If the Avengers and The Expendables franchises have taught us anything, it’s that more is better, or at least…morier. And while horror fans may enjoy the classic scenario of a small group facing a singular implacable menace, sometimes it’s fun to engage in sensory overload via a film filled to the face with a variety of menaces.
This list focuses on the over-the-top monster mashes that leave us sated like scary smorgasbords. No ALIENS, STARSHIP TROOPERS, zombies or other multitudes of the same species here; the following focus on flicks with several different kinds of monsters.
Back in 1933, horror and monster pictures were just beginning to take hold and prove their box office worth. But Universal’s nascent house of black and white horrors must surely have paled (literally) in comparison to RKO’s monster fest KING KONG. O’Brien had worked on a silent adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE LOST WORLD nearly a decade earlier, but comparatively speaking, KONG was light years ahead in the FX department, featuring stop motion special effects work by Willis O’Brien that included not only the titular monster monarch but a stegosaur, bronto(or pleisio?)saur, styracosaur, a giant lizard and the triple threat of an allosaurus, eel monster and pterosaur engaging Kong in epic battles.
As if that wasn’t enough. O’Brien and crew devised an icky menagerie of smaller insect and reptile critters that attacked crew members forced off a log bridge and into a swampy pit by Kong. Reportedly, this scene was deemed too horrific by studio suits, so it wound up on the floor. Sadly, that footage is long lost.
In 2005, Universal released a fun -if overlong- remake created by The Lord of The Rings director Peter Jackson and his New Zealand effects house WETA, which featured more of everything, including the pit scene.
This would not be Jackson’s first shot at the infamous sequence though, as he lovingly recreated the lost footage based on the original script and various descriptions. See it here!
THE BLACK SCORPION
There was plenty of dino-filled matinee fare after KONG, though most were not nearly as well realized. Japanese films mostly just pitted single monsters (including Kong) against their reigning champion Godzilla until the mid-sixties, but this entry in the giant bug brigade, coming in 1957, brought back O’Brien and his creepy stop-mo aesthetic for a unique, if rather cheap effort that, aside from the titular mutants (their were actually many of the big arachnids) presented an unnerving subterranean sequence filled with spiders and worms that had all the nuclear age housewives shaking out their bouffants and sleeping with their kids’ Daisy BB repeaters for months.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS!
Japan’s Toho Studios followed Universal’s formula of one film containing multiple monsters in 1965 by bringing their Big Three, Godzilla Rodan and Mothra, together to battle the new menace of GHIDORAH THE THREE HEADED MONSTER but it wasn’t until 1968 that they assembled no less than eleven kaiju for a proper monster party set in the far away future of 1999, when daily moon trips were/will be the norm and all the giant menaces that have so plagued the world have been corralled onto a pacific island affectionately termed Monsterland. But as we all know, the future will bring with it alien contact, and in this case the aliens are hostile. They’ve devised a method to control the monsters and promptly release them to raze the world’s capitols. Godzilla and friends, Rodan, Mothra, Anguirus, Kumonga and many more, eventually turn face and help defeat the aliens but the enemy has an ace up their silvery sleeves: King Ghidorah. The space demon, vastly outnumbered, quickly succumbs, finally dying after three films. It’s fun to see the 90s through the eyes of the 60s, but all those monsters onscreen at once is a 12-year-old sci-fi geek’s dream come true.
AT THE EARTH’S CORE
Exploitation studio stalwarts American International and Amicus came together for this very very 70s B pic based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale featuring western star Doug McClure, Peter Cushing and the irresistible Caroline Munro, in a tiny animal skin bikini no less. The plot: Victorian era scientists ride a drill machine past the earth’s upper crusts, where they find a neolithic civilization enslaved by a race of rodent men who are in turn working for telepathic flying reptiles.
But wait, there’s more. Along the way, our heroes encounter dinosaur-like beasts unseen in the above-ground fossil record, such as a giant bulldog lizard thing, two bipedal wild boars fighting over a mansnack, a beaked allosaurus, a fire breathing toad, and a creepy carnivorous plant. The same producers followed up with the equally monster-filled THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS, but neither of those carries the weird charm of this bad boy.
GALAXY OF TERROR
Just get a look at the poster art and there can be no doubt that this ALIEN-inspired Roger Corman production, despite its budget shortcomings, delivers monsters galore, and yes, a full galaxy’s worth of terror, not to mention a cast to kill for: Robert Englund, Edward Albert, Ray Walston, Erin Moran and Sid Haig. But its Taafee O’Connell who is best remembered for the dubious distinction of being raped by a giant maggot thing. So yeah, this is that kind of flick. Quite a departure from the above-mentioned films in terms of subject matter. Aside from the maggot thing, there is a tentacled brain sucker, a malevolent disembodied arm, a glowy-eyed giant demon, sentient wires, Erin Moran minus epidermis, and… okay not as much monstrage as some of the previous flicks, but just the idea of a film trying to outgun ALIEN earns it those coveted monster mash points.
THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD
The legendary sailor and adventurer began his film career in 1958 with Ray Harryhausen at the helm of spectacular stop motion effects that, for my money, are his best work. Kerwin Matthews leads a cast of white folks playing Arabs doing battle with and running from, such monstrosities as Talos The Bronze Giant, a vicious horned cyclops, a two headed vulture, (aka a ‘Roc,’) a massive fire breathing dragon and an army of unsettlingly agile skeleton warriors. Spawned a handful of sequels, but none compare to the majesty and wonder of the original.
INFRA-MAN aka THE SUPER INFRAMAN
OMG, ya’ll — a Chinese kung fu/sci-fi/monster flick? No further sales pitch needed. An ancient subterranean troupe of intelligent and malevolent monsters (hmm…kinda like NIGHTBREED, but much better at jump kicks) rises to overtake the world and install as its ruler The Princess Dragon Mahm, a seriously bad bitch with a hand that is a dragon’s head sprouting a tongue for a whip. …FUCK yeah. That’s not all she has up her sleeve — er, reptile…arm/neck. She turns into a full blown winged dragon that can re-grow its head, countless times! So, a scientist creates an implant or something that allows bad ass Danny Lee to turn into the titular hero via a series of aerial flips. Just in time too, because the princess’ horrific hordes are as brutally destructive as they are ugly. Infra-Man’s seemingly unlimited powers serve him in battle against: a reptilian bulldog/gorilla beast with one metal drill hand and one metal boxing glove! A green tentacled fellow who can plant himself like a seed and sprout to Godzillian heights as a bundle of flailing tentacles! An orange bipedal arachnid who traps dudes in web spheres! An armor plated demon with a red mustache! A chick with eyes in her hands, that, of course, shoot lasers! Infra-Man is obviously China’s answer to Ultraman, Kamen Rider and countless other Japanese heroes, but I have to admit — I’ve always liked INFRA-MAN better than any of those shows.
More MONSTER MASHES to come!
MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT
Gareth Edwards, director of the original MONSTERS, as well as 2014’s GODZILLA re-stomp, produced this one presumably from afar, handing the reins to Tom Green, who is presumably not the Canadian comic. A bold attempt at recreating the more intimate approach to monster films that more or less worked last time, but unsatisfying.
THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING!
This doc chronicles the efforts of a handful of Muslim comedians to erase common misconceptions and bridge social gaps between Muslim Americans and, well, us not-Muslims, I guess. Interestingly, it turns out that the comedians’ fellow Muslims are the hardest nuts to crack. Funny and poignant.
GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS: UNDEFEATED
Apparently, this series has morphed from an edgy drama to a more or less formula-driven gang fight slugfest, only in the UK gangs are called “firms” and they wear sweaters and hushpuppies. The fight scenes are poorly edited and shot, so star Scott Adkins’ skills are not on display as they should be.
FISTS OF LEGEND
Not to be confused with the Jet Li vehicle FIST OF LEGEND, this Korean martial arts drama steers clear of the usual Rocky variation to posit a story of middle-aged desk jockeys trying their hand at the competitive fight game. The narrative often flashes back to high school, when so many men place a high value on their fighting prowess, and subsequently live in their own shadow, and this device manages to be both poignant and exciting.
More or less an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, so it’s unable to sustain the mystery of the premise for its running time. The initial build up is great but the last act doesn’t hold up.
THIS IS SPINAL TAP
You’d think a metalhead like me would’ve caught this one before now, but… Some of the best comedians of the era take on the roles of deluded and drug-addled rock stars. Plenty of clever improv, but its humor is swiftly becoming dated. So…catch it now!
If you’ve never seen this moody, sometimes artsy sci-fi horror you’re missing one of the most horrific and disturbingly beautiful entries from the 80s post-apocalypse roundup. Scarier than ALIEN, odder than THE THING, it’s definitely worth a watch.
SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS
Not to be confused with Jet Li’s MARTIAL ARTS OF SHAOLIN, this Hong Kong fist-fest from legendary director Chang Cheh stars Fu Sheng and Kuan Chun Chi and some amazingly intricate choreography — along with occasional shocking brutality. The plot is strictly assembly line; fighters from a defeated clan travel to train under masters of a specific style that will overcome the strengths of their enemies, sort of like paper-rock-scissors, but there are surprises to be found.
Back in 1958 this was probably a controversial film, despite clearly being a message of warning to any young ladies giving consideration to such acts of depravity as wearing slacks to school, sassing off to their parents, or breaking into the old abandoned movie house for gossip sessions. Sure, you can watch it and have a laugh at the naivete’ — but you might also find yourself wishing YOU lived is such a time…
BILL BURR: YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL THE SAME
You’ll recognize Burr from his stint on Breaking Bad, and if you’re like me you’ll find his comedic observations and delivery sincere and pitch perfect.
