff, The (1985)

The Stuff (1985)

Are you eating it …or is it eating you?

David ‘Moe’ Rutherford is an industrial saboteur hired by a group of unscrupulous businessmen to steal the secret ingredients of a new fast-food product called The Stuff that is sweeping the nation. No one knows what is in it but as soon as anyone eats it, they become hooked, eventually replacing all of their regular food with pots of the yoghurt-like substance. But as he investigates further, he discovers that The Stuff is actually alive and is highly dangerous to whoever should eat it.

 

Ah 80s horror movies – the best kind of horror movies! Gleefully doing whatever they could get away with and not caring about the consequences, they owned the home video market for the decade, turning everything and anything they could into instruments of death. With one of the strangest ideas for a film yet, The Stuff updates the old 50s sci-fi B movie formula into the 80s with gloriously gory results. Coming off as some comedy-horror mash-up of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Quatermass II and The Blob, The Stuff never has enough laughs to constantly amuse and never has enough scares to really get under your skin but it will leave a memorable impression on you.

Ice cream. Yoghurt. Flavoured dessert. Whatever it is, ‘The Stuff’ is a fantastic creation. You can’t criticise Larry Cohen for lacking ambition with this project. The way he constructs the whole frenzy over ‘The Stuff’ as a product is scarily-realistic, with our supermarket shelves today full of weird products we know little about and which are aggressively marketed to the consumer. Who knows if there is anything like The Stuff sitting in there today? The commercial satire in here is something that Paul Verhoeven would have been proud of in Robocop or Starship Troopers. The mock adverts for ‘The Stuff’ are hilariously realistic and a whole marketing campaign looks to have been constructed purely for the film, with catchphrases, slogans and packaging all really hitting home the conglomerate message. Though the film is pitching ‘The Stuff,’ for all intents and purposes this could be Coca Cola or McDonalds with its multi-national propaganda. Scary thought. Consumerism doesn’t get an easy ride here.

But we aren’t here to watch commercial satire, we’re here to watch a horror flick and this is partly where The Stuff falls down. I think the comparisons to The Blob just created false expectations of how the white goo was going to behave but it’s not far short. The Stuff works very well until the final third. Though not that much happens, it works more like a crime thriller or episode of The X-Files as slowly but surely the conspiracy behind ‘The Stuff’ is revealed. Suspense is built up, there are a few tantalising glimpses of what ‘The Stuff’ can really do and there are lot of interesting loose threads that you’d expect the final third to answer. Lead actor Michael Moriarty works with Cohen again here after Q, The Winged Serpent and he’s one of the film’s strongest assets, portraying his seemingly dim-witted saboteur with a great relish and cunning.

Sadly, it’s in the last third where it all falls apart and you have to wonder how rushed Cohen got when he was editing it. Crucial plot points seem to get forgotten about and the story moves along far too rapidly considering the leisurely pace of the first act. The introduction of a far-right militia group to save the day in the finale just seems to show the film running out of creative ways to end the film. Ultimately, The Stuff is let down by the quality of its special effects. The more effective make-up effects scenes involving ‘The Stuff’ seeping out of victims’ mouths look alright, if a little rushed, and the film’s best gore moment comes right at the finale involving one unlucky character. But it’s the matte work and some dodgy miniatures which hurt the film as ‘The Stuff’ isn’t brought to life very convincingly when it moves. I think the correct word is ‘dated’ and no doubt the effects looked a lot better thirty years ago. Above all, despite the numerous gore moments, the film isn’t very scary. Yes, you wouldn’t want to get caught in the same corridor as ‘The Stuff’ but it’s hardly nightmare-inducing material.

 

The Stuff is one of those films that you’ll look back upon and believe that it was better than it actually is. The idea is fantastic, the mood is generally spot-on and there are some memorable moments but it’s a definitely a case of the execution not living entirely up to its premise. It does look quite delectable to eat though!

