Thursday, October 28, 2010

Something Fishy

From what may be my last original post on the local horror-movie blog. I originally set it up in the hopes that the link through the local newspaper's website would allow some folks in my Obscure Midwestern Town to stumble across talk of strange films. Gotta find out these things exist from someone! But with egregious "updates" and other annoyances, I'm rethinking the whole project. Especially since it seems impossible for me to get my custom header reinstalled. Grrr ...

But here goes:

One good thing about Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981): if anyone asks what's the worst debut film by a future Academy Award-winning director I've ever seen, I'll have an answer that springs to mind. Poor James Cameron was far, far from being the King of the World when this mishmash of fake blood, family drama, and T & A was made, although a good portion of it does take place underwater -- a hint at the direction of Cameron's later career. The film also fortuitously brought him together with Lance Henriksen (very young, but still weird-looking), with whom he'd work on much, much better films, like The Terminator and Aliens. Henriksen is the best actor in the movie; no surprise, he's that kind of actor. But he really stands out here among the clumsy "comic relief" characters, and the languid topless chicks whose dialogue -- I can tell by looking at them! -- is being dubbed from Italian.

In fact, many commentators claim that Cameron only shot portions of the film, including the scuba-diving stuff, giving him a first-time director's credit, and the Italian producers an American name for marketing purposes. So he may not really be the one to blame for the movie's ineptness. However, I do want to know who to give credit to for the absolute insanity of the fish attacks, because it was worth sitting through just to get to them.
They're not piranhas, technically. They're mostly grunion, that have been genetically combined with other fish, including piranha and flying fish, in order to create killing-machine fish that can survive in any environment.

How those wacky government scientists thought they could control these beasties for military purposes is never explained. But they did breed a hardy species, one capable of living in the body of a corpse, inside a morgue freezer, no less, for at least a day. At which point it can fly out of a wound, attack someone else, then smash through a glass window and fly off to safety. Wow!

This scene was truly laugh-out-loud funny, as were most of the scenes of piranha carnage. Bathing the fish in red light, giving them a loud whirring noise, is clearly meant to build suspense about them. But when these big, rubber-looking things fly out of the water and latch on people's necks, nothing could have really prepared us for the sight.

I realize I haven't mentioned the plot, but it's hardly relevant. Various shenanigans take place at a Caribbean island resort, and then someone gets eaten during a dive class. Lance is the Sheriff Brody character, but it's his estranged wife, a handy marine biologist, in the Matt Hooper role. The resort guests plan to party hard the night of the grunion run, but the fish have other plans. Oddly, when the time comes, the two factions, one group in tropical shirts, with tiki torches, and the other whirring loudly and stirring up the surf, seem like they're marching head-on into battle.

I'd put this in that hallowed category of "I can't possibly recomment, but am glad I watched."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween Three

The Evil Dead (1981)

Bruce Campbell is so good on TV's Burn Notice as Sam -- a wisecracking, hard-drinking, ladies' man of a retired shadowy government operative -- it's like he's been the character all his life. Of course, that's very much not so, but it was still almost startling to see him recently at the very way-back of his career, in the original Evil Dead.

In the later films, especially Army of Darkness with its "primitive screwheads," Campbell's Ash pushed the limit of how big a jerk a protagonist can be and still get an audience to root for him. In the first one, his Ashley pushed in the opposite direction: the hero was soft-spoken, compassionate, and refreshingly passive. One of my favorite scenes puts him in the background, uncertainly clutching an ax, while his buddy fights off his demonically possessed girlfriend. For once I thought, if this actually happened, I wouldn't know what was going on. I wouldn't jump to assume I should start mutilating my friends. This edition of Ash actually deals with bizarre supernatural threats as reasonably as a person could be expected to.

I was also amused by the scene in which Ash attempts to recite a Greek toast at dinner, but stumbles over the pronunciation.  The origin of the famous "maybe I didn't say every single little tiny syllable"?

Despite its flaws, and some obviously low-budget acting on display, I've always been fond of Evil Dead for being the closest thing to a straight horror film in the series. And, well, at this point in history, nothing much else needs to be said.

Night of the Demons (1988)

I must have picked up this video box a hundred times at the old videostore, looked at the cover, pondered, and finally said "Naw." Now I've finally broken down and watched it, I can say that I should have trusted my instinct, since it turned out to be a pretty generic entry in the subgenre of dumb teens endangering themselves.

There are some good points to the film, however: the opening cartoon credit sequence is pretty cool. Star Mimi Kennedy has a great "I'm possessed by a demon" dance scene in front of a fireplace, and her whole big-haired '80s/Goth gown look is not bad either. That's Heathers' Kurt Kelly (actor Lance Fenton) as the Final Girl's date (just as much of a jerk as he would be to Winona Ryder). Most importantly, I'm always happy to see Linnea Quigley, no matter what the circumstances, and here she has one of her most iconic scenes, on a par with the Dance of the Chainsaw from Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. It involves a lipstick, and some prosthetic toplessness, and that's all I care to say.

Come to think of it, while this is actually pretty inept on all levels, when compared to Quigley vehicles like Nightmare Sisters (top on my list of Terrible Movies I Can't Defend In Any Way, But Of Which I'm Inexplicably Fond), it actually looks like a movie. A bad movie, yes, but at least not like something shot on video in someone's garage.

House of Frankenstein (1944)

Divine Providence seems to be aiding mad scientist Dr. Niemann (a hypnotic Boris Karloff) in his desire to carry on the work of his hero, Dr. Frankenstein. First, a collapsing building springs him and his murderous hunchback assistant from prison. Then they conveniently stumble on a traveling Chamber of Horrors, whose owner they quickly dispatch, leaving them to travel at will with Dracula's bones in the back. (The late lamented Professor Lampini was no charlatan, even though nobody would be able to tell any random skeleton with a stake jammed in its ribs from the real thing). They even find the original monster frozen in the ruins of Frankenstein's old castle, along with clinically depressed wolfman Lawrence Talbot, who helps them find the doctor's old notes.

Niemann is well on his way to revenging all the wrongs done him, with a scheme that involves a shell game of brain-swapping, but a hunchback/wolfman/gypsy girl love triangle is going to thwart his plans. Hunchback Daniel rescues dancer Ilonka from an abusive employer, and she's nice to him in return, but she clearly prefers the gloomy "Larry."  I laughed out loud at a delightful scene in which Larry broods, while the rather Basanti-like Ilonka sits next to him, chattering and beaming brightly all the while.

This film packs in a ton of action, even going off on a tangent with a bunch of extraneous characters menaced by John Carradine's resurrected Dracula (a much more distinguished role for him than the one he played in Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula), and still gets it all done in 71 minutes. And it's no real spoiler to say that it all ends with an angry "burgermaster" and a torch-wielding mob. Just like it should.