Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: The Man From Earth

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Man From Earth (aka Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth)
Directed by Richard Schenkman
Falling Sky Entertainment / MVD Visual
87 minutes, 2007 / 2018

The Man From Earth, which was released a decade ago, is a cult film with a very subtle touch. It is essentially an ensemble cast sitting around at a cabin in the woods and discussing how one of them, named John Oldman (David Lee Smith, who looks a bit like Jon Hamm, known from CSI: Miami), is a 14,000 year old Forrest Gump (as opposed to a 2,000 year old Mel Brooks), who has managed to be involved in some key historical moments.

Like My Dinner With Andre (1981), it relies more on the content of conversation than on physical action. It is deep and philosophical, and that’s what is intriguing about it. It garnered enough favor that a sequel has been release ten years after the fact, and it was this release which the Blu-ray cover announced, but upon opening the disc itself was the original 2007 film. That gives me the chance to catch up.

Both these films share the same director and some of the cast. Jerome Bixby, the writer of the first film, died in 1998 before the release of the original; Bixby was infamous among some circles for writing the likes of It! Terror From Beyond Space (1958; Alien is obviously based on this), one of the most infamous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (“It’s a Good Life” in 1961, in which 5-year-old Billy Mumy has the ultimate power of life and death), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and a quartet of episodes of the original “Star Trek” (including oft referenced “Mirror, Mirror”).

David Lee Smith
There is a lot of dialog to digest among these eight characters as they ponder the possibility of a “caveman” still being alive after all these millennia. There are a few points that I think pushes the boundary of credulity – even in these circumstances for sheer historical coincidences (hence the Forrest Gump mention) – but still makes for interesting ideas. Though I can certainly see theologians getting upset with some of the topics, it’s nicely thought provoking. Certainly it can create some nice after-the-film dinner conversations.

Part of what makes this worthy of a watch is that all but one of the characters – including Oldman (no, not Gary) – is a university professor, and yet the discussion never descends into what I (and others) call academia-speak. While it doesn’t talk down to the audience, it certainly is accessible yet remains provocative.

John approaches this group with his can a person live 14,000 years premise very early on, so I’m not giving anything away by stating this, but at the same time, the discussion both ranges and rages along for the rest of the film, for which I will not give spoilers. Topics include history, the rise of social constructs, geology, genealogy, theory and religion, of course. Like I said, this is heavy in volume of words, and because nearly all of it takes place either in or just outside a somewhat isolated cabin in California, this has been made into a stage play more than once (perhaps The Man From Earth: The Musical!?).

Luckily, this is a pretty damn solid cast that holds credibility. Funny thing is, some of them have been in one form of “Star Trek” or another, and the filming site just beyond the cabin is where Kirk fought the Gorn (Alligator guy), though not in an episode written by Bixby. It was also the set to the cable show, “Big Love.” But I digress…

Tony Todd
As I was saying, there is some mighty talented actors here, including the Candyman himself, Tony Todd, who plays an anthropologist named Dan; I actually think he does the best acting job among some huge talent. Also standing out is William Katt as archeologist Art, best known for the show “Greatest American Hero,” the male lead in Carrie (1976), and I particularly liked him in the television production of Pippen: His Life and Times (1981; yeah, I like musicals, so shoot me). He plays an angry professor with a soul patch that obviously has some issues with his own aging, and who doesn’t like his ideas challenged; he also creepily brings along his much younger girlfriend/student, Linda (Alexis Thorpe). Others are an art history theologian prof, Edith (Ellen Crawford, who you might remember as an RN in “E.R.”), psychologist Will (easily recognizable character actor Richard Riehle), the snarky Harry (John Billingsley, also easily identifiable from “Star Trek: Enterprise,” though I will always remember him for the 2000 series, “The Others”), and historian Sandy (Annika Petersen). As I said, a strong ensemble. With this much dialog, it would have to be, or fail.

While I might have a quibble or two, especially about the said historical coincidences, considering how much talking goes on in a very small space, I feel it’s well written because in 87 minutes, I never once got bored. Okay, I acknowledge I’m a bit of a history / science / sociology nerd, but it goes beyond that. It’s a border-line Sci-Fi story without aliens, space crafts, computers, or even electricity, yet touches on Sci-Fi themes more through the temporal and the spatial aspects of the story.

William Katt and Alexis Thorpe
My biggest issue with the film deals with the nature of modern technology. For example, If John Oldman keeps changing his jobs and names every decade, how does he get the high-power professor jobs without an SSN (Social Security Number), a CV with no references, and what about taxes? In modern culture, it is impossible to be a professor without a relatively recent degree from a reputable university, and earning one in the 19 Century does not count as “recent.” He would have to be published… a lot… especially if he’s “walking away from a tenured position.” It isn’t like one could just go to and find a prof position. And unlike the previous 14,000 years, people are now easily tracked by computers (even in 1998 when it was written, never mind 2007 when it was filmed). I’m married to a prof, and have my own higher degree in Media Theory, so I know. As much as I enjoyed the film, and I really did, I had trouble getting over this piece of modernity.