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Humanoids from the Deep (1980)

Humanoids from the Deep (1980)

They’re not human. But they hunt human women. Not for killing. For mating.

Something strange is happening in the sleepy fishing village of Noyo when salmon stocks begin to dwindle and dogs are turning up dead. Scientist Susan Drake and local fisherman Jim Hill team up to investigate the cause of the problems and discover a terrible race of fishlike humanoid creatures, spawned by mutant DNA, have begun rising from the ocean floor. With the annual Salmon Festival on the horizon, some unwanted guests are about to crash the festivities.

 

I missed out the key part about the humanoids wanting to mate with human women (not just any women either but hot, young and usually topless females – these creatures are pretty choosy!) but the notion of a bit of a monster-human rape would have been enough to throw a lot of potential viewers off this exploitation classic from the master of sleaze, Roger Corman. Humanoids from the Deep plays like the dirtier version of Creature from the Black Lagoon. Remember all of those shots of the Gill Man gazing lovingly at Julie Adams and then making off with her to his lair….and remember all of the questions as to why he wanted to take her. Well Corman is happy to answer those question in graphic form here.

Focusing on this one sleazy aspect of the film would do a dis-service to Humanoids from the Deep, a great schlocky throwback to the 50s sci-fi horrors of old coupled with the promise of what was to come in the gory horror decade that was the 80s. It’s low budget and that vibe hits from the opening scene and title credit but the grotty and gloomy appearance of the film works in its favour. This fishing village is the perfect location to set a horror film, vaguely reminiscent of Jaws to some degree, and is equally depressing and creepy. Humanoids from the Deep has a decent pace and there’s enough going on at any one time to keep the film interesting even if the first half of the film seems to be little more than human drama interlinked with a couple of random humanoid attacks. Plot and script wasn’t high on the agenda here as there’s little questioning as to how or why the humanoids have arrived but rather the ‘what’ as in ‘what are we going to do about it?’ Best to sit back and take everything as it comes.

And everything comes! The humanoid suit was designed by quality FX specialist Rob Bottin, more famous for his work on The Thing and a number of Paul Verhoeven films. I say suit in singular form rather than plural as apparently only one fully-operational suit was created due to costs – the other two suits you can see in the film had issues and so the camera is only able to shoot them from certain angles. The humanoids look like bad ass updates of the Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon. With long, gangly arms, a set of razor sharp teeth, green-skinned and covered in sea weed, and with a high-pitched shrieking scream, these monsters certainly look and sound the part. They’re pretty handy when it comes to dispatching victims too. The blood is free flowing with mutilated dogs turning up, guys having their backs slashed, throats ripped apart and insides gored out. Kids are killed, babies terrified and there’s even a disturbing scene involving a ventriloquist dummy.

If there is one glaring issue with Humanoids from the Deep, it’s the waste of Doug McClure. Though he gets top-billing, McClure is phoning it in big-style from the beginning and he gets very little to do. A man of his considerable B-movie charm should have been getting a little more rough and ready with the humanoids, throwing punches and being more gung-ho to save the town. Co-star Vic Morrow was another talented B-movie veteran who could have been given more to do other than stick close to the script as the villainous Slattery. It’s a waste of their talents and with the film running for a little over eighty minutes, a bit more could have been done with them.

It wouldn’t be right to end the review without going full circle and talking about the infamous scenes of the humanoids getting jiggy with human females. They’re guys-in-suits shoving actresses to the ground when all is said and done. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy but the scenes don’t ‘mean’ anything to me, they’re just daft exploitation scenes from a film which goes below the belt at every opportunity for maximum effect. Director Barbara Peters shot the film and was finishing up but Corman wasn’t happy with the finished results, thought it was too tame and requested extra nudity. Peters refused and wanted nothing to do with the film, Corman fired her and hired someone else to shoot the scenes. Ironically, these scenes never made it into the final cut and ended up as deleted scenes on the DVD, with Peters’ credit restored to one of the popular and enduring of all of Corman’s films. Between this, Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World, Corman had cemented his legacy as one of horror’s most popular producers.

