Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Savage Harvest (1994)

When it comes to horror movies, I feel that it’s the thought that counts. I enjoy content more than style, production value, and overall quality. All that and one other thing: GORE!!
Such is the case with this creative little shot-on-video horror film, Savage Harvest. I can best describe this film as a cross between Demons (1985), Night of the Demons (1988) and Evil Dead (1980). This blog site is aimed at people who have already seen the big time horror films, so I have no qualms about reviewing films like this one, which relentlessly reference the classics.
Deep in the Missouri farmlands lies a stretch of woods cursed by Native American spirits. A group of teenagers arrive for a camping trip and one by one they are possessed by ancients demons, each one representing a different animal. There is a spider demon, a scorpion, vulture, bobcat, wolf, boar, snake, and the most evil one of all, the demon of man.
The possessed people take on traits of the animal. Obviously the budget did not allow the filmmakers to get too elaborate in their special effects, so the demons still walk upright like humans. The spider demon-man hangs his victims in a tree with a web-like substance and periodically returns to suck their blood. The boar demon-man develops a pig snout on his face (reminiscent of what happens to the fat boy in Night of the Demons), and the girl possessed by the vulture demon simply cowers around the dead bodies and eats their flesh when nobody is around. There’s more, but I don’t want to give too much away, and like I said, this movie has quite an imagination.
The gore is pretty gruesome and includes some comical decapitations, explicit head-bashings, heart-steakings, stabbing, slashings, shotgunnings, and screwdriver-through-the-skull-ings. It’s all pretty graphic and slimy without being over the top in a cheesy way.
There is some creative camera work and good woodland locations are used. The opening scene had a surreal feel to it that reminded me of another bizarre Native American curse themed movie, Scalps (1983). A lot of the action scenes have a heavy metal guitar soundtrack, a good move in my opinion and another cinematic reference to other demon themed films.
Director Eric Stanze is a talented man. This was his first film and he was only 21 years old when he made it. He went on to direct another noteworthy SOV film, Ice From The Sun (1999), which I have not been able to see yet, and his latest film, Deadwood Park (2007) is about a child killer. I really loved this film and I watched it several times. I learned about it from the super awesome web site Critical Condition (www.critcononline.com), probably the single greatest online resource for information about low-budget horror on home video. The section titled “Films on the Fringe” is a primer on SOV gore films.
Savage Harvest is available in two different DVD editions. The one from Sub Rosa Studios includes a detailed making of documentary and better cover art but is currently out of print, while the new Image Entertainment DVD has three different commentary tracks.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Signal (2007)

This is the best horror film released so far this year. Yes, this one gets the award! And it is a film about what is “by far the most fucked up day in the history of mankind,” to quote a line from the film.
Divided into segments titled “Transmission 1,” and “Transmission 2,” etc., The Signal tells the story of several characters in the very real fictional city of Terminus during a major catastrophe. A signal being broadcasted through TV, radio, and telephone is turning anyone who watches or listens to it into a paranoid, violent maniac. The city erupts into apocalyptic chaos, and the story of three main characters is told through flashbacks and stories that intersect.
Filmed for a meager $50,000(!) in under two weeks in Atlanta, Georgia by three directors, The Signal is a product of modern digital technology used to cut costs. It turned out perfectly, and has a polished look to it not usually scene in other films of such low cost.
The film is funny, disturbing, bloody, gory, violent, suspenseful, and brutal without reveling in gratuitousness. Its unflinching dark humor carries social commentary without banging us over the head with it. There are already plenty of people getting banged over the head in this film. In fact, people get killed in pretty much every way imaginable.
This is an excellent film on every level. The story is memorable and unique, the acting is convincing and funny, it is just great all around.
I don’t usually waste my time reviewing films everybody will like, so I will leave it at that. I just had to spread the word on my favorite entry into the horror genre this year. Maybe I’ll write more later…

Children of the Night (1991)

