Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Review: Flesh & Blood – The Hammer Heritage of Horror

Text © Robert Barry Francos / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror
Written and directed by Ted Newsom
Narrated by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee
S’more Entertainment / Bosustow Media Group / Hammer Films / Act 3 – Heidelberg Films / MVD Entertainment
100 minutes, 1994 / 2015 / 2018

Before I started watching this update of a reissued 1994 British documentary television show about arguably one of the three most important horror film companies in the 20th Century – the other two being Universal Pictures and American International Pictures (AIP) – I tried to think back to the first Hammer Film Production I can remember seeing in the theater. It could have been She, The Nanny (which began my crush on Pamela Franklin for a couple of decades), Die! Die! My Darling!, or One Million Years BC (all released in 1965). However, I have a vague memory of seeing The Creeping Unknown as a second-bill feature years after its original release as Quatermass Xperiment (1955), probably as a back-up for one of the AIP Poe releases with Vincent Price; they helped cement my love of the genre through the decades. Since then, I saw so many of their films and franchises, Dracula and Frankenstein, especially.

It makes good sense that the narrators of this documentary are the biggest stars Hammer helped introduce to Western cinema: Christopher Lee (d. 2015) who was best known as Dracula in Hammer Films, and the man with the world’s greatest cheekbones, Peter Cushing (1994, soon after this was released; I was a member of his British Fan Club), who reimagined by Dr. Frankenstein and Van Helsing. It should be noted that Cushing’s career dates back to appearing in the Laurel and Hardy feature, Chumps at Oxford.
Wisely, it starts off right at the beginning, with how the name Hammer originated (which I did not know, or perhaps did not remember), into its formation as a viable force during the post-World War II period, and how they attained their admirable talent, such as director Freddie Francis.

There is a nice compendium of archival footage and early ‘90s modern interviews, so many of the stars of the early releases, as well as the classic ones, such as Francis (d. 2007), Hazel Court (d. 2008; one of the few to be in both Hammer and AIP films), Ingrid Pitt (d. 2010) and Veronica Carlson are present for first-hand accounts. We see original footage and modern interviews of both actors and crew. Also enjoyable are interviews with some American directors, and how they were influenced by the Hammer collection, such as Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and Martin Scorsese.

A point they make here but don’t dwell on (consider the name of the documentary, after all), is that early on there was hardly a genre that Hammer didn’t tackle, including swashbuckling, crime dramas, and science fiction. It was the Quatermass mash-up of sci-fi and horror that got them noticed to an Ameican audience, which is where the larger money was, and from there it was the revitalization and reboots of the classic Universal monsters where the studio became financially sound. Peter Cushing says at one point, paraphrasing the name of one of his films, “Frankenstein Created Hammer.”

Rather than follow the releases merely chronologically, wisely break the film up into “groups.” For example, there is a whole segment that just focuses on the Frankenstein films, some more successful in quality than others, in my opinion, and thankfully everyone looks at it both nostalgically and with a sense of whimsy, including David Prowse (he would go on to play Darth Vader in the original three Star Wars films) and Cushing himself, who comments at some point that his hair in a later film looked like Helen Hayes. Needless to say, this is an exciting part of the film for me.

After Frankie-Baby, there’s “The Count Also Rises,” discussing, well… Dracula (are you surprised? If you are, you need to see this and learn your horror history, Jack… or Jill). Actually, I do agree and disagree on a point they make in this segment. They comment that what makes Lee’s Dracula so special is the level of sexuality he brings to the character. Well, yes, onscreen he definitely made some in the audience swoon (both female and male, from those I’ve talked to), but to imply that Lugosi’s Big-D wasn’t sexy is just wrong. Lugosi was a major sex symbol in the 1930s and ‘40s (pre-drug addiction), and while there was no blatant sexuality on screen as there was with Lee (e.g., a woman lying in bed pulling down her neckline to be bitten), Lugosi’s portrayal just burned with sensuality, using his voice – as is true with Lee’s baritone – and eyes, specifically. Can I get an Amen?

