Tag Supernatural

Deathwatch (2002)

Deathwatch (2002)

Deliver them from evil

In the middle of the First World War, nine British soldiers caught behind enemy lines seek refuge in a complex network of German trenches. They soon discover that they aren’t alone in the trench and what is hunting them down isn’t a German soldier.

 

I do like a good war-based horror film, partly because the real horrors of war are far scarier than anything a writer could dream up for the screen, but also partly due to the sense of man vs monster that such outings can conjure up. Soldiers form a unique bond serving with each other during war time, as they know they have to depend on each other in life-or-death situations. They are a tight-knit group, closer than family in many respects, so it makes filmic sense (even if it is exploitative) to pit this type of cohesive unit up against perils even more deadly than the human enemies they face. How does discipline, bravery and masculine bravado deal with supernatural or monstrous forces?

There’s a real lack of decent horror outings based upon the First and Second World Wars – filmmakers just don’t seem to get it right. The likes of The Bunker and The Keep promise much but for various reasons, they just failed to completely click. Deathwatch is another – it has some great potential but just doesn’t anything decent thing with it. The introduction is all guns blazing, with the soldiers going over-the-top and experiencing the agony of no man’s land. The film is very disorientating here with the editing, the noise and the smoke but it’s designed like that for a purpose to replicate the sheer chaos of going over-the-top. Anyone with even half a brain can spot the big plot twist ending coming a mile away from a certain point in the introduction and it’s a pity it was signposted so blatant as it detracts from the narrative.

Deathwatch is shot with a bleak colour palette, with greys and browns dominating the screen and reflecting the grim realities of trench warfare. This is a world where mud is about the only thing there is an abundance of. The trench sets look realistic and very claustrophobic, and the weather is constantly raining or foggy, adding to the bleak atmosphere.  This must have been awful to shoot as an actor. The film also does a great of conveying the fact that there’s something amiss about this place, which is a task in itself as we all know how horrific trench warfare was, and the signs for them successfully leaving are ominous. But then the film proceeds to do very little with it – it’s all well and good in creating some decent atmosphere but it needs to serve a purpose.

Deathwatch does a decent job in catering to the horror crowd with some of the basics. There are red mists of blood, wailing and moaning noises, piles of dead bodies (some wrapped gruesomely in barbed wire), blood dripping down the sides of trenches and copious amounts of rats – the well-crafted visual nightmare is clear to see. However, there’s no real sense of narrative linking it all together. It’s not quite a ghost story. It’s not quite a slasher. There’s no hint of zombies. No real monstrous menace. Just a lot of things happening that can’t quite be explained by the characters, as one-by-one they succumb to various incidents. It’s very much a cycle of each character falling victim to paranoia or madness before they’re killed off by something. Things make a bit more sense (to some degree) with the ambiguous ending but the morality-play twist just reeks of desperation on the part of the writers as if they had no other way to conclude the story.

The characters do drift off a bit too much into stereotype: the upper class captain who doesn’t have the respect of his men; the aggressive psychotic who just wants to kill Germans anyway he can; the Bible-thumping believer who feels they are part of a bigger plan; the pasty-faced rookie who is too naive; the tough sergeant who the men look up to more than the captain; and the cynical doom monger. The easiest way to distinguish them is by their accents, as each one is conveniently given a regional accent to not only allow the audience to tell them apart, but also use our knowledge of accents to put two and two together in regards to potential character traits. It’s fairly cheap characterisation but it works as well as it needs to. In his first post-Billy Elliot role, Jamie Bell is awkward in the lead and needs the help of some reliable character actors to support him. Laurence Fox is decent as the foppish Captain Jennings, whilst most UK viewers will recognise Kris Marshall from the old BT adverts. Andy Serkis steals the show (when doesn’t he?) as the slightly-deranged Quinn, hamming it up to no end in a trademark nutjob performance. The cast is decent all round, it’s a shame they don’t have much to work with.

 

Deathwatch is highly atmospheric and very creepy, doing a great job in setting up what could have been a fantastically devilish horror. Sadly, there’s so much wasted potential here but this kind of goes along with the film’s period setting. The film works as a metaphor for the bleakness, pointlessness and futility of the First World War, with the expectations of the soldiers going off to fight in the glorious war suddenly dashed with the reality of trench warfare and a life of hardship a nice companion for Deathwatch raising hopes with the audience, only to dash it with little end result.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Asphyx, The (1972)

The Asphyx (1972)

Immortality … what would you sacrifice for it?

In 1875, Sir Hugo Cunningham uses his interest in photography to study the dying. As he notices strange blurs only on the pictures he takes near the moment of death, Cunningham theorises that what he can see Is the Asphyx, a spirit that the Ancient Greeks believed came to claim the soul as it departed the body. Cunningham discovers he can trap the Asphyx in the beam of a phosphate lamp and that by imprisoning it in the light, he can halt death and achieve immortality.