Ryan Phillipe plays a sheltered but not necessarily spoiled actor who is kidnapped and taken into the swamps by a pair of Cajuns looking for revenge. Nothing overly complicated here, but if you think Phillipe is just an overrated pretty boy with no range you’ll be surprised.
THE TOXIC AVENGER PART 3
Everything that made the first two entries feel like fresh frenetic trashy fun now feels forced and dated. Positively chatty compared to its action filled forebears, and not even that funny.
Takashi Shimizu of the GRUDGE films has never quite fulfilled the promise of that franchise but his work is always trippy, creepy and fascinating. This one, loosely connected to his previous film SHOCK CORRIDOR, takes its time, isn’t very bloody, and aims to be more cerebral than is the trend, so settle in.
Cung Le, a former MMA and San Shou champion, stars in this low budget actioner with Peter Weller and Jean Claude Van Damme, as an ex-con vigilante sent by his prison mentor (Van Damme) to oust (kill) the crime faction that has infested it. Weller chews scenery of course, but it’s the fights that we want, and while Le’s skill set is far better suited to actual fights, as opposed to movie fights, he’s a powerful and personable presence and this is a good early vehicle for him.
The latest from PCG’s Quirky Queue
Donnie Yen, the most prolific Asian action star working, is doing what they all do, which is to transition from pure martial arts films to grittier action dramas. This one delivers the goods in almost every department (though it could use a bit of a trim IMO) and as a student of both realistic combat techniques and great action choreography, I was pleased to see how Yen’s always spectacular choreography has continued to not only improve, but work nicely with the story. For example, it’s not unusual to see MMA style techniques in action movies these days, but Yen really knows how to set these up within the framework of a given fight’s psychology.
This low budget sci-fi actioner holds up pretty well against its more expensive brethren thanks to good performances from a likable cast. Loved the score for this one, reminiscent of The Terminator though it was.
COME BACK TO ME
A good concept, dark enough to be shocking at times, but more often rather pedestrian thanks to what seems like rushed directing. Like I know anything. But anyway, the cast, looking like soap opera stalwarts, rises to the occasion throughout, making it a decent watch.
The end times prophesied by St. John in the book of Revelation are here! And while the tribulation of those left behind, or whatever, is indeed horrendous, it’s also a rich mine of comedy gold. Those little scorpion/locust things are a major annoyance (as well as a hilarious homage to The Outer Limits’ Zanti Misfits) but they pale in comparison to cursing crows, fiery comets and The Beast himself, as portrayed by Craig Robinson.
‘Member this one, from 1985? Based on the popular board game (when was the last time that happened?) this one drops some 80s B-listers into an old dark mansion with a scoundrel who is blackmailing them, and of course the bodies hit the floor. The multiple endings have all been clumsily edited into the digital version for Clue completists (?)
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE’S SHERLOCK HOLMES
The Asylum, progenitors of “mockbusters” like SNAKES ON A TRAIN and TRANSMORPHERS, offers up its take on Sir Doyle’s famous detective, hoping you’ll accidentally rent it instead of the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. smash. You could do worse though, as there is plenty of eye candy and decent enough acting.
DEATH ON DEMAND
How do you take a cast of attractive, frequently nude actors and make their sex scenes utterly repugnant? How do you turn the tongue-in-cheek subtleties of a self-conscious slasher script into a humorless embarrassment? How do you make gory, harrowing death scenes boring beyond belief? Apparently, you hire a reality show director, and let him ply his cynical trade, unhindered. To be avoided.
Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a retired mercenary drawn back into the game when the American daughter of an MMA contender is kidnapped by sex traffickers. Not as much martial arts as that synopsis might imply, but still plenty of satisfying action, and JCVD’s grown kids are certainly coming into their own as performers.
Though it’s a little found footagey, this bizarre effort transcends that gimmick in short order, becoming a trippy meditation on the power of art versus the comfort of mundane existence. Not for everyone but those who “get it” will love it.
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN
Drive-ins of the 60s and 70s seem to have been the targets of the films created by Charles B Pierce, who helmed this 1976 proto-slasher that is probably too deliberately paced for young whippersnappers. I know it was for me; though there are a handful of moments that stand with the best of the early slashers. A good sense of time and place (Texarkana, post-war 1940s) is the film’s greatest asset, making it well worth a watch.
Stay tuned for the next Quirky Queue! Coming soon!
MISCHIEF NIGHT- I’m usually up on all the latest horror releases, and had a good heads up on this decent slasher. However it turns out there are TWO films called MISCHIEF NIGHT that were released within a year of each other. I’d seen the trailer for the other one, which made for an unsettling experience based on unmet expectations. In this one, a blind teen gets the See No Evil treatment when ax-wielding masked men target her on the night before Halloween.
ALL HALLOWS EVE- Anthology flicks are the in thing right now, probably thanks to the V/H/S films, and TRICK R TREAT before them. This one makes up for its low budget and simple script with sheer gory audacity.
