Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fantasmo Prom: Class of '08



For those of you who were unable to make our big Fantasmo Prom Night earlier this month, here's a small taste of what you missed. A great time was had by all, and mine and Rob's thanks go out to everyone who came dressed to the nines despite the looming threat of a tropical storm. Special thanks go to guest couple Larry Floyd (yes the elder Floyd of my partner in crime) and Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. (who as evidenced above submitted to the prom photo under duress). While they were never in serious contention for King/Queen of the prom, their efforts were nonetheless appreciated!

Monday, September 15, 2008

MONSTER FEST V!!!




Hard to believe I know, but another year has passed and your Team Fantasmo’s favorite month is once again upon us. Yes it’s time again for another edition of our 24-hour tribute to classic horror films and literature, the one and only MONSTER FEST! For those of you Superfans new to Fantasmo, MONSTER FEST is a day/night long convention which features panels, special guests, costume contests, film screenings, etc. This is our fifth(!) year at this, so we’ve honed the program into a well-oiled fright machine guaranteed to satisfy your appetite for all things horror in the ghoultastic month of October. This fifth outing is packed with more guests and goings on than ever before, so you dare not miss it! The date of the program is Saturday, October 4th, 9:00 a.m., here at Chesapeake Central Library (298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA, 23322) as always. While there may be some last minute surprise additions, the more or less final schedule of events is as follows:

9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.: Classic Horror Film Trailer Park

9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.: Monster Cartoons for Kids - Presented by: BJ Babb

10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.: Partners in Crime: The Coupling of Horror Art & Fiction by Couples in the Biz – Presented by: Elizabeth Massie/Cortney Skinner & Matt/Deena Warner

10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.: Monster Activities for Kids

11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.: Lost Skeletons & Screaming Foreheads: An Hour with Artist/Creature Creator Cortney Skinner

11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.: Dr. Madblood Presents Live Classic Episode!

12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.: Adventures in Indie Horror Filmmaking – Presented by: Eric Miller (Taste the Blood of Frankenstein) & Sean Kotz (Virginia Creepers)

12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.: Female Voices in Horror Literature – Presented by: Pamela Kinney & Elizabeth Blue

1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.: Writing Your First Horror Novel

1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.: Frankenstein in Film - Presented by: Sean Kotz & Eric Miller

2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.: Ghost Hunting 101

2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.: Mondo Eurocult: Introducing the Wild World of European Horror Cinema

3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.: Friday the 13th Retrospective – Presented by: Jim Blanton (yes!), Lee Hansen, and Chris Johnson

5:00 p.m. Library Closes

8:00 p.m. – Dawn: Fantasmo All-Night Horrorthon!

Film Schedule:

8:00 p.m. – Lost Skeleton of Cadavra – Rated PG - Hosted by: Cortney Skinner

Ghost of Frankenstein – Not Rated

The Mummy (1959) – Not Rated

Halloween 2 – Rated R

Nightbreed – Rated R

Diary of the Dead – Rated R

A couple of important points of which to make note. The library closes at 5:00 p.m., at which time your Team Fantasmo will take a short break to grab dinner. We will then return shortly before 8:00 p.m. to begin the Horrorthon. At 10:00 p.m. we will lock the library doors for the evening . . . you may leave, but you can’t return (cue diabolical laughter). So be sure to be inside before 10:00 p.m. (you definitely don’t want to miss Halloween 2 on the big screen)!

In addition to all of the above we will have a number of special guests and authors on hand throughout the day, as well as local clubs and collectible dealers. We’re also very pleased to have our friends at Regal Cinemas back this year, and even more pleased that they’ll be bringing a VERY SPECIAL display with them (which will not be revealed at this time . . . you have to be there to see it : )

So there you have it Superfans, your MONSTER FEST 5 itinerary! A full day (and night) of frightening fun! Oh yes, as always be sure to come in costume and take part in the BIG costume contest. Winners will be announced at 3:30 p.m. See you there guys and ghouls!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dolph Lundgren Is Bridge of Dragons!