 

The Asphyx is a little-known effort from the Hammer-dominated Anglo-horror cycle which originated back in the late 1950s and was now in its swansong in the 70s. Conceptually a very Edgar Allan Poe-esque psychological thriller but with a dark, macabre edge, The Asphyx is head and shoulders above the Frankenstein, vampire, mummy and demonic possession films that Hammer, Amicus and their competitors had been churning out for years, with a classy sci-fi orientated story that many found a little too dull and dreary, leading to its obscurity over the years.

Take the hokeyness on display with a pinch of salt as there’s too much shoulder shrugging with plot holes to worry about the contrivances and coincidences and just sit back and soak up the sheer morbid sense of dread on offer. You’ve just got to accept what you’re seeing is reasonable and logical and come to the same conclusions as the characters, which is fairly easy to do given how well and convincing the film portrays the whole notion of death. It’s almost an oxymoron for me to describe the film as ‘intelligent’ given what I’ve just said but the story treats its subject material with a lot of respect. The Asphyx is slow-moving, sluggishly paced at times, but never boring as the scientists slowly develop their plans for capturing the Asphyx and put this into practice. You just know it’s not going to end well for someone as there’s always a bitter twist at the end for bold scientists trying to play God and here is no exception. The journey to that point is what makes this film work so well as there’s a consistently sinister undercurrent throughout – everything may look and appear to be very tame and under control but the tension is building to a head as to what will eventually happen.

Director by Peter Newbrook in his only directorial outing (he was in charge of second unit photography on Lawrence of Arabia so he had a good pedigree when it came to lining up shots), The Asphyx’s production values don’t give any indication of the low budget – a lavishly-decorated laboratory that Dr Frankenstein himself would be fond of is the focal point for much of the film’s running time, with steampunk-like contraptions and devices all being used by the scientists to try and trap the asphyx. Without looking at the date it was made, you could quite easily mistake The Asphyx for one of Hammer’s glorious Technicolour period pieces from the late 50s/early 60s, such is the attention to detail. Being set in the Victorian era allows the filmmakers the opportunity to explore the advances in science and technology that were beginning to come through at the time, creating a nice mix between modern scientific research and old-school obsession with the occult and supernatural which works well with the story. The scenes of the ghostly asphyx struggling to escape from the blue phosphate beam, wailing and shrieking away, are genuinely unsettling. It’s clearly just a cheap-looking hand puppet but the way it’s presented is ethereal and memorable. It’s great that the film doesn’t need to resort to grisly set pieces to shock its audience, though there are a few moments where you think if this had been Hammer, they’d have gone a bit further on-screen. It’s also worth noting that the method for catching and containing the asphyx, the blue light containment system, is virtually the same one that Ghostbusters used in 1984.

Performances are top notch across the board, but the credit needs to go to Robert Stephens as Cunningham, a man slowly driven mad by his obsession with immortality. It’s the classic Frankenstein/Dr Jekyll-like descent into madness that doesn’t see Stephens crossover into the realms of overacting, though one sequence involving him being electrocuted does push the boundaries a bit too far. I could have imagined Christopher Lee taking on this role, someone with a bit more of a sharp, sinister edge to his on-screen personas but Stephens does admirable work as it stands.

 

Intelligent and thought-provoking but sadly not finding an audience upon it’s release, The Asphyx is a great obscurity which is now receiving more critical acclaim having finally been released on blu-ray for the first time. One of the most underrated British horror films made, it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it’s different and varied approach will keep you hooked until the finale.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Paganini Horror (1989)

Paganini Horror (1989)

Desperately needing a new hit to appease their producer, a female rock band acquire an unpublished score by legendary violinist Niccolo Paganini and head to his old remote villa to shoot a music video for their latest track. Little did they know that the sheet music is cursed and that they have unleashed the spirit of the dead composer and unlocked a gateway to Hell.

 

One final hurray for the Italian horror genre in the 80s or a damp squib to end the decade? I’ll give you a second to guess which category Paganini Horror falls into. A film with a bit of potential but with no clue on what it wanted to be, Paganini Horror is the epitome of how desperate the Italian horror genre was at this point in history; a film which did little success at the box office in Italy and didn’t really get much of a look-in across the world, consigned to obscurity and dodgy video bootlegs for decades. Now in a time where niche distributors in the UK and US are finally releasing these lost old school horrors for contemporary audiences, Paganini Horror sees the light of day to a whole new fanbase.