MAY- Angela Bettis is one of horror’s beloved beauties, thanks in large part to this bleak, funny and often sweet character study from Lucky McKee. Some script elements seem out of place at times, but this only adds the its unsettling overall feel.
SHADOW PEOPLE- Yet another film that shares its title. This is a 2008, no budget DTV offering with a cast of unknowns. I have to admit, I did not get past the first few minutes. I try not to be a budget snob, but the problem here is not the lack of funds, but apparently, a lack of talent. The “shadow people” phenomenon is one that interests me to no end, but I saw nothing here that could hold a suspension of disbelief for me.
THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN- Ryuhei Kitamura brings his manic visual style to one of Clive Barker’s most grisly short stories, expanding and realizing the story quite fittingly. A great balance of gore, atmosphere and suspense.
STAY ALIVE- We’ve all seen horror and sci-fi films that rely overly on CGI effects to the point you feel you’re being asked to make a great leap of imagination to accept their veracity. This underrated studio effort turns that problem around nicely by making the antagonist an entity which realizes its manifestation in the “real” world through a cursed videogame. Okay, so the teens are a bit stereotypical–but teens sort of are, so….
THIS IS BLACK METAL- After the fascinating UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US, I’ve been on the search for more great docs about black metal, but unfortunately this is not one. Mostly just interviews with bands and fans interspersed with some live performance footage but not presented in any sort of groundbreaking or even entertaining manner. It’s the usual questions about touring that receive the same general answers. Come to think of it, most of these bands don’t really qualify as black metal, so there’s that.
FUN SIZE- One of my internet haters recently referred to me as a “manchild,” and when I found myself smiling at this cookie cutter Nickelodeon vehicle for one of its TV stars, I realized it was a hard point to argue. It’s a good one for the fam, the only racy moments presented as the common rites of passage that they are. Also, Supernatural fans will be glad to see The Prophet Kevin himself, Osric Chau, in a fun supporting role.
THE PROPHECY- This 90s anomaly, starring Virginia Madsen, Elias Koteas, and Chris Walken at his most eccentric as the pissed-off angel Gabriel, held up pretty well when I re-visited it recently, and apparently scored well enough at the box office to spawn three sequels, which I have yet to see. Watch this space.
DON’T LOOK IN THE CELLAR- The keywords “abandoned asylum” drew me in, even as the one star rating shouted its warning. The luxury of streaming affords us the ability to simply move on to something else if the first few minutes of a film don’t at least try to meet our expectations, such as when two girls dressed like slutty nurses can walk into an asylum and simply enter padded (with crumpled paper, BTW) rooms at will. I don’t think I need to elaborate.
RITUAL- Not to be confused with the more recent film by the same name (apparently a common theme lately) this 2002 effort boasts the Tales From The Crypt umbrella, though it offers no appearance by the Crypt Keeper, nor is it based on any of that beloved comic’s stories. Despite some gore and nudity it feels kind of like a Lifetime version of Wes Craven’s The Serpent and The Rainbow.
BARRIO TALES- Another low budget anthology offering twisty tales of terror as told by a wisecracking Mexican chap to a pair of entitled white boys. All the gringos get what they deserve and if you accept the small scope of the production you’ll have a good time.
SCARY OR DIE- Still another anthology of short horror tales, wrapped by a nowhere segment featuring an unseen ghoul clicking around on the titular website. If you think the trope of evil clowns has been overdone, you might be pleasantly surprised by the central tale. The story of a Korean businessman attempting to be a good samaritan to a damsel in distress does its job as well, but the others seem mostly like filler to make this feature length.
It’s no secret I’m a fan of the legendary Bruce Lee, the famous martial arts star who died at the age of 32, just as his film career was taking off. Lee completed just four films as lead actor before his death. My favorite is Return of The Dragon.
I discovered Bruce Lee as a boy. At that time, grindhouse theatres were still a thing, and it wasn’t uncommon for older films to accompany a new release as a second feature. Such was the case with Return of The Dragon. I’m not sure what the main feature was, but I will never forget the experience of seeing Return for the first time.
My father was on a deadline so he recruited one of his college students to take my brother Egan and me to the enormous, aging Plaza theatre in downtown Asheville. The lively crowd was comprised primarily of young black men who had no issue with voicing their enthusiasm for our hero’s triumphs.
Years later, I acquired a VHS copy of Return from a video store closeout sale. It was an excellent SP copy that came with a hard clamshell case, the cover of which was the original release poster, bearing the great tagline “Man, can we use him now!”
Return of The Dragon bears that title only in U.S. territories, where it debuted a year after Lee’s breakout Hollywood hit Enter The Dragon. The “Return” in the title was probably meant to give the impression that it is a direct sequel to Warner Brothers’ Enter, though it was in fact produced by Golden Harvest and Lee’s own Concord Films a year before Enter, and is a wildly different film in almost every respect. The more apt British title Way of The Dragon hints at the subtext that Lee, serving for the only time as writer and director, attempted to weave into the film.