Children of the Night is a gory, slimy, and largely unnoticed vampire movie that has sadly slipped into obscurity despite its availability on DVD.
A catholic school teacher teams up with a priest, a teenage girl, and the town drunk to save a town that has been completely overrun by vampires. The vampires in question go to sleep inside mucus covered cocoon-looking external lungs that come out of their mouth before bedtime and envelop their entire body. They are quite ugly.
Filmed for $12 million in small towns in Michigan and Wisconsin, this movie focuses more on atmosphere, darkness, campy humor, and gross special effects than on scares or coherent plot. It seems more inspired by films like The Lost Boys and Monster Squad than the older, darker vampire movies. Despite its R-rating, it’s a fun, nonsensical 90 minute ride through teenage vampire movie land, but with a professional look and feel to it.
The cast is a who’s who of cult icons. Peter Deluise of 21 Jump Street fame plays the school teacher. The young Ami Dolenz, daughter of The Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz, is the female lead, Karen Black is a vampire, and the wino-turned-hero is played by Garrett Morris, one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live in the 70s.
The director, Tony Randel, was involved in the Hellraiser series having directed Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988), co-wrote Hellraiser 3, and did some editing work on the original Hellraiser. He also directed Ticks (1993), and Amityville 1992: It’s About Time (1992). He got his start in the early 1980s on Roger Corman productions such as Galaxy of Terror (1981), Space Raiders (1983), and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).
This film was the first of four movies that Fangoria Magazine helped produce through their Fangoria Films production company. The other three were less notable, such as Mindwarp (1992), Blood Drive (2004), and the cheesy Severed Ties (1992). Fangoria Films made better use of their company as a DVD and home video distributor of independent horror and continue to operate to this day. I highly recommend the Irish zombie movie they released, Dead Meat (2004).
I was less than surprised but a little disappointed to find mostly negative reviews for this film online, but then again most internet horror movie review sites are nothing more than soap boxes for the angry little parents’-basement dwelling D&D nerds of the world. If all you like to do is tear apart fun loving movies like this one, then maybe you should just watch TV instead. These movies were not made by the people who bullied you in high school!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Home Sweet Home (1980)

Home Sweet Home is a delightfully absurd slasher film. A large, muscular killer escapes from the loony bin, gets jacked up on PCP, and goes on a stalk and slash escapade. There is no back-story or motive.
The killer is a Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk looking guy who cackles with hysterical laughter every time he attacks somebody. Credited simply as “Killer” in the end credits, he was played by Jake Steinfeld, a personal trainer for Hollywood celebrities.
The victims are some loosely associated family members having a Thanksgiving celebration in a rural area of Southern California. I say loosely associated because the whole plot seemed sort of thrown together, and most of the dialog seemed add-libbed. One guy runs around the entire time with his face painted up like KISS, and playing a Les Paul with an amplifier strapped to his back. His name is Mistake, and he seems created to annoy. I am not making this up. There is a bubbly Mexican stereotype female character who doesn’t speak any English and jams along with Mistake with her Spanish guitar. The rest of the people are fodder for the PCP maniac.
What it lacks in quality, Home Sweet Home made me feel right at home with its incessant craziness and hyper activity. Just when things started slowing down, Mistake would pop in and start jamming, PCP guy would run up out of nowhere and laugh, stab someone, laugh some more, and then disappear back off into the woods outside the house.
The producer, Don Edmonds, also made the rock n’ roll horror Terror On Tour (1980).
The title is a tame one for this manic episode of a film, and the cover art doesn’t do much to set it apart from the pack of early 1980s independent slasher films. I passed this film by for years before I finally decided to watch it last night after reading it’s write up on Bleeding Skull.com.
The film was never released on DVD, but is available for download from a few torrent sites. Sadly, it has slipped deep into obscurity. Video Review’s store copy was a VHS tape probably as old as I am. It was issued by Media Home Entertainment, whose tapes are built to last. It was also released under the title Blood Party, and Slasher In The House.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Blood Rage (1987)