Younger people may think of Lee as Saruman, but for those “kids” of my g-g-generation, Lee is Dracula and Dracula is Lee; and I say this with the utmost respect and admiration. When he plays other roles, such as Lord Summerisle in the wickedly great The Wicker Man (1973; not the Nic Cage travesty remake), it’s easy to accept. But when Lee’s name is mentioned, it’s his cape and red eyes that come to mind. The Dracula-based series was also extremely popular for the company, though Lee pulled the plug on himself continuing the role after the cartoonish and garish Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). He explains why here, which is good to hear dripping from his lips directly.

The second half of the documentary is a bit more esoteric, covering many bases. For example, there is a look at a few films that did not make money, such as the sensationalist courtroom drama Never Take Candy From Strangers (1960) and the sci-fi thriller The Damned (1963) to how Hammer had one of the first full-time female producers with Aida Young (though Freddie Francis sorta poo-poos her role). On more a more technical side there is discussion about how Hammer used exceptional crews and eventually had their own look (they definitely did), and how they managed to score major talent, such as Oliver Reed, from both the UK and the US.

Adaptations of classics (e.g., Phantom of the Opera in 1962 and The Devil Rides Out in 1968) are discussed, including an interview with my personal favorite horror writer, Richard Matheson (d. 2013).

Now, Hammer kinda hit its stride, especially with me, in the late 1960s and in the early ‘70s, and I have no doubt looking back that part of it had do so with what is covered in a chapter here called “Hammer Glamour.” The stars were good looking; there were bountiful cleavage, and a strong sense of both horror sexuality and sensuality. Films like Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971) were fine examples of what fed a teenage boy the equivalent of what many superhero films do now with the same formula using Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Wisely, this film looks at both the good (marketing) and bad (sexism/gender politics, as well as the overuse of the theme of sexy lesbian vampires*) of this aspect, though because it was filmed in the early ‘90s, perhaps not as deeply as it might since the emergence of the #metoo current history.

This logically leads into the prehistoric releases that seemed to begin with One Million Years BC, including interviews with its two major stars, Raquel Welch and the underrated Martine Beswick; the latter would go on to other dinosaur-and-human releases that seemed to come out quite often, and were often over-acted and over-melodramatic in joyful exuberance. There are also a couple of brief interviews with the man who designed many of them, the king of pixilation himself, Ray Harryhausen (d. 2013).

This was actually getting close to the end of the Hammer phenomenon, with their the horrible but (unintentionally) hilarious last horror film To the Devil and Daughter in 1975, and the 1979 horrible and not hilarious (unintentionally) comedy The Lady Vanishes. But thanks to extended footage added to this new version of the documentary, we are told of its somewhat limited revival in 2008, with the likes of Let Me In (2010) and The Woman in Black (2012).

This is a fun and informative way to spend a couple of hours of horror film history, and with the 40 minutes of added footage, all the more bettah. It’s well thought out, extensive in its clips and interviews, and pretty thorough.

I do need to add a comment, however, about something I felt was left out. In the late 1960s and through the ‘70s, Hammer wisely chose to go into the home distribution market, well before the advent of VHS. It was common to see 8mm and Super 8mm short versions of Hammer Films in 50’ (4 minutes) and 200’ (15 minutes) versions, both with sound and silent. I still have a batch of the silent ones somewhere, though no projector anymore. This was some solid marketing.

* It should be noted that one of the very first horror stories ever published in modern history, even before Dracula, was the 1871 Joseph Le Fanu novella, Carmella, about a lesbian vampire.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Review: Abominable (Special Edition)

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

Abominable (Special Edition)
Directed by Ryan Schifrin
Red Circle Productions / MVD Rewind Collection
94 minutes, 2006 / 2018

Some form of the Sasquatch, or big foot, has been the subject of horror films for so many films over a span of decades that it could easily be classified as a sub-genre on its own; for example, there is another film called Abominable due out in 2019, which features an animated and kid-friendly Yeti. Personally, I feel the reason for the proliferation of this monster is a move that mixes the mystery of the dark and dangerous woods and a bit of the werewolf motif, i.e., a creature that is not normalized in culture (such as a lion, or wolf), but still human-line and… possible. Director Schifrin also points out during the commentary that  the Bigfoot is one of the few well known monsters that is not under copyright. More times than not – okay, nearly always – the beastie is a guy in suit (including here), which is okay with me because it depends on how it looks and how it’s used that matters.