John Billingsley and Annika Peterson
There are lots of extras. To start off is a full length commentary with director Schenkman and actor Billingsley. It’s a mostly interesting mix of mythology, anecdotes and technical goo-gah. Schenkman takes us through all of that, and Billingsley, playing a Loki (original myth, not comic) trickster, seems to be there to trip him up through distractions with bad jokes. While it keeps it from getting boring, it also feels a bit chaotic. I’m glad I listened (with the captions on), but it took a bit of patience. Then there’s a second commentary with executive producer Emerson Bixby and Sci-Fi scholar Gary Westfahl. Emerson is Jerome’s son, and he had a strong hand in the writing of the film, so it’s not just second-hand information. I have to say I wish every commentary was like this one: informative without just being a series of data, or full of snarky remarks. The topics covered, which include Jerome’s work on the likes of “Star Trek” resonate throughout. Emerson was also involved in the shooting as Jerome had already passed on by that time, so there are also backstage anecdotes. This commentary was top-notch.

There are 21 different languages options, not counting the second English (for Hard of Hearing) selections. But so far, this is only the beginning of the extras, as most Blu-rays tend to be swamped with them: Next is the 88-minute documentary from 2017, “The Man From Earth: Legacy.” It starts with how the story and script was created, then how the cast was assembled, that is mixed with interviews with six of the eight actors and the director (all and more who get to express opinions and tell stories throughout the documentary). Further on there was filming stories, the sound, the music composition, and then the pre-release at a Comic Con. The last third of the doc is about how the film became popular through piracy, with both practical and theoretical positives and negatives about that. I have trepidations about Making Ofs that are nearly as lengthy as the main feature, or in this case a minute longer. Seems like hitting an ant with a sledgehammer, but that’s just me. There’s definitely some repetition that could have been excised here, but it’s interesting to watch, once.

Ellen Crawford and Richard Riehle
The rest of the extras are period pieces from around when the film was shot. “From Script to Screen,” is a behind the scenes period featurette that lasts 2:10. For the 3:50 “Star Trek: Jerome Bixby’s Sci-fi Legacy,” again, three of the actors had been on “Trek” before, for which they and other cast members discuss the importance of “Trek” (and “Twilight Zone”) in their lives. “On the Set,” which lasts 4:00, is more of the same behind-the-scenes with interviews. The 2:10 “Story of the Story” is on-set interviews with the cast discussing what the story posits.

Following is the original 2007 trailer, two trailers for the sequel, a photo gallery, and a 4:54 Restoration Demo showing the differences between the pre-HD original was remastered for the 2017 re-release on Blu-ray.

Last up is a micro-short film (30 seconds) called “Contagion” that was produced by Schenkman and Wilkinson, and stars William Katt that is just the right amount of gross. It looks like it was made for the 2017 release, though I can’t find it on IMDB.

The Man From Earth is a very strong looking film. Again, a tight space with a relatively large cast for its size, it never gets too claustrophobic. Plus the lighting, editing, camera shots all work to the higher final product. All these elements make it the cult sensation it became. Perhaps at some point I will get the chance to see the sequel. I’ll let ya know.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Review: The Violence Movie; The Violence Movie 2

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Violence Movie
14:22 minutes, 1988 / 2003 / 2018
The Violence Movie 2
19:24 minutes, 1989 / 2003 / 2018
Written and directed by Eric D. Wilkinson
Wilkinson Home Video / Drawing Board Enterprises /
No Budget Production / MVD Entertainment Group

Even before watching this horror parody collection that’s a love letter to the Jason V., Michael M. and Freddy K. films, I would like to comment that this is a really smart marketing of a couple of shorts, never mind ones that were basically made in 1988 and 1989 by a bunch of teenagers, with some revisions in 2003. Putting it together as a package with all the modern bells and whistles (i.e., extras) also says a lot to its substance and dedication.

Fan fiction in film form can be a mixed bag, even now with the relative ease of creation, editing, etc., that can be done on any decent camera and home computer. Back when this was in its conception, it was solid VHS, which was much harder to keep consistent in color and tone, and needed to be edited either shoddily from one tape deck to another with huge loss of resolution or on professional equipment. Plus, the filmmakers are dealing with equipment that is substantially heavier than a modern camera.

The two teens who originally made this are the writer and director Eric D. Wilkinson, and his brother David, who acted as the killer. Both would go on to careers in The Biz: Eric went to producing the likes of the cult fave Man From Earth (2007), its sequel (2018), and Mischief Night (2013), among many others. He also came up with the original storyline for the last two. This collection, however, are the only films in his directorial credit. For David, this is his only acting credits, and his skill set went into the marketing game (his website is The Drawing Board: Motion Picture Marketing).

So, let’s break down this puppy and its many extras…

Joseph Shaughnessy
First of all, I know this is a parody / love letter to the slasher genre, but there are a lot of errors in the film, and I’m looking forward to hearing the commentary about them. For example, when The Killer (David Wilkinson) enters a room at the start of Part I, it’s easy to see there is a member of the crew in the background through the bathroom door, via a mirror. Also, when the protagonist, Joey (Joseph Shaughnessy) arrives home after hearing the “escaped madman” notice on the car radio, as he turns the device off, you can see someone else’s arm in the passenger seat (i.e., the cameraman). This is just the beginning, and so it’s already off to a good start, in my opinion, since these are a bunch of kids, after all. To be fair, it didn’t get much more mature as they aged, and the newer-created end credits show; as an example, I will simply offer just one listing in the credits for someone named Dick Hertz. Actually, there is a lot of – err – Tom Foolery in the credits, which is worth reading for its groan factor.