Ever joke about having an evil twin?
Terry and Todd are twin brothers. While camping out in the backseat of their parents station wagon during a drive-in movie, little Terry sneaks off and hacks some guy to death with a hatchet. He does it just for the hell of it, apparently. Then he hands the bloody hatchet to a bewildered Todd and smears some blood on his face so he looks like he did it. Todd gets blamed, goes catatonic, and is shipped off to a mental institution. Fourteen years later he escapes.
Terry is a very likeable villain. His flat acting, insincere demeanor reminded me of Eddie Haskel from Leave It To Beaver. Christian Bale may have studied this film before his performance in American Psycho. The beauty of his character is that his motives for killing are never explained. He just enjoys killing people, and when his twin Todd escapes from the mental institution he sees it as another great opportunity to murder all his friends and family and blame Todd.
Blood Rage is a great 80s slasher film with extremely gory kills and lots of feel-good teen horror schlock. All the ingredients are present, such as pre-marital sex, drugs, and ridiculous dialog. I laughed out loud a few times. The new wave synth-pop score was a nice touch. I’m humming the stupid thing right now. “Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nneeeeeeeooooooww…”
Watch for Ted Raimi selling condoms in the men’s room near the start of the film. I don’t how he wound up a part of this film, but it’s him alright. Pretty random.
The pacing is perfect. It opens with a kill scene, fifteen minutes later there is another one, five minutes later another, and all of this happens by the 23 minute mark. By that point the killer takes his machete and goes on a stalk and slash mission in the woods, eliminating all that may oppose him later on in the night. One lady gets chopped into three pieces, another guy get his hand chopped off and we see it still twitching and clutching his half full can of Old Style Beer. I didn’t know they sold that brand in Florida.
Terry stops by the bathroom to clean up afterward, and we see him standing in front of the mirror looking at his blood soaked shirt.
“It ain’t cranberry sauce!” he says to himself. A little Thanksgiving humor, I guess.
Do not confuse this film with another movie called “Bloodrage” (all one word). That film was made in 1979 by Joe Zito, director of Maniac (1980. Its alternate title is Never Pick Up A Stranger, a far more suitable one since the plot involves a hitchhiking killer.
Blood Rage (1987) was made sometime in 1983, released theatrically, and a little later on home video. The uncut version came out first on VHS from Prism. Then in 1987 some asshole cut out all the gore scenes, re-edited it, and retitled it Nightmare At Shadow Woods, and put it out in theaters and home video AGAIN. Such a thing is unheard of these days, but it happened all the time back in the day. That chopped up version is out on DVD, but the old Prism VHS version is totally M.I.A. There are some tapes for sale on Amazon.com. This film really needs a proper DVD release.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Evil Dead Trap AKA Shiryo no Wana (1988)

Evil Dead Trap is the type of movie I like to refer to as a “fear is a place” story. A group of people arrive wherever and whoever or whatever starts killing them off one by one. He/she/it uses the unfamiliar surroundings to gain advantage over the victims. Evil Dead Trap is one of these, but a Japanese horror movie, made decades before the movies about lady ghosts with long black hair had tarnished that country’s reputation as a top producer of horror movies for the international market.
The movie starts with Nami, a hostess for a TV talk show where viewers send in their home videos. She receives a video tape (sound familiar?) from an anonymous source. The video opens with intermittent footage taken from inside a car showing directions to a warehouse. Inside the warehouse, the killer/video-taper films himself murdering a young woman. Seeing an opportunity to jumpstart her journalism career, Nami and a camera crew follow the video’s directions and go looking for a story inside the warehouse. The big spooky building is full of booby traps, and they are stalked by a killer. It was a trap. An evil dead trap.
The manic, rock n’ roll filmmaking style obviously, makes it like Evil Dead but much darker. And of course, to stay true to the title, there are also traps. But the moody tone reminded me more of the supernatural thrillers from the 1980s such as Prince of Darkness, and with influences from atmospheric slasher films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Hellraiser.
The footage is interspersed with grotesque images and ominous music. The moments of humor in the script are all too brief, despite the occasional bursts of kinetic energy characteristic of Asian genre films. There is a gloomy feeling as if all the daylight scenes were filmed on a brisk October afternoon. It really does follow the formulated plot of the 1980s slasher film, but one has to keep in mind that for Japan in 1988, this probably wasn’t considered a completely worn out cliché.
It slows down a bit in the second act, but the climax is a real gore-fest. People get impaled with spikes, shot with arrows, and there’s even some slimy creature action. I consider Evil Dead Trap to be a perfect example of several modern styles of horror film-making all rolled into one. It is essential viewing for serious fans, even though you might not see it for sale at the local Blockbuster or Best Buy. It really doesn’t get much better than this, and if it weren’t for the fact it was a foreign language film, Evil Dead Trap would have a strong mainstream following in US. It was followed by two sequels that have little to do with the plot of the first one.
Evil Dead Trap is readily available on DVD from Synapse Films in Japanese with English subtitles.