From a critic’s standpoint, it’s not exactly a mindblowing artistic achievement. The story: Lee’s character Tang Lung travels to Rome to help his cousins fend off a small time mob boss with designs on their restaurant property.
That’s about it; a far cry from the international scope and James Bond feel of Enter. The camera work is something less than subtle, even a little clumsy at times. Plot points tend to repeat. The English dubbing is ridiculous. But I’m not a critic. I’m a geek. And what I want from my kung fu films is good characters fighting good fights, both morally and technically.
Return has been on Netflix streaming for a while and I finally got around to revisiting it, seeing as how the VCR half of my DVD/VCR combo has taken to angrily chewing to bits anything that disturbs its years-long hibernation. I can’t stand the thought of my treasured heavy-ass VHS copy being digested and pushed through the bowels of that hungry, obsolete beast. Plus, the streaming version is in glorious widescreen!
That’s not all, as I learned. As I saw it in theatres and on VHS, Return of The Dragon runs a few minutes shorter than the version Netflix has acquired. Somewhere along the distribution route, someone decided some cuts were needed–but this version is fully intact. Thus, I was delighted to see footage in this lifelong favorite that I had never seen before! Perhaps this is the British “Way” cut, but the title card says otherwise.
Do the cuts change the story? Well, let’s say that seeing them added back in adds to the story, but will probably not mean anything to the average, non-obsessed viewer.
It opens with Tang Lung standing in a Rome airport, an Italian woman staring at him like he’s an odd creature. His stomach is growling, you see, and he doesn’t speak Italian, so he can’t ask about restaurants. Eventually, though, he finds one, and this is where the first cut fits. He sits down to order, only to find the menu incomprehensible. So he points at several random words, expecting the smaller portions common to Asia. Instead, he receives a massive tray loaded with dishes, which he now feels obligated to finish.
Not exactly a riveting flashback loaded with fascinating back story, but it illustrates that Tang Lung is not the usual kung fu bad ass, but rather a simple fish out of water. This adds a great deal of contrast that makes his later fistic exploits seems all the more violent and explosive–and tells us not to judge this book by its cover.
Even more telling is a later scene where Tang’s female cousin, played by Nora Miao, encourages him to be more receptive to the friendly overtures of Italian locals. Shortly, Tang is approached by a prostitute, and innocently accompanies her to her flat. Left in the bedroom alone, Tang finds a full length mirror and checks his techniques; first a blistering backfist, then a series of kicks so fast, it is impossible to tell whether he is throwing a sidekick or a lead leg snap roundhouse.
His new friend reappears–topless. Tang is so shocked he beats a hasty retreat. Contextually, with this scene missing, it’s easy to assume they’d had sex, undermining the notion of Tang Lung as an innocent naif.
Not surprisingly, it’s the fight scenes for which Return/Way is most remembered, but not just because Lee is a spectacular martial artist. Lee’s training and fighting method, dubbed Jeet Kune Do, was based around the philosophy he espoused in his books and lessons, which is freedom of individual expression over adherence to a set system. This applies to physical training obviously, but also to just about everything else.
The third act finds the mobsters sending out for a trio of fighters to dispense with Tang Lung and his cousins through sheer physical intimidation. These fighters include Korean Tae Kwon Do master Whang In Sik, 70s karate tournament stalwart Robert Wall and of course Chuck Norris, who at that time was a semi contact world champion and frequent training partner to Lee.
Lee puts Whang In Sik and Wall on the road to defeat, allowing his cousins to finish the job while he is lured to no less than the Roman Coliseum for the showdown with Norris’ Colt character. What we get next is pure martial genius.
Lee, who choreographed the fights in addition to his many other duties, eschewed traditional chopsocky multiple combination exchanges for a more intimate, stop-and-start style of fight that allows the characters and the audience to occasionally catch their breath and register what they had just experienced. But cooler still, and consider this a spoiler alert, Lee’s character, finding himself losing to his stronger, pastier opponent, does something truly inspired.
Rising from his strong low stances, he begins to move about like Muhammad Ali, light on his feet, constantly moving in circles and side to side, frustrating Colt by hopping in to strike then fading away. By the time the American karate champ realizes that the smaller man’s new tactic has overcome his power, he is seriously injured, his shattered arm trembling, his supporting leg useless.
And this is when Lee makes perfect use of an opportunity to create layers of psychology and subtlety rarely seen in action films. An unspoken communication takes place, as Colt struggles to rise, the determination on his face painted with pain. Lung stops his rhythmic footwork, something like shock on his face.
In what is the single most sublime moment of Chuck Norris’ acting career, his Colt character gives Tang Lung a slight smile. Lee/Lung shakes his head -not theatrically, just a tiny movement with a clear understanding of what he is being asked to do.
Colt attacks, essentially just falling into Tang Lung’s neck crank and firing a couple of weak punches to the body, knowing he will now die at the hands of a great warrior. Tang Lung snaps his neck and eases him to the ground, his bloody face now very sad.