Most of the film is the fight between the unstoppable Killer and apparently equally unstoppable Joey, between mutual stabbings, hackings, choppings, and an even more extreme action or two which I’ll amusedly leave for you to discover and enjoy. Of course, it is all very amateurish: in the acting, the story, the direction, the occasionally decent looking gore effects, and just about everything else. You can tell the $50-100 budget went into a Halloween store for the body parts, masks, and implements of destruction. I know they’re adults now, but I say to their teen selves, “Well done, guys.” Even if they are from Jersey (I kid…).

It’s easy to tell the parts that were redone for the 2003 edition, including the opening credits (with added music by Harry Manfredinii, who has done a ton of horror film soundtracks, including the Friday the 13th franchise), and the end credits (with added music by Michael Kahn, who we get to see perform a bit in the extras, as well).

David Wilkinson
Part 2, was filmed very shortly after the first one, though on “slightly” better equipment (according to the Star Wars­-ish introductory text crawl), although also shot on VHS. While the story is still pretty basic, with The Killer once again escaping and Joey on the run in and around his house, but the technique has actually improve significantly, relatively speaking. The shots are somewhat more coherent, and it seems they are intent on taking more physical chances, as sometimes they literally as they scamper around the angular roof, get dragged behind cars, and chase with running chainsaws (what did the parents say about that?!).

As for the plethora of extras, let’s take ‘em one at a time. First up is the The Violence Movie commentary with the Brothers Wilkinson and Mike Kahn. I’m glad to have heard this because not only do these guys have a sense of humor about it, but they point out all the continuity errors (and errors in general), but also show all the added footage that was put in later. Sometimes I just said out loud, “How did I miss that?” It was fun, and little talking overlap, so what they were saying was clear. For the full commentary for Part 2, the same three guys (I’m guessing the same day) add more fun comments and anecdotes, and also explain away a few plot points I had questions about, which is nice.

For both films, there is a Deleted Scenes with 3:45 for the first and 9:40 for the second. Actually, deleted is not always accurate, despite the opening for Part 1 with Kahn singing a made up “Deleted Scenes“ song on the spot. The inaccuracy is that they are part deleted bits, and part outtakes. But no matter what you call them, it’s (a) obvious why they took them out, and (b) I’m grateful to have seen them because you can see just how much fun they were all having doing this, despite the sheer physical activity level.

One of many showdowns
For the 5:36 “Violence in ’03,” it’s basically a “Making of” for the updated shots that were added to the earlier shorts. Likewise the 9:26 “Scrapped Violence Movie” is a “Making of”/”Outtakes” from a third film that was never completed. Understandable, having seen this footage. And, of course, there’s a commentary track for this as well with the three brahs.

The last three extras are the 1:24 original opening handwritten credits for Part 1, and 1:43 equally handwritten credits for Part 2 (with both including the misspelled “Joeseph”). Finally, there is a 0:45 “Photo Gallery,” including pictures from the film of course, but also the original VHS box cover they created, the script, some drawn ideas for characters, and the 15th Anniversary DVD box cover.

Home-grown DIY horror films by newbies are quite common, but it’s rare that anyone other than kith and kin get to see them. Sure every once in a while they make it out of the box and into a clamshell, such as Johnny Dickie’s Slaughter Tales (filmed when he was 12 on VHS, and released in 2012), and Justin Channell’s Die and Let Live (2006) [both of these films have been reviewed on this blog], but I think there is a public interest for releasing these, even if it’s a collection of shorts.

The Wilkinsons certainly aren’t Spielbergs or Scorseses, but so what. It’s the joy of filmmaking that comes across, and makes it worth the view. Needless to say, I smiled through nearly all of it. And where do I get a copy of that great Michael Kahn song, “Hey Dentist”?!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Review: Bruce’s Deadly Fingers

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Bruce’s Deadly Fingers (aka Lung men bei chi; The Young Dragon)
Written and directed by Joseph Kong
VCI Entertainment / United Cine-Production Enterprises / MVD Visual
91 minutes, 1976 / 2018

Do you remember where you were when you heard Bruce Lee died in 1974, when he was just age 32? He would be 78 now. I don’t, but there are countless who do. His passing, probably due to his brain swelling in reaction to mixed medications, has led to two cultural side effects: the weird one was all the conspiracy theories about how he died, such as a popular one that he was killed by a kung fu punch to his heart (as characterized in Kill Bill: Vol. 2) that did him in days later; the other was the rise of what is known as Brucesploitation [BS].

People, as they are wont to do, tried to cash in on the Bruce Lee [BL] craze and death by pouring out quick and cheap martial arts films with actors who changed their names to the likes of Dragon Lee, Bruce Li and Bruce Le (from Taiwan, who started as Chien-Lung Huang). Nearly all of them imbued some of Lee’s outward tokens, such as clothing and mannerisms, but it also helped that they bore some resemblance to the late star.