Evil Dead Trap 2: Hideki (1991)

Evil Dead Trap 2: Hideki is a sequel in name only. It is the story of a fat and unattractive young female serial killer who murders prostitutes. She stalks the city streets without narrative, while dealing with haunting visions of a young boy and her lack of sex appeal.
There is none of the kinetic energy present in the first film. There is none of the rock music or fast zoom shots of the first film. The tone is dark, brooding, and bitterly artistic. It is a grotesque portrait of a modern Japanese urban landscape, lit with neon signs reflecting on puddles of rainwater on the streets. The camera always moves slow and there are several long takes. The characters are not particularly likeable and are presented in unflinching, unapologetic manner. In the nihilistic world created in Evil Dead Trap 2, everybody could die and we wouldn’t particularly care.
I still enjoyed it thoroughly. The emphasis of this film is style rather than plot or character development, or even action. The visuals reminded me of some of the modern Asian art film classics by Wong Kar Wai and Tsai Ming Liang. I have always loved disillusioned portraits of urban decay. It reminded me of the time I spent living in Bangkok.
I’ve never got deep into Asian horror, and it’s still a realm I plan to explore. Like most Americans, the ghost stories about women with long black hair and big eyes got old pretty quick. I’ve seen a few other Japanese horror films that fans of the Evil Dead Trap movies might find interesting. Angel Dust, available from New Yorker Home Video, Neighbor Number 13, are reminiscent in style and subject matter and I recommend them highly.
Evil Dead Trap 2: Hideki is now available again on DVD from Unearthed Films.

Truth Or Dare? -A Critical Madness (1986)

Good lord, was this a movie? It seemed more like an excuse to show a few car chases, explosions, naked breasts, and fake blood. It was a good enough excuse either way.
Our story starts with a drawn out scene where our dear murderous psychopath, Mike, catches his wife in bed with another guy. Mike cracks up pretty bad and an imaginary hitchhiking girl convinces him to burn his wallet, cut open his own chest, chop off a finger, and rip out his own tongue all in a ridiculous game of truth or dare. After thirteen months in the state mental hospital, Mike is released and tries to kill his ex-wife. He fails, winds up back in the asylum, escapes again, and goes on a killing spree. In one scene, the killer wears a crude mask and drives down a Florida interstate stopping chainsaw a young boy, machine gun some pedestrians at a bus stop, and stab a cop. Then he gets in a shootout with another cop, who decides to torch the shed he’s hiding in. Typical police procedure, huh?
I loved how amateurish this film was. Nowadays the amateur B-movies are all shot on digital video and everything looks like crap. There is no color, everything is pale and dull looking and screams out cheapness. This film actually looks good and sounds good, like it could be a half decent movie, but it’s so amateurish and ridiculous you cannot believe what you are seeing. I suppose that’s one reason people are always remarking that horror films were better back in the 80s. Even the nonsensical maniac films like Truth Or Dare looked decent, and were so damn weird and experimental that people at least felt like they were watching something a little bit unpredictable.
This film really grew on me. When I first watched it I thought it was going to be another classic example of a tedious, bland slasher film, but it was just so immature, bizarre, and far-fetched that I couldn’t help but fall in love. I guess you’ll have to see it to believe it.
For those of you who become fans, the director, Tim Ritter has his own website: http://www.timritter.com. He also made a sequel titled Wicked Games (1994), AKA Truth Or Dare 2, followed by Screaming For Sanity: Truth Or Dare 3 (1998), where Mike, the main character from the first movie returns for another round of mayhem. Both sequels are on DVD. The original Truth Or Dare? Was released on DVD but is long out of print. I recommend downloading it.