Paganini Horror comes with a bit of history between producer Fabricio De Angelis and director Luigi Cozzi. Angelis wanted a simple horror film whilst Cozzi wanted to play on his science fiction credentials by making something more fantastical. What we end up is a film which satisfies neither man – a timid horror film without any real scares or gore and a sci-fi film where all of the wacky cosmic stuff had been cut out by the time it hit theatres. The mish-mash of approaches is obvious. There are no rules. No limits. No restrictions. Like the majority of surreal Italian horror films from this era, you can’t even try and comprehend what is going on – just sit back and accept all of the nonsensical stuff on display. The plot meanders from idea to idea and not settling down with one clear direction – you’ve got Paganini slumming around the villa killing people, invisible forcefields preventing people from leaving and green fungus which melts people into piles of goo amongst other incidents that occur. It’s all very bewildering, especially with a twist ending which tries to explain everything that has come before it.

Paganini looks to be pitched as some sort of Freddy Krueger-like villain, stalking and killing with his Stratovarius complete with a retractable blade, but he’s hardly in the film enough to make a real impression. Instead, you have the characters exploring the villa, crawling around the same blue-lit tunnels, green glowing pits of Hell and red-coloured corridors. It’s just the sort of cheap and tacky Halloween funhouse you’d get in a carnival but it’s purely superficial atmosphere due to a lack of real scares or tension. Above all, and the cardinal sin for any film from my point of view, is that Paganini Horror is just dull. There’s a lot of crazy stuff floating around but there’s also a lot of nothing, with too many scenes just involving characters standing around talking about what is going on (and a dreadful script full of exposition to explain all) or walking around exploring the villa.

This being the 80s and featuring a rock group as the main characters, if you think you’re going to survive without hearing some of their songs then you’ve got another thing coming. I’m not sure we needed to listen to the entire blatant rip-off versions of ELO’s Twilight and Bon Jovi’s You Give Love a Bad Name being blasted out by the band, but it does waste valuable screen time in two lengthy sequences. However, they’re kind of catchy in that 80s Italian rip-off way and I have immediately downloaded them to add to my cheesy Italian horror rock collection (Clue in the Crew’s The Sound of Fear from Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 will take some beating)

Donald Pleasance cameos in a throwaway role as the mysterious dealer who sells the score to the group. It’s probably the easiest pay cheque he will have ever received, working only three days and getting a free holiday to Venice out of it. Bizarrely, he’s dubbed over by someone else in the English language version of the film, making him sound like some low budget Pinhead. The rest of the cast are your typical group of 80s fashion victims, ineffectual male characters and cute but vapid females. Flicking between the English language dub and the original Italian version, it didn’t make much difference to the performances, consisting of really bad overacting, shouting when not needed and a general sense of phoning in it. Pretty standard for Italian horror at this time.

 

Cozzi denounced the film as the ‘poorest film in the history of the cinema’ and though he’s got something of a point, Paganini Horror is by no way the worst Italian horror film you’re ever going to see. It’s cheesy enough, mad enough and quick enough to provide some entertainment but the film is very much scraping the barrel of the genre at this point.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dead Pit, The (1989)

The Dead Pit (1989)

Drop In Anytime.

A renegade doctor is shot dead and entombed with his fiendish experiments in the basement of an abandoned wing of a mental hospital. Twenty years later, a mysterious woman is admitted with amnesia, and her arrival is marked by an earthquake which cracks the seal to the Dead Pit, freeing the evil doctor to continue his work.

 

That is only a half of the madness on offer in The Dead Pit, a cheesy 80s horror fest which goes by the letter of that decade’s genre output. Projecting itself across video store aisles with some classic 80s poster artwork of a zombie doctor appearing to lead an army of zombies behind him, this was the type of film young horror buffs, not old enough to rent it themselves, would have dreamt of watching as kids: gore, nudity, and violence in abundance. Of course, being young horror buffs, we would have had little awareness of everything else that makes a good film and so it’s nice to see how these films stack up in adulthood.

What The Dead Pit lacks in plot and coherent story, it makes up for in gore and fun. There’s so much more on offer here than just your generic zombie film. The script chucks in everything but the kitchen sink, sometimes too much for its own good, and tries to keep things from becoming too routine. Not sure how to resurrect the mad doctor from a twenty-year absence? Simple: just have a random earthquake. How are you going to kill zombies without resorting to the usual tropes? Simple: have a nun in there firing off holy water at them all. There are about a hundred and one questions you’ll have whilst watching and, whilst the film tries to answer a few as well as throw in some nifty twists, for the most part you’re better off ignoring them and going with the flow.

First time director Brett Leonard certainly does his best to belay the $350k budget and really crafts a decent mood and atmosphere, using an actual mental hospital for filming and making the most of some neat 80s-style red and blue lighting effects shining through the windows whenever some supernatural shenanigans is going on. The smoky green dead pit of the title, appearing during the finale, is also effective, as is the trademark 80s synth score, combining to give the impression that you’re having some lurid hallucination. Leonard gets to grips with some of the horror movie techniques such as having things pop up outside the frame of a shot, really making the most of every shot to craft suspense and a feeling of unease. Leonard would go on to direct The Lawnmower Man and the similar style and mood is evident there, just with a bigger budget.