 

Not one for the purists, what’s not to like about Humanoids from the Deep? It’s a trash movie masterpiece at its most exquisite: blood, boobs and mutated beasts. They don’t make them like this anymore!

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Dead Space (1991)

Dead Space (1991)

No Place To Hide

After receiving a distress signal from the Phaebon research facility, Commander Krieger and his robot sidekick Tinpan respond straight away. Arriving on the planet, Krieger is told that there is no problem but due to damage his ship sustained during a fight in space, he is forced to stay and carry out repairs. The scientists on board the facility were attempting to find a cure for the deadly Delta 5 disease and created an even more deadly anti-virus to destroy it. But the anti-virus has become sentient, growing into a large creature which is now living off the crew members on board.

 

Dead Space bears no relation to the successful video game series (though I do note costume similarities between the game’s main character, Isaac Clarke, and the robot sidekick in the film). In fact it is a remake of Roger Corman’s cult classic Alien clone Forbidden World, a film which (though lacking in many qualities) is one of Corman’s best films. Dead Space is a rip off of a rip off of a landmark film which is almost like wearing third generation hand-me down clothes which have been worn and worn to death in the years since the original owner put them on for the first time. Shot in just seventeen days, Dead Space will do little to convince you otherwise.

The plots in Dead Space and Forbidden World are almost identical: the intergalactic hero and his robot sidekick responding to a distress signal from a research station; the virus-like creature which has escaped it’s incubation; the team of scientists both in denial about what they have created and in fear of what may happen; and the inevitable carnage which ensues when the creature grows bigger and hungrier and begins to kill everyone off. There’s even a random and completely-irrelevant-to-the-rest-of-the-film sequence at the beginning just like in Forbidden World where our hero is involved in a space dogfight for no apparent reason other than to recycle footage from Battle Beyond the Stars and kill about five minutes of screen time.

The big difference between the two films is the presence and/or absence of the trashy elements which made Forbidden World such a cult hit. Dead Space sorely needed an injection of gore, nudity and general low budget sleaze – it’s the film that Forbidden World would be if it removed most of its gore, naked chick quota and copious amount of sleaze and cheese. There’s nothing here to get overly worked over. Odd moments of blood, including a decent head-ripping late in the film, are not enough to save it. Dead Space doesn’t even attempt to send a wink towards the audience with its content. It’s played straight, serious and without a hint of irony or self-awareness.

Dead Space commits the cardinal sin of movie making and that is it to be boring. Even though it’s got a seventy-two minute run time, the film feels twice as long as that. Characters skulk around in the sparsely-decorated corridors talking about how they’re going to find and stop the creature for scene-upon-scene of innate tedium. The first hour grinds itself through the motions, only really picking up in the finale when the creature is given the big reveal, which is too little too late. The monster itself looks terribly static in the brief glimpses we get of it. For the majority of the film, it is masked in insane amounts of smoke/fog/ice when it’s outside the station or just dimmed in dingy rooms and corridors when it’s inside. It’s a pity because the design looks good, though you won’t get to see it walking around on two legs like the Xenomorph-wannabe from the cover artwork.

Fans of TV shows will be quick to spot Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as one of the scientists on board the station. No doubt this is the type of film he’ll be wanting to hide on his CV now that he’s pretty famous in Hollywood right now. Cranston isn’t great but given where he’s ended up, it’s easy to ignore it. The rest of the cast are pretty horrible, including Marc Singer as Krieger who is introduced to the audience laying down naked in some sort of steam room. Only, unlike in Forbidden World, the hero of the day only gets to dream about the female scientists naked rather than get down and dirty in the flesh.

