Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cannibal Confusion

In celebration of the profoundly pants-wetting news that I finally won something from Buzz at Camp Blood, and the fact that I seem to do nothing lately except watch zombie flicks and shamble around the house til dawn, I've decided (mostly for my own edification) to clear up some of the most common misapprehensions surrounding the mouldy old cinematic subgenre I think of as 'Franco-Italian necrofetishism'. Spaghetti Horror, if you like.

Most of you reading this have, at some point (likely while drifting listlessly down the aisles of Blockbuster), asked yourself this burning question: "What's the difference between Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox, and which one did I see?"

Answering that would be a snap, but for the incestuous slew of coterminous films produced at the time that (even in this IMDB age) are frustratingly interchangeable in theme, pedigree, and title.

So here, listed chronologically, are the Italian mutilation-exploitation features that your memory may have confused, conflated, miscegenated or otherwise misremembered. Fittingly, like the Hills of Rome, there are seven of them.

Jungle Holocaust - 1977
Zombi 2 - 1979
Cannibal Holocaust - 1980
Zombie Holocaust - 1980
Cannibal Apocalypse - 1980
Cannibal Virus - 1980
Cannibal Ferox - 1981

For details, consult the handy reference tables below.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Where's Waldo

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first Perimeter Institute lecture. Rogers television was there to capture the magic.

The guest speaker was Professor Paul J. Steinhardt of Princeton University. The title of the presentation was "Impossible Crystals".

Really interesting stuff, although when he started talking about Fibonacci sequences I had a sudden, nasty flashback to my pitiless C++ programming instructor from college.

So they aired the program on t.v. the other night, and I watched some of it, eagerly idly wondering if they would show my gormless mug on camera.

Kinda. The fact that I was the only one wearing a rather noticeable white baseball cap made me pretty easy to spot, but as far as my closeup goes? Not so much.
Here's a screen-grab from my computer. (You can watch the lectures freely here.)

Thanks a bunch, Mr. DeMille.

Actually, a couple of frames later, the guy in front moves his head a smidgen, and you can almost see that I'm smiling.

Smiling at the science!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Zombie Reviews

Tobe Hooper's Mortuary was something of a letdown for me.
The first act was everything I'd hoped, the second kinda jumped the rails, and the third just plain ran outta gas.
And Hooper's commentary presence was just the most depressingly lifeless and hopelessly resigned-sounding thing I've ever experienced.
(And I've heard Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses commentary.)

Well, the good news is that Denise Crosby is in fine form here. She plays a good-hearted widowed mom, who makes some hilariously bad choices (not the least of which is inviting her son's new friends down into the embalming room for a peek at some new "customers"). The bad news is that the script turns her into a tiresome hatchet-wielding killjoy just as you're really starting to root for her.

Crosby's son, played by Dan Byrd from this year's Hills Have Eyes remake, is a likeable lead who turns in some good moments.

Shallow Ground's Rocky Marquette has a supporting role as a gay teen. In fact, this particular bit of casting is what really piqued my interest in Mortuary, since I first read Buzz's review at Camp Blood.

Sadly, they gave the poor kid very little to do, and bumped him off in a particularly cheesy and annoying way -- cheesy because it was a woefully executed visual effect that lacked any dramatic logic; and annoying because it was the exact same arm-through-the chest gimmick that killed his Bloody Boy character in Shallow Ground.

If, as Buzz mused, Denise Crosby is contractually obliged to appear in any movie based around a graveyard, then Marquette's contract is at least as oddly particular...
Perhaps they use the same (demented) agent.

The leaden, dreadful climax of the film looks like the product of a hurried reshoot in someone's garage, and the final "reveal" of the origins of the mysterious sodium-phobic black fungus is so feeble and dinky it's painful to watch.

In my review of Toolbox, I came down pretty hard on Hooper's "coffin-baby" concept for the killer. Does he listen?
Now he's throwing cemetery-babies at us...
Oh, Tobe. Rub some more salt in our wounds, why dontcha.

Clive Barker's The Plague was even more frustrating. I'm not sure what Barker's contribution amounted to, other than picking up his producer's cheque and ducking quietly out the back door.
When I saw that James Van Der Beek was starring in this thing, I had some misgivings, but folks -- (I wish I were joking, here), he's the best thing in this whole mess.

The premise: one bright, sunny morning all the world's children simultaneously fall into sudden, incurable comas. Babies are born in the same condition. Blah global crisis blah.
(If only. I might actually start going to restaurants again.)

Fast forward ten years.
Dawson returns to the Creek, decides to make a documentary sorry, JVDB returns to his hometown after getting paroled. Killed a guy in a bar fight, apparently. (Amusingly, one of his co-stars mentions in the commentary that Beeks was actually discouraged from entering most of the local Winnipeg watering-holes for the sake of his own safety.)

