Happy Thanksgiving

My postings have been rather sporadic, but since my focus on this blog is movies, this is a good day to recommend the best of all Thanksgiving movies.  Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving has not inspired many movies, but one truly good one is Alice’s Restaurant.

Based on the song of the same name by Arlo Guthrie (and making it one of the best song-to-movie adaptations ever), Alice’s Restaurant is essentially the story of the lives of some hippies including Guthrie himself.  Only part of the movie actually takes place on Thanksgiving, but it is a key part.

What makes this movie stand out for me – besides its Thanksgiving theme – is that unlike many movies made in that same era (the late 1960s), this movie actually portrays the hippies as human beings.  Most movies at that time – particularly those of the more “establishment” studios – tended to treat hippies as stereotypes, usually brain-dead, drug-addled sorts who spouted off empty slogans.

What’s the movie about?  Plot-wise, not much, just a series of typically comic adventures of the group.  But it’s a good depiction of the era, and a good Thanksgiving film.

Shrieks and freaks

Shriek Show is a DVD company that packages old movies at reasonable prices.  The reason that the prices can be good is because these are not great films, but rather cheapie horror or crime flicks.  Recently, I watched all the movies in Shriek Show’s Three-set, Mutant Monsters.

The first in the set that I watched was the one I had the least hope for, Creatures from the Abyss.  While the other two movies boasted familiar star names, this foreign (obviously dubbed) movie offered a bunch of people with little name recognition.  It is the tale of five college age kids who stumble upon a deserted yacht that is also an oceanographic lab.  The kids fit generic film stereotypes:  there is the prankster, the smart guy (you know he’s smart because he wears glasses), the good girl, the dumb-but-chesty blonde and the blonde’s sister, who seems to just be along for the ride.

There’s a reason the boat is deserted; almost everyone on board has been killed by mutant fish that have been brought up from the very deep ocean and exposed to radiation.  What’s worse, as the hapless kids find out, is that exposure to the fish can lead to some nasty mutations for humans too.  None of really makes much sense, but it is actually fun despite all its superficial deficiencies (bad effects, acting, writing, etc.)  Quality 3/10, Fun 5/10.

Second in the set is The Being, a real yawnfest imitation of Jaws and various late-’70s enviromental horror movies.  A local nuclear waste dump has somehow transformed a kid into a virtually indestructible man-eating creature.  Martin Landau plays a scientist who tries to downplay the effects of dumping nuclear waste into the local water supply; Jose Ferrer plays the mayor who wants to downplay any problems.  Ruth Buzzi plays the mayor’s wife; I suppose it’s hard to take any movie very seriously which has Ruth Buzzi.

At the core of the film is the cop character played by Rexx Coltrane (or is his name Johnny Commander?  Both names appear in the credits). His real name is apparently Bill Osco, related to the Osco Drugs franchise.  It makes sense, because after you watch his performance, you feel drugged with boredom.  I have seen few actors more effectively suck life out of a film; it’s not that he’s a particularly bad actor, just a thudding bore to watch.  Not that the rest of the film is much better.  Quality 3/10, Fun 2/10.

Finally, there is The Dark, an all-star alien invader film with Cathy Lee Crosby, William Devane, Richard Jaeckel, Keenan Wynn and Casey Kasem (a pre-Miami Vice Philip Michael Thomas also has a small role).  The standard enough story focuses on an alien that comes out every night and kills one person, apparently feeding on it to get more powerful.  It is superstrong, bulletproof and shoots rays out of its eyes.

Occasionally, the movie plays with the idea of public panic, akin to the panic felt about the Hillside Strangler, but this is never depicted very plausibly.  In fact, there isn’t much plausibility in the behavior of many of the characters, nor why this movie with little gore, no nudity and little in the way of harsh language would merit an R-rating; by today’s standards, it’s a soft PG-13.  Quality 5/10, Fun 4/10.

A grindhouse trilogy

What common link can be found between yetis and Home Improvement?  The answer is Michael Findlay.

Findlay was a film director and actor who made a series of extremely low-budget movies in the 1960s and 1970s.  My first experience with him was a few years ago when I saw Shriek of the Mutilated, a wonderfully cheesy movie in the Bigfoot/Sasquatch genre.