You’ve probably noticed that there have been fewer posts here on the blog over the past few weeks, which is a result of the heavy duty planning Rob and I are in the midst of for Monster Fest. I’m happy to say that the schedule is just about final, and it’s looking to be our best year yet. Details will be hitting the blog here in the next week, so be sure to keep checking in to learn about all the cool stuff taking place on the big day, Saturday, October 4 (mark those calendars). In keeping with the horror theme, I’ll be doing a series of posts on Australian horror cinema over the next couple of weeks. Before diving into that though, I simply have to write about the latest experience in my journey through the filmography of Dolph Lundgren . . . Bridge of Dragons!

I haven’t been plowing through the films of Dolph at the same pace as I did with Seagal, and I haven’t been doing much in the way of preparation prior to the viewings (e.g. researching background, reading reviews, etc.). For the most part I’m watching these at a leisurely pace and completely cold. Even so, with Bridge of Dragons I had picked up a little buzz just in perusing the sites I usually frequent about cult cinema, and that buzz was mostly positive. As a result, I had built this one up a little in my mind as something I should be looking forward to as another instant Dolph classic (e.g. Blackjack). Engaging in this sort of behavior is always a bit dicey in the world of DTV (direct-to-video) filmdom, as the best one can usually hope for is sheer entertainment (achieving classic status in DTV is a rare feat). Not that there’s anything wrong with that. These DTV films don’t harbor much in the way of pretentions, and as far as I’m concerned that’s just fine. What I usually look for and have come to appreciate is a) consistent action, and b) on a good day a plot that veers into the territory of the bizarre/insane. Happily Bridge of Dragons fulfills these criteria for the most part. It’s hampered a bit by budgetary constraints (as most DTV films are), but it managed to come close to living up to the goodwill buildup I had afforded it.

The plot of this 1999 Lundgren opus actually is a bit of a throwback to post-apocalyptic/fantasy 80’s cinema. The film is set in an unspecified future in which a totalitarian ruler named Ruechang (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is on the verge of ascending to the unnamed kingdom’s throne. All he has to do is marry the deceased king’s daughter Princess Halo, which proves challenging since she wants nothing to do with the brutal dictator (especially after finding out he assassinated her father). When the princess flees to the wastelands outside the kingdom on the day of the big wedding, Ruechang sends his most trusted soldier Warchyld (Lundgren) to retrieve her. During the course of the mission Warchyld will come to question his allegiance to the diabolical Ruechang, and might just fall for the beautiful princess. A pretty typical fairy tale plot, but as always it’s the execution that makes the film something special.

Where to start with this? Well, right off the bat Bridge of Dragons made a move that can be a little risky for films of this type. It starts with a title card reminiscent of a storybook tale stating that the film is set in another time, and another place. I’m actually paraphrasing there using the opening statement from the 1984 film Streets of Fire, but the message is the same. Now I confess I absolutely love Streets of Fire. It was a huge bomb in the summer of ’84, and did a good job of stalling Walter Hill’s directorial career after his success with The Warriors and 48 Hours. Nevertheless the film is an interesting hybrid of 80’s neon post-apocalyptic futurism and 50’s rockabilly on steroids. A bizarre combination to be sure, but Hill makes it work and created something very unique.

Bridge of Dragons actually goes for something similar by attempting to meld 80’s era action sensibilities (e.g. Commando) with B-level medieval pageantry (e.g. Hawk the Slayer), combined with just a dash of Van Damme’s Street Fighter. Director Isaac Florentine (The Shepherd: Border Patrol) isn’t nearly as successful as Hill was in merging opposing settings, but it makes for a pretty outrageous canvas. You get costume designs that recall Nazi-era Germany, the Rambo films, and Ladyhawke, and dialogue that is a mix of Old English and Mortal Kombat. Instead of achieving the cool vibe of Streets of Fire, Bridge of Dragons comes closer to the feel of Predator 2 (i.e. look at me, I’m a movie set in the “future” and you can tell because I’m wearing a crazy shirt and men’s hats are back in fashion). This could be a deficit from a certain point of view, but for me it’s spot on in fulfilling my second requirement of DTV films that they veer into the bizarre.