So, just as he's beginning to adjust to civilian life, all the kids decide to wake up en masse and start whacking grownups. They go from useless, high-maintenance drooling vegetables to sullen, high-maintenance homicidal maniacs.
Pretty much like real-life kids, in other words.

Anyway, the acting is fine from the small core of key players. Beeks is pretty buff, and his cosmically large noggin seems almost within normal proportional parameters here.
Also keeping things lively is Brad Hunt, whom I admired in Cookers, and Dee Wallace who chewed up her scenes nicely in Boo.

The Plague never really bites ya, but it works for what it is.
Until the end.
The final twenty minutes took every last ounce of goodwill I had been willing to offer it, wrapped it in a flaming bag of horsecrap, and threw it back in my face.

No explanation for the child-plague was ever offered, or even hinted at. They just threw in some head-scratching "message" about raising children in a better world, and blaming adults for not leading by example or somesuch tripe.
Sorry, what? If I spend my life savings and every waking minute taking care of my comatose nine-year-old for an entire decade, only to have him wake up and try to brain me with the nearest blunt object without so much as a "Hi Dad!", then I think my responsibility as a parent has pretty much run its natural course...

I scanned the credits for some sort of punchline to all this.
Something like: “Dedicated to the bagboys of America, whose greed and ineptitude inspired this movie”.

All Soul's Day is a flat-out cannibal zombie film. It's also an irritating bore. The young leads were obnoxious, the production value was non-existent, the gore was minimal, and the zombies were about as threatening as the Taco Bell chihuahua.

Most painfully, for me, was seeing breathtaking Mulholland Dr. actress Laura Harring trapped in this zero-peso production. At first, I didn't want to believe it was her. It couldn't be her. Sure, other genre favorites like Jeffrey Coombs, David Keith and Danny Trejo pop up briefly, but Laura Harring?
Is she working off some kind of community service? I think Boy George copped a better deal, if that's the case.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Dark City

I wish I had a copy of City Life or SimCity4.
Maybe then I could attempt to model some of the more memorable landmarks in my dream-city. My city doesn't have a name, and it changes pretty dramatically from night to night, but there are enough structural constants that I can (if REM time permits) usually orient myself sufficiently to get my bearings.

There's a huge University at the centre of town. This gleaming art-deco structure looks remarkably like Buffalo's City Hall. Skirting the downtown hub is a quaint little shopping district full of antique stores, rare booksellers, salons, cafes and upscale boutiques.

The sprawling subway system extends not on a reliably east-west or north-south axis, but quadralineally; like a rough X slashed across the city's underbelly. The northwest line peters out among the gentle hills of the wooded countryside. The northeast line terminates among the tangled tracks and blighted depots of the abandoned railyard.

The main thoroughfares, including the provincial superhighway and the "Great Overpass Project", which has been under construction since my teenage years, lies to the southwest. If I had a nickel for every time I broke down on one of those endlessly looping ribbons of asphalt, I'd never have to worry about finding exact change for the toll-roads again. The lunatic layout of this nebulous, near-Gordian knot of onramps and offramps is both infuriating and breathtaking.
If you locked a hyperactive autistic child in a large room with an endless supply of Hotwheels track, this would be the result.

Much like my hometown of Toronto, the southeast corner of the city is bounded by a great body of water. Whether it's freshwater or saltwater, I can't be certain.

There is a reliable, 24-hour transit service that links the underground to the neighboring boroughs, and to my knowledge, this bus is the only way to get to the airport.

There are a few frequently recurring themes in this "Dream City" of mine, and one of them is darkness. The sole illumination cast upon my dreams here is that of late afternoon, and the light fades rapidly after that. It almost suggests a Hyperborean latitude, if one were to try and fix it globally.

Another peculiarity is the perplexing abundance of book stores and costume shops. The former line the main downtown streets in near-perpetuity. Their sizes range from bargain-warehouse huge to airport-hangar immense. I typically wander in through a small, soap-stained glass door, and into a vast area divided into endless rows of waist-high stacks and shelves. The fare is usually bland back-issue women's magazines, Popular Mechanics, and Reader's Digest. To get to the good stuff, you have to go deeper. If you are lucky enough to spot the discreet stairway leading to the basement floor, you'll soon arrive at the gates of geek paradise.

This is where I make my happiest discoveries. Every gap in my comic-book collection can be stopped up by a few minutes perusal of the nearest bargain bin. Wonderfully bizarre fringe titles and proudly kitschy adult mags stare out at you from row after row of plastic-wrapped covers. The walls are festooned with rare and valuable collector's posters, and massive, ancient esoteric volumes vie for shelf space with modern DVD box-sets of my favorite seventies Saturday morning programs.