Shriek is the tale of a professor who invites his students to his isolated cabin where they hope to spot a yeti.  There’s something more sinister afoot, however, then the obviously fake yeti.  Yes, the yeti is a fake, a man in a costume that is part of a ruse that intends to make some of the students the main course for dinner.  This movie, along with such films as Motel Hell, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Terror at Red Wolf Inn, serve as cautionary tales about eating special meat dishes which have origins the food preparers are rather sketchy about.

When I read about Findlay and his wife Roberta (who often worked with him) in Sleazoid Express by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, I decided I had to check out their most well-known movies, the Flesh trilogy (of course, with grindhouse directors, even the well-known movies might be rather obscure).

Like many of these types of movies, this trilogy was designed to be seen in the rinky-dink grindhouse theaters most notably found on 42nd Street around Times Square (back before it was cleaned up and Disneyfied).  I don’t think I’d call these movies porn, but there is a lot of gratuitous nudity.  In fact, you get the feeling that about what type of movies these will be with the very first image of the first film, The Touch of Her Flesh:  the opening credits are projected onto a woman’s naked body.

So yes, these three movies do have lots of nudity – notably female nudity – as well as plenty of sex scenes, most of which are not very erotic (which is why I don’t think of these as porn films), but are also quickly tedious (and up to the last movie, very tame also).  The entertainment value of these movies comes from their rather silly stories involving a serial killer.

Touch opens with Richard Jennings (played by Findlay) going off on a business trip.  He is barely out the door when his wife Claudia invites in her lover.  When Jennings returns unexpectedly, he sees them and goes off the deep end, running into the street and getting hit by a car.  This leaves him temporarily wheelchair-bound and without an eye (though occasionally through the other movies, he loses the eye patch and seems to be doing okay).

The betrayed Jennings decides to declare war on all women, leading to all sorts of creative killings.  In the first movie, this will include death by poisoned flower, blowdart and for Claudia, buzzsaw.  Although it appears he is killed at the end of this movie, he will be back for the next two films, The Curse of Her Flesh and The Kiss of Her Flesh.

In Curse, the production values are noticeably better, particularly in the sound department.  The killings are more creative here as Jennings seeks revenge on his late wife’s lover:  murders will include poisoned underwear and a sex toy with an unexpected blade inside.  I should note that these killings are not graphic at all; in fact, Findlay seems to shy away so much from really showing the killings, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s going on.

The Kiss of Her Flesh rounds out the trilogy with some more interesting murders, including electrocution, blowtorch, acid-laced feminine wash and poisoned semen.  The plot this time focuses on Claudia’s sister trying to get revenge and eventually setting up a rather clever trap for Jennings.  The sister’s lover is played by Leo Heinz.  Of course, as is common in these types of films, everyone acts under an alias (even the Findlays used other names); Heinz was actually Earl Hindman in his film debut:  many years later, he would be kindly neighbor Wilson on Home Improvement.  Thus, the yeti-to-Home Improvement chain is completed.

It’s easy enough to dismiss these movies as pure schlock exploitation films, but they are a little (not a lot) better than that.  All three movies rate between 5/10 and 6/10 on IMDB based on a good sampling of ratings; that’s usually an indication of a so-so movie, not a complete cheese fest (in contrast, Shriek of the Mutilated gets a 2.6, which is in Mystery Science Theater 3000 territory).  Furthermore, based on when they came out, they may have had an influence on later slasher flicks, though the genre probably owes more to Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve.

On the other hand, these films definitely reflect their low-budget origins (although the DVD transfers are pretty clean).  The acting and the writing is often silly and bare-bones.  In short, the trilogy is far from classic, but it does have its entertaining moments.

The moon is on fire!

It seems like it’s been a while since I saw a truly trashy horror movie, but that little streak ended this weekend when I got to see The Burning Moon, a German anthology film from 1997.  Shot on video (with all the mediocrity that medium implies) and looking more like something from the 1980s than ’90s, this movie eventually does prove to have some merit.