Forced Entry AKA The Last Victim (1975)

Be aware that this is by far the most tasteless film I have yet reviewed, but in a day and age where films like Last House on the Left and Cannibal Holocaust are being remade, I think most viewers can handle this one. Also be aware that this is not the same film that just came out on DVD recently bearing the title Forced Entry. That film is a hardcore sex movie, which coincidentally was made around the same year as this. This film's alternate title is The Last Victim and stars Tanya Roberts as the female lead role.
For lack of a more articulate description, I would say this is like Joe Zito’s film Maniac (1980) except the focus is more on the sexual perversion of the attacker than gory kill scenes. The killer/rapist narrates the film via voiceover, as he picks off prostitutes and girls stranded on the road with broken down cars. Thank god we have cell phones nowadays!
The director, Jim Sotos (born Dimitri Sotirakis), also made Sweet 16 (1983), an interesting slasher film that took place on an Indian reservation. That film was issued on home video in the 1980s by the legendary Vestron Video, and was recently released on DVD by Code Red.
This film is not for the squeamish, to say the least. The killer's demented, misogynistic thoughts narrate most of the movie, which follows him as he rides around town in his car looking for victims. In the end he spots Tanya Roberts and holds her captive inside her own home. If you liked Maniac and have a high tolerance for tasteless exploitative trash, then you might enjoy this one. Personally I think it is a more interesting film than most of the grindhouse exploitation films that are about rapists. And believe me, there are hundreds of those films out there.
The DVD company Code Red announced plans to release a DVD of this film in 2008.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Raw Meat AKA Death Line (1972)

Surprisingly grim and gory for an early 1970s British production, Raw Meat is the story of a subterranean cannibal man stalking the London subway. He is the last survivor of a cannibal clan trapped underground since 1892. Yes, quite a ridiculous plot, but the film has Donald Pleasance, Christopher Lee, and is heavy on atmosphere, setting, and gore.
The director, Gary Sherman made the popular living dead film Dead & Buried (1981), another atmospheric masterpiece, and the not-so-great Poltergeist III.
Gary Sherman is a well connected man in the horror biz and is a close friend of director Johnathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs). His film Dead & Buried featured some of the earliest special effects work by the recently deceased Stan Winston. The script for Dead & Buried was written by Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote Alien (1979), and directed Return of the Living Dead (1985), as well as the grossly underrated H.P. Lovecraft film The Resurrected.
I really had to wonder why Gary Sherman isn’t as well known and only made three horror films, but he answered my question in his interview that appears in an article by Marcelle Perks published in the Eyeball Compendium book.
“I’m a good filmmaker and I love making films,” said Sherman, “but the business is so funny right now, nobody makes movies, they make deals.”
The article also revealed the filmmakers originally planned for Marlon Brando to play the part of the cannibal man, and that Donald Pleasance was always playing practical jokes on the cast and ad-libbed a lot of his lines.
A couple years ago I decided I wanted to see some films about the subway, don’t ask me why. I guess sometimes my quasi-manic episodes take the form of strange movie fixations, and the subway-themed movies were but one, along with the Charles Bronson one, the shot-on-video zombie one, and the ocean-themed film binge. Having gained more perspective on subway-themed films than most people ever will, I must say this is definitely the best of the horror genre (C.H.U.D. doesn’t count because it takes place in the sewer system!).
It’s got some trashy scenes with nudity and a lot of gore, but most impressive was the camera work. One very long take shows us the interior of the cannibal’s lair, with hanging slabs of bloody human flesh, bones, half eaten corpses, and his sick, dying mate in the background. The cannibal man needs another mate, so he kidnaps our beautiful female lead and tries to have his way with her, but Donald Pleasance and the gang arrive in time to kill the bastard.
The soundtrack is a particularly groovy piece of 70s porn-esque type music, heavy on bass and keyboard. It was actually released on CD and is two tracks consisting of about 30 minutes of music. The composer, Wil Malone, still arranges and composes many types of music and has worked with artists such as Massive Attack, UNKLE (the song “Lonely Soul”), and The Verve (for their song “Bittersweet Symphony”).
MGM released the film on DVD with no extra features, but the transfer is great, as with most MGM DVDs, and really highlights all the details in the dim underground scenery.
What surprised me the most about this movie was that it was damn good, and is readily available for under $10 new, with perfect picture quality by MGM. I guess I had become so used to the best of the obscure horror being expensive near impossible to find that I almost ignored something that was right under my nose.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Il Bosco Fuori AKA The Last House In The Woods (2006)