Bruce Le doing his best Bruce Lee
For this film, Bruce Le picked up the mantle playing Bruce Wong, who has returned to Hong Kong from San Francisco after learning of the death of a parent and not being able to find his sister, Shiu Ju. Arriving, he finds that her boyfriend has tried to sell her into prostitution to pay off a gambling debt. Le rescues her, and then it’s either the mob vs. Le, or Le vs. the mob. That’s where most of the mayhem starts.

Another major plot point is the search by everyone for “Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu Finger Book,” which supposedly shows how to kill with your fingers (a direct relation to the rumor about how the star died). If you took a drink every time some uses the phrase “Kung Fu Finger Book,” you’d die of alcohol poisoning, arguably before the film is half over.

Nora Miao
There are also some other subplots, such as Mina (the cute Nora Miao, who actually did star with BL onscreen), the fictional actress girlfriend of the actual Bruce Lee (I’m curious to know what BL’s widow thought of that storyline premise) and his sis are kidnapped by the gang; Le is out to get them back with the help of two friends.

Unlike a BL film where all the action centers around BL, here Le is only in about half of the battles, others being his friends, and someone from Interpol (Michael Chan, the best actor/strongest fighter here) who wants to bring the gang to justice.

As for Le, he is shorter than most of his opponents, and exhibits all the Lee clichés, as they would be known now: the yellow track suit with the stripe (again, also employed in Kill Bill: Vol. 1), oversized shaded glasses (like Elvis), wiping the side of his nose (more than once), and the open mouth/wide eyed scream (“Eeeeeyaaaahhhh”).

Beyond the BL-isms, there is also a lot of kung fu flick tricks that are also employed, including the quick zoom to a close-up of the eyes (was this tic taken from the Spaghetti Westerns, or the other way around?), and the sound of wood blocks crashing every time a fist is thrown, whether it lands or not.

The story is a bit convoluted, and honestly a bit hard to follow at times, but I believe that is in part because of the translation issues. I’ve always found it humorous how the overdubs try to match the lips so there are awkward pauses in weird spots, such as (I’m making this up: “I have come here to see…how you are doing.”) Also, the talking seems to either be monotone or yelling. As for the language conversion, the story may make sense in Cantonese, but something is definitely lost in the translation. The confusion  includes the following plot points: why is that guy fighting those thugs in in the pool hall, exactly? How come that same is now fighting with Wong’s friend since he seems to be on their side?

The thing is that hardly anybody in the center of the United States, at that time, really cared about motivation, but rather they wanted to see some fighting. And there is a lot of it here. It’s amazing how rarely you see guns, even though it takes place in then-modern times. Other than a sniper, it’s nearly all fists, knives, swords, nunchucks, and poles. In the West, this probably confused a lot of people who grew up on Westerns, and having assault rifles (sorry, I mean ArmaLite rifles) are normalized.

Michael Chen vs. Bolo Yeung
There are four or five main fighters here: Le who is okay, his two friends (one who is good, one who keeps getting the snot wacked outta him), Chen (who steals most of his scenes), Lee Hung (Lieh Lo [d. 2002]), the head of the mob who is looking for the Kung Fu Finger Book), and Le’s teacher and Uncle, Master Wong. Bolo Yeung (aka Yang Sze), who is also known as Chinese Hercules for his sheer size and strength since he was the Chinese bodybuilding champion for a decade and a star in his own right, also makes an appearance as a villain in one scene. And you just know, as it’s bound to happen in these films, Le goes through a training session with his Kung Fu Master to build up to the big fight with Hung, with which these genre films nearly always end. This one is short, but particularly gruesome.

I found it interesting that it almost seems like the fights are choreographed by two different people with different styles. Some of the action is kinda shoddy and lackluster, with people missing each other by inches. Others, especially towards the end, look really well staged. While Chan definitely is the best actor and consistent fighter, Le is the worst actor and sometimes great chopping action and other times meh, Personally, I feel the reason for the bad acting is two-fold. First, it’s the genre: this equivalent of B-films tend to be ramped up to emoting level 11, or hang around 2 at a monotone. Second, Le seems to be trying hard to appear like BL on screen. In other words, acting like someone who is acting. Everything is too emphasized without any nuances. That’s not to say it’s not fun, because it is, but it’s important to remember that it is what it is.     

"When is #MeToo again?"
The area where this this is dated the most, though, is the way women are represented. There are lots of kung fu films where women are warriors in the past, but I find that ones that take place in the present are less likely to do so. Here, women are seen tied up almost as much not, forced into prostitution, tortured with lizards (it’s an infamous scene in this particular release), and almost always seen as submissive. Even when one proves to be proficient in the martial arts, she is easily defeated and talked down to as being inferior and not really a threat. Even the two strongest characters, the gang leader’s mistress and the actress Mina are either put in danger often, or seen as not important.

Like a lot of post-BL releases that fall into the BS column, many of the actors here overlap from BL films, such as Yeung, Lieh, Chan, and Miao, among others here.

