Tag Archives: horror

Incomprehensible, Incompetent, Intolerable: THE CULLING

THE CULLING


(1/5)

Pros: Umm…sound design is pretty cool


Cons: Most everything about this film is abhorrent, and the characters?  “They’re idiots!”

Dealing with a group of absolutely moronic, astonishingly unlikable characters who stumble upon evil spirits at a remote homestead, writer/director Rustam Branaman’s The Culling began shooting in 2011, sitting on the shelf for nearly four years before it finally saw the light of day and was released in 2015.  Having now seen the film, I’m frankly amazed that it was released at all – The Culling stands as one of the most genuinely awful movies I’ve seen in quite some time, one that disregards common conventions of cinema and doesn’t even bother to attempt a coherent story. Events in the script are rendered inconsequential by Branaman’s misguided, pointless direction and the piece boasts some of the most crushingly ludicrous dialogue I’ve ever sat through in a straight-faced feature. In short, this is precisely the sort of flick that gives modern horror a bad rap.

The-Culling-Amanda-Linsey-Godfrey-Haunted-HomeAnd what’s behind door number three?   More ill logic and sprit-destroying dialogue!

The Culling follows a group of five young adults on their way to the South by South West Festival (perhaps this is some sort of gag – many film makers dream of taking their films to this event, but sadly – or is it fortunately? – there’s no way in the world that Branaman’s would be selected). After stopping at a cafe out in the sticks, this gang of buffoons discover a young girl named Lucy crying in the parking lot and offer to take her back to her home – which winds up being an expansive mansion in the middle of nowhere. As might be expected, this turns out to be a bad move: not only is this girl some sort of demon, but her parents are homicidal occultists who’ve apparently made some sort of deal with the devil that requires them not only to kill anyone who ventures onto their property, but also construct (??) some sort of army of monster children. Oh, and there’s also the occasional shadow person /smoky apparition / unknown growling, snarling beast prowling the property.

culling7Oh this guy?  Forget about him – he’ll be gone and forgotten in three seconds.

Hopefully that synopsis provides some idea of how much of a haphazard mess this flick is, but any description I could write doesn’t do justice to the abysmal Culling. The lack of coherency, frequent references to marijuana and sex, and gratuitous pop culture references might lead one to think this was written by (at best) a college student, but sadly that’s not the case – a middle-aged man, failing miserably in his attempt to sound “hip” and appeal to young audiences, is to blame. In the mood for some verbal diarrhea? You’re in luck, since the mind-numbing chatter between characters in Branaman’s script is appalling, with many conversations playing out as repeating loops. People have similar back-and-forth exchanges one right after another (can anyone in the film even comprehend or make sense of the English language?), and the film concludes most every one of its instances of bickering between various characters with stubborn declarations of “Fine!” or “That’s Enough!”

The-Culling-Brett-Davern-StillThis group of characters makes the typical Friday the 13th film appear to be populated by rocket scientists.


Furthermore, there’s virtually no explanation provided for any of the events in the film: things simply happen and a viewer is left to try and figure out what the hell is going on. A rambling and thoroughly incomprehensible monologue near the end does about nothing to shed light on what is a confusing and downright sloppy plot. I almost could live with the lack of sense being made in the film – after all, horror flicks aren’t known for their sound logic – but the amount of loose ends left at the end of The Culling is staggering. Ideas are thrown in as if they’ll figure heavily into the ongoing events, then are completely forgotten within seconds. To make matters worse, as the “story” is going full bore towards what one would hope to be a smashing finale, Branaman suddenly yanks the emergency brake and the end credit scroll begins out of nowhere. This hasty ending might as well scream “yeah…we just ran out of money,” making what was already a problematic film all the more frustrating and disappointing. One might hope that Branaman would never work again for how positively incompetent his handling of The Culling is – it boggles the mind to consider the monumental waste of time, energy, effort, and money this film represents.

maxresdefaultNumero uno y numero dos on my list of characters I desperately wanted to die…painfully…as soon as possible.

Bad as the script is, it’s in some ways the characters that push The Culling over the top. I’ve seen many a lousy horror flick in which I hoped the characters would be killed quickly so that I wouldn’t be annoyed by them any longer, but Branaman’s film may have established a new record for how quickly I desperately wanted everyone onscreen to die. This film presents a “who’s who” of cliched horror film personalities in the group of prospective victims: Tyler and Emily, the couple who are attempting to patch things up after a rough patch in their relationship; perennial douchebag Sean, who spends the majority of the film smoking weed or drinking Bud Light; wisenheimer Hank, who actually might have been amusing if he’d been placed alongside other, more obviously likable characters; and Amanda, the girl who just got out of drug rehab. Essentially, none of these people are remotely likable and beyond that, they’re moronic to the point that the killers in this film could probably be considered to be doing a public service by removing them from the breeding pool.

Elizabeth-Di-Prinzio-The-CullingElizabeth Di Prinzio spends the final few minutes of the film running around in just her bra.  Hey, at least it’s something…

Even if none of the actors playing these roles do an especially good job – and many are genuinely horrible in their performances – it’s hard for me to really hold them accountable considering the obnoxious and reprehensible material they were given to work with. The best thing I could say about Elizabeth Di Prinzio (playing Emily who winds up as the semi-heroine of the piece), Jeremy Sumpter (as her would-be boyfriend whose main job after a certain point is to threaten everyone and anyone with a rifle), and Brett Davern (as Hank) is that they weren’t quite as overwhelmingly abrasive as either Chris Coy (as the unbelievably irritating Sean) or Linsey Godfrey (too hysterical as Amanda). Johnathon Schaech as Lucy’s murderous father Wayne easily fares the best in the film, at least partially because he actually has some acting ability but also because he tackles the role of the villain with enthusiasm, and Harley Graham as Lucy ranges from being cute and innocent to fairly creepy.

the-culling-horror-movie-news-4One can only imagine the haunted house tale that could be spun using this location, but the structure is woefully underutilized.


From a technical standpoint, I can say that the outdoor, nighttime photography is accomplished fairly well, with especially good lighting adding a much-needed element of eeriness to the picture. I also rather liked the sound design which was often overrun with ominous groans, rumbles, and growls. Even with the near-constant unsettling audio however, The Culling takes forever to get going, and even then suffers from a serious lack of genuine suspense or scariness – possibly because a viewer has so little regard for them, it’s actually a relief when the “protagonist” characters meet their dooms, which virtually eliminates any semblance of tension from the film. The misguided sense of spatial dynamics doesn’t help matters either: there are numerous instances where it’s nearly impossible to discern what is being seen and why one should even care. Surprisingly, director Branaman doesn’t even rely on the usual overload of gore to sustain audience interest: there really is nothing here to keep one involved in the proceedings and it’s therefore no surprise that the production seems utterly ineffectual in the end. I honestly have no clue why anyone would want to sit through this disaster of a movie: this isn’t so bad it’s good, it’s so entirely awful as to come across as a pathetic excuse for “entertainment.” I’d advise potential viewers to find any excuse not to suffer through this flick: it really is best forgotten.

culling-4

5/10: Some violent scenes and isolated instances of gore, but the film is a massive letdown in terms of its overall scariness and intensity.
5/10: A few curse words; this film contains quite a bit of casual drug and alcohol use.
2/10: Some sexual innuendo and references, but sadly, no nudity.
3/10: A pretty poor excuse for a feature film, but one that doesn’t even come across as an enjoyably bad movie.
“There’s just no limit to what these reality shows are gonna exploit. I mean, people shouldn’t mess with the occult…”

ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OMEN Get the Found Footage Treatment: DEVIL’S DUE

DEVIL’S DUE


(2/5)

Pros: Sense of ambiguity and mystery; first half of the film isn’t bad


Cons: Ending is a disappointment; too many cheap thrills, not enough genuine tension

With the ghost story formula of Poltergeist and numerous other films tackled using first-person perspective in 2007’s Paranormal Activity and even The Exorcist getting the discovered footage/mockumentary treatment in 2015’s The Atticus Institute, why wouldn’t horror film fans expect a found footage variation of Rosemary’s Baby and/or The Omen to pop up at some point? Abandoning any attempt to justify that formatting, 2014’s Devil’s Due presents the story of newlywed couple Zach and Samantha McCall who, after a honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, start to suspect that something is very fishy about their subsequent unplanned pregnancy. With shadowy figures and pseudoreligious symbolism appearing all around them, it would appear that Samantha is about to give birth to the antichrist, but husband Zach doesn’t seem willing to write off his unborn child just yet.