 

Dead Space is just that – a completely lifeless amount of time between opening and closing credits where there’s little to see, little to hear and little to worry about. You’d expect better from the low budget canon of Roger Corman, even if by ‘better’ I mean sleazy and cheesy. This is neither and all the worse for it.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Blood Glacier (2013)

Blood Glacier (2013)

Up there, the cold no longer the worst danger….

A team of scientists investigating climate change at a remote outpost in the Austrian Alps come across a mysterious organism which has thawed from the ice and has the ability to blend the DNA of multiple creatures, creating horrifying and very deadly hybrids. When infection spreads to human hosts and with an impending visit by a team of government officials, the group must fight for their lives to survive this terror.

 

With the spectre of The Thing hanging around it from beginning to end, Blood Glacier is a film with an interesting premise full of potential which doesn’t quite click into place. It should be unfair to pair the two films off against each other but when the front cover of the DVD brazenly states “A slice of horror reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing” the film is asking for trouble. Blood Glacier is The Thing-lite and whilst that’s not a bad thing for a lot of the time, you really wish this one would kick in harder during the second half like Carpenter’s legendary sci-fi horror.

Blood Glacier has a strong opening half which sets things up nicely and provides suitable elements of mystery, suspense and a few moments of droll black humour. The atmosphere is sharp, the discovery of the strange glacier and resulting encounter with the mutated fox is unsettling and the scene is set for a thrilling second half. Only this never really materialises, delivering patchy moments of action, scare horror set pieces and a couple of bizarre plot twists. Several scenes are dragged out far longer than needed (for instance, the scene with the characters contemplating putting a dog down) and this kills any sort of momentum that Blood Glacier tries to build up. Just when things get interesting, the film takes its foot off the pedal and slows down. Thankfully, the foreign origins cement the film in reality, avoiding the insulting pitfalls of throwing in good-looking teenage characters and sexual elements like so many American horrors succumb to, and keeping the situation as plausible and believable as possible without getting too silly.

Blood Glacier uses the Alps setting to perfection. Like the greatest isolation horror films, the film conveys the sense of loneliness and sheer desperation of the group of people trapped in the middle of nowhere and facing an abominable monster. The cinematography is fantastic, with the vast natural beauty of the Alps doing the rest of the hard work in really hammering home the scope of the situation. Sadly, the characters populating this lush scenery are rather one-dimensional and unlikable, save for leading man Gerhard Liebmann’s bearded Janek character. The rest of the characters vary between being unpleasant or non-descript and neither is a good thing. Too many characters are introduced at the mid-way point to make any impact upon the film other than provide the monsters with a few more victims.

Blood Glacier earns major brownie points by sticking to practical effects for the most part, bringing to life it’s variety of mutated creatures with gooey old school make-up effects. Thanks to the creative idea behind the DNA mutating everything in its path, the film offers up a host of peculiar and monstrous hybrids including foxes, goats, beetles and eagles and it’s clear that the effects team had a field day coming up with ideas. The only problem is that you don’t get to see enough of them and when you do, they’re usually semi-lit, disguised with rapid cuts and flashy editing and move rather jerky and awkwardly when you do get a glimpse. The creature designers should have had more confidence in their effects because when they do get more than a fleeting moment of screen time, they look nightmarishly horrific. The goat-thing that breaks through a window at one point deserved more screen time.

The creatures don’t get to do that much in the film apart from make a few “boo” appearances and the body count is surprisingly limited as a result. There is enough gore on show to quench the lightest thirst of blood fans but those looking for wall-to-wall splatter will be disappointed. I guess gore wasn’t a priority for director Marvin Kren but given the nature of the DNA-splicing monster, the possibilities for some icky on-screen transformations ala The Thing are almost endless – an untapped wealth of set pieces have been glossed over for whatever reason.

 

I really wanted to love Blood Glacier but found myself disengaged with it. All of the necessary ingredients are present but the resultant blend is underwhelming and leaves you shrugging your shoulders wondering “what if.” It’s by no means the worst example of this genre but it is too light for its own good.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