Being a Blu-ray and DVD combo package, there are extras up the wazoo. The most basic one is a collection of Brucesploitation trailers. The first few are among the last batch of BL’s films, followed by the “Elvis Impersonators” (as I like to call them), including Li, Le and Dragon. What I found interesting about this collection was being able to compare the original BL with his imitators; in style and personality, it’s easy to see why Lee is valued above others. There is also a HD version of this film’s original trailer.

The commentary track is with a BS and BL expert, as well as actor, director and author, and especial fan, Michael Worth. It’s a great talk about the film, both the direct and indirect connections with BL, and some history of the genre. Definitely worth a listen.

Le being wide-eyed and bushy fingered
There is a 6-minute Deleted Scenes with mostly superfluous material that doesn’t really add or take away from the story, but are enjoyable to view (some dubbed into English, others with subtitles, and one silent). Also, humorously, is a 6-minute “Bad Kung Fu Dubs,” which is clips from this film and the bad overdubs (and acting) that I mentioned earlier. Last up is an image gallery of stills for mostly this, and some for other BS films.

I remember having a conversation with Mariah Aguire (RIP), who was a photographer and scenester during the early New York punk days, and who was a huge kung fu film fan. Over lunch at Dojos on St. Mark’s Place, I mentioned that my personal taste was period pieces about pre-18th Century Asian history (the Japanese equivalent would be the samurai films) more than modern gangster tales, and she chided me, saying there was fun and a sense of cheesiness in both. Of course, she was right, and even though I still have my preferences, I see what she was saying back then. This is a good example of that.

Despite wallowing in all the kung fu clichés, including some really bad overacting by some of the players, this is exactly what it was supposed to be: a story that is secondary to the action, and in that way, it’s extremely successful. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Reviews: Zombie Twosome – Aaah! Zombies!!; ZombieChrist

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Aaah! Zombies!! (aka Wasting Away)
Directed by Mattahew Kohnen
Level 33 Entertainment / Wasted Pictures
90 minutes, 
2007 / 2010

Zombie comedies are not new. They go back at least as far as Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers in 1940; but that’s voodoo kind. For the modern take, there are, for example, Shaun of the Dead (2004), C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. (1989, which had zilch to do with C.H.U.D.), and Return of the Living Dead II (1988). And now…

Actually, this is sort of a zombified zombie tale. It was originally released in 2007 as Wasting Away, and was resurrected from the dead shelf as Aaah! Zombies!!. Considering the number of indie awards it has won at horror film festivals, I’m surprised it isn’t better known.

Most zombie comedies are dead on arrival (sorry), but this one actually had me laughing at more than a few moments. Though there are holes here and there (including in a number of bodies), generally this is a well thought out, written, and acted film.

The basic premise is borrowed from some of the other films, such as C.H.U.D. II’s premise of trying to build the super-solider, and Return of the Living Dead II’s errant barrels of toxic waste accidently being ingested. Even with that, the level of originality here is enough to more than bolster the plot.

There’s four friends (not sure if they’re supposed to be teens or young twenties), three of whom work in a bowling alley, and their ever-hungry-for-weird-food friend who hangs around with them. They all have a bit of slacker in them, in varying ranges. After managing to ingest some of the toxic green goo via a beer and soft ice cream concoction, they are off after they’re offed.

Here’s where the originality kicks in full strength: part of the film is in black and white (except for the green stuff), which indicates everyday life and how everybody else sees the typical George Romeo slow-moving, groaning creatures. But then there are the parts in color, which is how the zombies see us and each other, that is to say, normally. To them, they feel, talk, and walk normal, but others see them as drooling cadaverous beings. The image flips back and forth, with people seeing decaying corpses walking around in B&W, and they’re just living their lives while being totally incomprehensible to only themselves (and any others infected).

It’s taken a step further, which I believe is quite smart: zombies are slow and lumbering, and can’t be understood, so it is put into play that uninfected people are shot in fast-motion, indicating normal brain function instead of the slower creatures, so the zombies can’t understand them, and they can’t understand the zombies – with the exception of drunks, who can both be understood and make out what is being said, as alcohol slows the brain, or zombies who drink enough coffee to speed them up can communicate with the uninfected.

The zombies are strong (unlike Romero’s) if not fast, so they find themselves killing uninfecteds in self-defense, or just doing a “Lennie Small” and not realizing how strong they actually are. Please note that two brains get eaten, but in the least gory (though definitely yecky) ways. In fact, there really isn’t a whole lot of gore, though there is some blood (mostly on clothing).

Obviously, the goo is doing something to their brains, because they don’t really seem to get upset when a body part is disconnected, or when relatives perish; though they do seem to care about each other, which is touching.

The cast is good, filled with professional actors who seem to be doing a lot of work on television shows as regulars and guest appearances on the "Law and Order" types, for example. One of the four leads is Betsy Beutler, who played Katie on "Scrubs," Joanie on "The Black Donnellys," and Son of Sam victim Stacy Moskowitz (someone I actually knew) in the series "The Bronx is Burning." Here she plays perky very well, in a sort of cheerleader kind of way, while working the hell out of her very expressive facial muscles. Her boy-next-door-potential-boyfriend is portrayed by Michael Grant Terry, who portrayed Wendell on "Bones." His goofiness comes across as charming rather than annoying, a fine line that is appreciated, and he makes a good pair with Beutler.

