Wednesday, December 22, 2010

You'd Better Watch Out: Volume 2

A few years back I did a post in December about my favorite unconventional Christmas films. It contained a number of alternatives to gold standards like It's A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. It's a pretty good list that covers most of the obvious choices (e.g. Die Hard) and a few obscure cult favorites (e.g. Better Off Dead). I thought it might be interesting to revisit the subject, drill a little deeper, and see what else might be appropriate for continuing that list. So here are 10 more films set during the holiday season which you might want to seek out as a break from the mainstream classics:

1 - 12 Monkeys: This apocalyptic sci-fi film is a reworking of the French classic La Jetee by former Python Terry Gilliam. Bruce Willis travels into the past to stop a deadly virus from being unleashed on the world . . . at Christmas. Gilliam's wonderful visuals are in full effect here, and Brad Pitt turns in perhaps his best performance ever as an insane activist.

2 - Jack Frost (1998): This bizarre holiday film has Michael Keaton dying in an accident and being reincarnated as a snowman. Due to the inherent creepiness of the snowman effects, the movie ends up being more unsettling than heartwarming. Still it's got Michael Keaton and that alone warrants viewing.

3 - Jack Frost (1997): An intentionally creepy rendition of Jack Frost that has a serial killer mutated into snowman form by toxic chemicals. This one is pure cheese, so if that's your thing you can't go wrong here.

4 - Die Hard 2: Die Harder: I never will forget the day a friend of mine in high school told me they were making a sequel to Die Hard called Die Harder. I thought he was kidding, but in the summer of 1990 I found out he was telling the truth. Bruce Willis is back for another Christmas adventure, this time at an airport. Not as good as the first one, but features a great villain and an appearance by Franco "Django" Nero which is always welcome.

5 - Batman Returns: Okay two Bruce Willis and Michael Keaton movies in the unconventional countdown, that's just plain weird! Or maybe not, I can't decide. Either way the second Tim Burton Batman film, despite plenty of flaws, is still the best Batman movie (and Keaton the best big screen Batman). Batman has to deal not only with the rush of the holiday season, but also with a criminal alliance between Catwoman and The Penguin (who we learn is the son of Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens). Great stuff.

6 - Scrooged: You have to love Bill Murray, or not I can't decide. Either way this is a pretty cool dark comedy from the late 80's. The opening fake trailer for the equally fake movie The Night the Reindeer Died, starring Lee Majors, is worth the price of admission alone!

7 - The French Connection: Sure the classic car chase gets all the attention, but who can forget Gene Hackman chasing down a criminal in full Santa gear during the first few minutes. Nothing says holiday cheer quite like a William Friedkin film : )

8 - The Long Kiss Goodnight: If there's anything weirder than the fact that there are two Bruce Willis and Michael Keaton movies on the countdown, it's that there are two Renny Harlin films! Much like Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight is not the best movie in the world. It is however really nutso, and features a fun performance from Samuel L. Jackson. I remember it was released as a big holiday event type film and bombed hard (more or less sealing Harlin's fate for being an A-list director). It's worth seeing for the weird spectacle that it is, and certainly earns its stripes as an unconventional holiday film.

9 - The Proposition: Westerns aren't given the holiday treatment very often, much less Australian Westerns! Outback outlaw Guy Pearce races to prevent the Christmas day execution of his brother . . . by finding and killing his other brother. An all-star cast and great production values make this arguably the best film on the list!

10 - Trancers: B-movie legend Tim Thomerson plays Jack Deth, Trancer hunter, sent to the distant past of 1985 Los Angeles to track down the creator of the Trancers before he alters the course of the future. This is one of Charles Band's more loveable films (my personal favorite being the 3-D 80's movie Parasite), aided by the presence of Thomerson and a young Helen Hunt. It's been a while since I've seen Trancers (a ridiculous word that's inherently fun to say), but I remember there being a very memorable Santa attack sequence in the film. I also checked and apparently there have now been five Trancers films, including one where Deth goes back to medieval times. Good grief!