Tang Lung fetches Colt’s gi jacket and black belt and drapes them across the American’s body, kneeling with him for a moment of reverence.
In that fight scene was drama, suspense, supreme action, and the ultimate wordless expression of Lee’s philosophy; absorb what is useful. The individual is more important than the style. All men are brothers.
LATITUDE ZERO: Japanese sci-fi producers Toho augmented their cast staples Akira Takarada and Akihiko Hirata with some familiar Hollywood faces (Joseph Cotten, Richard Jaeckel and 60s era Joker Cesar Romero) for a Jules Verne’esque foray into battling subs, hidden utopian societies, and mutant monsters. I liked it.
THE LAST KUNG FU MONK: Star Li Ping Zhang is a former Shaolin monk turned actor and filmmaker who put together this case of missed opportunities, about a monk who comes to take care of his nephew when the boy’s parents die. Very little running time is spent on this storyline, with the narrative instead focusing on cliche’d disputes with local thugs. Acting is at about the level of a faith-based film, but Zhang’s kung fu is strong and impressive.
OUT OF THE BLUE: This 2002 documentary about the UFO phenomenon presents the topic in an even handed and entertaining manner, but adds little to the discourse, if you’ve been following it for a while.
BLOODSPORT 4: THE DARK KUMITE apparently has nothing to do with the last two Bloodsport sequels, which had nothing to do with the first. Daniel Bernhardt is stuck in a film which is so poorly made it can’t be incompetence–thus leaving utter contempt for the audience on the part of its makers. Re-watch the original instead.
FRANKENSTIEN’S ARMY: The found footage sub genre has reached a saturation point, and with any luck, is on its way out. However, this entry transcends the genre on so many levels it stands with more the traditional narrative structure. For one thing, it’s not shot on video, but rather, being set during the end of WW2, on film. Gory, weird, and genuinely scary.
EVENT HORIZON: One of my faves from the 90s found its way back onto my screen one night when I was feeling nostalgic. I can’t say it held up exceptionally well, but I’m willing to bet a first time viewer would be satisfied.
TACTICAL FORCE: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin leads a cast that includes Michael Jai White and former MMA contender Keith Jardine in a fairly standard action yarn in which Austin’s police special ops team locks horns with Russian and Italian mobsters looking for a super secrety special briefcase. No big surprises but I can’t say it wasn’t entertaining.
NOMADS: Bond-to-be Pierce Brosnan lent his talent to this thriller, about an anthropologist studying a malevolent force that takes the form of stereotypical Hollywood eighties punkers, before his star rose. Stylish but dated. Listen for guitar strains from a pre-insane Ted Nugent.
IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT: Hong Kong producers continue to churn out highly embellished Ip Man bio-pics. If you didn’t know, Master Ip was the kung fu instructor of Bruce Lee. This one, about the master’s later years, is not as strong as the earlier, Donnie Yen starring entries, but still worth a look.
BRANDED: Posits that advertisers have discovered an insidious method of creating invisible parasites that make us addicted to their products, but our hapless hero, formerly an ad man himself, can now see these entities. Sounds better than it actually is, but still worth a look.
SECRETS OF THE VIKING SWORD: Relics of a type of sword called “Ulfbehrt” once used by Norse conquerors have been discovered that are of a mysteriously higher quality than other weapons of the era. Modern swordsmiths attempt to recreate the sword using then-available technology in this fascinating doc.
WISHMASTER(S): I committed myself to binge watching the entire series (four films) in this late comer to the horror villain franchise sub genre and was entertained well enough. Two different actors portray the titular djinn and with wildly different acting techniques, but it would be reasonable to argue they were different beings of the same race. At any rate, the films are not without their charms, especially when the djinn spends several minutes of convoluted conversation with his victims, tricking them into wishing for their own demise, which is usually some sort of gory visual pun.
CROCZILLA: Chinese filmmakers take on the nature run amuck/giant reptile subgenre found so often on SyFy but manage to do it with a sense of humor and heart that is missing from those cookie cutter Lake Placid spin offs and sequels and imitators and reboots, or whatever. Great takes on familiar characters and a relatively multi-dimensional main monster elevate this one into the “recommended” pile.
MONSTER: Not to be confused with Gareth Edwards’ superior “Monsters”, this is an Asylum produced “mockbuster” that hopes to get a piece of that “Cloverfield” money but without the creativity or production quality. Found footage format of course, and one of the lesser attempts in even that low-ball sub-category.
MANIAC: Elijah Wood takes over the role once filled by Joe Spinnell in this disturbing, beautifully shot remake of the eighties splatter clas-sick. Pretty faithful to the original, including a moody eighties style synth score.
THE WOMAN: Adapted from the novel of the same name, this interpretation likely skips a lot of exposition, as many many questions go un-answered. Still packs a powerful punch though, with a good mix of gore and suspense that serves well the story of an uncompromising indictment of human nature.