The costume shops abound almost as frequently. Maybe it's because Halloween always seems to be just around the corner in my Dream City, I don't know, but I encounter them all over town. They crop up in the usual places, like malls and shopping districts, but also in residential areas among ordinary homes with garages and driveways. I could be walking along a sleepy, shaded sidestreet, enjoying the beautiful colors of the autumn leaves, when suddenly I'll spot a small glass-fronted building festively sporting leering jack-o-lanterns and capering skeletons.

And these shops are often quite specialized. One proprietor announced that she only sold novelty wigs and fingernails. Nothing else in the store; just aisles and aisles of bewigged styrofoam heads and plastic press-ons arranged according to varying lengths and degrees of luridity. It's wonderful.

If I'm ever uncertain as to whether a particular dream is taking place in this nameless phantasmagoric metropolis, all I ever need to do is go for a workout.
I have discovered that I am in good standing with no fewer than three different health clubs in town. One is the University centre downtown. It's got an Olympic pool and a high-dive platform that I've never had the guts to try out. The hours are strange, however, as it always seems to be either just closing, or not quite ready to open. I seldom go here, but it's an impressive view from the high catwalk and observation deck. The second gym is a YMCA, and its location and layout shift from time to time. It's unique in the sense that it has perhaps a dozen saunas delimiting the (rather scummy-looking) pool. There are dry saunas, steam rooms, Swedish baths, eucalyptus rooms, you name it, this place has it. The biggest problem is the abominable lighting inside each of these little rooms. I never know who I might be sitting beside, or whether I've got company at all. Even more off-putting are the occasionally ghastly odours that seem to be emanating from the shadowy perspirers.

The third health club is my favorite.
In fact -- I'll tell you how to get there.
Go to one of the many malls around town (doesn't matter which), find Sears, go through the doors between the menswear and automotive sections, go down a flight of steps, go through another set of doors, and you will find a bored-looking woman behind a reception desk. Don't worry about digging out your membership card, because she never asks for it. Just head on past the treadmills, stationary bikes and nautilus equipment and deposit your stuff the locker room.
There's never anyone there, and the pool is always clean.

Monday, September 04, 2006

What will it take?

Australia's "Crocodile Hunter" has been killed by a stingray barb to the heart. The poor guy was only 44. Damn. This is getting out of hand.
First Dian Fossey, then Timothy Treadwell, now Steve Irwin.

I say to hell with animals. If this is nature's way of repaying us for all the wonderful things we do for her stupid, ungrateful critters, then I say screw 'em.

Let them rot in their salty oceans and smelly jungles, and we'll just see how far they get without our help.

Remember Marlin Perkins?
He didn't take any shit from the "wild kingdom".
Hell, he patented the cattle-prod/boom-mic array.

Friday, September 01, 2006

reviews cont.

Final Destination 2 - Pretty much the same exact deal as the first movie, but without the level of star power. Fans peg this one as the most vicious of the trilogy. Certainly death seems to be enjoying his work a little bit too much here, especially as the climax ramps up.
Look for a pointless cameo by unsung genre hero Tony Todd as an...uh...Undertaker? Coronor? Death hobbyist? Gurney repairman?
It wasn't all that clear.

Final Destination 3 - "X-Files" and "Millennium" writing duo Morgan and Wong helm this, the final Final Destination film, and the results are something of an improvement. Some spectacular set-pieces and hilariously gory ends for our largely disposable cast add a bit of life to the proceedings, but ultimately, the same old questions arise.
For example, if Death is prepared to take time out of his busy reaping schedule to hunt down the "ones that got away" to such a (frankly anal) degree, why bother sending clues ahead of time to his doomed quarry? Are there other forces at work?
And are the characters supposed to be thoroughly unlikeable so the audience can laugh at their elaborate eliminations (some are admittedly enjoyable), or is it just a case of lazy writing?

None of it really matters, since the series has now been put to bed.
Not a bad sendoff, all things considered, but would it have killed them to throw us a quick shot of headless Stifler?

The Ghouls - This rancid no-budget shot-on-video sickpuddle should be avoided at all costs.
It tells the "story" of a hateful paparazzi-type lowlife who drunkenly witnesses a brutal attack on a woman by a pack of cannibalistic homeless men.
Some deludedcreative souls who enjoyed this thing point to its social message in regards to the film's title; the question being "Who are the real ghouls, them or us?", but when the cover of a DVD box practically screams "Zombies Attack!", forgive me for resenting the filmaker's decision to substitute hamfisted social relevancy for actual zombies.

This ain't no Dawn of the Dead, folks.
It looks like crap, sounds like crap, and made me seriously consider asking for my rental fee back. I nearly sprained my thumb holding down the fast-forward button.
If there was any redeeming value in the splatter effects, I missed it.