Devil’s-Due-(2014)-HollywoodInsert John Williams’s Jaws Theme here…

Told by way of any number of handheld and closed-circuit security cameras which seem to capture any and every aspect of the McCall’s everyday life, there’s not so much as a hint of authenticity to this film. I suppose in a way it’s advantageous that filmmakers have decided that the found footage gimmick can be used just because (some) audiences enjoy it: there doesn’t really have to be any effort made to make these films seem believable anymore since no one would in the first place. As such, Devil’s Due writer Lindsay Devlin and co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett can concentrate on telling their story in the best way possible, without any concern for upholding the illusion of the film portraying real events. Unfortunately, the film they’ve delivered becomes ever more goofy as it goes along – in the lousy way these “scary” moments are crafted onscreen, I half expected comic-book style balloon descriptors to intrude, accentuating the film’s action (BOOM! BANG! POW!) but more importantly pointing out exactly how the writer and directors wanted the audience to react (GASP! SHIVER!).

devils-due-mainNot quite normal behavior from a pregnant woman…

In dealing with a story like this, it’s almost inevitable that the fear of pregnancy itself is the most frightening notion being dealt with. Devlin’s script might not be the most logical thing in the world, but it does a satisfactory job of capturing the anxiety of the prospective parents. Cast members Allison Miller and Zach Gilford handle this material fairly capably, and there are some genuinely uncomfortable moments in a first half or so that’s much more reliant on subtle, eerie elements and a palpable sense of dread rather than obvious cheap thrills. I could even buy into the obligatory dark ritual which resulted in Sam being impregnated: related to the camera in a protracted, very mysterious manner, I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing, but it was appropriately spooky and bizarre – even more so when placed alongside joyous images taken during the couple’s honeymoon.

The film has some downright uncomfortable moments early on relating to the fear of pregnancy.

Down the stretch though, Devlin throws any notion of subtlety out the window and revels in the same sort of basic ingredients found in virtually every supernatural-related horror flick – people and objects being tossed around by unknown forces, a group of zombie-like fiends seemingly pulled straight out of John Carpenter’s under-appreciated Prince of Darkness, a priest making desperate exclamations about the end times. It was at this point that Devil’s Due started to lose me…and eventually made the transition into being more funny than scary. It’s been quite a while since I chuckled at a straight horror movie as much as I did at the final third of Devil’s Due. At a certain point, Devlin goes completely overboard in an attempt to give what had been a slow-burner of a creepy movie a wopbop-a-loobop-a-lopbamboom conclusion. Making up for lost time in an appeal to the ADHD generation, this loud finale went against everything that had occurred earlier and wound up turning this fairly typical but nonetheless watchable flick into a mostly ludicrous hunk of cheese.

devils-due-zack-wallNicely executed?  Sure, but slick visuals can’t make up for a script that runs out of ideas.

As was the case in The Atticus Institute, Devil’s Due suffers from a lack of legitimate tension – the film actually lets the viewer off the hook precisely when one would expect the suspense level to be nearly unbearable. Honestly, the only moment in which I was truly unnerved was during a child’s “hide and go seek” game – this scene had been featured in the advertisements for the film and I was a bit apprehensive awaiting the inevitable jump scare that I was sure would occur very shortly. Imagine my massive disappointment when even this scene didn’t offer up that much of a jolt in the end – the suspense was mostly in my mind. Perhaps that notion suggests the most damning thing about this film: it shows too much to viewer. Movies like The Blair Witch Project, the original Paranormal Activity, and even Jaws for that matter worked as well as they did because they more often than not forced a viewer to imagine the monstrous entity at their center: as has been proven time and again, the human mind is capable of visualizing much more disturbing and unsettling imagery and ideas than what any crack team of special effects artists can create. By simply allowing its more fantastic scenes to play out on screen, Devil’s Due actually becomes less effective as a horror film even though the effects themselves aren’t bad.

maxresdefaultEnjoy it – the only really creeped-out moment in the film.

Eventually, all the smoke and mirrors in the world can’t save Devil’s Due from seeming like anything other than a run-of-the-mill found footage flick that picks up ideas from various classics of the horror genre and mashes them together into tiresome hodgepodge. The film is capably made, and has some clever (if rather familiar) moments, especially early on. I also rather liked the sense of ambiguity that seeps into the film during certain stretches, although many viewers take a more negative view of events not being explained thoroughly. By the time the story heads into the home stretch however, the fresh ideas have clearly been exhausted and a viewer is left to trudge through a gory but mostly ineffectual and unsatisfying final act. To be honest, Devil’s Due isn’t as truly abysmal as I thought it would be, but it’s hardly something that I’d urge people (even those who enjoy b-grade or found footage horror) to see – if you do enjoy this sort of movie and have an hour and a half to kill, knock yourself out…but don’t expect greatness.

Rest assured – this publicity stunt is much more clever than anything in the film:

 


6/10: Though relatively bloodless early on, it unleashes a torrent of gore by its conclusion.

7/10: Fairly regular use of profanity, including numerous f-bombs.

1/10: Extremely brief nudity shot from a distance and some mild sexual references.

6/10: A rather ambiguous found footage Omen that has its moments but is ultimately disappointing.

“Children, it is the last hour / and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming / so now many antichrists will come / Therefore we know that it is the last hour…”

A Found Footage EXORCIST: THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE

THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE

(2/5)

Pros: Not terribly bad as a mockumentary horror flick

Cons: Story covers familiar territory and the ending is a letdown

“Dr. Henry West founded the Atticus Institute to study telekinesis, clairvoyance, and other psi-related phenomena. Thousands of subjects were tested using the scientific method, many of whom expressed supernatural abilities that defied explanation by known physical laws. The small parapsychology lab operated for nearly a decade until it was mysteriously shut down in November 1976 by the US government.”

The-Atticus-Institute-2014-movie-Chris-Sparling-4

So reads the introduction to 2015’s The Atticus Institute, which plays out in the manner of a documentary examining the history of the titular establishment. We’re initially introduced to Dr. West, whose goal it is to prove once and for all that wild and bizarre psychic powers are indeed real. To this end, West opens his facility in Pennsylvania and begins to screen various unique individuals to determine their level of extra-sensory abilities. Though there are some promising findings, the credibility of the lab is thrown into doubt when members of the scientific community uncover a gimmick used by one supposedly psychically-gifted experimental subject. Just when it seems that any further research is futile, Dr. West and his team are introduced to a middle-aged woman named Judith Winstead whose psychic abilities are far beyond what any of the researchers had encountered before. When it becomes clear that the facility is unprepared to handle such a person, government officials are called in, eventually becoming interested in using Winstead’s powers for military purposes. As everyone involved soon discovers however, messing around with supernatural powers has its consequences…

the-atticus-institute-official-trailer-640x360Appropriately washed out images make the archival footage appear to have been filmed in the mid-70s.

To a large extent, The Atticus Institute resembles a found footage movie since the story is told mostly through “archival footage” which depicts events that happened in the 1970s. This material is complimented by interviews with various personnel involved in the events, including the researchers who worked at the facility as well as various family members and even government officials. The finished film then winds up not be so dissimilar to those Discovery Channel faux-documentaries that have been popping up over the past few years. I’ve often said that if things like the Megalodon or Russian Yeti program were marketed as B-horror movies, they’d find an audience who was willing to be entertained by them. The Atticus Institute establishes the fact that there is indeed a market for these types of films, but broadcasting them on “educational” cable channels just doesn’t seem to be the proper way to get them out there.

11228_1Unsurprisingly, the experiments depicted in the film start to get out of control once the government gets involved.

Consistent with the aforementioned mockumentaries, The Atticus Institute actually does a pretty solid job of selling the authenticity of its content – at least for a while. Archival footage and photographs seen in the film look appropriately washed out and sometimes shows evidence of deterioration – this is exactly what I would expect from materials produced some forty years ago. Viewers unaccustomed to really analyzing the images they’re seeing from a filmmaking standpoint might have a hard time distinguishing that this footage was actually staged, and it’s only fairly late in the going that a viewer’s suspension of disbelief is pushed to the breaking point. Eventually, one becomes aware that it would be highly unlikely that seemingly inconsequential personnel meetings and each and every detail about the ongoing experiments would be recorded – to say nothing of the fact that the camera operators seem to know things about to happen before they actually do (hell, maybe the researchers should have focused attention on their camera crew). Additionally, while the main story being told here takes place in the mid ‘70s, the Atticus Institute is virtually blanketed in CCTV coverage – this despite the fact that we’re told the lab was woefully underfunded.

atticus-1Well there’s something ya don’t see everyday – a priest in a gas mask.

In a way, it’s mostly beside the point to criticize this film strictly on the grounds that it doesn’t quite maintain authenticity: most viewers would know very well going into this film that it’s entirely fictional. What is more problematic in my book is the fact that, while the film does cover some interesting topics – namely, US government experiments related to supernatural abilities (research that actually took place) – it gets caught up in the usual type of paranormal movie content, becoming increasingly tiresome once it starts to do so.

maxresdefault

Rya Kihlstedt as Judith gets to act like a crazy woman, but she actually seems strangely underutilized.