THE ASSAILANT: Brazilian made action drama highlighting the acrobatic martial art of capoeira, which really hasn’t had its day in the sun yet, as a cinematic martial art. The locations are beautiful, as is the central love story, or what there is of it. Mostly a typical but well-handled oppressed hero tale, with satisfying action presented in an almost hallucinogenic style.
MORE from PCG’s QUIRKY QUEUE
HELL HOUSE is a documentary chronicling the efforts of a Texas church to put on a Christian-themed haunted attraction designed to bring its visitors to the arms of Jesus.
I find that cliche’d qualifying statement necessary because, A, I tend to be vocal in my criticisms of certain Christian groups, and, B, these criticisms, coupled with my love of dark and subversive art forms, might easily create the impression that I’m anti-Christian.
My Christian friends are generally patient and tolerant with me, more often than not exemplifying the teachings of their namesake. I applaud and appreciate most of their beliefs, even if I don’t necessarily share them.
I recently watched two similarly themed documentaries more or less back-to-back, allowing me a good opportunity to compare and contrast their content.
The first, THE AMERICAN SCREAM, takes us to a neat middle class Massachusetts town, where a trio of home owners, including Victor Barriteau and family, devote their properties, as well as a large portion of their energies and finances, toward creating spectacular home/yard haunts.
Both are presented without external narration, more or less allowing the participants to tell their own stories via a combination of interviews and shadowing, as the respective haunts are built essentially from the ground up.
Being a self-professed Halloween enthusiast, who sometimes marvels at the intensity of my own infatuation, I didn’t like seeing Barriteau’s daughter and wife searching for diplomatic ways to relate their own experiences trying to live in the shadow of their patriarch’s obsession. Even less did I like seeing very young children being exposed to Hell House’s bludgeoning presentation of what they’ve more or less arbitrarily decided are the world’s ills.
I can still remember a time when churches put on a “regular” haunted house, where “secular” ghosts and ghouls jumped out at you, and dudes with neutered chainsaws chased you to the parking lot, or at least until they got winded. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but those particular churches at least, seemed more interested in bringing together the community and sprinkling in a little fun between Sundays, whereas these days, the urging of parishioners to vote anti-gay or bemoan their wide-spread imaginary persecution seems higher on the agenda.
Hell House concerns itself with an annual event of the same name; an elaborate, if not particularly imaginative, spookhouse walkthrough consisting of a series of rooms in which scenarios depicting the consequences of various sins such as homosexuality, abortion, drugs, going to raves, etcetera are presented. My bias is already showing, I suppose.
They spend a little time with a good cross section of its cast, from proudly virginal teens, to a hulking-but-gentle family man in the position of raising a family on his own in the wake of a bitter divorce. It’s on this individual level that a viewer might find some angle with which to relate. We are given a glimpse of the auditions, set building, scene-writing, scenario brainstorming (during which the use of fear as a soul-saving tool is heavily emphasized,) proselytizing, and ultimately the event itself.
Apparently, this particular Hell House is the original; the model for thousands of similar “Bible-based” haunted houses staged throughout the country every fall in response to the more mainstream haunted attractions that have become an industry of their own, or a faith-based alternative to the demonic influences presented by your local neighborhood haunt in The American Scream.
If I may conjecture based my own, admittedly limited research, and some of the banter in ‘House’, it seems that at some point around two decades ago, a faction of charlatans popped up claiming to have had harrowing experiences with “The O-cult,” and “Sat’nists,” that included child (and adult) sacrifice, orgies with demons, a shadow government of devil worshipers, a gay agenda to turn everybody else gay, legitimization of pedophilia (now there’s an irony), the blasphemous movement to treat women as people, ad nauseum.
Halloween was at the top of the list among the many “gateways” leading to devlitry, and ultimately, hell itself. With the introduction of this line of “reason,” churches gave up the traditional haunted house business–until, of course, the advent of Hell House, and the chance to exercise the age-old tradition of taking something deemed “secular” and re-inventing it as a Christian tradition, presumably to keep the youth interested, much like “MegaLife” T-shirts, or the Westboro Church singing their own version of Ozzy’s Crazy Train, or indeed–Halloween itself.
A few of the other obvious differences in the two documentaries:
Hell House charges its patrons Seven dollars a head (absolutely NO REFUNDS), while the home haunts of The American Scream are free of charge.
To the builders and set dressers of House, a Star of David is interchangeable with a so-called “Satanic” pentagram-as long as it’s red.
The behind-the-scenes crew of the Hell House sit in a large control room complete with video monitors of each sin scenario, where they issue commands to the overseers, much like God himself communicating to his angels. This directing team, including the pastor, are not above angrily barking orders at their ‘lieutenants.’
Meanwhile in Massachusetts, our trio of intrepid amateur haunters and their families are out among the masses, essaying good-natured “boos” and sharing smiles and fellowship, if I may use that word, with their community.
