Tag Creatures/Monsters

Cave, The (2005)

The Cave (2005)

There are places man was never meant to go.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Feast (2005)

Feast (2005)

They’re Hungry. You’re Dinner.

A motley group of strangers find themselves trapped in an isolated tavern and must band together to fight off a family of flesh-eating monsters.

 

With a plot that has been done to death time and time again, your typical low budget horror film cast with a few recognisable faces and the fact that Wes Craven was an executive producer (purely so the makers of the film could slap his name on the front cover), Feast didn’t exactly set itself up to bat with great poise. The opening few minutes reek of a director desperately trying to make his film stand out from the crowd with the mini-bios of each character and their odds of surviving the night appearing during freeze frames of each patron. It’s a bit gimmicky and self-referential but it was early days. Stereotypes are played up with the ditzy barmaid, the hick owner, grizzled barman and a variety of stock characters peppering the bar. You know that the film is going to be by-the-book but you’re unsure by how much. However, the moment the ‘hero’ bursts through the doors of the tavern to warn everybody of the coming danger, the rules and predictability go straight out of the window and Feast turns into one of the best damned gore-fests I’ve seen in a long time. No character is safe. No subject is too taboo. Nothing will go the way it should go. Just sit back and enjoy the ride because it’s going to be fast and frenetic, with plenty of bad taste thrown in for good measure. Feast strides into the foray with a ridiculous amount of swagger and bravado, assured in the knowledge that the rest of the film is as confident in its own appeal to the audience as these opening five minutes.

It’s actually quite hard to review Feast and not give away too much because half of the fun in Feast is actually waiting to see what happens to which character. Believe me there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns. Every genre cliché is battered around. Just when you think the film is heading in one direction, the rug is pulled from underneath you. And then just as you start to get to your feet, the rug is pulled out again. It’s a relentless ride of twists and it’s a great credit to the writers that they manage to keep everything as entertaining at the end as they did at the beginning. The film does start to lose steam half-way through as there’s only so many logical twists and turns that the narrative can take before it becomes tiring and because it throws everything but the kitchen sink into the opening half, there’s not a lot else left to do but repeat.

By this point, it doesn’t really matter because the blood and gore are flowing freely, and the film has already won enough goodwill to see itself out to the end. The deaths are all violent, gruesome and frequent. There is a pretty big group of people to thin out at the beginning and the film wastes little time in getting rid of most of them early on. At times, the film can be a little dark to see what is going on and director John Gulager does have the annoying tendency to throw in plenty of cuts and rapid edits during the attack scenes to make them a little disorientating. Thankfully, the finale provides ample opportunity to catch up on any missed gore as the make-up effects team go all-out to drench the screen in as much blood and guts as possible.

Feast does have a wicked sense of black humour to go along with the twists, some of it which will not be to everyone’s tastes and if you’re easily offended then you’re best off avoiding (though if you think this one is bad, wait until you check out the sequels). From the monsters humping everything and everyone in sight (I’ll let you find out for yourselves) to the almost computer-game like names of the characters (Honey Pie, Boss Man, Hot Wheels, etc), there’s nothing too goofy or silly to be included. Does it harm the film? Yes and no. If you’re looking for serious then look elsewhere. But if you’re in the mood for one of those ‘switch off your brain’ flicks then this is right down your alley. A lot of the laughs to be had come from inappropriate moments and ‘I shouldn’t really laugh at that but can’t help it’ twists and turns – if you haven’t got a grin on your face at least a handful of times here, then you’ll need to have a humour transplant.

Clu Gulager, of Return of the Living Dead fame, is one of the recognisable faces amongst the cast – after all, his son directed the film. Henry Rollins has a few of the best moments of the film as the motivational speaker who needs to change his trousers when they are ripped during an attack and is stuck wearing a pair of pink tights for the bulk of the film. The rest of the acting isn’t particularly bad, nor is it memorable – the characters are all slightly more dimensional than they have right to be, but these characters aren’t exactly an actor’s friend. The major positive is that there’s no real main character and a lot of the supporting characters get equal screen time. This is one occasion when not having a lead character to dominate the screen helps the ‘group sticks together’ mentality. It also means the film becomes less predictable as no one is really safe until the end credits roll.