The zombies don’t show up in the film until well over half-way through, so until then it’s just up to the mad doctor to provide the chills. With glowing red eyes and fairly tall and imposing, Dr Ramzi makes for a decent villain and starts to kill off a few of the orderlies and nurses walking around the hospital in the middle of the night. Ramzi likes his patients alive and kicking whilst conducting improvised surgery and so expect to see plenty of syringes into skulls, scalpels across throats and, in one of the film’s most impressive set pieces, a nice bit of scalping and cranium removal. The film is surprisingly gory for such a low budget flick – heads roll, faces melt, people are ripped apart, and the aforementioned surgery. The zombies don’t do as much damage as you’d expect them to do, nor do they look particularly ‘zombie-like’ having been rotting away for twenty years, but they pose a few problems for the survivors in the finale. Sadly, Ramzi’s unnecessary one-liners water down the character a bit, like some sub-par Freddy Krueger – the comedic tone is out of place.

Cheryl Lawson is the lead female and, in her first feature film, spends the majority of the running time parading around in the teeniest of white cut-off tank tops and knickers (and without a bra too), baring all and providing the requisite nudity – I’m not too sure whether her outfit is standard issue for an asylum though! It doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous and has a decent pair of lungs but she’s too inexperienced to hold the fort whenever the carnage goes away for a bit. That said, no one else in the cast really does anything to help her out. You’ve got a load of standard issue low budget horror performances, with some blandness, some droning, some hyperactivity and some overacting all visible. The cast all play it straight, with the exception of

 

The Dead Pit is a cheap schlocker, designed for some cheap chills, thrills and spills and nothing more. But there’s a little more substance to it than most of its ilk: it’s atmospheric, graphically gory and surprisingly-well shot for such a low budget genre offering.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of Horror: We All Scream for Ice Cream (2007)

Masters of Horror: We All Scream for Ice Cream (2007)

Buster is an ice cream man with learning disabilities who loves nothing more than to entertain the kids he serves on his round with magic tricks. But for one group of kids, he’s a complete joke and a prank they play on him backfires spectacularly, inadvertently leading to his death. Thirty years later, Buster returns as a vengeful spirit to get vengeance on the now-adults who caused the accident.

 

The Masters of Horror TV series was a great idea in theory – get together some of the greatest names in horror, give them an hour-long episode and let them work their big screen magic for the small screen. With names like John Carpenter, John Landis, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon and Dario Argento, the series debuted to excellent reviews and lasted for two series before its contract wasn’t renewed. Garris, the creator, then secured another studio to make a similar series, Fear Itself, which only lasted for one season and had many of the same names involved. Like all great anthology films and TV shows, you’re going to get a mixed bag. Some episodes are good, some are not so good. Some people will prefer Dante’s work over Argento’s. Some will like the gorier episodes better than the spookier ones.

A cross between A Nightmare on Elm Street and IT, We All Scream for Ice Cream is an effective, if routine, episode of the series which does exactly what it sets out to do. You’ve seen it before and director Tom Holland, of Child’s Play and Fright Night fame, plays it safe with the material. Exploiting the creepiness of clowns always seems like a cheap way to generate some heat, especially given that Buster didn’t have to be dressed as a clown, he could just have been a normal ice cream man. The narrative is fairly straightforward, with surviving members of the gang being bumped off one-by-one as the story moves along, and Holland keeps things ticking over at a nice pace. He holds back plenty of the little details, revealing bits and pieces about what is happening and why – it’s no secret that it is Buster, back from the dead, doing the killing and so the story plays upon that as much as possible.

Holland was capable of making something childlike to be scary in the shape of Chucky, the killer doll, and he does his best here to make Buster to be as frightening as possible. He’s not going to win the awards for the scariest cinematic clown, but he comes fairly close. Buster’s appearances are telegraphed with the haunting ‘We All Scream For Ice Cream’ song, vaguely reminiscent of the little girls singing ‘One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…’ in A Nightmare on Elm Street and with some eerie shots of his ice cream van moving in slow motion, surrounded by mist. The idea of him targeting the children of his tormentors in order to extract revenge has been done before but here the novelty is that the kids are given ice creams by Buster and, upon eating, their fathers are subjected to a hideous voodoo-doll like death.

William Forsythe is excellent as Buster, alternating between the good-natured pre-prank ice cream man and the evil, vengeful ghost. He’s good at delivering the ‘tug on the heart strings and feel sorry for him’ vibe whilst he’s goofing around with the kids in the flashbacks but just as good being the psychotic, snarling almost zombie-like killer in the present. The make-up changes to give him a scarier, more rotting look for the present day are really effective in expressing this bitter and twisted persona. Lee Tergesen, more famous for playing one of Wayne and Garth’s airhead friends in Wayne’s World, does a decent job in the leading role as the one tasked with stopping Buster. The scenes they share in the finale are good, but it’s all rushed and resolved far too quickly, as Tergesen’s character goes into Kevin McAllister Home Alone mode to prepare traps for Buster and defeat him once and for all.