Early on, it’s kind of neat to watch as Winstead’s astonishing abilities start to manifest themselves in somewhat small-scale, subtle ways – there are several nicely-executed sequences in which objects are manipulated through telekinesis in the background of shots while more pressing action occurs in the foreground. As the film drags on however, The Atticus Institute becomes a sort of poor-man’s Exorcist, with Winstead now being declared to be “possessed” by some unknown force that the government seems quite interested in not only controlling but also exploiting. This “possession” tag of course means that Winstead now proceeds to speak in “animal-like” voices, vomit a black tar-like substance, and generally contort wildly while growling at anyone who comes close to her. This is the sort of ho-hum material seen in just about every demonic possession film ever made, and even the slight variation in how this particular film operates can’t excuse the fact that most everything in director/writer Chris Sparling’s script has been seen before.

Scary moments here are few and far between.

A further problem with the film is that, although it’s occasionally loud and flashy, with glitchy camerawork that seems designed to amp up a viewer, it frankly isn’t very scary. As might be expected, Atticus Institute has a few jump scares achieved by having something pop up suddenly in front of the camera, and I actually really did like a sequence in which the viewer watches as a series of CCTV camera perspectives are cycled through, waiting with building suspense to see what’s happening in one of the rooms being monitored. Still, partially because of the predictability of the script and partially due to the lousy execution of various sequences, there’s never a prolonged buildup of tension – I’ve seen numerous TV shows filmed in “haunted” abandoned locations that are much more creepy than anything here. A minor subplot in the picture deals with Dr. West’s increasingly fragile mental condition, a situation made worse by his dealings with the ever-more erratic Winstead, but there’s never any point to this story arc and it comes across as being pure filler. Furthermore, the film’s “big climax” is especially lackadaisical and disappointing, with an ambiguous ending taken directly out of the Paranormal Activity playbook. Ultimately, even if the film isn’t dull, it never quite satisfies on the level viewers would want it to.

The somewhat spotty CGI effects make it fairly obvious that The Atticus Institute was put together on a relatively low budget; that being considered, I have to give director Sparling some credit for turning in a film that’s fairly entertaining despite its imperfections and limitations. As mentioned, the faux-documentary structuring works out pretty well, and I thought the cast for this film (particularly the actors portraying the interview subjects) were much better than is the norm for this type of production. It’s nevertheless curious that Rya Kihlstedt playing the (one would think) pivotal role of Judith Winstead is actually given precious little to do most of the time: I’d almost say that she’s wasted in the part. When all is said and done, The Atticus Institute doesn’t wind up as a classic of the genre – even in the undeniably iffy genre of found footage-type movies – but a viewer is left with a watchable and perfectly tolerable time waster. I probably wouldn’t flat-out recommend this movie, but those who enjoy found footage horror flicks will probably get a kick out of it.

 


5/10: Not so much gory as somewhat disturbing in its imagery and story.

1/10: Maybe one or two instances of minor profanity.

0/10: Documentary-like format doesn’t allow for any salacious content.

6/10: It doesn’t break new ground, but The Atticus Institute is actually kind of fun for what it is.

“You don’t get to play games with the devil, and if you do, you damn sure don’t get to make the rules…”

“At the Sound of the Trumpet, the Dead Will Rise”…Cue the Trumpet: AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

(3/5)

Pros: Claustrophobic settings and nice photography make it effectively suspenseful

Cons: Goes overboard in the last act, getting pretty goofy in the process

One of the better recent found footage horror flicks, 2014’s As Above, So Below follows a team of would-be archaeologists and urban explorers deep in the extensive maze of catacombs under Paris in search of the mythical philosopher’s stone used by medieval alchemists. After discovering an artifact that allows for the decoding of ancient alchemical texts, archeology and alchemy student Scarlett Marlowe finds some clues that seem to point to a sort of treasure vault lying in a remote, undiscovered portion of the Paris catacombs. Joined by documentary filmmaker Benji and a fellow researcher (and former boyfriend) named George, Scarlett enlists the help of a team of urban explorers who offer to lead her through the catacombs in exchange for half of any treasure discovered. After some interesting objects have been uncovered, things take a turn for the worst when it becomes evident that this section of the catacombs can detect the fears of those who journey through them. It isn’t long before each of the team members is facing a sort of personal hell.

e2b343c24fd55fc9e621636ccdc6edabdd45d668“What was that?”

Directed by John Erick Dowdle (and co-written by he and brother Drew), As Above, So Below benefits immensely from taking place in near darkness in a disorienting and incredibly claustrophobic setting. This was filmed in the actual catacombs of Paris, with little use of props and I have to give credit to cinematographer Léo Hinstin for not only getting the job done in difficult conditions, but actually making the most of them. As was the case in The Blair Witch Project, the most scary thing in the film isn’t the murderous beings that prowl these catacombs and occasionally come into view, but rather that which exists in the mind of the viewer. Much of the film is photographed using cameras (supposedly) mounted on the headlamps of the team members, and the only source of light in the catacombs comes from these lamps. Hence, there typically is only a small patch of light visible directly in front of the camera: the sides and background of virtually every shots is completely obscured in shadow. With the sides of the frame literally closing in on the characters much of the time as they scurry through ever more cramped environments, a viewer spends half the time watching the periphery in hopes of spotting threats before they reveal themselves. Needless to say, the prevalence of darkness ensures that when the inevitable jump scares do pop up, they’re real doozies: this is the perfect scary movie to watch at home with all the lights off.

8H89_D003_00327_RV2_CROP-300x217Solving puzzles during the film’s opening, Indiana Jones section.

Though I’d imagine most viewers would go into this film expecting a scary movie, I actually really liked the sections that play kind of like an Indiana Jones or Da Vinci Code. The first half of the film has relatively few obvious horror moments, and instead is more an adventure that finds characters searching for obscure clues, secret passages, and hidden inscriptions. The first-person perspective actually works out surprisingly well during this portion of the film, but by the time things transition into straight-up horror movie mode (after the obligatory – and legitimately distressing – “we’re lost” section), it would seem that the writers decided to make up for lost time, cramming as many shadowy and creepy beings, jarring camera moves, and strobe effect edits into the film as possible along with a spattering of gore.

as-above-so-below-movie-trailer-paris-catacombsCreepy!

As Above, So Below does become quite suspenseful during its last act, but the Dowdle’s seem to have gone a bit overboard in an attempt to appeal to horror fans: there’s almost too much craziness happening to keep track of it all, and the vague explanations provided don’t keep things from frequently getting downright goofy. I guess we’re supposed to believe that the characters are faced with some sort of dark magic inflicted on them by the alchemists who once used these tunnels, but this is never quite made clear. It’s kind of shame that things do get so confused and muddled down the stretch: this film had the potential to be something really cool – and even as it is, it’s significantly better and more effective than many modern horror flicks. I just wish the director would have tightened the reins a bit at a certain point instead of letting jagged shaky cam and paranormal mumbo-jumbo take over.

kc2nx52skpr6c3nfr3zgThis probably isn’t the best movie for those with either motion sickness or claustrophobia.

Generally, I thought the cast here did a decent job. Cute British actress Perdita Weeks plays Scarlett, and even though the character had an uncanny (and pretty much impossible) ability to piece together solutions to extremely obscure puzzles in record time, I thought the performance was fairly credible. Even if none of the performers quite hit the right note during moments of hysteria and panic, the script doesn’t do them any favors, sinking to a low point when, after one team member has just succumbed to injuries, Scarlett drops the trademark line of “we have to keep moving,” repeating the line ad infinitum from then on out. Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar play the French urban explorers who find themselves in way over their head, while Ben Feldman sort of underplays George, Scarlett’s former flame who reluctantly joins the team underground. Edwin Hodge initially seems like the proverbial “voice of reason” playing the documentary filmmaker along for the ride, but following a moment in which Hodge overplays the hell out of getting stuck in a crevice, he’s more or less doomed to suffer at the hands of the shadowy figures lurking in the dark. Special notice among the cast has to go to Cosme Castro who creeps it up as the long-lost tunnel dweller who miraculous appears out of the shadows but doesn’t seem to be the same guy that went missing years before…

slime.jpbYeah.  I don’t know either.

In the end, As Above, So Below isn’t covering especially new territory – the burial tunnels under Paris had previously been utilized in the altogether mediocre 2007 film Catacombs after all, and first-person scare flicks seem to be a dime a dozen these days – but it’s undeniably effective at building suspense and tension even though it resorts to an overload of horror imagery in its last reel. Found footage films are notorious for having endings that can either make or break them, but I thought the conclusion here was actually kind of clever. The sound design is also pretty neat and appropriately unsettling – I love the occasional bits of eerie, pseudo-religious music that echoes on the soundtrack, and Max Richter’s score plays like dark ambient at its most menacing. I often trash modern horror flicks just because they’re modern horror flicks, but every once in a while one surprises me: though I fully expected it to be completely lame, As Above, So Below turned out to be more entertaining than it really should have been. I’m not calling it a masterpiece or a game-changer, but it’s definitely worth a look.

maxresdefaultwait…what…

5/10: Plenty of intensity and some blood, though to the film’s credit, this isn’t remotely as hideously graphic as many of today’s horror flicks.