Julianna Robinson plays the other female lead, a more cynical, ambitious type who is hoping to get out of the local slacker scene. Having also appeared as the reporter in a bunch of McBride telefilms, she depicts snarky well, again without losing any of the character’s likeability. Her foil is embodied by Matthew Davis, who has had a successful recent career as Josh in "Damages" and Alaric in "The Vampire Diaries." His character is the type who is usually played by the Ryan Reynolds or Jack Black ilk of actor, being the charming adult child who rises to the occasion when needed, and uses the word "awesome" way too much. As with the rest of the foursome, he remains charming throughout, and comes across with some solid laughs. Also, he garners the most CGI effects.

There are a couple of well-known character actors here that if you don’t recognize the name, you certainly would the face. A hard-edged solider who guides the two couples through what is happening to them (albeit misinformed), is a turn done well, if a little over the top, by Colby French; he was Hank on the first season of "Heroes." An evil general is done to a turn by Richard Riehle. He has over 230 credits in both television and films (as of this writing, 11 are in post-production), such as Walt on "Grounded For Life," along with semi-regular roles in a number of "Star Trek" spin-offs. Last of note, is one of my favorite underrated character actors who has a cameo, Tracy Walter, a man from New Jersey who almost always plays redneck southerners. Though he has over 150 credits, including Angel in "Nash Bridges," for me some of his special work was in the “Mummy Daddy” episode of "Amazing Stories," the philosopher of Repo Man (1984, who give the best speech – about UFOs – while burning clothes), and though I thought the series was only fair, I still think of as “Frog” in "Best of the West." But I’m digressing here, because I'm a fan.

Anyway, this is a straight-out funny flick, and I’m happy to recommend this for Saturday movie night. It’s got balls; bowling balls, that is, and it’s a strike!

Zombie Christ
Directed by Bill Zebub
Bill Zebub Productions
90 minutes, 2010

In part, what makes the shot-on-video Zombie Christ interesting is not just their own descriptor of “The Most Blasphemous Story Ever Told,” but the sheer audacity and goofiness of it.

Perhaps it is because I am not a Christian that I am not riled by this, but neither am I a Death Metal fan, as obviously is the cleverly named director Bill Zebub. His film credits include the documentaries Death Metal: Are We Watching You Die, Metal Retardation, Black Metal: The Documentary, and the fictional Metalheads: The Good, the Bad, and the Evil, Assmonster: The Making of a Horror Movie, The Worst Horror Movie Ever Made, and the equally noxiously named Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist (many of these trailers – and more – appear on this DVD as bonuses).

For the purposes of this film, Jesus is resurrected by some Druids (before the film starts) and he (I will use the smaller case “he” for this review) is looking for his descendants via Mary Magdalene, who had two of his children according to this plot. The term zombie here is used more classically as the walking dead rather than the modern flesh-eating ghouls. Zombie Jesus eats the souls of the (nearly exclusively naked) women of his bloodline.

What is disturbing is the way women are victimized throughout (though men are brutalized as well, but on a lesser scale). It seems everyone is heavily inked, metaled up (even Jesus as he appears in his own lifetime has a lip ball); however, the women are quite young and beautiful (and in at least one case, the actress seems stoned out of her mind), but the men are middle aged, oftentimes bald with scraggly facial hair, and well, lets just say could use to shed a few (without meaning this as body shaming).

This is part of why I stated that there are actually some amusing aspects of this purposefully offensive release. First of all, Zombie Jesus is a skeletal puppet with some meaty bits pasted on and a crown of thorns. There is no point where the skeleton moves in a natural way (i.e., no CGI or pixilation used), and the one special effect when he “walks” on water, the blue screen (green screen?) effect is laughable and out of scale. As the skeleton uses a chicken leg to perform a sex act, or his bony finger, if one can get past the screaming misogyny and “sacrilege,” it’s pretty damn droll in its own way.

There are also some noticeable question marks for me, such as a nun in full habit (at first) who is wearing moth-shaped designer underwear, black leather heels, and sporting a Brazilian wax. Also there are other plot holes, such as the role of the hero: who is he in relation to the story, and how did he get a list of who is in the bloodline? And the ending, well, it’s just ridiculous, but no more than anything else, so if you’ve put up a large enough suspension of disbelief to reach that point, it won’t matter. I laughed at parts.

One would think this film preaches Satanism; I’m not sure what Bill Zebub actually believes, despite his nom de cinema, but the message here is certainly questioning the Judeo-Christian belief system, claiming Christianity was created by the Romans (which seems unlikely to me as they persecuted the followers so harshly, as the Church would do in return unto others through the centuries), and that the story of Jesus is actually a retelling of the Dionysus myth (this is explained in detail, step-by-step, throughout the film by the male protagonist.

Now comes the dilemma… to recommend or not. Well, while I enjoyed some aspects of it for what it was, it was a bit too much in the W.A.V.E.-style S&M cinema for me (and no sign of Tina Krause) to really say a general “go see it.” It’s all up to you, now.