This re-release version of the 2006 film is a two-disc combination of Blu-ray and DVD, both discs identical with one exception which I’ll get to in the next paragraph. For point-of-reference, I only put in the Blu-ray disc.

Right off, there is an option for an 8:35 minute contemporary introduction by the director, Ryan Shifrin, who discusses how the film was taken from its original format and made into 2K HD from the original camera negative, with some extra production values (e.g., redoing the CGI glowing eyes). For this reason, there is both the original and HD version available on the Blu-ray disc only, hence the two-disc difference.

Matt McCoy
Starting the film, there is a prologue about some scared farmers, namely Dee Wallace Stone, who I think of more in The Howling than the overrated ET, and veteran character actor whom you’d recognize in a sec, Rex Linn (that’s just the start of the many cameos, but I’ll get to that later, too). After, we are introduced to the protagonist, Preston, played by Matt McCoy who most people probably remember from many television appearances, but to me he’ll always be Lloyd Braun (“Seinfeld”). After an mountain climbing accident that cost him his wife and the use of his legs, he has now returned to a cabin he owns in a wooded area, doing the Jimmy Stewart / Rear Window thing, seeing all through a window with binoculars. He’s caught on that there is something literally afoot out there in the dark.

The others in the locale are Preston’s nurse and caretaker, the obnoxious and creepy Otis (Christien Tinsley, who also did the effects and make-up for this release, is a master make-up artist on the likes of “American Horror Story,” “Westworld,” and he won an award for Gibson’s The Passion of Christ), and a group of five young women partying in the cabin next door, which is apparently the only two in the vicinity. Soon, one of the women becomes missing, and only Preston has an idea of what’s going on.

As for Biggie, we see him in bits and pieces, such as his glowing eyes, and the inside of his mouth, but we do get the classic monster-in-woods-POV-shots with starburst flare around it, as he watches his potential prey. A group of attractive and nubile women in peril; isn’t that special. Dare I say shower scene? Well, it is way back in the good-old-days of 2006. Make Horror Movies Great Again?

Haley Joel
Okay, okay, I know I’m kinda mocking this as a throwback to the ‘80s, and yeah, in some ways it is, but don’t get me wrong: considering some of the hokey bits, such as the way the creature looks when we finally get to see it in full, it’s still a very effective film and honestly, quite enjoyable.

I read a review recently about the horror genre in general (sorry, but I can’t remember the source…if you know it, tell me and I’ll add it in), and it posited that jump scares are overused and they customarily have sudden loud sounds and spiked, dissonant shrieks in music to enhance the effect. Well, this film definitely relies on that formula, but they manage to use it quite effectively. Also, what Hitchcock liked to do is leave some cinema “space” on one side so you expect the jump to come from there, and then come from the other side. This is another tool that this film uses effectively because it doesn’t overdo it, unlike Carpenter did in the original Halloween, which kinda ruined the fear in the film for me.

A large cast means a numerous kill count, and this one goes hog wild. Not only are there the people in the two houses as potential fodder for the freak, but there is also a string of very impressive cameos (see, told ya I’d get to it) that show up throughout, such as those I mentioned before, Lance Hendricksen, Jeffrey Combs (the Re-Animator, himself!), Paul Gleason (the principal in The Breakfast Club and a high level police officer in Die Hard; he passed away the same year this was originally released), Phil Morris (who was the Martian Manhunter on “Smallville,” and best known as lawyer Jackie Chiles on “Seinfeld”), the underrated and yet arguably the one with the longest film credit list Tiffany Shepis as one of the members of the inevitable slumber party Bigfoot massacre. The entire cast does incredibly well for the budget we’re talking about at the time, considering it was shot on film stock. And may I say, Haley Joel’s sustained lip gloss in both volume and longevity considering the activity is impressive.

Dee Wallace Stone and Rex Linn
Speaking of body counts, the deaths are nice and gruesome with some fine effects. The gore looks great and there’s lots of it, building up to near the end. Despite the addition of some CGI in post-production, most of the SFX by Tinsley are practical and look great.