So there is round two of my unconventional Christmas film picks. So whether you spend it with Jimmy Stewart or Jack Deth, may all of you Superfans out there have a safe and happy holiday!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

One From the Vaults: The Asphyx (1973)

One truly fantastic thing the advent of DVD made possible was that waves of relatively obscure genre movies became readily available. That trend seems to be dying down a little, but there are plenty of titles I have still yet to watch. With this in mind I’ve decided to begin a regular feature where I highlight one of these rarities, and give you the lowdown on whether it’s worth seeking out. For this inaugural entry, I checked out the 1973 period film The Asphyx. Over the past few years I’ve come across a number of reviews claiming it to be an underrated masterpiece in the style of the best Hammer horror entries. Being a big Hammer fan that was enough to sell me on trying it out, as if I needed encouragement, and I finally got around to picking up the Hen’s Tooth DVD release. Well worth the effort I must say. In addition to having one of the most bizarre creatures to ever grace the silver screen, it is an impressively produced throwback to an earlier era where scares came from concept and mood rather than graphic effects. Given that this came out at a time where such films were out of fashion it’s somewhat of a miracle that this movie even exists.

In essence The Asphyx is your basic morality play set in Victorian England . . . with a soul-eating monster. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), a man of science, is a dabbler in the field of spectral photography. In other words he tries to prove the existence of the soul by catching it on film. One afternoon at a family gathering, he inadvertently captures the tragic moment of the death of his wife and son. When he later examines the photos they reveal a ghostly figure. This prompts him to take photos at the execution of a local criminal, and again the ghostly image turns up. After doing some research Hugo comes to believe he has discovered the Asphyx, a death spirit discussed in the pages of mythology. An Asphyx exists for each individual, coming to claim them at the moment of their death. Driven by his grief Hugo engages in a terrifying experiment, operating under the theorythat if he can capture a person’s Asphyx they will become immortal. Unfortunately the subject has to be on the verge of death, meaning Hugo will have to create those conditions (via guillotine, fire chamber, and electrocution) to prompt the arrival of The Asphyx!

I’ve seen my fair share of these “be careful what you wish for” style horror stories, but few have been as creepy as this one (take that Monkey’s Paw). The combination of Hugo’s crazy schemes, and the truly unsettling appearance of the titular creature make for an unforgettable experience. The only gripe I have is the transfer on the DVD, which is non-anamorphic and therefore doesn’t fit the entire television screen. Why Hen’s Tooth didn’t produce a 16X9 transfer is beyond me, but at least they got the 2:35:1 aspect ratio correct. Despite this reservation I would highly recommend grabbing this while it’s still in print, as it’s truly one of a kind (and until now almost impossible to see). On a related note Retrofantasma has just put out their winter/spring/summer schedule, and wouldn’t you know The Asphyx is playing on a double-bill with Witchfinder General in June! So if you can hold off your curiosity until then, and make the trek to North Carolina, you can witness a proper screening.

Speaking of Retrofantasma, they’ve got a great schedule for the New Year. The highlight in my opinion is their May show, at which they will be screening the last surviving 35mm prints of Jaws 2 and The Legacy! I’m always blown away when they are able to get these titles from Universal’s rare archives, and simultaneously horrified that there could only be one 35mm print of Jaws 2 in existence. A sad state of affairs indeed. In any event be sure to check out The Asphyx either on DVD or the big screen while you still have a chance!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fantasmo Episode 60: Team Fantasmo Vs. Hitchcock

Hey Superfans!

The New Year is almost upon us, and to kick things off with our milestone 60th(!) episode of Fantasmo we’ve decided to do something very special. As you know we are dedicated to bringing you the best in classic cult cinema every month, but this time around we’re raising the bar to another level. That’s right, we’re finally having a LONG overdue tribute to the great Alfred Hitchcock! Needless to say there is a plethora to choose from when looking at the Master’s oeuvre, so we’ve decided to go with one rarity and one blockbuster. Our first film is Rope in which two men plot a perfect murder, and then try and impress their old mentor (Jimmy Stewart) with their ingenuity. It’s an unusual film that eschews Hitchcock’s epic visuals, in favor of a minimalist approach. Our second classic, Rear Window, is one of the most celebrated films of all time. It features great performances from Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, and perhaps the best presented argument for minding one's own business ever committed to celluloid. Without any further ado here are your full Episode 60 details:

When: Friday, January 7th, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322


8:00 p.m.: Rope (1948)

9:45 p.m.: Rear Window (1954)

So there you have it, two incredible classics from the Master of Suspense! You dare not miss this rare opportunity to see them back on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! See you there for this historic episode!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Movie Review: Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991)