If being bizarre alone was enough to qualify a DTV film as great entertainment, then Steven Seagal’s Submerged would be an undisputed masterpiece. Unfortunately for that film and many other DTV entries, you’ve really gotta have some interesting action on screen as well. It’s fine and good to make people scratch their heads and debate meaning by employing a surrealistic method of storytelling (e.g. David Lynch), but the type of bizarre you come across in DTV is usually accidental rather than a carefully considered artistic choice. By throwing the action in there as well, filmmakers keep viewers engaged with eye candy and visceral thrills, while burning an impression into the mind with the disjointed themes and plot elements. You simply have to have both conditions in place to produce a solid DTV product. That’s why films like Lost Boys: The Tribe are successful even when they don’t do justice to their legacy. They manage to take relatively limited resources and craft an entertaining 90-minute thrill ride (only the vehicle is more Volkswagen GTI than Porsche 911).

Bridge of Dragons may not have any legacy to live up to (except maybe previous Lundgren films), but it does manage to fulfill the criteria of plentiful action . . . with a vengeance! Director Florentine seems on a mission to take as few breaks as possible, and does so only to establish the most minimal of plot details (e.g. who is the bad guy/good guy). The pacing is positively breathless. Of course just because there’s lots of action doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well done or enjoyable to watch. A movie can be overflowing with endless, yet poorly staged action sequences. Thankfully Bridge of Dragons is pretty solid in this regard. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the work is competent and there are some standout moments. Particularly satisfying is the final duel between Warchyld and Ruechang, which has some really over the top blows and staging. It even has the obligatory damsel in distress setup in which the princess is pinned underneath an overturned jeep as flames make their way closer to her from a fuel tanker that is conveniently close by. Actually it all reminded me a little bit of the last Lundgren film I reviewed (Diamond Dogs). In that one the damsel in peril was mortally wounded because Dolph lazily chose not to intervene (despite the fact she had just saved his life). Warchyld is more in the traditional hero mode, so he’s a little more concerned about the welfare of others (which is fitting in this context).

As an interesting piece of trivia, this is not the first time Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa has played Dolph’s nemesis. Some of you may recall he was the main baddie in the superior Lundgren film Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991). You may also recall my mentioning in an earlier review that a memory of Showdown that stuck out for me was the final street duel between Tagawa and Lundgren. Tagawa shoots Lundgren in the chest point blank, to which Lundgren responds with an annoyed grunt. The two then proceed to have an epic sword battle. It always struck me as patently ridiculous that Lundgren could take a bullet to the pectoral without missing a beat. I mean come on. That being said, it was so jaw-dropping that I hold it up as one of the great moments in B-action cinema.

The reason I bring all this up, besides the Tagawa connection, is that Bridge of Dragons features a similarly outrageous moment. In an early scene where Dolph is rescuing Princess Halo from some jungle bandits, he takes a grievous bullet wound to the abdomen . . . and again he shrugs it off. Granted he does receive some token medical attention in the scene that follows, but he continues to go on as if nothing has happened. Look I’m no doctor, and I’m open to the concept of keeping a stiff upper lip through physical pain, but this is a real stretch. To draw a cinematic parallel, imagine if Tim Roth had simply been told by Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs to “walk it off” in response to his wound sustained during the jewel heist getaway. That’s what we’re talking about here. Dolph is running laps, doing roundhouse kicks, and blowing up helicopters with a similar injury. What is it about the pairing of Lundgren and Tagawa that invites exaggeration with regard to the severity of bullet wounds? It’s just too over the top to dismiss as a coincidence!