The monsters themselves do get a lot of personality traits (especially the more amorous younger creature) but are rarely glimpsed in full, confined to the shadows or edited in such a way as to avoid revealing what they really are. I guess it wouldn’t have hurt to let us know just what these things were but sometimes less is more. The suits look decent enough when you do catch the odd glimpse and they do look equally terrifying and ridiculous in the sequels, who were less afraid to showcase the monsters in the daylight and in full view of the camera.

 

Feast is a true feast of horror and comedy, which is insane from the start and doesn’t let go. It doesn’t just break the rules, it tosses them away and does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it, and doesn’t care who it offends along the way. From Dusk Till Dawn on steroids would be a great way to summarise this.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Food of the Gods, The (1976)

The Food of the Gods (1976)

One Taste Is All It Takes!

When a mysterious substance starts bubbling up from the ground on a remote island in British Columbia, a local farmer believes it is a gift from God and decides to feed it to his chickens, causing them to grow to enormous size. However, rats, grubs and wasps also feed on the substance and soon the giant monsters infest the island, which causes problems for other civilians who are visiting.

 

Based on a ‘portion’ of a novel by H.G. Wells (that should read, literally no resemblance to the story whatsoever because a portion could literally be one word!) and brought to the screen by notorious director Bert I. Gordon, of The Amazing Colossal Man and Earth Vs The Spider fame, known for his love of directing movies featuring super-sized creatures, The Food of the Gods is one of the 70s ‘nature runs amok’ movies where Mother Nature had decided to take revenge upon mankind by unleashing a slew of beasts and disasters upon the Earth. It doesn’t bode well and that’s before the review has even properly begun.

The Food of the Gods is an atrociously made low budget film, but it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation precedes, probably because it’s deadly serious. There’s no messing around here with the way these animals deal with their human lunches, and the cautionary environmental messages are still prevalent today with worries about genetically modified crops and plastic entering the food chain. The Food of the Gods gets straight down to business within the first seven minutes, dispatching a character, showing us the threats and giving us as much story exposition as you’re going to get to explain everything. Don’t even try to think of plausible reasons as to what the substance is or why it exists because you won’t get any. As cheesy and preposterous as things get during the running time, the film itself doesn’t cross over into parody or cheesiness. Everything is played with a straight face and it surprisingly works the better for it.

This stretches to the cast. The characters are dull; the actors behind them aren’t great. The Food of the Gods isn’t exactly your Shakespearean actor type of film, and the limited dialogue the cast have got here doesn’t do much to give them any sort of personality or characteristics. They’re not really fleshed out enough other than to provide names so other characters can lament them when they’re rat chow. In a world where rats and chickens have grown to enormous sizes, the characters do remarkably well to maintain their composure when faced with such absurd sights. A little more hysteria would have added to the film’s drama, with the two younger female characters being the only two to really seem to worry about dying at the hands of these rats.

Gordon’s Beginning of the End back in 1957 featured some truly awful special effects but here we go, nineteen years later, and it seems that the director has remained static in his approach – only this time, he’s not able to mask them as easily with the black and white footage. There’s no stop motion here, no animatronic models or the equivalent – Gordon has the budget of a postage stamp to bring to life these mutated monsters and so a mixture of giant rat and chicken puppet heads for close-ups, real footage of rats rear-projected or shoddy matte work is used to bring these beasties to life. The chicken head provides the film’s most ridiculous scene, when one of the characters strays inside the barn and is attacked by a crew member working the head in front of the camera. The wasps look like brown blobs during their moment in the spotlight. It’s up to the rats to anchor the film and they are the main threat here – a larger variety of animals would have worked better because the rats quickly overstay their welcome. I’m pretty sure there are shots of rats drowning and being shot with a paintball gun – some scenes seem to feature dead rats lying prone whilst their comrades scurry over them – which adds a little sour taste in the mouth. But the effects, for as pathetic as they look, do take a painstaking lot of time to get right and Gordon’s attention to detail has to be commended, even if the final results are laughable.

There is enough shock and gore here to satisfy horror fans though. The kills flow thick and fast and there’s a fair bit of blood splashed around, particularly when the rats get hungry and start nibbling away. I can’t think of too many more squeamish things than seeing rats like this and they will get under your skin, as silly as the blown-up footage looks. The idea that there is some sort of ‘head rat’ – an albino with pink eyes that hangs around in the background whilst the brown rats do all of the dirty work – is laughable but adds for one last jump at the end. The film goes all Night of the Living Dead for the finale, as the survivors barricade themselves in the farmhouse as the rats launch their final onslaught.