We All Scream for Ice Cream’s trump card is definitely the practical effects on show. When characters die, they are reduced to puddles of melted ice cream. The first couple of instances happen off-screen but once the episode stops pulling it’s punches and starts going for the jugular, you get to see the melting in all of its glory. The episode’s show-stopping moment involves a man melting in a hot tub. It’s such a great display of prosthetics, goo and slime that it’s almost a travesty to see cheap CGI used in a similar sequence in the finale. It’s like they emptied the budget in the hot tub scene rather than saving it for the big finish.

 

We All Scream for Ice Cream might have worked better as a full-blown low budget B-movie but it’s still an entertaining episode of the series. It falls into cliché and familiar territory, but Holland handles it with assured competence and the decent production values keep things ticking over nicely. Just like an ice cream itself, you’ll enjoy it whilst it lasts but it leaves no lasting legacy.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Bunker, The (2001)

The Bunker (2001)

The evil is within

In 1944, seven German soldiers survive an American attack in the front and retreat to an isolated bunker manned by an aging veteran and a young recruit. Under siege by the enemy and with little ammunition, they decide to explore the sealed underground tunnels to seek supplies and find an escape route. However, the tunnels were sealed for a reason and once opened, strange things begin to happen to the group. Have the Americans infiltrated the tunnels from the other side of the hill or is there something more sinister at work?

 

There is something attractive to filmmakers in linking Nazis and horror. The idea that Hitler and many of his top ranking officials had an interest in the occult (which is quite well documented), as well as the Nazi’s numerous shady top secret projects from their ‘science’ divisions to develop new superweapons to win the war, is the stuff that the media has played upon for decades now. From comics to computer games, the Nazis and horror imagery have become inseparable. This is no more evident than in the horror genre, where filmmakers since the 70s have been turning to the Germans to add a little extra hate factor to their big screen efforts. However, it’s only over recent years where the fad seems to have gone into overdrive as smattering of input with the likes of Shock Waves and Zombie Lake in the late 70s and early 80s only teased the flood that was to come.

Michael Mann’s ill-fated The Keep in 1983 proved to be more of an arthouse horror dream than a straight-up frightener but that hasn’t stopped director Rob Green from trying a similar set-up in The Bunker, involving a bunch of German soldiers facing a supernatural threat inside some ominous structure. However, the film falls into almost the exact same pitfalls as The Keep did many years ago. Despite the obviously small budget, the production design team work wonders with the atmospheric and claustrophobic setting. The bunker itself is dingy, dimly-lit, full of lifeless grey and black and the cinematography down in the tunnels is superb. You get the feeling that you are deep underground and you never quite know what is lurking a little further along or around the corner.

This is where The Bunker’s problems began to appear. We never really quite know or understand just what is/was in those tunnels. The antagonist is never identified and the sketchy nature of the threat that the soldiers face is rather lazy writing. Is it something supernatural that they have awakened? Are they actually dead and this is just some version of Hell? Is it ghosts? Zombies? Have one of their number gone insane? Hints are given throughout that there is some bigger story arc going on here about some indiscretion that the soldiers have committed but it’s largely irrelevant to the supernatural stuff in the bunker itself. The set-up from the early part of the film just peters away as the script doesn’t really know a sensible way out of the solution. Instead, the film just opts for a load of wishy-washy sequences where the camera’s main friends are flashing lights, the smoke machine, loud noises and skeleton props. The creeping dread that The Bunker does so well to manifest at the start deserved to have a stronger conclusion than this cheap effects malarkey and generic man versus man showdown.

It’s frustrating because the film really kicks on with the psychological tension during the first half of the film, as these battle-weary soldiers begin to turn on each other for what has happened outside and what their plans are going forward. The decent cast of British character actors does well with the sketchy material they’ve been given. Jason Flemyng, Jack Davenport, Eddie Marsan and Charley Boorman are all decent in their roles. Marsan, in particular, is rather enjoyable to watch as the nervous Kreuzmann who appears to have a mental breakdown – his simpleton expressions really convey a sense of loss, both with his friends dying but also of the fact he’s died a little bit inside his head too. I’ve seen a lot of comments moaning about the use of British actors to play Germans but I don’t care to be honesty – despite the varying accents on show from all across the British Isles, you still buy these soldiers as Germans. Just suspend a bit of belief for a bit!

 

In many respects, The Bunker plays out like a haunted house attraction at a theme park – lots of flashy visuals and sense of anything could happen at any time. But then at the end, it’s all for show and you realise that there was no real substance to your fear. As it stands, The Bunker isn’t totally without merit but the clearly-rushed screenplay just cries out to have had more time to polish the edges, give the story some real meat and work out just what the Germans were meant to be fighting.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Vineyard, The (1989)

The Vineyard (1989)

An island of death fueled by the blood of its victims.