6/10: Intermittent strong profanity.

1/10: A few  glimpses of women in semi-see-through clothing.

6/10: Competently made and fairly suspenseful found-footage horror. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

“The only way out is down…”

JAWS Turns 40: A Commentary and Review of JAWS 3-D

JAWS 3-D

(2.5/5)

Pros: The 3-D is actually pretty cool no matter what anyone says; enjoyable enough as a time-waster

Cons: Many aspects of the film are problematic…

June 20, 2015 marked the fortieth anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg’s original Jaws, a film that provided Hollywood with the blueprint by which most every future blockbuster would be made and remains one of the most suspense-filled pictures ever. In honor of this event, the film was re-released for a limited number of theatrical showings with an introduction provided by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. Seeing this film in theaters, as I did this past weekend, makes one appreciate just what an magnificent achievement it was in 1975: though it features a rarely seen – and obviously rubber – “monster,” the tension level of the piece increases steadily, especially during its second half in which the three main characters actively hunt down a gigantic man-eating shark (it was clear during the screening I attended that several audience members were experiencing the film for the first time – one young moviegoer commented afterward that it was “unbearable” in terms of its tension level – quite a feat for a flick now entering its fourth decade of existence).  This theatrical screening also demonstrated just how innovative and astounding the sound design and editing was: Jaws (deservedly) won the Oscar in this category, though it’s difficult to appreciate this aspect of the film when viewing it at home.

Fa2j0FELet’s face it: any and all Jaws sequels suffered from a lack of Robert Shaw’s Quint character.

Though I can’t remember the first time that I saw many of the thousands of films that I’ve watched in my lifetime, I clearly remember the first time I saw Jaws: in the upstairs of my grandparent’s house, alone one Sunday night. Having been mesmerized by what I was seeing, I instantly fell in love not only with this film, but movies in general – and horror movies in particular. I have many fond childhood memories of watching the various Jaws sequels – the capably-made second film and the hideously awful fourth one Jaws: The Revenge among them.  It may be the third film in the series, 1983’s Jaws 3-D, that’s the oddest one of the bunch: usually referred to simply as Jaws 3, this film featured many visuals that, when viewed in standard 2-D format, looked strangely “flat” and out-of-place.

Moments like this look terrible in 2-D prints of the film…

While the film has never been officially released in the United States in its original 3-D format (which is puzzling considering the recent resurgence of the format), I had the opportunity to view this version of the film, which required the familiar red and cyan glasses. Jaws 3-D has frequently been referred to as having little connection to the other films in the series and that’s an honest enough statement. Admittedly, the film was written without any connection to the previous films, with the Mike and Sean Brody characters tossed in randomly and arbitrarily at the last minute per the request of the studio. Additionally, while the previous two Jaws films (and part of Jaws: The Revenge) took place on the vacation community of Amity Island, Jaws 3-D takes place at an ocean-side Sea World park that’s preparing for its grand opening. Funded by an oily businessman named Calvin Bouchard (enter a slick and sleazy Louis Gossett, Jr.), the park’s main attraction is a labyrinthine network of underwater tunnels that traverse an on-site lagoon and allow patrons a glimpse at various species of fish and marine life dwelling there. On some level, the film is more about the park and its personnel dealing with unfortunate events than about a killer shark on the rampage, and I think some of the problems people have with the film is that it never quite settles into any familiar story formula.

vlcsnap-2014-03-16-14h49m52s291…inspiring this sort of reaction.

Head of the mechanical department at the Sea World park is Mike Brody (played by a young Dennis Quaid), son of Amity police chief Martin, who is romantically involved with the park’s head dolphin trainer Kathy (perky Bess Armstrong), and as the film begins, these two are preparing for a visit from Mike’s younger brother Sean (again, a character featured in the earlier Jaws films who’s played here by John Putch). Mike, Kathy, Sean, and Calvin are in for a surprise however, since it quickly becomes clear that an unexpected guest has arrived at the park in the form of a juvenile great white shark. While Calvin wants to exterminate the creature, Kathy recognizes its value as a potential draw for park visitors – no marine park in the world has a live great white on display. Where there’s a young shark however, it’s mother can’t be far behind, and when this – are you ready for it? – thirty-five foot mean mama arrives on the scene, the fate of the park and everyone in it comes into jeopardy.

jaws-3-1983-movie-06Entrance to the “Undersea Kingdom” at the fictional Sea World park featured in the film.  The film’s 3-D looks especially good when relating the distance between objects in the frame’s background and foreground.

Jaws 3-D was the product of several writers (famed author Richard Matheson and Jaws series veteran Carl Gottlieb are credited with the screenplay, working from an original treatment by Guerdon Trueblood, known to me as the director of the enjoyably trashy 1973 exploitation flick The Candy Snatchers) – and it shows: the basic story here is kind of a mess, walking the tightrope between seeming like a ‘70s disaster movie and a more recognizable horror film, getting especially clunky as it nears its conclusion. One can notice a few glimpses of Matheson attempting to create some interesting moments in an otherwise lame picture (one scene in which a Sea World spokesman attempts to “cover his ass” in a television interview when it’s very apparent that human lives are in danger in the park is a not-so-subtle jab at modern politicians), but the writer was reportedly furious over various rewrites and “doctoring” that changed the whole complexion of his work.

32How is it possible that the quality of the shark model actually decreased as the series went along despite numerous special effect innovations?

First-and-only-time director Joe Alves Jr., production designer on Spielberg’s original Jaws, was at the helm here and clearly was in over his head. Producers of the picture believed that the 3-D gimmick could hide some of Alves’s directorial miscues, and it probably does to some degree. Still, Jaws 3-D exists in a world of murk, and not just because of its clumsy script: three cinematographers are credited (Chris Condon, James A. Contner, and Austin McKinney), but by and large the picture is muddy and dark. A viewer can’t see what’s going on during many of the key moments, a notion that’s only accentuated by Alves’s poor handling of various moments of excitement: it’s actually at its worse whenever the “feeding machines” do show up.

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Jaws 3-D shark attacks — with actual murk!!

Special effects were accomplished using a variety of techniques, but the mother shark is largely related to the screen by use of an obviously mechanized mock-up that’s capable of precisely three actions – swishing its head left, right, and articulating its jaw line. The creature never seems capable of actually “attacking” anyone – it’s way too lumbering and sluggish to even catch up to most potential prey items, making any of the poorly-visualized attack sequences more perplexing and goofy than scary (a viewer has to use a lot of imagination to make sense of what’s being seen). This is especially true during a sequence when cocky underwater photographer Philip FitzRoyce (played in the manner of a chauvinistic hotshot by British actor Simon MacCorkindale) attempts to lure the beast into a drain pipe where it can be contained and exterminated. Viewers see FitzRoyce swimming in front of the shark one minute and inside the creature’s gullet the next, as if he’d been virtually inhaled by the fish. Simply put: the mama shark is never effectively sold as a threatening or even especially intimidating menace even though it does manage to all but shut the park down by destroying the underwater infrastructure.

Admittedly, Jaws 3-D is no masterpiece – even when compared to the generally mediocre second film in the series, but it does have a few positive elements working in it. Viewed in its original 3-D version, visuals have a nice sense of “depth” to them, with objects in the foreground appearing closer to the viewer than ones in the back. The actual 3-D effect images (which include a floating fish head, severed arm, and the final sequence in which a shark approaches and smashes through the large window of an underwater control room) are pretty nifty despite the sketchy quality of the photography: these moments definitely look better in the film’s original version than they do on 2-D TV and video prints, which points more to flaws in the film’s transfer to 2-D than to anything inherently wrong with the actual production. Goofy though they are, I rather like the POV shots of one character being swallowed by the shark: clearly, being eaten alive is one of the most basic of human fears (it’s why the Jaws franchise was so successful in the first place), and Jaws 3-D is one of the few movies that attempts to capture what a victim would actually see if that happened.  Finally, Alan Parker’s music score for this film is quite excellent, precisely capturing whatever mood was required. Aside from a majestic main title, Parker’s score is able to reflect the excitement of the park’s grand opening and even manages to create some semblance of tension during otherwise forgettable attack scenes.

j3d23-D Magic!

Overly melodramatic and relentlessly talky for long stretches of time, featuring a bare minimum of shark action and an amazingly corny final shot (I chuckle every time I see it), Jaws 3-D nevertheless is agreeable enough as a pure popcorn flick, leaps and bounds more tolerable than the completely abysmal Jaws: The Revenge. Sure, some viewers will gasp and sneer at the noticeable lack of logic and pure stupidity of the film – and rightly so – but Jaws 3’s cast does a fair job of selling the sub-par script (look for a young and plucky Lea Thompson in a smaller role) and the 3-D is actually pretty cool to watch. One could point out that director Alves clearly had no business being handed the reins of this franchise, but his picture did make a significant amount of money, so it can’t be called a complete failure. For me, this is a definite “guilty pleasure” flick: one that clearly isn’t a good movie but is enjoyable in its own way. I can’t in good faith recommend Jaws 3-D, but those who like goofy genre films will probably be amused and/or entertained.