The framing story involves a teen who forty years earlier would be called a juvenile delinquent.  Now, he’s just a punk who loves causing trouble, never more so than when he is forced by his parents to babysit his young sister.  He shoots up some heroin (at which point, he hallucinates the title image) and then decides to tell his sister some bedtime stories.  Of course, the fare he has in mind is not suitable for a ten-year-old, except for the fact that only a really young kid would not notice the glaring plot problems that are about to occur.

The first story, “Julia’s Love”, has a college-age girl going out with a man she just met, unaware that he is a serial killer who just broke out of a mental hospital.  As a viewer, you might think there’d be a plot twist where it turns out he’s not actually the killer (we never see his face during the escape scene), but writer-director Olaf Ittenbach is not interested in any cleverness, merely excuses to show gory murders.

We do get a few of those.  After Julia realizes who her date is, she runs away, but he follows her home and proceeds to kill off all her family with effects that are more cheesy than disturbing.  The only really bit of cleverness is when he forces her to eat an eyeball and we get the viewpoint from within the mouth.  There are some weird dream sequences which don’t really seem to fit in to the story but would be (I guess) a chance for Ittenbach to show off.

Don’t worry, the killer gets it when a throwaway character returns to save the day.  Julia survives though she might be insane.  That’s how the story ends, and the punk’s sister is not very happy with the tale.  He doesn’t care, however, and proceeds with the second tale, “The Purity”.

This story takes place in the 1950s in a small farming community.  A young woman is bicycling home at night when she’s attacked by a middle-aged man who proceeds to rape and kill her.  The next scene is her funeral, presided over by the killer, who’s also the local priest (and a secret devil-worshipper).

The locals suspect the neighborhood loner, and eventually, after more murders (and the priest’s suicide), they hire a killer of their own to do him in.  Things get supernatural at this point as the loner rises from the dead and literally sends the assassin to Hell.

Now it is like a firework show; after you ooh and aah for a while, all the real big bangs are saved for the end.  Hell, or at least this bargain-basement version which probably was shot in someone’s basement, is a complete gorefest, where all sorts of mangled creatures maim each other while meanwhile the assassin gets his own special torture, including disembowelment and a drill to the teeth and culminating in being torn in half by the legs (an effect seen previously in Lucio Fulci’s Demonia).

Thus the second story ends, as does the life of the little sister, who big brother, sometime during “The Purity”, has stabbed in the chest.  In a sudden burst of guilt, he decides to kill himself as well.  The end.

If you want to watch The Burning Moon, don’t feel I’ve spoiled that much.  The stories in this movie are purely incidental; it’s all about the gore.

Hellraiser: The Rate-ening

So in the previous two posts, I discussed the Hellraiser franchise, eight movies that came out between 1987 and 2005.  How do they rate as movies, and more particularly, as Hellraiser movies?

As movies, they are generally okay.  At their best, these films are creative and original, but they are hardly masterpieces.  Even at their worst, however, they are passably entertaining.  So none are excellent, but none are atrocious.  If you like lots of blood and gore, these movies should do the trick.  So how do I personally rank them?

  1. Hellraiser - As might be expected, the original would be the best.  Although a bit dated in both fashions and special effects, at least this movie offered something different.  The Cenobites are something new to look at; eventually, they would become little more than generic movie monsters.
  2. Hellbound:  Hellraiser II – This works well as a followup to the first movie, though there are some inconsistencies (such as a house that’s destroyed at the end of the first movie and intact in this one).  With many of the same characters returning, this film is not just a rehash, but a nice continuation.
  3. Hellraiser:  Bloodline – The fourth movie provides a history that answers some of the “why” questions that have developed over the first three movies.  Perhaps most significantly, it provides an origin of the Lament Configuration.  The three stories that comprise this movie, however, are just so-so.
  4. Hellraiser: Hellseeker – The sixth movie brings back Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), the closest the series has to a heroine.  Admittedly, she doesn’t do that much, but it’s nice to see her character again.
  5. Hellraiser:  Hell on Earth – The principal virtue in this third movie is the little look into the backstory of Pinhead, who spends much of the movie split in two:  the evil half wants to take over the world, the good half wants to reunite and restore order.  There isn’t actually much difference between “evil” Pinhead and “united” Pinhead, as can be seen in later movies.  This movie also seems to establish that Pinhead can create new Cenobites.
  6. Hellraiser:  Deader - If the movies above have slightly (or more) good than bad, this movie is the balanced one, with at least the Romanian settings providing a nice change-of-pace look.  The mopey main character, however, is a bit of a drag.
  7. Hellraiser: Inferno - It’s kind of a toss-up between these last two rated movies.  This movie – fifth in the series – suffers from having no likable main characters (a cop partner is the only one who comes close, but he is in a supporting role).  It comes off like an elaborate and bloody Twilight Zone episode, one of those ones where a bad guy leads a bad life and suffers a bad fate.
  8. Hellraiser:  Hellworld - This movie is bad enough that it almost goes into so-bad-it’s-good territory.  Poorly written with gaping plot holes and bad direction and acting to boot, this film comes off less as a Hellraiser movie and more as a knockoff of Scream or Saw.