Dr Elson Po is a master winemaker whose bottles sell for thousands of dollars the world over but he hides a deadly secret. In order to stay young, Po uses human blood to make the wine. So when a group of aspiring actors and actresses head to his island home to audition for his new wine-making film, Po sees an opportunity to replenish his stocks.

 

Only in the 80s! That’s all I can about the insane The Vineyard, a bizarre ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ cheese fest which should have ticked a lot of cult classic boxes but ends up being a bit of a yawner. Part Motel Hell, part Hostel and part Big Trouble in Little China is the best way I can sum up The Vineyard to anyone who has never heard of it. It’s a cornucopia of ideas, none of which have any real ability to gel.

Right off the bat, you get the sense that The Vineyard has lots of promise up its sleeve. It’s got a sleazy porn vibe, with a soft focus appearance and a screenplay fuelled by nubile young women, wine and low budget production values. But despite the promises of a gratuitous exploitation romp, The Vineyard fails to live up to its appearance. Barely a drop of blood is spilled on the screen, with a castration happening off-screen, various zombie moments in the finale escaping from the sight of the camera and a decapitation not really living up to its premise. The Vineyard is definitely a film that looks and sounds a lot worse than it ends up, which is a bit of a shame!

Violence is quite timid and despite Po having a basement full of chained-up beauties that he needs to drain blood from, the resulting scenes are sadly watered-down. Even the fact that they’re chained-up beauties is rarely explored – Po appears a bit of a lecherous old man but there’s a big void in the T&A column. This is a crime, especially given that Karen Witter, a former Playboy Playmate, stars as the actress who Po wants to turn into his new bride. She is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen but I’d get more bang for my buck by buying the old edition of the magazine instead of watching this. She’s not a great actress but I’m guessing her pay cheque called for her to stand there and look sizzling and that’s what she does.

James Hong is a character actor with a huge array of films under his belt though to visitors on this site he’s most likely going to be remembered as David Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China. Hong stars, writes and directs here and it’s clear that the guy had too much to juggle at once. The story is simplistic enough to work but the screenplay is all over the place, throwing in everything from women puking out spiders in bathroom sinks, to Chinese black magic, an ancient hag living in his attic, burly bodyguards who’d be better off in a Hostel film, a kung-fu fight out of Hong Kong cinema, and a zombie army lifted straight out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. You never quite know where the film is going to head next. Just expect plenty of 80s light-show special effects.

Acting-wise, Hong channels plenty of his ‘kooky wizened Asian guy’ persona from Big Trouble in Little China in this one. As Dr Elson Po, he brings the same qualities to the table, being able to emote pretty well underneath layers of old man prosthetics with plenty of shrill screams and high-pitch ramblings. He goes over-the-top from the first scene but it works because everything around him is flat and lifeless. If I was sceptical, I’d say Hong had purposely made the film this way to give himself a platform with which to showcase his considerable ability.

The script never makes it clear why Po needs blood to remain immortal nor quite how the amulet works – basically everything he does in the film! Sometime it’s just best to go with the flow and take it for granted that things happen the way they do. With randomly overlong kung-fu fights between two minor characters, impromptu dance sequences with Hong and co. at a bizarre masquerade ball, characters appearing and disappearing for large swathes of the film……there’s just much going on that I wonder whether the film took a detour in the post-production process and was hacked to bits for whatever reason. The Vineyard would never have made a great film if it wasn’t so haphazard but at least it would have been a bit more watchable.

 

The Vineyard is an unhealthy dose of campy 80s low budget horror cheese which just has too much wrong with it to enjoy. The film goes off in dozens of directions at once and most lead to pointless time-filling detours. Don’t take it seriously and you might enjoy the randomness of it but that’s the only fun you’ll have.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (1999)

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (1999)

The latest and most horrorfying chapter…

Hannah travels back to her hometown of Gatlin in order to trace her biological mother. Unbeknownst to Hannah, she is the key figure in the fulfilment of a prophecy foretold by Isaac, the cult leader of the corn-god worshipping children who slaughtered their parents many years earlier. Her arrival awakens Isaac from a fifteen year-long coma and he sets about putting his plan in motion to bring about ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows.’

 

It’s hard to believe that they churned out as many sequels to such a mediocre horror film as Children of the Corn. I can understand the likes of Freddy, Jason or Michael Myers getting constant sequels in their respective franchises because they’re pop culture icons now, not just horror characters. But Children of the Corn? There was hardly enough mileage for one film, let alone an entire franchise.

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return plays out exactly like a tired sixth instalment of a franchise would. Short on fresh ideas and bogged down by previously poor sequels, the film wisely opts to act as a direct follow-up to the original, pretending that the other films never happened. It’s a smart move as it allows some breathing room in the story but then again, the story was never short of breath to begin with. In trying to replicate the original by bringing back its main villain, Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return just shows how tedious the formula has become – or rather how tedious it was to begin with. The problem with these sequels is that they all blur into one because they’re so unmemorable.