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An anaglyph 3-D version of this film is only available as a – ahem – bootleg, most of which were sourced from a now-ancient VCD release. Universal’s official DVD release is the standard 2-D version, with only the theatrical trailer as an extra – a lousy package anyway one looks at it.


5/10 : A few gross dead bodies and some onscreen carnage, but not nearly as visceral as other films in the series.


4/10 : Intermittent profanity.


2/10 : Some scantily-clothed women and mild sexual innuendo and situations. No nudity.


6/10 : Will appeal to shark movie aficionados as well as those who just like bad cinema.


“Daddy…Daddy…Look at the fish!!!”

“It’s Out There…Somewhere…” CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE

CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE

(3/5)

Pros: Some suspenseful moments; captures the backwater setting quite well

Cons: Very talky for the first hour, with a minimum of creature action

With the seventh season of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot kicking off in late May, it would appear that the current wave of public fascination with all things Sasquatch is still going strong, but this is hardly the first instance of Bigfoot mania that swept the world. During the early 1970s, The Legend of Boggy Creek, a low-budget pseudo-documentary about unknown humanoids trolling the bayous of Fouke, Arkansas, sparked a wave of public interest in these creatures and led to a whole string of Bigfoot-related movies popping up in theaters, particularly drive-ins. After the ridiculous 1974 film Shriek of the Mutilated, 1980’s slasher-like Night of the Demon and the incredibly sketchy 1976 “documentary” Legend of Bigfoot, 1987’s Harry and the Hendersons effectively marked the end of the cycle: a big-budget attempt by mainstream Hollywood to cash in on the fad. Even in such a diverse selection of titles, 1976’s Creature from Black Lake comes across as a bit of an oddity: a regional film made in rural Louisiana that crosses Boggy Creek’s backwoods “slice-of-life” approach with a somewhat spooky horror movie presentation.

creatureblacklake013The only look at the creature that you’re going to get until very late in the going.

The film concerns a pair of would-be cryptozoologists from Chicago who, following a professor’s crash-course lecture on unknown creatures, venture deep into the Louisiana bayou investigating reports of a bipedal hominid. If the locals are to be believed, this creature has already killed a man by dragging him out of his canoe and drowning him, but researchers Pahoo (!) and Rives find their inquest halted at every turn by reluctant locals, who fear not only that the city slickers are going to woo their women, but also that the “Yankees” will make them all look like “stupid rednecks.” Pahoo and Rives eventually come in contact with a farmboy named Orville who invites them out to his family’s homestead where, after an awkward dinner, the out-of-towners manage to get a tape recording of a suspected Sasquatch cry. This recording does little but upset whichever of the townsfolk that hears it (resulting in a particularly calamitous incident at the local diner), but once the researchers find the booze-hound trapper who’s buddy was killed by the creature, things start to get serious.

creatureblacklake016Rives and Pahoo getting comfy with some hillbilly honies…

Jim McCullough Jr.’s predictable script plays out for the majority of its duration as a vaguely comic “fish out of water” tale dealing with the Chicagoans trying to integrate into the close-knit community of Oil City, Louisiana. As might be expected, Pahoo and Rives stick out like sore thumbs against the conservative local citizenry and seem to cause problems every where they go. This, of course, incites the ire of the hard-ass local sheriff – who really pops his top when the two boys invite his daughter for a night of drinkin and “foolin’ around” in a tent outside of town. Creature from Black Lake is very talky for at least an hour of its ninety minute running time, with the titular beast only popping up intermittently in the form of a flashback or a shadowy nighttime encounter (everytime a camper stumbles away from camp to “relieve himself,” you know something is going to happen….). It probably doesn’t take a genius then to realize that things are literally going to explode during the film’s climax, in which the two researchers square off in a remote corner of the swamp with an exceedingly belligerent Sasquatch.

creatureblacklake034Yeah…it’s kind of a good thing we don’t see more of this costume…

Directed by Joy N. Hauck, Jr., Creature From Black Lake is probably best in its depiction of life in a backwater community. The film starts off with a sort of tour of local bayou attractions – turtles falling off logs, waterbirds stalking prey, low-hanging weepy trees, and lots of virtually stagnant, muddy water. It’s immediately apparent that this picture was actually filmed way out in the swamp and the surrounding wilderness, and the sense of being far-removed from what many people would consider “civilization” gives the film a sometimes eerie mood. The seemingly authentic locations seen here are populated by characters who one would expect to be there, and the colorful assortment of slightly goofy townsfolk thankfully keeps the film interesting even when the monster’s not around.

creatureblacklake022Now that’s a camera angle – so close you can smell the...nevermind

This film marks an early cinematography credit for Dean Cundey who would later lens such big-budget classics as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Jurassic Park, so one can rest assured that Creature From Black Lake looks pretty good despite its miniscule budget. I’d have to say that Cundey’s work here is not especially flashy, but I did like a nifty setup which occurs late in the going where Rives aims his rifle at the beast, who’s posturing wildly in the background. Creepy backlighting in the scene makes the creature seem very intimidating – a definite plus since its costume (when seen in brief close-up glimpses) looks pretty awful (for the most part, director Hauck does his damnedest to keep the creature offscreen – which is a very good call). Jamie Mendoza-Nava (who I’m familiar with as the person responsible for the delirious soundtrack to Orgy of the Dead, one of Ed Wood’s skinflick credits) provided the music for the film, which is appropriately suspenseful when it needs to be. I should point out that, like many films of this era, Black Lake includes a typical ‘70s folk rock song which plays over its end credits. Entitled “Exits and Truck Stops,” the tune is sung by writer McCullough, who (aside from playing Orville) apparently wanted to show his chops as a songwriter. It’s no surprise that his career never blossomed.

creatureblacklake018This actually is a pretty nice shot in the final film, with the creature carrying on in the background.

Acting in the picture is unexceptional but pretty decent for a film of this nature: Dennis Fimple (as Pahoo) and John David Carson (as Rives) are likable enough, and Bill Thurman makes the most of his role as sheriff. The recognizable Dub Taylor seems to be having fun playing a local farmer, but it’s the inimitable Jack Elam (star of countless westerns) who steals the show playing the moonshine-swilling trapper who swears he knows where the beast resides. Look out for the moment (not entirely dissimilar from Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis monologue from Jaws) when Elam’s Joe Canton character tells the pair of researchers about the silence that falls over the swamp whenever the creature is prowling about – it’s a highlight of the film as far as I’m concerned.

creatureblacklake017Jack Elam doing his best Robert Shaw impersonation.

Standing as one of the few straight-faced Bigfoot films of the ‘70s, Creature from Black Lake is a slightly better-than-average addition to the Squatchploitation genre. The film’s strong sense of setting places it in a league with such “nature on the rampage” films like Frogs and Squirm, and I think it’s comparable in terms of its entertainment and production values to those pictures. Though undeniably crude, this flick does have a few moments of suspense and is worthwhile enough as a time-waster – especially for those who appreciate that one-of-a-kind B-movie charm. Moderately recommended.

 creatureblacklake014


Many existing copies of the film seem to be public domain rips presented in pan-and-scan format – one of these rips . Considering the shoddy quality of these versions, an upcoming home video release from the fine folks at Synapse Films should be an absolute revelation.


2/10 : Very mild violence and a few scary moments, with just a smidgen of blood.


1/10 : Occasional rough language and maybe a minor curse word or two.

creatureblacklake009
0/10 : Though these country girls claim to “just do what comes natural,” none seem all that willing to give it up for our big-city heroes.


4/10 : An enjoyable (if low-key) backwoods B-movie adventure that may have added appeal to the Squatchaholics out there.


“If I had’na been drinkin sa much, I’d a blowed his butt off.”

Hobbits on the Rampage: THE CANNIBAL IN THE JUNGLE

THE CANNIBAL IN THE JUNGLE

on Animal Planet

(3.5/5)

Pros: Seems to be the product of more talented cast and crew than is normal for this type of program

Cons: Context. It’s all about context.