Night Watch - This is apparently the first installment in a planned trilogy from Russian writer/director Timur Bekmambetov.
I can't wait. For a film to set up its very own unique mythology and let it play out as originally and elementally as it does here is a rare and wonderful thing.

The characters (even when not showing off their supernatural gifts) are idiosyncratic and appealing, without being condescendingly quirky for the sake of it. The motivations of the Night Watchers (the good guys) are simple and plausible, and even more refreshingly, the Day Watchers are given sympathetic character treatment as well. Neither campy nor arch, the villainous witches and vampires of the dark side are believable players in the struggle to keep the balance of good and evil in the film's cosmology.

The clashes between factions of Others aren't flashy or epic, either.
Encounters are catch-as-catch-can gritty, and more reminiscent of Fight Club than the exaggerated gallantry of most fantasy combat choreography.

Another sly, singularly Russian twist is the inclusion of a workaday bureaucracy in which the protagonists are forced to act as de facto civil servants; issuing licenses, granting access, and keeping scrupulous tabs on supernatural activities.
Sort of a Ministry of Magic by way of Kafka. It lends a certain revolutionary idealism to the activities of the disaffected Dark Side.

There is a whole lot going on in this movie, and sometimes I felt as though too many threads were being woven into an already rich tapestry of plot, particularly during the lead-up to the final sequences, but nothing was purely extraneous, nor did the cinematic flash and stylistic flourishes detract from the central themes of personal responsibility and redemption.

Konstantin Khabensky as Anton makes a terrific lead, and his evocative, Romanesque profile bears a striking resemblance to another of my favorite underexposed European actors; Moritz Bleibtreu:
That's Konstantin on the left, and Moritz on the right.

Apropos of nothing, here's another fun comparison:
Night WatchDevil's Backbone
(Someone's been studying his Guillermo del Toro movies!)

Now that the backstory is in place, and the mythos introduced, I think it's safe to predict that Dusk Watch and Day Watch will prove to be a hell of a barn-burning pair of sequels. Bring on the vodka gimlets!

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)- All set was I to classify this sick puppy as the latest symptom of the dreaded scourge "Retreadus Inanius"; but shockingly, it behooves me to retract what was clearly an erroneous and premature diagnosis.
And no, I'm not being a smartass. This flick truly doesn't suck!

It's icky and brutal, sure. To say the violence is gratuitous is like saying the Himalayas are 'a bit hilly'. But somehow it worked for me.

Not that I'm drawn to this type of movie. Hostel was quite good, but Wolf Creek and 2003's Texas Chainsaw remake left me cold and achey.
To be honest, I had no intention of watching this Hills version like, ever, but I had offhandedly asked a friend of a friend for a "Silent Hill" pirate copy, and mistakenly ended up with this.

I might have given Craven's original a pass, too, but it was so regularly spoken of in reverent tones among horror fans, that I ended up watching it more out of genric peer-pressure than any real interest in the storyline. It wasn't all that memorable.
Certainly any deeper subtextual significance lurking within the middle-class family v.s. sociopathic-outcasts dichotomy was lost on me. Besides, this same "victim turns-the-tables in act three" device was used identically in his previous film, Last House on the Left, and it was just as improbably staged.

But here we have a director (High Tension's Alexandre Aja) who has the money and technology to exploit the vast potential for some shockingly visceral set-pieces that the slapdash, low-budget original was unable to capitalize on.

Tobe Hooper's Chainsaw brought the cameras into the parlor (and pantry) of his degenerate clan, and audiences were both repelled and delighted by the candid-looking results. Humanizing the sub-humans was a tidily perverse perspective twist that worked in the film's favor. It was a beat that didn't sync at all in Craven's Hills. Let's face it, no matter how fucked-up the Hills gang looked, they were still a tribe of organized mercenaries.
I mean, as satisfying as the hitchhiker's melon-squashing comeuppance is in TCM, you still feel a bit sorry for the batshit little bastard. By contrast, characters like Pluto and Jupiter deserve everything that's coming to them. And then some.

The Hills remake gladly cranks up the indignities and piles on the outrage, to a point where the payback these (much more mutated, but equally amoral) freaks receive becomes a near orgasmic experience for the viewer.

This level of audience bloodlust generated in the payoff scenes has some critics crying foul. They say that this type film is supposed to shock people because the heroes have become the savages, not turn the audience into voyeuristic sickos by cheering for them. Is the whole thing an exercise in cultural desensitization?

That may depend on how you view pornography -- when you're beating off to Scrotomaniacs do you like a thoughtful reality-check in lieu of a ball-busting climax? I sure don't.
If a horror flick lets you "cum" (this subject was raised in the "Hostel" commentary), is it less valuable? If we leave our seats basely, brutally satisfied, are we leaving our souls behind as well?

Of course not.
Let's face it, we're not exactly watching this shit to better ourselves, are we?