Despite a seeming lack of even rudimentary knowledge of the effects of physical trauma, the performances in Bridge of Dragons are pretty decent. Dolph is well-suited to the role of the knightly hero, and Tagawa is always dependable in villainous roles. One thing that I found particularly cool was Dolph’s introduction early in the film, in which he takes on a band of rebel soldiers. The movie is coy about revealing Dolph’s face, hiding him behind binoculars, thusly making you wait for the “it’s on now” moment when he lowers them and unleashes a hail of bullets at the people who will be his allies by the end of the film. It’s the kind of intro usually afforded to well-known characters/actors (e.g. James Bond), not second-tier action heroes. I liked it because in hiding Dolph’s face for a big reveal, the filmmakers are making the assumption that the audience will be totally fired up when they realize (surprise!) international action star Dolph Lundgren is in the film. I don’t know, I guess I’m a little conflicted on this point. Part of me does think this is an awesome tactic because there’s such bravado on display in boldly asserting the inherent coolness of Dolph’s presence in the film, but it will likely puzzle non-Lundgren devotees. In the final analysis though I tend to go with the adage that luck favors the bold, and I’d say that holds true here. Of course as we learned in Under Siege 2 chance favors the prepared mind, so make of all this what you will.

Ultimately I would recommend you give a look to Bridge of Dragons. It’s a fun throwback to 80’s action cinema that you’ll have a lot of fun with. And if you’re a fan of Dolph it’s a no-brainer that this is required viewing. The only thing I’m left puzzled about is the title. There are no bridges in the film, nor are there dragons, so there’s obviously a metaphor at work. I would have to guess that Dolph and Tagawa are the dragons, although the feisty princess (who really is responsible for stirring the pot) could qualify for the title (especially given that she drives a wedge between two guys who are essentially good buddies at the beginning of the film). The bridge is a little more perplexing. It makes me wonder if this is one of those Seagalian editing room plot reversals. I could just imagine the movie originally being about a massive bridge or something, and then all references being excised at the 11th hour due to some creative differences. As it stands, the title’s lack of reference to actual physical objects/creatures in film makes Bridge of Dragons sound somehow more “important” or artsy . . . which is a nice consideration as it makes it appropriate for a double-feature with either Masters of the Universe or Howard’s End. Very shrewd indeed.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Movie Review: Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987)

Hey Superfans!

Every once in a while a Fantasmo comes along, seemingly out of the blue, that is one of those “special” sorts of nights. Well, I’ve got a feeling this Friday is going to be one of those. Rob and I were digging deep to find some theme to be our prelude to Monster Fest, and so focused were we on that event that ideas were not forthcoming. I don’t remember which one of us pulled Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II out of the ether, but once the words were uttered everything sort of fell into place. We’ve never done prom horror before, and it just lends itself to creating a zany atmosphere in the humble surroundings of Theatre du Fantasmo. And the present back to school frenzy made it seem all the more perfect. This Friday you’ll get to relive those fond high school memories in the form of cheesy prom décor, sugary fruit punch, and yes even prom photos (plus a few surprises)! Oh yes, and two of the best prom horror films of all time, Prom Night II and Carrie (which incredibly was nominated for two Oscars . . . a Fantasmo first)! In honor of the film that served as our inspiration, I thought I’d do a quick review to give you an idea of what to expect from this 80’s horror gem.

To be perfectly honest, despite the fact that it was one of the early slashers and featured THE scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis I never really cared much for the original Prom Night. To me it was a little run of the mill in terms of the premise, and the execution somewhat boring. And outside of Forbidden Planet, Airplane!, and his delirious performance in Day of the Animals I’m not a big fan of Leslie Nielsen (sorry Naked Gun die hards). So when the sequel came out 7 years later in 1987 I wasn’t all that excited about it. The thing is it had a really cool poster, and I’m a sucker for cool posters! Now sometimes cool posters do not make for a great film (e.g. H. R. Giger’s poster for Future Kill . . . man what letdown), but in this case everything works out pretty nicely. I recently sat down to watch Prom Night II for the first time in 20 years (the last time was in my local mall cinema), and I was amazed at how well it has held up. It’s not a masterpiece of 80’s horror (e.g. The Funhouse), but it’s a really fun amalgam of several 80’s trends.