In 1977, ornithologist (i.e. bird expert) Dr. Timothy Darrow, fellow scientist Dr. Gary Ward and jungle guide Drajat “Reggie” Saputra explored the island of Flores in Indonesia in search of the presumed extinct Flores Scops Owl. All the while, the team conducted research on the local eagle population…but also happened upon something dark and maybe even evil while deep in the jungle. Only Darrow managed to emerge alive, and after the mutilated corpse of Saputra was found in a makeshift grave, Darrow was charged with two counts of murder and accused of cannibalizing the bodies of his friends. Incarcerated in a decrepit Indonesian prison to serve two life sentences after being found guilty, Darrow nevertheless maintained that creatures from the jungle had killed his friends. More than 25 years after the incident, remains of a previously unknown humanoid – , the so-called “Hobbit” – was discovered on Flores island. Presumably, this species co-existed alongside modern man, but only stood around one meter tall when fully grown. Some in the scientific community questioned whether it was possible that living specimens of this species had actually been responsible for the deaths of Saputra and Ward…

group-3 “Dr. Timothy Darrow” (center), surrounded by Gary Ward (left) and Reggie Suputra

It sounds like a great story, and it certainly is the stuff that B-horror movies are all about…but the above, blatantly fictional story forms the basis of the yet another faux-documentary presented as the real deal on one of the Discovery Channel Networks. Aired as part of Animal Planet’s 2015 Monster Week, The Cannibal in the Jungle is a made-for-cable mockumentary that follows (fictional) anthropologist Dr. Richard Hoernboeck as he attempts to convince authorities that Darrow was falsely convicted of murder in 1977 – by proving that living specimens of Homo floresiensis were actually to blame for the deaths of Reggie Saputra and Dr. Gary Ward. Coming across as a mixture of investigative report and jungle adventure, Cannibal alternates between flashbacks revealing Darrow’s story straight from the horse’s mouth (his narration is taken from “the only taped interview ever allowed by the Indonesian authorities”) and a sort of documentary made by and from the perspective of Hoernboeck.

maxresdefaultDr. Richard Hoernboeck, who sets out to prove Darrow’s story that “little men of the forest” ate his compatriots

Interviewing Indonesian police officials, American envoys, and even Darrow’s sister, Hoernboeck attempts to piece together Darrow’s story as he believes it actually happened – which is to say, his rendition of the story includes murderous three and a half-foot tall hominids. After gathering “evidence,” Hoernboeck conducts his own expedition into the Indonesian jungle, which produces (wait for it…) ambiguous results. Just when one thinks that this faux-documentary isn’t going to deliver a definitive A-HA moment, Hoernboeck is able to locate Darrow’s original Nagra (i.e. audio recorder) and Super-8 camera, footage from which may exonerate Darrow once and for all.

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Flores Island, just below center on this map of Indonesia, is certainly remote – and dangerous

While the context in which it was presented is sketchy (“inspired by actual scientific discovery!”), The Cannibal in the Jungle is probably one of the better made-for-cable mockumentaries, slickly edited to the point that gullible viewers might be convinced that it does in fact portray real events. The acting here is somewhat better than has been seen in similar programs and amazingly, this production actually acknowledges its cast in the credits – quite possibly a first for this genre of television. Ominous music is used to great effect throughout the film, and the program certainly benefits from the fact that many of the action-oriented sequences are filmed in foreboding, seemingly authentic jungles. Since most viewers would have precisely no idea what to expect in these remote, exotic locations, it’s relatively easy for the production to crank up the tension and deliver a few genuinely creepy moments. A scene in which a group of characters awaken from a night’s sleep in the bush to find small, human-like footprints throughout their camp has the potential to give the viewer the chills, and the obligatory pursuit through the jungle scene is also plenty intense.

1fa288…so this film may have been “inspired by actual scientific discovery,” but so was Star Wars.  Does anyone think that’s a documentary?

On the other hand, director Simon George probably should have spent some more time studying Jaws because once the FX and CGI team flex their muscles by showing the “hobbits” in plain view, Cannibal starts to lose steam. As Spielberg proved by keeping his shark, a painfully rubber-looking behemoth, offscreen, a viewer’s imagination is capable of coming up with much worse things than even the best FX team can create. When the curtain is pulled back and an audience can gaze upon the shark (or in this case, the “hobbits”), much of the inherent scariness vanishes since the FX don’t ever live up to what a viewer had in his mind. Hell, one moment in Cannibal which finds a whole gang of miniaturized primitive humans acting aggressively towards a pair of scientists is more laughable than frightening (we represent…the Lollipop Guild…), due primarily to the somewhat goofy effects.

hobits-2

EVIDENCE – IT’S EVIDENCE I TELL YOU!!!

I can’t get on George’s case too much though: his film does have some pretty cool moments, but there’s no denying that the script (written by Charlie Foley and Vaiblav Dhatt) owes a little too much to Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust, a film which was brutally effective at perfecting the “found footage” format. Numerous aspects of Cannibal in the Jungle are pulled straight out of Deodato’s film, and by the time (in the last ten minutes) where Darrow’s original super-8 footage is being screened “FOR THE FIRST TIME ON TELEVISION,” I was yawning in my seat. Granted, the vast majority of the viewers of Animal Planet wouldn’t have (nor want) any part of Cannibal Holocaust – the authentic scenes of animal slaughter would ensure that – but it still struck me as being pretty low that Foley and Dhatt would shamelessly rip-off a pre-existing work, even one that most people wouldn’t be familiar with. To put it simply, Cannibal in the Jungle isn’t as clever as it thinks it is.

CFz8b2mWIAIZ-zLHuman compared to so-called “hobbit” skull.

Even if it’s not bringing much of anything new to a now well-established formula, at the end of the day, Cannibal in the Jungle is a compelling found footage B-picture, which leads to the inevitable question: what exactly is such a thing doing on the supposedly educational Animal Planet Channel? Ultimately, it’s context that makes this film (and all the other recent fake documentaries) seem, to some degree or another, reprehensible. Throw any of these programs on the Syfy Channel and audiences would be transfixed – situate one on a video store shelf and people would be intrigued – air them alongside legit documentaries while shying away from acknowledging that they are made up and people get infuriated. I fully realize that these types of shows do generate interest in Animal Planet’s programming that probably wouldn’t otherwise exist – in the eyes of the many, learning about the African Savannah or coral reefs just doesn’t have the same appeal that watching the celebrity of the moment skank it up does, for whatever inexplicable reason – but I also do find it a bit irresponsible to present this type of thing to the uninformed public as a “real deal” documentary. On some level though, I’ve got to admit that Cannibal in the Jungle is pretty clever and pretty darn entertaining – I think it would be worthwhile for those who know what they’re getting into.

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“…and we wish to welcome you to Munchkin Land…”

Contamination of the Redneck Zombies: I WAS BITTEN – THE WALKER COUNTY INCIDENT

I WAS BITTEN: THE WALKER COUNTY INCIDENT on Animal Planet

(2/5)

Pros: Not bad as a sketchy found-footage film

Cons: …it’s getting to be that you can’t trust nothing on the “educational” channels…

After several days of redundant River Monsters specials and some decent legitimate documentaries relating to , , , and , Animal Planet’s Monster Week 2015 finally got around to unleashing yet another test of audience gullibility. First airing on May 22, I Was Bitten: The Walker County Incident follows the story of a young man named Daniel who claims to have been bitten by an unknown creature in the Alabama woods. In typical pseudo-documentary fashion, a film crew quickly arrives to document the man’s inevitable hunt for the creature that attacked him, one which eventually uncovers a particularly ambiguous (and thoroughly unexplained) conspiracy relating to the local nuclear plants. Just when a viewer thinks this program will end without shedding light on anything, The Walker County Incident unleashes one of the worst endings ever seen in this already suspect genre of television. One is left wondering how such a thing wound up airing on a supposedly “educational” channel in the first place: this is virtually tailor-made for the Syfy Channel.

wuh?
No…it can’t be…not another phony documentary passing itself off as the real thing…

Circa 2015, the basic formula for the made-for-cable mockumentary has been well-established – we’ve had multiple seasons of Mountain Monsters after all, along with a host of even more reprehensible imitations. While its main story arc is woefully familiar, what separates The Walker County Incident from its kin is that this program mainly revolves around a single main character as opposed to a team of buffoons. Daniel comes across as the prototypical redneck, albeit one who’s become increasingly paranoid and maybe even delusional since he was attacked near his home by an unknown creature that he speculates may in fact be a zombie. The guy’s main goal is to identify and eliminate his attacker, but he also has to take the safety of his family – namely, a concerned wife along with his gun-toting mother and her Elvis impersonator husband – into account. To that end, Daniel installs a series of CCTV cameras on the property, which he insists on monitoring at all hours of the day. Ultimately, Daniel’s obsession with the beast that attacked him results in an inevitable showdown between the increasingly lethargic and glassy-eyed hunter and his fed-up wife.

if only
If only there was some sort of attack at any point…

Par for the course in a show like this, The Walker County Incident tries its damnedest to pass itself off as a legit documentary. The majority of the show is filmed from the perspective of a camera crew who are (inexplicably) right alongside Daniel as he tracks down his attacker and goes about his daily business. In my opinion, the show looks a little too flashy in terms of its image quality and editing, seeming to capture all-too-convenient angles on various, supposedly live events to be authentic (do you think the camera crew…like…knew what was going to happen before it happened???), but the show does seem to maintain a decent amount of semi-credibility up to its thoroughly ridiculous ending. I could see someone almost …almost… buying into this account prior to the ending, which is jaw-droppingly goofy, making a mockery of everything that came before it. I’ve seen most every one of these faux-documentaries that’s out there and have suffered through some mightily lousy conclusions in my day, but the climax of this program (replete with a “hand over the camera lens” final shot) takes the cake. It really seals the deal on the fact that a viewer has just wasted two hours of life.

show might
Program might have been better had it combined balt salt cannibals with backwoods hunters.