At least the series finally shows a bit of continuity here with the return of Isaac, once again played by actor John Franklin who doesn’t look to have aged one bit since his original appearance. But then again, I thought that character was killed off, not simply drifted into a coma where he was forgotten about while the rest of the sequels took place. Isaac’s return is the big lure for this sequel as he was a creepy and nasty piece of work before and could have worked well as the antagonist once again. Franklin co-wrote the script and it’s blatantly obvious that he’s trying to carve himself a niche here by transforming Isaac into a horror icon that can become the focal point of the series. You’d think that Franklin would do himself some favours with the script but all he ends up doing is giving Isaac a load of nonsensical Biblical dialogue which will irritate everyone to no end. He’s no Freddy Krueger when it comes to the gift of the gab.

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return has its best moments early on as the script tries to tie the film in with the events of the first one. Isaac starts off strongly as the focal point but as the film goes on, it becomes less about him and more about the new group of children that are worshipping He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Isaac’s return then becomes a side-issue as the film leads into a stupendous final third in which logic goes out of the window, plot holes increase in size ten-fold and common sense is ignored. Characters see dead animals everywhere which are revealed to be warning signs. Events occur which are then revealed to be dream sequences. This rug-pulling is only effective once or twice in a film before the audience gets annoyed at the cheap tactics being employed by the writers and Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return outstays its welcome long before it should.

Thankfully, at eighty-two minutes, the film doesn’t spend too long writhing around in its own agony. The same can’t be said for the respectable names who appear in the cast. Some well-known actors like Stacy Keach and Nancy Allen appear in supporting roles but they look embarrassed to be here and I don’t blame them. Keach hams it up to no end as a crazy resident and Allen looks to have walked in off another set. The only shining light is newcomer Natalie Ramsey who plays the lead role. She does a good job in investing her character with a little spirit and pluckiness (plus it helps that she looks mighty fine doing it too). But she gets lost in the mix, a victim of some daft script decisions which have her flitting between being a clever know-it-all who will never fall victim to these kids, and a Penelope Pitstop-style dim heroine who seems to stumble into every problematic scenario possible.

 

Having been in a coma on life support for the years since the original, you’d have thought Isaac would want to come back with a bang and relish his new lease of life. Instead, Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return brings him back with a whimper and realisation that his plug should have been pulled years earlier, along with the franchise.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Final Destination, The (2009)

final-destination-3D-posterDuring a visit to the racetrack with his friends, Nick has a premonition that one of the cars would crash, leading to a chain reaction of events in which most of the people watching would be killed. Convincing his friends and a few bystanders to leave, they get out just in time to watch the horrific premonition come to life. Shortly after, two of the other survivors are killed in tragic accidents. Nick and his friends realise that they may have cheated death once but it has come calling for them again.

 

If ever a franchise was going to jump on board the 3D bandwagon then the Final Destination series, with all manner of ridiculously contrived ‘accident’ set pieces, would be the one to showcase its multi-dimensional wares in the fad of the moment. Virtually a franchise built up around the ‘slasher’ formula. the Final Destination films simply follow the same structure but replace a masked killer with that of the Grim Reaper. Gratuitous set pieces with machetes and chainsaws are substituted for meticulously-planned  mishaps in which unlucky teenage characters find themselves being buffeted around as if they were a participant in the old board game Mouse Trap (not sure whether it as out in the US or what it was called over there but Google it if you don’t know!).

Whilst the original seemed highly original, fresh and exciting (second and third viewings less so), the film still managed to eek out a small niche which has then been milked for every penny possible leading to a variety of sequels with diminishing returns in the novelty stakes. What were once unpredictable chains of events have been so elaborate that the set-ups are now so obvious. The third sequel to the 2000 hit, The Final Destination (I’m not overly sure why they ditched the sequel numbering) is a rush job from beginning to end and you can tell that whatever flimsy story it develops has been built up around the set pieces. There’s no room for character development here. The film just doesn’t stop to take a breath in between the contrived action.

Things get off to a poor start with some dodgy CGI in the opening scene at the race track and go from bad to worse with a barrage of overblown gore effects. What is going on? Who are these people? Why should we care for a redneck who says about ten words in the entire film? The script is atrocious and coupled with some awful delivery,  the dialogue comes off sounding dull and is in existence purely because you can’t just sit and watch set pieces in silence. The token ‘rule explaining’ scenes are done quickly and the characters assume too much and add everything up too easily. Mykelti Williamson seems to have been cast solely in the role of Tony Todd’s replacement – one black actor with a deep voice replacing another one – to be the person who provides the necessary ‘You can’t escape Death’ monologues. But the scenes are skirted over quickly, such is the desire to keep the non-stop flow of the film going. You know at some point Hollywood is going to have to put the brakes on films and get them to slow back down and build themselves up like they used to. None of this rapid fire, all guns blazing nonsense – it’s just all spectacle and no substance.