Something to realize before entering the world of Prom Night II is that it’s not a true sequel to the first film, rather it just adopts the name . . . sort of like Halloween III (minus the welcome presence of Tom Atkins and an evil Druid toymaker). The only thread tying the two films together is that they take place at presumably the same high school (sure would hate to be a student there). Again for me this is not really a problem as I thought the first one was pretty blah. This time around instead of a slasher formula we get something more in line with A Nightmare on Elm Street (which makes sense given that so many horror films post-1984 were influenced greatly by its dream logic). The film kicks off with a flashback sequence set in 1957 in which Prom Queen Mary Lou Maloney is accidentally set on fire by her jealous boyfriend Bill Nordham in the midst of her acceptance ceremony. After the grisly set piece is over we jump forward to 1987 at which time Nordham (Michael Ironside) is now the principal and the spirit of Mary Lou returns for revenge by possessing Prom Queen to be Vicki Carpenter. Through the course of the film Carpenter proceeds to dispatch her high school foes via some telekinetic carnage, culminating in the wildest prom this side of De Palma’s Carrie.

I’ll grant you that Prom Night II is just as derivative as its predecessor given that it borrows from Elm Street, Carrie, and even a dash of The Exorcist, but it is successful because the filmmakers have a blast with the concept. The film has great pacing (there’s never a dull moment) and it travels the familiar ground with energy. Truly just about every stock high school horror cliché is in play, but they are enjoyable due to the execution. From the fussy rival Prom Queen to the computer geek with a heart of gold, the characters are written to remind you of familiar archetypes, but in a way that allows you to still empathize with them. The young actors also do a fine job with the material, with standouts being Mary Lou (Lisa Schrage) and Wendy Lyon's Vicki, who goes from squeaky clean to gleefully diabolical without missing a beat. Also I must mention the always reliable (save for Highlander 2) Michael Ironside, who for once plays a good guy here and does so nicely. Kudos also to the casting folks who found a doppelganger for Ironside in his teenage flashback counterpart Steve Atkinson (if they had made a prequel to the original Scanners this guy would have been perfect).

There are also other areas in which Prom Night II acquits itself well. One important area it manages to excel in is that of effects. Sometimes low budgets can bring out amazingly creative work from effects teams, and that is certainly the case here. Prom Night II could have settled for straight gore effects like the first entry, but here we get evil rocking horses, Apple computers attacking their owners, and people sucked into chalkboards. And then there’s the big finale when Mary Lou literally sheds her new skin. You can tell it’s all fake, but it’s the good kind of fake where you can admire the ingenuity that went into accomplishing the effects with no money. In addition to the effects, I particularly enjoyed the soundtrack. I remember at the time of Prom Night II’s release that the publicity made a big deal about the music (I think they even listed titles on some versions of the poster), as this one features both 50’s classics and 80’s pop. Many times during the 80’s when this gimmick was employed the music turned out to be the best thing about the film, but fortunately for Prom Night II it works as an enhancement as it should. Consequently there’s a great nostalgia vibe for the 50’s generation, and now Generation X (i.e. me).

Prom Night II may not be an epic, but it is that rare example where the sequel outdoes its predecessor . . . it’s unfortunate that it doesn't receive much credit. Fun story, energetic performances, kitchen sink effects, and plentiful 80’s music – how could you go wrong? Our second feature Carrie may be the more cerebral film of our double-feature, but Prom Night II is definitely the little engine that could of prom horror. Give it a chance and we promise you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and if you’d like to come in full prom dress we strongly encourage it as your chances of being crowned the King/Queen of the Fantasmo Prom will be greatly increased! Of course when seeing how things worked out for Mary Lou, Vicky, and Carrie that may not be such a great thing : ) See you Friday at 8:00!