 

The Food of the Gods is rightfully lambasted as a terrible B-movie but it’s not all doom and gloom. Embrace the cheapness of Gordon’s butchered version of an H.G. Wells story and there’s a lot of entertainment to be had. There’s a good reason this has become a cult classic over the years.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Pit, The (1981)

The Pit (1981)

Jamie wouldn’t kill anyone…unless Teddy told him to!

Jamie is a lonely preteen boy who struggles to make friends and whose sole comforts come in the form of the reptiles in his terrarium and his teddy bear. One day out in the woods, he makes a disturbing discovery – a pit where prehistoric troglodytes have somehow managed to survive. Starting to feed them with raw meat bought from the butchers, Jamie soon realises their insatiable appetites need bigger quantities of flesh and so anyone who crosses his path is taken on a little trip down to the woods.

 

Hey, this was from the 80s after all – random stuff happened all of the time in horror films! Following on the tried-and-tested revenge plotline that so many horrors were sticking to at the time, The Pit puts a slightly different twist on the narrative. Rather than some guy in a mask coming back years later to get revenge for being bullied as a kid, Jamie is quite happy to feed his enemies to the troglodytes in the woods. Well, needs must and in this case, Jamie is very needy.

The Pit was a big let-down given how many rave reviews there are out for it. The basic storyline is, even for this site, too daft to be taken seriously and the execution is even worse. Slow, plodding and with not much atmosphere or excitement, I reckon the story would have worked better with a comedic element to it given the hokey nature of the storyline. Instead, to its detriment, The Pit is played straight and serious. There are times when the film looks like it’s going to break out into self-awareness (such as Jamie wheeling the old woman towards the pit) but no one behind the camera was clever enough to embrace this side and instead, we get a dour, monotonous and overly talky affair which only really picks up speed at about half-way through when Jamie starts feeding the troglodytes. Even then, the gore is minimal, and you don’t see much, if anything. He just pushes people into the pit and that’s it! More frustrating is the final third of the film, where Jamie seemingly disappears whilst the police investigation into the deaths takes centre stage. The structure of the story is jarring and looks to have been winged together as they were filming.

As Jamie, Sammy Snyders plays one of the most obnoxious kids ever put to film – he’s got a face only a mother could love, and his eyes hide a lot of deep anger and resentment. I’m not sure why the writers thought giving him the characteristics he has here would be a good thing – he’s meant to be a sympathetic leading character given his troubles around making friends and generally being normal. He’s not only obnoxious but his character is inherently creepy and a bit of a pervert, becoming smitten with his new babysitter and trying to express his love in strange ways – by basically feeding anyone who gets in his way to the troglodytes. If I was this babysitter, I’ve have taken on a new client asap. Snyders does a good job in bringing the role to life though and you certainly wouldn’t want your own kids hanging around with him. The funny thing is that he’s actually referred to as being autistic on the box of the old VHS tape. In today’s world, he’d just be any other kid, maybe with a bit of medication and professional help depending on the severity of his autism, but in the world of 1981 he’s this psychopathic loner.

The troglodytes are just as bad as you’d expect them to be in something as low budget. They look like drunken ewoks and you rarely see them in their full glory, with the director opting to keep them hidden down in the dark pit for as long as he can and only reveal their shining eyes glaring up at Jamie. There’s no attempt to explain how they’ve survived this long (they’re hungry little bleeders so how on earth have they been eating?) nor how they’ve managed to survive in this tiny pit. In original drafts of the script, the monsters were said to inhabit Jamie’s head and he was the one doing the killing which would have made a lot more sense. But there’s a lot of things happening here which make little sense, like why Jamie’s parents decide to go on holiday but are seemingly gone for the entire film. Have they deserted him? There is a talking teddy bear which tells him to do bad things but that’s never explained, nor is the twist ending, though it makes for a rather poetic final shot.