Raising Hell times 8, part II

When describing the Hellraiser movies, there’s enough to say that it’s best to divide into two posts.  Since there are eight movies, it makes sense to break at the midpoint, but it is also logical based on the stories themselves.

The first four movies form a loose tetraology that defines the Hellraiser mythology.  “Loose” is an important consideration since continuity between movies has rarely been much of a consideration.  After these movies, the stories are pretty much standalone tales in the Hellraiser Universe, with Pinhead becoming less of a force of evil and more a force of somewhat sinister justice.  These films are stories that use Hellraiser elements but more-0r-less exist outside the Hellraiser saga comprised of the first four movies.  As a another reason to logically break after the first four movies, they had been released theatrically; the next four were direct-to-video/DVD.

As for the movies themselves:  the fifth movie is Hellraiser: Inferno, the tale of a corrupt cop who retrieves the Lament Configuration from a murder scene.  There are indications that a child is being held prisoner by a mysterious figure known as the Engineer.  After a binge with some coke and a hooker, the cop opens the box and things get really weird, almost like a David Lynch version of  a Hellraiser movie.  While many of the films have dream sequences, this one almost goes overboard with them.  As seems appropriate, the bad cop pays for his crimes thanks to Pinhead.

Hellraiser: Hellseeker brings back Ashley Laurence, the heroine of the first two movies.  As the movie begins, she is traveling with her husband, played by Dean Winters, currently most well-known for his guest appearances on 30 Rock as Dennis Duffy and his Allstate commercials where he’s Mayhem.  Any bliss between Kirsty and Trevor ends quickly as their car crashes into a river and Kirsty drowns.  Or does she?  Clues point to Trevor being not-so-nice a guy and Kirsty’s body never appears.  Strange flashbacks point to a less-than-happy marriage, one in which Trevor eventually gives Kirsty a Lament Configuration box.  Nothing good can come from that.  Pinhead is around, but his appearances are getting more and more limited.

Hellraiser:  Deader kind of revisits the concept of the third film, with a reporter getting entangled in a nasty conspiracy.  In this case, the reporter Amy Klein is played by Kari Wuhrer, one of those actresses whose name is kind of familiar but I can never quite place.  After viewing a video showing a person being killed and brought back to life, Amy is off to Bucharest for a story.  She finds a cult known as Deaders, led by one of the descendants of the original Lament Configuration.  This fellow plans on using Amy as a pawn to gain access to Hell and control of the Cenobites.  Pinhead has other ideas. It should be noted that this is one of the signs of a death knell of a franchise: first, direct-to-video, then filming in former Soviet bloc countries where everything looks European but is super cheap.

The next sign that a franchise is on its last legs is when it goes “meta”, referring to itself.  This is what happens in Hellraiser: Hellworld.  The premise here is that the Hellraiser story is just a computer game, one which obsesses one player so much that he kills himself.  A while later, his friends go to a Hellworld party where strange things are going on, including the appearance of various Cenobites.  Here’s where I have to insert a spoiler:  it turns out the whole thing is the grand scheme of the dead kid’s father, who’s drugged the friends with hallucinogens, making most of the movie one big dream (and one with plot holes that are too big to be ignored.  Of course, as a final twist, it turns out that the Cenobites are real, and they exact justice on the vengeful father.  I’d like to point out that one of this movies failings is that the computer game that sparks this whole thing appears to be not very interesting or difficult, making me wonder why college-age kids would be obsessed with it for years.