[Note that this film is not to be confused with another zombie Jesus film called THE Zombie Christ]

These reviews originally published in

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Review: Soft Matter

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Soft Matter
Directed by Jim Hickcox
Wild Eye Releasing / Demon Janx / MVD Visual
72 minutes, 2018

First of all, the definition of "soft matter," according to the School of Physics and Astronomy website, “is a convenient term for materials that are easily deformed by thermal fluctuations and external forces. In short, it refers to 'all things squishy'! Everyday examples include paint, blood, milk, spreads and ice cream.”

This is an odd little film by a first feature director (he’s done some shorts), and I don’t know what I was expecting. From the trailer, from what I could cull, it seemed like a psychedelic hip-hop version of The Shape of Water. And some of that is true. Especially the squishy hip-hop.

Mary Anzalone, Hal Schneider
The film starts off with a prologue showing a duo of questionable scientists, Grist (Hal Schneider) and Kriegspiel (Mary Anzalone), in an abandoned hospice (a real, supposedly haunted location), who seem to be doing experiments with fish and crustaceans, among other creatures, trying to humanize them for dubious means. It’s all very Island of Dr. Moreau. Nobody seems to really like each other much, and there’s lots of Nickelodeon-ish slime. But the word that seems most appropriate about the whole feeling of the piece is moist. Yeah, it is squishy and gross, and deadpan humorous.

Next we meet up-and-coming graffiti artist Haircut (Devyn Placide) and his friend Kish (Ruby Lee Dove II), the latter of whom, for some reason, has a handlebar-style mustache (drawn?) (tattooed?) on her face. She wants to set up an art show to promote ‘Cut, so guess where she picks as a locale?

Of Fish and Men (and Womyn) worlds collide of course, and we get to partake in viewing the action. But this film is probably different than most you’ve ever seen before, which in my opinion is a plus. Now, it’s not what I would call arty as it’s a bit too non-cryptic and somewhat straightforward for that; however it is both quirky and certainly imaginative to the point of little WTF details. A lot of films that rely on “WTF details” annoy be because the quirkiness is there for the sake of ego and that quirkiness. But this has a different feel to it, hence the term “imaginative.”

Ruby Lee Dove II
For example, the space where the creatures are being created for the sake of figuring out immortality (yeah, I know) is downright disgusting and dirty – the stuff that was actually left in the closed hospice – not the sort of laboratory setting one might expect for such a lofty goal. And the sheer animosity of the scientists to both their subjects and each other makes one (well, me, anyway) wonder if there is some kind of leaking gas or contaminant effecting their personalities. Since we don’t meet them before the events, there is no real exposition to understand how this is all affecting them. And then one of the creatures called Mr. Sacks (Bradley Creel) starts to bust a move to a solid groove.

As for the creature on the cover of the box, he/she/it is referred to as a sea god (Sam Stinson, voice by Mykal Monroe), with no explanation on how he/she/it got there, who seems to live in a water bucket (see DVD cover). And no one else, neither scientists nor artists, act as if there is a social contract, but rather all seem to be motivating as if they are the ones who (soft) matter, not the social good – even though they claim that the immortality for humanity is their goal (more likely for themselves, as a piece of dialogue indicates).

Speaking of social, there is a very nice commentary on the art world as two pretentious patrons of the arts, Miss Teath (Catherine Grady) and Rudolph (Mark Blumberg) show up at Haircut’s show, and can’t tell the difference between the reality of creatures on a killing spree and performance art (“Are they actors?” one asks early on). Yes, some art – and I’ve seen my share – is so obtuse and pompous – almost as much as some of its followers (remember Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen’s Nuni and Nuni characters from “SNL”?). Even as destruction and eminent death are close, one states, “I’ve never been to a better art opening.” I definitely smiled at that one.

I don’t want to pass on the opportunity to mention some of the animation that shows up every once in a while, including the use of blacklight. It just adds to the whole wondrous WTF-ness of it all.

Mr. Sacks pumpin' the jam
As for the extras, well, there are two full-length commentaries by the writer and director. The first one presented is Hickcox by himself (sitting in his backyard in Austin, Texas, at 2 AM). He rambles a bit as he still manages to say a lot of interesting things about the actual shoot and location, techniques, and certain technical aspects. The second commentary is Hickcox and academic / film historian Jason Michelitch. Unfortunately, Michelitch was seeing the film for the first time during the commentary so the talk is less deep about the meaning than it could have been. It’s a bit more interesting than the other commentary, but I would have liked a bit more substance about signifying.

Also included among the extras is 2015 short lasting 12:07 called Slow Creep, which is an interesting take on Ringu (aka The Ring), with a creature that follows a rented videotape and the three teens trying to watch it. It’s a fun piece of fluff that’s worth the view, and the sudden music video at the end is icing on the cake. The last extra is a series of different film trailers, as Wild Eye Releasing is wont to do with their – err – releases.