The Italians are back. Dream-like camera angles, fairy tale plotlines, and extreme gore all combine into a modern Italian horror film that is a return to the classic style of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. While not exactly a modern masterpiece, Il Bosco Fuori is definitely better than almost any horror to come out of Italy in well over a decade. Since the early 1990s Italian horror has become a thing of the past, with few films of any real significance being made.
Il Bosco Fuori literally translated means “the woods outside,” or “outside in the woods,” as the subtitles read in the opening credits, and is being released on DVD in the United States as The Last House in the Woods. It has also been released in some countries as Italian Chainsaw. It is certainly a throwback to the glory days of exploitation cinema with weird colored lighting, fast zoom-in shots, and extreme gore.
Like most of the classic Italian gore films of that era it does its share of borrowing from more popular horror films. One of the final shots of the film is of the bloody heroine running down the highway, reminiscent of the final scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And the musical score was a reworked version of an American movie soundtrack, but which one I cannot seem to put my finger on at the moment. Maybe I’m just imagining things.
The plot, not that it matters in Italian horror, resembles Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A young couple run into some would-be rapists, but are rescued by an older couple. But the pleasant older couple is host to a house of horrors deep in the woods. Chaos ensues, there are some nauseating gore sequences, creepy little kids, shootings, stabbings, and chainsawings. It’s pretty low budget, but quite entertaining and well paced.
Let me say that it is a wonderful relief to see Italians making gory horror films again. I suppose they realized they could do it again since so many French horror films have been big hits recently. Frontieres, High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance), Them (aka Ils), and Inside (aka l’Interieur) have become incredibly popular in the US. Italian gore guru Gianetto De Rossi, former make up effects artist for Lucio Fulci’s classics like Zombie, The Beyond, etc. actually worked on High Tension.
Sergio Stivaletti the other biggest Italian gore guy, having done the effects for almost all of Dario Argento’s movies, including his latest, The Mother of Tears (aka La Terza Madre). He offers a shining display of the red stuff in this one, the old school way without any stupid looking computer generated effects.
Director Gabriele Albanesi is a new director, with only three short films to his credit prior to this full-length feature. This film is not extraordinary, but it is such a welcome return to the Italian subgenre we all know and love, more so than Dario Argento’s latest releases, which I thought were quite watered down style-wise. It’s been as if the Italians stopped wanting to make Italian style B-movies and try to tone themselves down for the American market. What they didn’t realize was that their style was unique and in a class of it’s own, and by self-censoring they simply self-destructed. Argento’s Mother of Tears was good, and also quite explicit, but was only about one percent as good as it could have been. Argento has actually expressed interest in making another movie tying in with Suspiria and Inferno, possibly a prequel. While it will never be considered a milestone, Il Bosco Fuori could be another step in the right direction towards a new era of European horror success.
UPDATE: The Last House In The Woods has been released on DVD in North America in October as part of the Ghosthouse horror DVD series by Lionsgate. The DVD includes an optional dubbed English language audio track, original Italian language with subtitles, and a director's commentary track.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Primal Rage (1988)