Next post:  rating the movies.

Raising Hell times 8

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve indulged in the Hellraiser movies, which is to say, the first eight in the series.  There is a ninth one that was released last year, but not only have I not seen it, I haven’t heard good things; apparently, it was mainly made to keep the franchise rights going.  Which is not to say that the first eight are all gems, but they are all reasonably entertaining.

When I say that I watched the eight movies over a couple weeks, that doesn’t mean I watched one, then the next one a couple days later.  I watched these in bunches, including four in a single day, and its to the credit of the series that I could do this.  Some movie series just rehash the same basic story time and again (such as the Friday the 13th or Halloween movies or even, going way back, Universal’s old Mummy movies: of the five, four are almost identical in plot and structure).  What the Hellraiser series offers is a different type of monster than many horror films and a mythology (however inconsistently applied) that goes with it.

The basic story goes back to a novella by Clive Barker, once one of the great names in horror fiction (his recent work is more sporadic in quality and quantity).  The movies deal with a puzzle box called the Lament Configuration which, when solved, opens a gateway to Hell.   Hell turns out to be an S&M paradise of sorts, populated by beings known as Cenobites who love to torture hapless souls.  The lead Cenobite is never named in the movie, but is nicknamed Pinhead in the credits; in fact, none of the Cenobites bear any real names.

As is typical in my posts, I may include some spoilers.

In the original movie, Hellraiser, the Cenobites have a lesser role.  It instead focuses on Frank, a nasty guy whose yearnings for exotic pleasures leads him to the Lament Configuration which drags him to Hell.  Frank’s clever, however, and figures on a way to escape with the assistance of his brother Larry’s wife (Julia) and some copious amounts of human blood.  The brother is played by Andrew Robinson, best known as the crazy killer Scorpio in Dirty Harry; here, he’s a much nicer guy, which will not lead to good things.  The heroine of the story is Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry’s college-age daughter, who will summon the Cenobites inadvertently and use them to stop Frank.

Even this first movie is imperfect, but it is a fun film with an original concept, especially for the 1980s, a relatively low era for horror quality, with an overabundance of slasher flicks.  It definitely has a 1980s look to it, which makes it seem dated.  And if you don’t like gore, you should avoid this whole franchise, which often deals with people being flayed and mutilated.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II follows directly after the first movie, with Kirsty locked up in an insane asylum and no one believing her story.  Well, no one except the head psychiatrist, an evil man who knows all about the magic box.  He brings back Julia from the dead while Kirsty attempts to rescue her father from Hell, little knowing that it’s a trap by Frank.  The Cenobites play a bigger role in this one, and it’s revealed that they were once humans.  Though the movie ends with the Cenobites, including Pinhead, apparently dead, you can’t keep a good demon down.

In Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, Pinhead is back and, as the title says, interested in moving out of the underworld.  Somehow trapped in a strange statue, he is resurrected by a twisted nightclub owner.  It can be noted that although Pinhead has become the common monster in these movies, there is typically always a human villain who is typically the actual center of the story; in fact, only in this movie and the next one does Pinhead take on true “bad guy” status and kill people who did not fiddle with the box.  As in the majority of movies, this one features a woman as the lead “good guy”, in this case a reported played by Terry Farrell (pre-Deep Space Nine).

The fourth movie, Hellraiser: Bloodline, is actually a collection of three related stories.  The framing story takes place in the future where on a space station a man has summoned Pinhead, using a robot to open the Lament Configuration.  It turns out he’s the descendant of the original designer.  His story, taking place in pre-Revolution France, deals with the summoning of a demon princess and the havoc that results.  The other story deals with  a modern-day descendant who becomes targeted by Pinhead and company due to his ancestor.  Then it’s back to the future where the final descendant intends on destroying Pinhead using a “reverse” box.

At this point, halfway through the Hellraiser 8, it’s a good point to break.  This will continue in the next post.