As with most Blu-rays, as I’ve said numerous times, there is a teeming of extras, so let’s get to the ones I haven’t mentioned yet. Because they had all the original negatives, they were able to put together some nice raw footage for the “Deleted and Extended Scenes” (6:13). Everything that was excised feels right, especially the last one as it gives out too much infomraiton; it’s left in much more subtly, which works better. Then there’s the “Outtakes and Bloopers” (4:09), which is time-coded footage with errors. Some of it is quite amusing and during one scene filmed over and over due to laughing, I kept thinking, “This is film stock and I bet the director is pissed.”

Some of the minor extras are different sound choices, two trailers for this film (and a few for other MVD Rewind releases), a “Poster and Still Gallery” and “Storyboard Gallery.” On a larger scale, there is the original cut of the film, which I saw parts of and there is a definite difference is some aspects and the way scenes are present, but I just skipped and jumped.

Jeffrey Combs
It starts to get more serious with “Back to Genre: Making Abominable” featurette, a 37:15 documentary of the making of the film from story to distribution, broken up into chapters filled with interviews with most of the cast. Now, long making-of documentaries tend of be tedious, but this really was interesting all the way through. It kept a nice pace and also avoided the fluff. Nice!

There are two short films included by the director, one of them being the 8:07 student film, “Shadows.” Shot in black-and-white, which follows a paranoid, wealthy artist who is afraid to leave his house hearing about local murders on the radio (the only voice you hear throughout). He is not nice guy to others, but is that his fear or sense of privilege? The other one is “Basil & Mobius: No Rest for the Wicked” (16:16), which follows two British scallywags as they try to steal some secret plans from a mob boss who runs a gambling house in Jolly Olde (played by Malcolm McDowell). There is gunplay, martial arts, quick repartee dialogue, and even a couple of zombies (one is Kane Hodder). These films are touched with some humor, and quite excellent fun.

Last up is the full length commentary, which I found very impressive. Just so you know, I usually write the main part of the review before watching the extras, so it was nice to hear some confirmation on some of my comments (e.g., the Rear Window connection and the lip gloss). Recorded in June 2006, it features Schifrin, McCoy, Combs and the film's editor Chris Conlee. Now, what I thought was remarkable was that while McCoy was there for most of it, Combs and Conlee’s comments are edited in (sans McCoy) for just the scenes with Combs’ Clerk character. This cut down on the over-talking and made everything clear. What’s more, the content of the conversation was kept to the film, so while there is some humor, it’s pretty straight forward and hardly any filler. A great commentary from beginning to end, and I don’t say that very often.

There is a folded, printed poster that also comes with the Special Edition, which is neat. The only thing missing, that I could think of, was captioning, but I’m not holding that against anyone.

I have to say, for a throwback via homage of some of the great horror films of the 1970s-1990s (though Rear Window was 1954), this is an effective thriller, and a fun time all around on so many different level.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Review: Faces of Schlock

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

Faces of Schlock
Various directors
Independent Entertainment / MVD Visual
~90 minutes, 2009

Grossly speaking (pun unintended), independent cinema is usually represented in three genres: first is the documentary, and these are usually high class and low cost (e.g., Michael Moore’s stuff, and so many others worth watching); second is comedy, and those are usually Porky’s level fart jokes and mostly a waste of time; and lastly is horror, which runs from astoundingly good (e.g., The Evil Dead series, Re-Animator) to just plain unwatchable (too many to mention).

However, I would rather watch the horror indies more often than the majors, because the larger studios have so much to lose and tend to take themselves waaaay too seriously, whereas the indies tend to have a clear head about who they are and what they are doing. Usually their products are done on the fly, with limited budgets and effects that are more wha? than whoa! (if I am making any sense at all).

The plurality of this release’s title is reflected in the four short films that make up the bulk of the DVD, organized by Henrique Couto. All the directors, producers, and other cast / staff either share each other’s services, or are friends.