Considering the number of painfully similar programs out there, I hope that most viewers would watch this not because of its supposed verisimilitude, but rather because it’s a somewhat entertaining time waster. If nothing else, this show does make fine use of location shooting: along with the story elements, the director includes numerous montages which help nail down the setting in which the events depicted occur. These sequences are somewhat reminiscent of certain moments captured in the first season of HBO’s True Detective, and they go a long way in establishing Walker County, Alabama as a sort of decaying hell on Earth, ripe with pollution and plenty of tall tales. As is the case with many of today’s found footage-type productions, The Walker County Incident also utilizes different types of cameras, including cellphone videos and nightvision footage in the finished film along with the more professional-looking narrative camerawork. Interviews conducted with locals unaffiliated with the production itself are thrown in to add flavor to the proceedings, and the overall editing of the show is quite slick, with appropriate music cues and over-emphasized sound added at key moments.

edubucation
One has to wonder what sort of edubucation folks get in the Walker County School System…

Even if the production would be somewhat compelling for those who thrive on monster-related programming however, there’s really no denying that The Walker County Incident is sluggish in terms of how it plays out. There are very few genuinely exciting sequences in this ninety-odd minute show (two hours with commercials), and a vast majority of its running time is dedicated to documenting Daniel’s increasingly eccentric everyday life. We see the belligerent young man going to several doctors who attempt to analyze the strange injuries Daniel sustained during the attack and he even tries hypnosis to recall details about the incident that he had forgotten over time. These sequences do add dramatic tension to the piece, most of which relates to Daniel’s deteriorating relationship with his wife Krystal. Unfortunately, not only would most viewers have seen this sort of material before (it’s exactly what one would expect, with minimal imagination applied in an effort to spice things up), but the story also gets plain dumb at times, hitting a lowpoint when Krystal blows her top after Daniel skips out in the middle of one of his stepfather’s Elvis-inspired performances. Combine the predictability and absurdity of the story elements with the fact that there are so few moments of genuine tension or suspense and one is left with a program that’s not only genuinely ludicrous but also plain dull for most of its duration. The writers make absolutely no effort to explain a damn thing with regard to the creature/entity/force being investigated, and a viewer is left to stare perplexed and googly-eyed at the screen by the time this thing is over.

hell...
Hell, this story sounds as reasonable as anything put forth in this “documentary.”

Relying almost entirely on smoke and mirrors to sustain viewer interest, The Walker County Incident never quite compensates for the fact that it’s heavy on dialogue and speculation but contains nary a smidgen of actual “evidence.” Of all the recent phony documentaries dealing with unexplained phenomena (The Devil’s Graveyard), mysterious events (Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives), or unknown creatures (Wrath of Submarine), The Walker County Incident is probably among the more disappointing of the bunch – primarily because it doesn’t solve a damn thing, unveiling a cop-out ending right when the audience should be getting the veritable money shot. Capably shot and well-assembled but essentially a semi-ripoff of History Channel’s Cryptid: The Swamp Beast, I Was Bitten: The Walker County Incident offers nothing new to the savvy viewer. It might be acceptable as a C-grade found-footage thriller, but I’d call it rainy day entertainment at best.


RAWR

THE KILLERS ARE COMING! PROM NIGHT

PROM NIGHT

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(2.5/5)

Pros: Film has its moments…along with plenty of  DISCO MADNESS!

Cons: The horror movie tricks and treats are a long time coming

Made in Canada and released in 1980, just a few months after the original Friday the 13th, Prom Night is yet another horror flick based around a date or prominent event. While playing a tag-like game in an abandoned building, a young girl named Robin Hammond is accidentally forced from a second story window and falls to her death. The four children who witnessed the accident immediately take an oath of secrecy to hide their involvement, police pick up a convicted sex offender they believe is responsible, and the incident is all but forgotten…or is it? Six years later, as the date of their high school prom approaches, the now-teenaged kids involved in Robin’s death are being harassed by an unknown stalker. Could it be that the “disfigured, schizophrenic psychotic” who was convicted of the crime, sent to a nearby asylum, and recently escaped has come back to clear his name? Has the super skeezy school janitor finally lost his marbles and become a pervert murderer? Or is there someone else out there who wants to avenge the young girl’s death?

who could it be?
Who could this ax-wielding maniac be?

Considering the familiarity of the material, it’s somewhat inexplicable that Prom Night has achieved and maintained a substantial amount of popularity since its production. Written by William Gray from a story by Robert Guza, Jr., this film includes virtually every slasher film cliché imaginable. When Gray’s script introduces a character who, much like Halloween’s Dr. Sam Loomis, has a vested interest in the escaped mental patient or a Carrie-like revenge plot that’s ready to play out at the prom, it’s pretty clear that not a whole lot of genuine inspiration or creativity went into this thing. Try as he might, director Paul Lynch can’t do much to add vitality to an excruciatingly talky script that devotes way too much time to pointless and inconsequential character development. To make matters worse, Gray’s choppy script can’t even stay focused long enough to build any single character up as being entirely relatable or even remotely interesting.

lots of drama
A viewer will be in for a lot of typical high school drama in getting to the film’s “big payoff” moments.

By far the worst of the issues is that Prom Night delivers nary a single moment of legitimate action or suspense for more than two-thirds of it run time. A viewer of this film has to sit through an hour of buildup before there’s any serious threat of murder and even once the kill scenes are primed, set, and ready, Lynch interrupts the action for an extended disco dancing routine. Hell, the entire last thirty minutes of this picture pulsates to the beat of a never-ending string of faux-disco hits (made exclusively for the film by composer Paul Zaza), which can either be viewed as a good or a bad thing depending on one’s tolerance for bad music. It also should be pointed out that while most other slashers of the early ‘80s went the “bigger is better” route and featured body counts in the double digits, the number of kills in Prom Night can be counted on one hand.

yes that's leslie
Yes, that’s Leslie Nielsen of Airplane! fame doing the hustle.

It’s a good thing then that director Lynch makes sure that at least some of the murders here are memorable: a slow-motion throat slashing in which Robert C. New’s camera focuses not on the gaping wound and pumping blood, but rather the distressed eyes of the victim is actually very effective at conveying the horror of the situation. Another rather brutal sequence finds a young woman being stabbed repeatedly in the chest and throat after her sex games are interrupted (remember kids – have sex and you die!). Other than these two moments however, Prom Night plays by the book and is relatively bland, delivering an extended scene in which an ax-wielding prowler chases down a hysterical teen and a decapitation that may as well have been pulled straight out of Friday the 13th. Oh, and there’s also a vehicle somersaulting down a cliff and exploding. Can’t forget that. Gore effects are adequately done but fleeting, and the element of the film that may be the most shocking is the sheer number of boom mics clearly visible in the final cut. I counted at least six instances in the first twenty minutes or so where this occurs and there seems to have been almost no effort made to correct this problem – the mic just sits onscreen for minutes at a time. Frankly, this is completely inexcusable and points to the amateurish nature of this production as a whole.

rutrow
Rutrow!: post-coital activity of an unfortunate variety.

Jamie Lee Curtis stars as the film’s main character Kim Hammond, the most popular girl in the school and Robin’s older sister. This was Curtis’ third horror role (following Halloween and The Fog, both made for director John Carpenter), and she’s believable enough as a hot to trot teenager getting ready for her prom date with boyfriend Nick (played by Casey Stevens), who’s one of the kids semi-responsible for Robin’s death. Par for the course in these sorts of films, these lead actors do all right when they’re tearing it up on the dance floor, but can’t for the life of them inject any sort of emotionality into the more dramatic moments. Particularly strained and laughable is a scene in which Nick comes close to telling Kim the whole story about her sister’s death – watch as Stevens contorts his face to convey his “inner torment!.” Leslie Nielsen meanwhile walks the straight and narrow for a change as the school principal and Kim’s father, Michael Tough plays Kim’s brother, and Mary Beth Rubens, Eddie Benton, and Joy Thompson are the promiscuous girls and obvious murder victims. I’ve got to give credit to David Mucci (playing the school’s chain-smoking tough guy), Sheldon Rybowski (as a would-be ladies man named “Slick” who tools around picking up women in his van), and Robert A. Silverman (the hilariously stereotypical pervert janitor) for making the most of their goofy minor roles: it’s them and not the leads who ultimately add a sense of fun to the proceedings.


I bet there, bud. I bet.