 

The Pit is a dull, wholly weird film where I’m not quite exactly sure what the makers of the film had originally set out to do. There are odd moments of inspiration, but I think they’re accidental rather than deliberate. Snyders makes for a memorable protagonist/antagonist but there’s little else here aside from the random weirdness. If ever a film was gagging for a proper remake, then this is it!

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Isolation (2005)

Isolation (2005)

It didn’t want to be born. Now it doesn’t want to die.

Cash-strapped farmer Dan Reilly allows a local bio-genetics firm to experiment on some of his cows to make them grow faster. However, the experiment goes wrong when one of Dan’s cows gives birth to a calf which is already pregnant with mutated foetuses. During an autopsy, one of the still-living foetuses manages to escape and with an ability to infect cows as well as humans, it is a race against time to stop the creature before it leaves the farm.

 

In horror, no animal is safe. You’ve got nature’s fearsome predators like sharks and crocodiles which are all too easy to turn into maneaters. You’ve got spiders which provoke instinctive reactions in a large percentage of people when confronted with one. But cows? The animals that are generally gentle, quite emotional and intelligent, commonly known to ‘moo’, produce milk and generally just stand around all day grazing? Actually, according to statistics, they’re the most dangerous large animal in the UK, killing more people in the last fifteen years than dogs so there might be something there to work with. Perhaps Isolation was made about ten years too late to capitalise on the mid-90s BSE scare in the UK (commonly referred to as mad cow disease), where thousands of cows were slaughtered to prevent the spread of disease. This type of body horror would have caused a few ripples if audiences thought this sort of thing could happen to them if ‘mad cow disease’ spread rapidly.

OK, so putting aside the notion of a killer cow for a moment, Isolation is a pretty creepy film which does a lot of things right in building an ominous atmosphere in the remote farm setting, borrowing plenty of style and tone from the likes of Carpenter and Cronenberg. First time director Billy O’Brien does a fantastic job in creating the right mood for the film, with the cold Irish countryside becoming a bleak place as the carefully-selected grey and gloomy colour palette offers little hope or vitality for the camera. This doesn’t look like a great place at the best of times, not least when there’s a mutated creature on the loose. O’Brien keeps the film grounded in minimalization for the most part, crafting the story well and slowly building up the mystery as to exactly what has happened and how bad it will get. If there is an issue here, it’s that it takes too long to get to a position where the horror can be unleashed upon the audience. There’s only so much biding time that the script can churn out and Isolation begins to wear a little thin before things pick up. You get the sense, especially if you glance at the running time left, that the payoff won’t be quite as satisfying as you’re expecting it to be.

Isolation does shift into more traditional ‘monster on the loose’ territory in the final third where the matured version of the creature starts to hunt down the survivors and it’s here that the script gives up and resorts to the characters running around in dark places. There are a few parallels with The Thing in the manner of how the infection spreads and there is some underlying body horror but it’s not as explicit as I’d have liked – let’s see one of the human characters explode with blood and goo when the infection has fully spread. Even the creature, looking suitably squirmy and nasty in its smallest form, doesn’t get much time on screen during the stalking and attack scenes. It doesn’t look bad in, well what you actually see of it anyway, but its underused and kept to brief glimpses and dark corners of the farm. Tantalising morsels of what could have been, but we don’t quite get the main course. And that just about sums Isolation up: it promises a lot but doesn’t really deliver when it really counts.

What is nice is that the limited effects on show are all practical and have that realistic vibe that CGI lacks. As the creature is meant to be mutated and defective, there’s no real shape or pattern to it, just lots of blood, flesh and bone all skewed and twisted. There’s a respectable amount of blood on show, with flesh wounds coming out particularly effective thanks to the make-up department. On top of this realistic carnage, the actors do their characters justice and make them believable enough to get the notion of a killer cow put to the back of your mind. John Lynch is solid as Dan: likeable and intense enough to show how desperate he was to resort to allowing the bio-genetics firm to experiment on his cow. Only Marcel Iures as the ‘mad scientist’ comes off remotely hammy in the final third but we all know what happens to that type of character in a film such as this!

 

Though Isolation might be a little derivative of some genre classics, it manages to craft a nice, effective mood with some decent moments, only failing to really capitalise on all of the hard work in a final third which doesn’t do the rest of the film justice. Forget any pre-conceived notions of a film about a killer cow being silly – you’ll think twice before you next cross over that farmer’s field.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