First up is “Blood Witch” (written and directed by Andrew Shearer), which I believe is the most nuanced of the four pieces, as far as characters are concerned. Essentially a witch is murdered centuries ago in Spain, and now she has been called back by a goth Satanist-wannabe / sadist-lite who doesn’t truly know what she is doing. The moral question of who of many of the characters are actually evil (including a telemarketer) is a key element here. Countess Samela (referred in the bonus material as “Sam”; this is her only credit on IMDB) plays the wannabe with a churlish grin, even as she is bathing. Monica Puller, as the title character Isabella (other credits include Satan’s House of Yoga, Cannibal Sisters, and Psycho Vixens), plays her role with just the right touch of pathos. The gore effects are effective and not overdone, and the writing is in "The Twilight Zone" morality story mode. A quick shout out to a great nom de acting, Priscilla Lee Press-On; yes, that is her name, not the character.

The second short is “Mike Wuz Here” (produced, edited and directed by Justin Channell), about a not-too-bright ghost named Mike (T.J. Rogers, whose credits include Die and Let Live - that is not a typo) who is haunting the cinema where he was fired, and then hanged himself. The slacker staff know him both when he was a person, and now as a ghost. A new manager is hired (after Mike’s spirit did away with the old one), who is put in charge of this bunch of losers. He decides that he wants Mike out because he is scaring off patrons, hence the theater is losing money. When he tries to “fire” Mike, the spirit enters his body and he starts to do away with the other staff members who agreed he – as a ghost – should be let go. A bit gruesome, of course, but more funny (intentionally) than anything else, such as one usher being tortured by being forced to watch Step Up 3 (his comments are hilarious). This short definitely has its fine moments.

The third was my least favorite of the four, “One Foot in the Grave” (directed by Chris LaMartina), about a dancer played by Sara Cole (other credits are Dead Hunt and Almost Invisible), who loses her foot due to a doctor’s negligence. She seeks revenge via the local witchy woman, Virginia Frank (credits include Grave Mistake), who is actually in cahoots with the slimy doctor (no secret there), portrayed by George Stover (whose awesome credits include a number of early John Water’s films, as well as the likes of Attack of the ’60 Centerfolds, Sleepy Hollow High and Ninjas vs. Vampires). To show you the level of writing here, the foot doctor’s name is – wait for it – Dr. Sholes. Yep, it’s that desperate.

The main tale is saved for last, which is “Slay Ride” (produced and directed by Henrique Couto, who put the whole collection together). The central character, as a spoiled goth girl, is DVD covergirl Ruby LaRocca (who has an impressive list of over 50 credits in 10 years, including Satan’s School for Lust, Spiderbabe, Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots, Bikini Girls on Dinosaur Planet, An Erotic Werewolf in London, The Lord of the G-String: The Femaleship of the String, Batbabe: The Dark Nightie, and, well you get the idea). She’s the kind who pierces her nipples without anesthetic (we get to see that, even though it’s an effect), while her parents are walking out the door for the weekend. Seems, of course, there’s a killer on the loose, ready to strike her and/or her hyper schoolmate, Debbie (Sandy Behre; only credit). Could it be the guy with the chainsaw next door (a fine turn by the director)? Santa? Who knows, though I figured it out somewhere along the way. Nice effects here, and as with just about the entire film, done with appliances rather than CGI.

And then there is the wraparounds, presented with glee by the hostess with the fangs, Slutpira, a really nice turn by Izzie Harlow, who jumps in and out of character a la Uncle Floyd, to make sarcastic comments like, “Oh great, another title that’s a pun.” Despite the lengthy fangs they give her, she manages to talk normally, and has a really fine sense of timing. I looked forward to her bits of intro and outro of the short films. Kudos.

There are a lot of bonus features, some good, some whatever. The commentary track is cool, because each segment has its own director, writer, actor, whomever, including the wrap-arounds, so we hear from the – err – minds of each creator on their own pieces. Nice touch. The outtakes and bloopers were mostly fun, though some went on too long, and the music video was, well, tiring. The two clips that seemed way too long were of the premiere night (including lots of footage of “the gang” hanging out and getting drunk before, and hanging around in the lobby of the theater (the one from “Mike Wuz Here”) before and after the showing. There is also a looooong bit revolving around a horror convention that seemed to never end and have no point other than for them to have yet another reason to get drunk.