My fear is that this might be dismissed by people who just like blood and gore, torture porn, boobs, and otherworldly serial killers. Sure, this has a relatively straight narrative, but there is so much going on that is off the beaten path that it’s easy to just give up rather than seeing deeper than the weirdness and unusual elements that are consistent on both a low scale to a grand level of bada-bing. If you want to stretch your palate a bit, this might be a nice step.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Review: The Jurassic Dead

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Jurassic Dead (aka Z/Rex: The Jurassic Dead; Zombiesaurus)
Directed by Milko Davis; with Thomas Martwick
Wild Eye Releasing / Cyclopsdome / GAM3 / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2017 / 2018

I kinda get it. I mean, there’s a whole subgenre of inane-yet-fun dinosaur flicks, especially involving the king/queen of them all, the T-Rex (only thing missing is Marc Bolan). As a small sampling, there’s Valley of the Gwangi (1969) and Carnosaur (well, the first one of three was 1993), among many others (does one want to include 1993’s A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell? Let’s not, okay?).

What gives this some validity and credibility, such as it is, is like Carnosaur, it doesn’t take itself quiiiiiite so seriously. I mean, there are clichés, cartoonish stereotypical characters, a mad scientist in a lair in the middle of the desert threatening the world, and of course the zombie dinosaur. First off, the cover makes it look like a T-Rex, but it’s actually more T-Rex shape in velociraptor size, but I’m not going to quibble over something that trivial when there is a world of wonder to look at here.

In some way, what this film reminds me of is Isis Rising: Curse of the Lady Mummy (2013) because nearly all the film is actually 3D Modelling, animation and green screen technology. Some of it actually looks really good, and some, well, not as much. Still, I’m impressed with the work that must have gone into it, and am willing to bet a lot of it was done on home computers using modelling software.

As for the story, the prologue sets up the insane anger of a dismissed professor/scientist, Wojick Borge (Cooper Elliot). After a car accident, he becomes evil, looking like a cross between the Phantom of the Paradise and Bane (including face mask). He has a massive and serpentine lair that looks like a flattened pyramid out in the desert, though there is no explanation of how a professor could afford it. This is something Lex Trump-thor would look at and say, “Looks pricey.”

Back: Klosterman and Singer
Front: Goeke and Johnson
After the prologue, we are introduced to two groups of people who encounter each other on the road to… well, we all know where they are going to end up, don’t we. The first is two couples: nerds and stoners* Sadie (Mia Klosterman, who is also a singer) and Cameron (Adam Singer), and Sadie’s bleach blonde cheerleader sister Roxanne (Nicole Goeke) and her football player b/f and macho moron Gunnar (well played by Ben Johnson, who often plays Superman in Justice League shorts); Gunnar likes to say the word “Bro” in as many sentences as he can. Yeah, they’re all stereotypes, but the good thing is that the viewer doesn’t really need much exposition about the characters.

Gonzalez, Pennington, Haman, La Page, Perry
The other SUV contains 5, err… Well, they’re pretending to be military, but they could be mercenaries… but from the looks of it and their conversations, it’s probably just some right wing militia (more about this later). There’s the lone female Cuchilla (Raquel Pennington, from the UFC, whose character seems to be based on Private Vasquez in 1986’s Aliens), the redneck and racist Spivey (Shale Le Page), the cop wannabe Swat (Juan Gonzalez), the sole person of color, Stick (Ruselis Aumeen Perry), and the bullish and muscular leader of the pack, Duque (Andy Haman, the IFBB Pro Champion Bodybuilder in his screen debut and doing a bang-up, comic book Sgt. Rock-ish performance). There is even a shot of the five of them walking side by side, in slo-mo, Tarrantino/Reservoir Dogs (1992) style, which has become a trope used often in many films.

Then of course there is the dino, who is injected with some green glowing liquid that brings him back to life (reminiscent of the goo from 1985’s Re-Animator). He’s cool looking and moves a bit clumsily though not too bad, and has a temper… oh, and glowing green (or, when angry, red) eyes. He is unkillable and a zombie. When he (I’m assuming it’s a “he”) kills someone, they also come back as glowingly green-eyed zombies.

After the two sets of people meet up and get separated into smaller and mixed groups in the lair of the loony, the action picks up as they get taken down one-by-one by reptile or human zombies. Interestingly, they keep some of their humanity and growl a lot, and they walk rather than stumble or run, thereby being neither slow, nor fast zombies. They move stiffly but steadily, more like Jason or Michael.

While all this is going on, our mad professor is planning to explode his chemicals all over the world, creating an earth of zombies, again I am assuming, under his command. There are computers and timers counting down all over da joint throughout the film.

I’m not sure if this qualifies or is meant to be an actual comedy, but definitely a dramedy. There are lots of parts that are snarky, especially the swipes at the gun lobby / alt right mentality of the furious five.

I did have some issues with the film in the fact that there is no logic or sometimes a lack of consistency within the story. For example, an object falls from the sky, causing a pulse that kills all the electricity in the area, including cars, phones, etc., and yet a helicopter works. In another example, the doors are solid steel, and yet bullets shatter it into small pieces.

With all the flaws, this kind of works, though it really is silly and nonsensical in a lot of ways, but so were the films I mentioned in the first paragraph. It’s perfectly summed up during the credits when we see each character turn into a cartoon of themselves. There is even a sequel in the works for 2019 called Z/Rex: Dead War.

* Speaking of Bolan, I kept hearing the song “Bang-a-Gong” whenever the weed was passed around.