Gore? Check. Bad one-liners? Check. Eye-gouging scene? Check. I smell spaghetti! Oh wait, it’s just another American-made Italian horror film from the late 1980s direct-to-video era. But at a glance you wouldn’t know it. This one was written by the notorious Umberto Lenzi, under the pen name Harry Kirkpatrick. This may explain the constant stream of bizarre one-liners such as “It smells like a pair of sewers in here!” and “It’s sort of like eating a lot if you don’t have a colon. You never know how it’s gonna come out.”
These Italian horror guys have more aliases than the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted. They had a solid reputation for making shaky movies in the 1980s, so they used pseudonyms constantly. Bruno Matthei once commented he prefers his alias of Vincent Dawn to his own real name. This clearly shows the bizarre taste Europeans have. Who wouldn’t want to be named Bruno! That would be awesome! It’s not like he’s named Pupi Avati, director of the odd zombie film Zeder (1983).
Nowadays, anything and everything Italian horror is a collector’s item, and to many including myself, the name Umberto Lenzi spells must-watch. The man who made Cannibal Ferox (1981) The Man From Deep River (1972), Eaten Alive (1980), and Nightmare City (1980) is a real crowd pleaser.
The story starts with Frank Duffy, a school newspaper journalist, who looks like a cross between Tim Mattheson and MCA from the Beastie Boys. He gets a bite from a monkey infected with the primal rage virus, and the wound soon turns into a pulsating, bloody puss oozing sore. He runs around acting very much like the wild ape he was bitten by, exploding into violent fits of rage. Those bitten by him behave in a similar manner. When they attack, their bloodthirsty frenzy is accompanied by pounding rock music reminiscent of Demons (1985). The score by Claudio Simonetti of the Italian rock band Goblin, bears a striking resemblance to the first few bars of the theme from Dawn of the Dead. Many of the cast were reused from Lenzi’s entertaining attempt at an American slasher film, Welcome To Spring Break (1988).
The film starts out looking like another killer-animal-on-campus movie, like Shakma or Gnaw: Food of the Gods part 2, but winds up being a bit of a zombie movie.
Highlights include a fat man dressed in a baby costume getting his scalp torn off, three racquetball jocks turning on a strobe light and heavy metal music before they attempt to gange rape a co-ed, and a guy in a Dracula costume getting his throat torn out. The climax takes place during a Halloween ball and the costumes must be seen to be believed. The late-80s pop-rock band plays on as a guy gets hanged on a basketball court, and a guy in a commando costume casually gets the flesh torn off his hand. But nevermind all that, I want to know who thought up the Halloween costumes. Who the hell dresses up as a three-headed baby with faucets on its noses? I don’t want to give away too much here, but this scene sports some of the best costume party deaths this side of Terror Train (1980). I actually had to watch it twice because I kept on having to stop and write this review.
The point? There really isn’t one. The purpose of the scientific experiments that created the virus is never explained. Not that it matters. The moral of the story: When someone or something bites you, go to the doctor.
Sadly, Primal Rage is only available on DVD in Italy, and only on VHS in the United States. Used copies are still pretty cheap on Amazon, and I found mine at Video Review. This is one of those films that could disappear into obscurity at some point. I wasn't even able to find decent cover art scans to post, and as far as I can tell, you have just read the longest review of this film ever posted to the internet.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Maya (1989)

An Ancient Mayan curse is awakened in the ancient temples in Mexico, and people are killed in strange and gory ways by an invisible force. The Italian blend of supernatural and giallo horror subgenres, which climaxed early with films like Suspiria (1977), and Inferno (1980), proliferated in the late 1980s as Italian horror degraded in quality and became less focused. This is undoubtedly my favorite phase of Italian horror cinema, not because the films were better, but because they were more fun. The rules and traditional storylines went out the window as budgets grew smaller and the masters of the genre like Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento got older and less energetic.
The late 1980s phase gave birth to some of the wildest and most bizarre blends of cinematic clichés, and the films just got crazier and weirder. But they were really cool because the general disregard for film logic meant infinite creative freedom for the filmmakers. An Italian director could make a magic masala of a film with ghosts, witches, zombies, demonic possession, and serial slashers, and it would get financed and distributed. Explanations were not necessary for the less-than-critical video store crowd, and if one was usually an ancient curse, voodoo, or witchcraft. Films like The Church (1989), The Spider Labyrinth (1988), and The Devil’s Daughter (1991) are artistic, well-made examples of this new-school approach. Their lower grade, crazy, inbred cousins like Ghosthouse (1988), Beyond the Darkness (aka Ghosthouse 3, 1990), Demons 6: De Profundis (AKA Il Gatto Nero), and Spectres (aka Spettri, 1988), are far more abundant, though just as much fun to watch.
Maya falls somewhere in between, with a very unfocused plot, but excellent displays of technical abilities such as camera work, gore, and atmospheric settings. It has less of a manic feel to it than movies like Ghosthouse or Demons 6, almost as if the heat and humidity of the setting slowed down the pace. The director makes great use of Mexico’s tropical, hedonistic tourist environment, and blends it with the indigenous superstitions and belief in the occult. The evil force causes people violent deaths at the invisible hands of the Mayan curse. One woman is thrashed about in a bathtub until her nose is pounded into pulp on the edge of the tub, and another man is crushed by a rolling pick-up truck. The climax takes place on Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead.
The attacks are exclusively on outsiders and not the locals themselves. Most of the victims are sweaty gringo expatriates, doomed to drink themselves to death anyway. The film did a good job of capturing the lazy, alcohol-soaked lifestyle so many foreigners lead when they take up residence small tropical towns in the world’s impoverished paradises. When the booze and women come cheap, many retire at an early age and lose all their ambition.
Having lived in a similar place once, Thailand, it was easy for me to put myself in the head of the film’s creators and became especially appreciative. Horror is just as popular a genre in tropical Asia as it is in America, and I learned about some of their legends and superstitions by watching their made for TV supernatural horror movies. I’ve always liked films set in exotic countries and enjoy ones that involve local legends like voodoo or indigenous religions. The fact that Italians made this one automatically made it a cut above the rest.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Alone In The Dark (1982)