Even if it’d be easy to trash director Lynch’s handling of this film, he does manage to create a few standout moments. I liked the way in which a handful of rather ambiguous flashback sequences tell the story of how Robin’s death was pinned on a sex offender with no connection to the case. It would have been easy to spell this out for the viewer but instead, Lynch and Grey insist that the viewer put the pieces together for himself, which is commendable: I’m always a fan of making the viewer use his brain. Additionally, scenes in which the raspy-voiced killer phones and threatens his intended victims have a definite creepiness about them, especially due to their use of a jagged editing scheme, and the lengthy aforementioned “DISCO MADNESS” scene boasts nice choreography and photography (seems someone watched Saturday Night Fever a time or three). Sad to say, I’d almost be more comfortable with calling this dance sequence the true climax of the film since Prom Night is a definite letdown in the horror department. Despite its many problems and shortcomings however, similar to a film like Sleepaway Camp, I think most horror fans would want to see Prom Night just to say that they did. It’s not a perfect film by a longshot, but I’d give it a slight recommendation.

ARGGGH!


Special edition Blu-ray from the always reliable Synapse Films includes a commentary track with director Lynch and screenwriter Gray, a 25-minute making-of featurette, nine minutes of additional scenes (added for TV broadcast) and outtakes, as well as a still gallery and collection of trailers. The film is presented in an outstanding anamorphic widescreen version with optional English subtitles – a top-notch home video package. I should also point out that viewers should avoid the Alliance Atlantis print of the film (which occasionally pops up on cable) at all costs – the print is so dark as to be almost unintelligible.


4/10 : Slow-going for most of its run-time, then releases a handful of fairly low-key but decent kill scenes in its last half hour. Moderate gore, including a decapitation by ax.  Minor drug content.


3/10 : I noticed one f-bomb, but these teens keep it mostly clean.


3/10 : A pair of sex scenes with just a hint of topless nudity.


6/10 : Has its admirers for sure, though for my money, there are much better ’80s horror flicks out there.


“Lieutenant, you’re asking me to comment on a catatonic schizophrenic who was disfigured and institutionalized six years ago.”

Trailer:

Enter Jason Voorhees: FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2

FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2

(3.5/5)

Pros: Jason! More technically adequate than the crude first film; satisfying as an ’80s slasher

Cons: Cast is a mixed bag at best; complete lack of original ideas

Picking up more or less right where the previous year’s seminal Friday the 13th left off (to the point where it begins with the sole survivor of that film being stalked by an unknown prowler), 1981’s Part 2 of the series plays like a slightly more accomplished version of the first film. Some five years after the massacre at Camp Crystal Lake, whose nickname of “Camp Blood” is becoming more and more appropriate, another group of summer camp counselors is headed out to the area to receive instruction for the upcoming season. Things go along pretty well at first, with the prospective counselors taking part in the typical tomfoolery one would expect from a group of rowdy -and horny – young people. Soon it becomes apparent however that the legend of Jason Voorhees, the young boy who drowned at the camp in 1958, may be true after all since one by one, the counselors are bumped off a hulking madman. This sets up an ending which recreates that of the original film – with a few twists thrown in to spice things up.

yes
What is this – Jason as some sort of demented “farmer in the dell” with his burlap sack, overalls, and pitchfork?

Directed by Steve Miner from a script by Ron Kurz, Friday the 13th Part 2 is most notable for being the film which actually introduced the masked killer Jason Voorhees (who in this film, wears a burlap sack over his head, not his trademark hockey mask) into the lexicon of the series, thereby setting up a seemingly endless number of additional sequels. What’s sometimes overlooked with regard to Part 2 is that Miner’s handling of the all-too-familiar (if not virtually identical) material proved that he was a significantly more inspired and talented film maker than Sean S. Cunningham, creator of the franchise who was at the helm for the first film. Cunningham’s original Friday was nothing if not extremely crude, yet it was entirely effective at creating an atmosphere of dread and a sense of unease in the viewer. Miner’s film (photographed by Peter Stein) goes a step further by actually being comparably accomplished in terms of its technical aspects.

actually fairly tense
Crazy farmer or not, the film actually has some effectively tense stalking and/or pursuit sequences.

The film is loaded with voyeuristic camera angles, giving the viewer the perspective of the film’s villain/murderer as he stalks his prey. I could almost be led to believe that director Miner had some knowledge of the hideously gory Italian horror movies of the 1970s: one pursuit sequence reminded me of a superbly-executed scene from 1973’s Torso in which a half-naked young woman is pursued through a swamp by a shadowy masked man. The corresponding scene in Miner’s film starts off with the appearance of an almost spectral hooded figure and continues with a somewhat jarring chase through a particularly lush section of forest. Another pursuit leading up to the film’s climax makes nice use of shadow to build tension, and I really liked a scene in which Jason appears almost phantom-like from the darkened corner of a shot set-up to violently attack a young man as he roots around in a cabin. Harry Manfredini (who also scored the first film) turns in another outstanding soundtrack, with pizzicato strings and the famous “ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha” sound effectively ratcheting up the suspense when appropriate.

Amy Steel
This film’s main character of Ginny (played by Amy Steel) is arguably the best heroine of the entire series.

All the technique in the world wouldn’t amount to much if this film didn’t deliver as a vintage ‘80s slasher flick. Though it’s lost a lot of its punch over the years (as is true of many films of this era, casualties of the “overkill” method that most modern genre directors employ to satisfy an increasingly bloodthirsty audience), I’d say Part 2 delivers in this respect. A viewer can expect assorted stabbings and throat slashings, an ice pick to the temple, claw hammer to the skull, and even a pair of bodies impaled with a spear while in the act of lovemaking (a method of execution borrowed from Mario Bava’s Italian-made Bay of Blood). Without giving anything away, I’ll say that my favorite kill involves one unfortunate youngster taking a machete to the face, then bouncing down a flight of stairs – you’ll know it when you see it.

surprise

What’s perhaps most surprising about this film is that this (along with most of the other Friday the 13th films) was in danger of receiving an ‘X’ rating when released due to strong violence and had to be edited down to get the ‘R’. While even rather harmless when compared to the likes of 1980’s X-rated (for violence) Maniac, viewed today, Part 2 looks like Sesame Street alongside most modern horror films or even a remarkably gory non-horror picture like Django Unchained – it blows my mind that this studio-backed Tarantino picture passed with an ‘R’ while numerous comparably less violent or downright incendiary indie films often wind up facing the wrath of the MPAA. That’s the politics of the movie biz for ya!

imagine
Can you imagine how this scene would be filmed today?

Even if Part 2 is an improvement in terms of its technical qualities, there’s no denying that many of the actors in the film are sketchy at best. Amy Steel as the obvious heroine of the picture does a fine job (remember – she’s a psychology student; this helps explain the climax), but some of the lesser players are downright awful. The likes of Marta Kober and Bill Randolph (as the mandatory promiscuous couple), Russell Todd and Stu Charno (the jokers of the bunch), Tom McBride (the boy in a wheelchair), and Kristen Baker (who provides the film’s shimmering moment of gratuitous frontal nudity) are little more than anonymous cannon fodder ready to be slaughtered. It’s funny when watching some of these classic slasher flicks that a viewer winds up rooting for the “villain”: the sooner he kills these kids, the faster it is that we no longer have to be annoyed by them and their pointless subplots. Friday the 13th Part 2 is not even close to being the worst in the series with regard to having thoroughly unlikable characters served up as murder victims, but it’s bad enough anyway.

oh look
Oh look – it’s another group of characters no one cares about.

As history turned out, Friday the 13th Part 2 made a small fortune on a minimal investment for Paramount Pictures (the magic of the slasher film!), paving the way for Parts 3,4,5,6,7,8, and beyond. It’s alarming noticing how downright tame this film is compared to modern bloodbath horror, a fact which speaks volumes about the level of desensitization that has taken place in the three-plus decades since the film’s release, but there’s no denying the role that Part 2 had in building up unstoppable killer Jason Vorhees as an iconic, instantly recognized figure. While most “respectable” critics dismiss these films straight away, at their best – and Part 2 is certainly one of the better Friday the 13th sequels – these films provide exactly what a viewer would want, and thus, are perfect popcorn flicks.

… just remember … Jason’s out there …


There are a ton of different Friday the 13th packages available, including several multi-film packs (including the 5-disc I have and a newer ), and various standalone discs. One would think, considering the popularity of the series, the money the studio has made from this franchise, and the sheer number of different home video releases, that Paramount would put some effort into these packages, but that by and large doesn’t seem to be the case. An “ideal” home video release of Part 2 (which in my mind would include the much-discussed deleted scenes and some supplemental featurettes directly related to this series entry) doesn’t truly exist. The so-called (which includes various featurettes relating to the series in general) is probably the best stand-alone disc to pick up if you don’t get a multi-film pack.


7/10 : Sure, there are quite a few sometimes brutal kill scenes in this flick, but the actual level of gore is fairly low – especially compared to what one would encounter in today’s horror cinema.


4/10 : A handful of cuss words and maybe one f-bomb

this I can fap to
6/10 : Rowdy teens getting frisky, one sex scene, assorted innuendo, and a huzzah moment of full-frontal nudity from a female skinny-dipper


7/10 : One of the better entries in the series, with accomplished technique making up for an utter lack of originality.


“Five years. Five long years he’s been dormant. And he’s hungry. Jason’s out there…”