So skipping most of the extras, I would say this meets the indie needs of a low budget, DIY horror comp, and I actually look forward to seeing more of their work.

This review was originally published in

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Review: Cat Sick Blues

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

Cat Sick Blues
Directed and edited by Dave Jackson
Phandasmes Video / Wild Eye Releasing Raw / MVD Visual
101 minutes, 2016 / 2018

D’jever have one of those pals or acquaintances who treated their pet with so much attention, it seemed a bit... unhealthy? You know, all their Facebook posts are pictures of them with the critter, or the beastie dressed up in some inappropriate costume that made you kinda feel sorry for the pet more than the owner? You’ve probably thought to yourself, they are just lonely and they need to find the right human person to connect with, right?

Matthew C. Vaughn
Ted (Matthew C. Vaughn, giving off a Norman Bates/Anthony Perkins meets Eb from ”Green Acres” vibe and look) is just such a person. After his cat walks over the rainbow bridge (though it’s body is in the fridge’s freezer), he has a shrine to it in his abode, and oh, by the way, kills women while wearing a cat mask and a cat-claw glove (references to Freddy K. are bound to turn up); don’t ask about the giant, spiked strap on dildo… He’s under the psychosis that if he kills nine people, one for each of the cat’s lives, he can bring it back. Yeah, Teddy-lad is not playing with a full deck.

As for Claire (Shian Denovan), her cat is a viral internet star until a sudden and brutal occurrence. She’s distraught, and it’s only a matter of time until cat fanciers Ted and Claire are bound to meet. Him with his creepiness and cat obsession, and her on the verge of a breakdown, they are two unhappy people with little in common other than Meow Mix and a filled litter box that is unemptied. Their relationship is more symbiotic than nurturing, but they are desperate people in need for companionship and comfort in some way, no matter how unconventional.

Shian Denovan
But these are two very disturbed people in actually very different ways. The path does not follow the usual Psychos in Love formula, I’m happy to say, and we are presented with wholly different and quite unexpected scenarios. Kudos to the writers for that.

This is almost a horror cyberpunk with Ted adding technology to his own physicality, doing a Marshall McLuhan by adding to his body parts to make them extensions of himself (I got me some ed-ju-ma­-cation, y’see). What he does with these devices is kinda what you’d expect if you are a fan of this kind of fare, as am I, and I’m grateful that the technique used is more strike than torture, in most cases. I mean, I was wondering if I would have liked the story if he had used the spikey dildo more often or less… of course I’m not even going to give a hint, but I was satisfied.

There are some quite stunning practical SFX in general, especially the head near the beginning of the film. That being said, the blood was a bit too bright red and watery, especially in certain cases, but I’m willing to forget that as it was quite enjoyable to see the gushing. Yes, this is a very graphic and wet film.

My big issue with the production was, believe it or not, the sound. Even without the Australian accents (yes, this comes from a land down under… sorry), a bit of the dialogue is hard to make out with the industrial Nosie soundtrack. Luckily this is not a dialogue heavy flick, so don’t let that stop ya.

Ted is an interesting character, especially the way Vaughn plays him. Sometimes he’s shy, sometimes he quite assured and confident, and other times quite neurotically out of his league. While not discussed, I’m willing to bet he’s on the autism scale. But he manages to set out on his goal to resurrect his purr. That is, when he’s not having grand mal seizures (I know someone who actually died of this), especially after a kill; perhaps it’s the adrenaline rush that triggers it. I realize he’s quite a sexual deviant (the story makes that quite clear), but I was a bit annoyed that all his victims were female, which is a bit of throwback to the bad part of the genre.

That being said, I found Claire even more interesting, even if she is not always likeable. Lovely Denovan plays her in many states of emotions and manic. While Ted may technically be the main character, I felt the film was more about her, the way she deals with multiple levels of grief, and how she works through the pain and fear.