Even the death scenes, once an ingenious concoction of bad luck, sod’s law and ill-fated timing, are now so lazy and run-of-the-mill that it’s hard to see where the series can go after this. Some of the set pieces in the previous entries took their time to build the suspense, foreshadowing the horror of what was to come and throwing in some red herrings as well before pulling the rug out from under you with a sucker punch. Here, there’s little attempt to draw out the chain reaction of mishaps beforehand and everything goes through the motions as quick as possible. It would have made more sense for a guy in a mask to come and wipe out the teenagers, such is the speed at which they’re all killed off.

Another huge problem that this film suffers from is the over-reliance on some really poor CGI effects. The set pieces designers have cut corners by using CGI as a way to avoid being creative with the practical effects. By being able to show more carnage on-screen as opposed to more convincing set-ups, they lose any sort of realism, ending up as a barrage of cartoon violence with which the audience will never once believe are real. The fact that they’re all telegraphed a mile away serves up little suspense and it’s more a case of “get on with it” when some of them drag on for too long. But hey, when this is just evident of the series itself – dragging on for too long.

 

As with traditional ‘slasher’ sequels, The Final Destination sees a higher body count, more elaborate kills and more blood. But the heart of the series has been sucked out, stripping the film of the character and soul that at least made the first two watchable entries. What we wind up with here is a loosely-connected series of 3-D set pieces which no doubt titillated the target under-17 demographics but offended even the least-demanding horror fans who want more substance to their slaughter. The series is scraping the barrel here and it’s time for Death to catch up and do us all a favour.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Hollow, The (2004)

The Hollow (2004)

Some Legends Never Die.

Ian Cranston is unaware that he is the last blood relative of Ichabod Crane, the legendary figure who stopped the Headless Horseman’s reign of terror in Sleepy Hollow. His arrival in the famous town stirs up the spirit of the Horseman who wants to settle an old score.

 

Taking one of the most famous ghost stories of all time and turning it into some made-for-TV teen terror flick isn’t what the doctor ordered and The Hollow doesn’t do any justice to Washington Irving’s classic story whatsoever. Those of you who imagine the story of Ichabod Crane and The Headless Horseman to resemble something vaguely like Tim Burton’s gothic Sleepy Hollow (even if it does take many liberties with the material) should well avoid this attempt to transport the story into a contemporary setting.

The Hollow is tame. I didn’t expect too much with it being made-for-TV and I didn’t get anything in return. Light on horror, light on gore, light on sexuality and light on anything that could be construed as remotely offensive, the film looks and runs like a pre-school Halloween special at times. I guess I should be writing the review from the point of view of its intended audience and in that respect, the film does alright. A ‘My First Horror Film’ approach is evident here with some mild scares, gentle titillation and a few young recognisable faces that the younger audience would be able to associate with – Nick Carter of Backstreet Boys fame for instance. For the older viewer, this is all just too glossy and light-hearted, throwing in a couple of faces that we’d immediately recognise. Stacy Keach does the ‘Crazy Ralph’ character who warns everyone about the impending danger and Judge Reinhold, no doubt grateful that he’s not starring in another Beethoven sequel, is here as well.

Even if the film was geared towards a younger market, at least it could have been somewhat exciting with plenty of action. The Headless Horseman doesn’t really make an appearance until a good half-way through the story so what we’re left with in the meantime is plenty of overly melodramatic TV drama fodder. There’s the ‘nerdy guy taking the hot cheerleader and making the jock jealous’ nugget as well as the ‘tumultuous father and son relationship where father knows best’ side story as well. The plot about the lad being a descendant of Ichabod Crane was perfectly acceptable to bring the story into the present and could have carried the film on its own. But instead it gets padded out with generic dramatic foil.

When the Horseman finally shows up late in the day to start killing (a body count of five is pretty slim pickings), the film does pick up a bit of steam but it’s not really a lot to save it. Most of the film takes place at night too and the transfer to DVD wasn’t particularly convincing so it’s quite hard to see who is chasing who at times during the latter stages. There’s little gore to be had here though depending on which version you catch will depend on the amount of gore (the DVD is apparently ‘unrated’ though there’s not much extra on show). I’ve also got to question the notion of a Headless Horseman when this ghostly figure spends the film wearing a huge pumpkin for a head. It kind of defeats the notion of him being headless. Bring back Christopher Walken as the Horseman and all may be forgiven.

 

The Hollow is a formulaic ‘safe’ teen movie with a dash of adult horror added as an afterthought at the end. It’s a total waste of time for anyone except teenagers and even then they should be sneaking into the cinema to get a glimpse of R-rated films or borrowing dodgy copies off their mates.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