Jack Palance and Martin Landau play two of the best schizoid psychopaths ever to grace the screen. You can tell these two had A LOT of fun making this movie. These two mental patients bust out of the loony bin intent on murdering one of the new doctors in their ward. Accompanied by a serial strangler nicknamed "The Bleeder," and a 400 lb. child molester named Fatty, they joyfully terrorize a small New Jersey town. The doctor they are after is played by who played Murdock, the crazy guy from the A-team, the one that Mr. T and the gang were always busting out of the nuthouse at the beginning of some of the episodes. Donald Pleasance (Dr. Loomis from Halloween) reprises his role as a psychologist for the criminally insane, and at times appears just as crazy as the inmates he is after. In fact almost every character in this film seems to have a few screws loose. Note the stuttering police captain, the weird looking little girl, and of course the nightclub band, aptly named the Sick Fucks.
You will really have to see this movie to believe it, and it is not the typical 80s slasher movie some reviewers have made it out to be. I first heard about this film when I read a rave review of it in “The Manly Movie Guide: Virile Video & Two Fisted Cinema.” Some of the best scenes were used as samples in the mid-80s horror movie documentary Terror In the Aisles (1984), alongside some other odd choices such as the Sylvester Stallone/ Rutger Hauer action movie Nighthawks (1981).
I would say the overall question this movie poses is who is crazier, the psychologist or the psychology patient? Donald Pleasance’s doctor seems just as berserk as his mental patients in a role that is practically a reprisal of his Dr. Loomis character from the Halloween series. And the other doctor is the guy from the A-team! When the lunatics escape, they are unleashed into a world of characters who seem as bizarre and illogical as those inside the institution. The film is set in suburban New Jersey during the punk rock years, and does an interesting job of holding up a mirror to society in the form of an 80s slasher film. While not exactly a gore-fest, this film did feature some make-up effects by Tom Savini. The DVD is available with extras and a pristine transfer from Image Entertainment.

The Spider Labyrinth (1988)

The Spider Labyrinth (1988), AKA Il Nido del Ragno, made me wonder; was Eastern Europe always considered a creepy looking place, or do we just think that because it is the traditional setting for so many horror films?
Atmosphere is the name of the game in this spider’s web, and this type of film should be viewed for just that and not with so much of a critical eye. This is true for most Italian horror films, and this is one of the last of the great European gothic horrors, even though it takes place in the present. Budapest is the setting for this tale of the occult, combined with a giallo type plot, and a few stop motion monsters. The gore is not over the top, except for in the final reel, and then it gets downright disgusting.
The plot follows an American archaeologist researching an ancient religion that seems to have shown up in seemingly unconnected locations. He travels to Budapest to coordinate with another researcher and stumbles upon a pagan cult. They worship giant subterranean spider monsters that possess humans and get them to carry out their dirty work and spread the religion. Sound strange? It is.
There is lots of cool camera work and eerie settings, and Budapest’s inhabitants looked like the same villagers that chased Frankenstein with pitchforks and torches. The movie reminded me of other movies about cults sworn to protect religious secrets such as The Ninth Gate or The Da Vinci Code.
My main motivation in seeking out this film was one photograph from the movie. The back cover of the book “Spaghetti Nightmares” features a gruesome, bloody still from the movie of a man with a butcher knife and a mouth full of fangs. I knew right away that I had to see this film.
Sadly, The Spider Labyrinth is a very obscure movie, even for Italian horror fans. The copy I watched was downloaded and appeared to be VHS rip of a copy from Midnight Video, with hardcoded Japanese subtitles at the bottom of the screen. The picture quality left a lot to be desired. With such a small amount of information available about this film I regret that I cannot offer many hard facts. The Internet movie database says the US DVD release is cut by about 20 minutes, but that website has been known to contain errors. Aside from downloads, the only other way to obtain a copy of this movie is to order a bootleg DVD from one of the various online companies.