Loneliness is another key factor throughout the film. Whether it’s the two leads, the members of a pet grieving group, Claire’s friend (attractive Rachel Rai), or a fan obsessed with Claire’s cat (Noah Moon), nearly everyone is alone on a substantive level. Even there is a physical connection between characters, it’s never on a positive emotional way.

There’s a nice interplay of reality and dementia, as both our protagonists go through their situations in various ways. But what struck me the most was the use of social media and technology throughout the film, be it feel good viral kitty videos or the dark web’s more sinister side. But what affected me more is how people are so casual about online (real) violence, and being looky-loos in the midst of it. The overall technological culture is a mass of sensationalist headlines and banality of viewing genuine ferocity.

Rachel Rai
Extras abound in this DVD release, so let’s get at it. In no particular order, to start there is the 10:07 short with the same name from 2013. Also starring Vaughn, I’m guessing this was part of the Kickstarter campaign to give the investors some peek of what is to come. A couple helps a masked Ted and he follows them home to a game of – err – cat and mouse. It could well have been a deleted scene from the main feature.

Another short black-and-white short film at 5:03 is “Kappa” (2012). An annoyed guy is asked by is kinda-slow roomie to watch over some Claymation birdlike creature in a box. Things go weird and, well, again, I’m not telling. It’s a pretty crisp looking pic.

Speaking of Deleted Scenes, there are five of them officially, ranging from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. I say “officially” because the first one is kind of a compilation of a few short bits. Yeah, it was good most of them were excised as they didn’t add anything to the story, but I was happy to see them, and honestly, there were a couple I would put back in. Take that as a compliment.

Next up is “Claws and Cat Cocks,” a behind the scenes documentary at a lengthy 35:15, shot by Lucas Haynes. Very grainy, it is footage of different scenes being shot. You get the impression that along with the hard work, the crew and cast both got along and had a bit of fun. Most of the focus is on Vaughn, understandably. My opinion of the featurette is that it was kinda meh, with not enough cast interviews or real direction. It really feels like just random shots with no fixed rhyme or reason other than being there. While I stayed for the whole thing, I fought the urge to skip around.

Other than a bunch of nice Wild Eye Raw trailers (including the one for this film), lastly there are two full length commentaries. The first is with the director (who also co-wrote), Vaughn (who is also a co-producer), co-writer Andrew Gallacher, and producer Taena Hoshi. Sometimes too many people on a commentary can get chaotic, but fortunately they are pretty even, though sometimes it’s hard to tell who is talking. The comments lean towards the creation, the cast, the characters and some technical bits, so it’s pretty interesting throughout.

The second one is more crew based, with the director and Toshi once again, plus five others. There are way too many to get anything substantive as they all talk over each other or are too far from the microphone, though you get they’re enjoying the group’s company. I ended up giving up after the third of nine chapters, at the 18 minute mark.

Back to the feature, the word that I’ve seen associated with it is ”surreal,” and there are definitely moments of that here and there, especially in the third act. It should be noted, however, that the story mostly follows a narrative, so the surreal elements don’t work against it. It’s a beautifully shot and edited film, and while it probably could have used a tad more trimming, it’s definitely worth the viewing.

The film doesn’t hit you over the head with any philosophy, but doesn’t shy away from it either. That’s just part of what makes this a nice entry into the genre from where women blow and men thunder (dammit! Sorry again!!).

Extra, unrelated video:

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: Inheritance

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

Written and directed by Tyler Savage
Portola Films / Other Brother
92 minutes, 2017

Taken loosely, the term inheritance can be more than merely objects; it can be inherent within a group or liniage. This film nicely plays with a variety these extrapolated terms.

Tyler Savage, in his first full-length feature, uses what he has learned so far and presents a picture that is a fine mix of storytelling and artistic endeavor, without ever going into the opaque; in other words, he doesn’t “talk” over the heads of his audience, but at the same time doesn’t talk down to them/us, either.

Chase Joliet, Jake Carpenter
A construction worker/contractor named Ryan (Chase Joliet), who believed he was an orphan since childhood, quite unexpectedly receives a notice that he’s now the heir to his recently deceased biological father’s property. It’s a beautiful beach house facing the Pacific, just outside a small town in California. He is also informed that it is worth more than a couple of mil. Unsure of whether he will sell, he brings along his recently pregnant girlfriend, Isi (the lovely Sara Montez, who sports some wickedly sculpted eyebrows) to check it out. Though I thought her character was too physically absent through parts, I understand why: to see the changes in her partner. Besides, she’s more excited about the coming kid than he seems to be… awwwwwkawrrrrrd.