And in the end, Barriteau’s dedication seems to have paid off with poignant, karmic beauty that makes me proud of and for him. Meanwhile, the architects of Hell House seem likely to remain, ironically, in the hell of staging their own lurid live action torture porn show, for autumns eternal.
Anyone who knows me will attest that, among my many and varied interests, Godzilla and other Japanese sci-fi icons (sci-ficons? Did I just invent a geek-culture term, ala Forry Ackerman?) occupy a lofty space. I’ve been a fan of the The Big G, as we “Otaku” (nerds) affectionately call him, since I was around five, and that interest has never left. It was because of Godzilla, I would say, that I came to be obsessed with Asian culture/martial arts (a Godzilla/Green Hornet double feature introduced me to Bruce Lee), weird cinema (doesn’t get much weirder than Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster) cryptozoology, and hell, probably heavy metal, if one were to make the connection between that Blue Oyster Cult song and the musical genre that grew up around BOC, Sabbath, etc.
If you haven’t heard, Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers, with some help from Roy Lee, who has brokered deals leading to remakes of several Japanese properties, including The Ring, Dark Water, The Grudge, etcetera, have secured the rights to create a big budget Hollywood film featuring Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards of the indie hit Monsters, to star Bryan Cranston (you’ll always be Malcolm’s dad Hal to me, Bry), Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche and even Akira Takarada–star of the very first Godzilla film, way back in 1954.
TOURIST TRAP: Right before the slasher craze of the eighties, a double fistful of more surreal entries found their way to cinemas, including this gem. Chuck Connors of all people, shows up to make your skin crawl, in a story that does a good job of capturing that elusive “dream logic” feel that can make a film seem like a nightmare.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION: The action spectacle I’d read raves about found its way to my DVD player, and delivered as promised. Simple enough siege story with Iko Uwais from MERANTAU kicking asses from one and of a criminal-infested apartment building to the other. The intricate fight scenes will fill the bill for action junkies.
CREATURE OF DARKNESS: Few films have actually ever filled me with rage because of nothing more than the incompetence and utter lack of care that went into making them. This POS is on that short list. I will award kudos to the designers of the titular creature–but other than that, I hereby forbid anyone in my family or circle of friends from ever again mentioning this egregious mess.
DRAGON (WU-XIA): It’s a shame this recent Chinese release has such a generic title; it’s sure to get lost in the shuffle of martial arts films–and it deserves much better. The always excellent Donnie Yen in another dynamic role (also working as fight choreographer, though there are only a handful of fights) opposite Takeshi Kaneshiro in a what can only be described as a historical action mystery akin to a Chinese period version of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. Excellent on all levels.
A FORCE OF ONE: One of Chuck Norris’ earlier vehicles. So hopelessly dated there’s no way to recommend it, especially if you’re a martial arts fan. The fight scenes here are Norris’ worst without exception (yes, that includes “Yellow Faced Tiger”) but that’s mostly owing to utterly clueless and careless camerawork. Interestingly, the “helicopter kick” that Jean Claude Van Damme claimed to have invented is performed here by Eric Laneuville, years before JCVD’s advent.
2 DAYS: Paul Rudd plays an actor who drafts a film crew to document the twenty four hours leading up to his planned suicide. Less depressing and edgy than it sounds, this low budget comedy, lensed on 16mm, is worth a look.
THE ABC’s OF DEATH: An anthology film with each entry based on a letter from the alphabet is a mediocre idea at best. After about C or D, the law of diminishing returns kicked in, with each entry becoming worse. Part of the problem is that most of the stories are more comedy than horror, and not very funny at that. A shame, because there are some true talents credited here. Full disclosure: I stopped watching after about H or I, when a torture scenario that involved child rape, among other things, suddenly drained away the last scrap of enjoyment. I get being edgy, but don’t go cheap, boys and girls.
UNDERTAKER: THE STREAK. I’ve long since given up on professional wrestling, but it’s nice to relive some of the highlights of my old favorites. Mark Callas, a.k.a. The Undertaker, is one of the most imposing and talented performers in the business, and his morbid gimmick strikes a chord with a horror fanatic like me. Really only of interest to like-minded folks.
SPLICED: After a long string of disappointing horror viewings, I somehow managed upon this enjoyable 2002 ode to teen slashers. Drew Lachey, who I believe was in a boy band or perhaps an MTV “program,” leads a cast of good-looking high schoolers in the tale of a horror movie icon seemingly come to life. It’s like a tribute to Wes Craven with elements of both SCREAM and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET coming into play, and handled fairly well at that. (Editor’s Note: Drew Lachey is brother to Nick Lachey, who was indeed in a boy band.)
11-11-11: Dripping with creepy atmosphere and a sense of dread, as well as some fine performances and nice direction by SAW vet Darren Lynn Bousman. So why did it seem to lie so flat to me? Maybe it’s the now-cliched twist ending.
Stay tuned for future installments from PCG’s Quirky Queue!