Not long after they lay down their bones to adjust to the place, weird things begin to perk. Well, to him anyway, both in the living and the… unknown. The first 20 minutes is a bit slow paced, and not much has happened other than some odd behaviors of others, such as the store clerk (Alex Dobrenko) who’s sweet but ungainly (and obviously develops a crush on Isi), that pesky real estate agent that’s the equivalent of an ambulance chasing lawyer (Dale Dickey; many times the real estate agent is a forward scout for whatever strangeness is afoot, but I’m not saying if she is or not), the next door neighbor (Krisha Fairchild) who spies on them, and a cousin (Drew Powell) who is just… ugh; there is, though, a mild jump scare or two.
While this story does delve into the possible supernatural, this is definitely dips into the psychological thriller genre (is it all in Ryan’s head?: an old but effective trope), arguably more than the horror. With the possibilities of ghosts we begin to wonder about the cause of Ryan’s descent into… (cue spooky Theremin sound).

There’s a little bit Amityville house in the effect on Ryan, a touch of Overlook Hotel with negative influences of what went on earlier, and perhaps even a touch of the first season of American Horror Story. Or, as I said before, is it all in his head? For example, many of those he sees from the past, such as his father (Tim Abel) or grandfather (Jake Carpenter), occur after he sees photographs of them. So which one is it? Again, I ain’t tellin’. Just know even though it’s a bit derivative, as is 99 percent of all cinema, it tells a good story with some nice touches to keep the viewer interested.

Beautiful cinematography
There is some absolutely beautiful cinematography here. For example, in the first third, we get to enjoy some close-up shots leaning towards the golden tone, such as amber alcohol being poured into a glass followed by the sunset light on the house, eggs frying in a pan, or Ryan’s hand caressing Isi’s bare belly. In other sections, there is more of a blue tone, such as moonlight on faces. It’s all quite luxurious, and fortunately doesn’t take one out of the moment, but rather links one scene to the next.

Speaking of being taken out of a scene, if you will offer me a moment of self-indulgence: my biggest distraction early on was when Ryan was contemplatively rummaging through a garage and comes across a box of old LPs, and for the next few minutes I got lost wondering what were those albums. Fortunately, we get to hear some of the music as that box becomes part of the story.

Sara Montez, Alex Dobrenko
One interesting aspect of the film that really drew my attention and I would have been pleased if it had been a stronger focus – even though it’s kind of a backbone of the motif – is the historical mistreatment of the Indigenous people by the white (especially male for several reasons) settlers, that is obviously continuing.

For me, the film’s one drawback is its length, as it could have been cut down some through repetition and going beyond where it needs to, to establish the scene’s motive. For example, there is a dinner conversation between Ryan and his sister that is (purposefully) uncomfortable at best. This could easily have been shorter – we get it, they don’t get along.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like this is a bunch of padding with some story, it’s quite the other way around. Savage tells a good tale that is engaging, even with an ending that I kinda saw coming in some way in an aha moment about a third way through after I had enough information; and even so, the film kept my interest for a number of reasons.

For example, the cast is quite good. Joliet is in most scenes, and carries the film with just the right amount of sullenness, anger, and fear, without playing it over the top (as did James Brolin in Amityville Horror, or especially Jack Nicolson in The Shining – both actors I admire). Montez shines enough to not fall into Joliet’s shadow. Actually, as far as presence, the entire cast holds their own.

There are few scenes of violence, which of course make them a bit more unsettling for their unexpected nature, and while there are a few steamy scenes, no real nudity. Again, it’s not that kind of film, as it’s more story based than the biff-bang-boom of the day. Honestly, the film is better for it.

For a first full lengther (yes, I know it’s not a word, but should be), Savage show some oomph, and I look forward to seeing his growth, especially if this is only the ground floor.

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.