There are certain movie going experiences that we never forget. Perhaps it’s that formative movie you saw during your childhood, the first time you snuck into a movie above your appropriate age level, the movie you saw on your first date, etc. In this sense movies weave their way into one’s personal history, becoming a part of life’s narrative. This is particularly true when a movie produces a strong reaction among a set of viewers, such that it becomes a shared group experience. Then the viewing itself may live on through oral storytelling tradition, providing a tale to tell those who weren’t able to “live the experience” of seeing the film when the story was new. For example imagine being among the first in line to see Star Wars before it became a phenomenon. The crowd walking out of that initial screening shared a historic moment, and all those viewers now 30+ years on can say “we were there.” That’s a cool cinematic tale to be able to tell. However there is another side to this coin, a dark side if you will. This is for viewers who “were there” to share a trauma, the brave souls who plunged headlong into the cinematic unknown and discovered the unspeakable . . . a place called Zeist, a film called Highlander 2: The Quickening.

I will never forget the evening I saw Highlander 2: The Quickening. If ever a movie going experience qualified as trauma, it was definitely that one. It’s not just that it wasn’t very good, it’s that it failed to fulfill any of the expectations fans carried with them. The original film had come and gone in theaters quickly, likely due to its unusual and hard to market concept. Thanks to home video and word-of-mouth however, it found a new life and became a cult film in the truest sense. A rabid segment of fandom embraced its unique blend of fantasy and sci-fi, and became particularly fascinated with the mythology of the immortals. Over the course of several years it was mentioned in the same breath as other genre classics such as Star Wars and the like, becoming a benchmark film in its own right. Unlike Star Wars though, Highlander ended on a fairly conclusive note. There can be only one. If only that were true.

For the record I was as eager a Highlander fan as anyone, more than ready to line up for a second outing. In some ways it was almost unbelievable. The first one had bombed so badly that a sequel seemed like a long shot at best. Sure my circle of friends and random fans I came across thought the original was great, but how could that message make it to the financiers? For it to get a second chance was like a dream come true, forget about whether it made any sense to continue on beyond the winning of the prize. In the pre-Internet days information was not easily forthcoming, and we literally knew only that a sequel was coming – nothing more. As such speculation about plot was all over the place, with prequel being the most oft uttered prediction. After all, the first one finished the tale, so the only way to travel would be backward.

The first clue anyone in my circle had as to the reality of the situation, not to mention the first sign of trouble, was a guest appearance by Christopher Lambert on the Arsenio Hall show. All I remember now was Lambert’s introduction of the clip they had. He said to Hall, “I’m flying. I can fly now.” The clip proceeded to show Lambert flying around on a weird looking hover board, fighting an even weirder looking character in big goggles. Honestly after that clip rolled the group of us that saw it sat in our dorm living room thoroughly puzzled. It wasn’t that it was particularly awful or anything, it just didn’t mesh with the Highlander we knew. Oh there were swords alright, but that was about it. And one thing was for sure, it definitely wasn’t set in the past. When the film opened a couple of weeks later, aside from that brief clip, we walked into it cold.

What is so memorable about the experience of seeing Highlander 2: The Quickening on that cold November evening, beyond profound disappointment, was the buildup to the screening. The whole week everyone I knew on campus was filled with anticipation, talking about the big premiere on Friday night. Not only was it rare for our small college town to get a big, first run movie, but it was getting a movie many of us a) never expected to be made in the first place and b) had basically been waiting for 5 years to see. In class, at the dinner table, in the dorm living room, and anywhere else you went conversation inevitably turned to Highlander 2. On Friday the mood had built up to a fever, with some skipping class to watch the original and have pre-parties. As for me I started the day by walking over to the campus library to check out the review by Ebert. Oh boy. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever read a more scathing review from the celebrated critic. Even so I chose to ignore it as the ranting of a non-fan who refused to embrace the genius of the original. It was clear from the column he didn’t like the first outing, and thus couldn’t be counted on to give an accurate assessment.

After a full day of Highlander screenings and parties, I got together with my group and headed out to the theater for the evening show. The waiting area was packed! Regardless of what ultimately took place when we got in the theater, it was a heady moment of wish fulfillment. Somehow fandom had managed to inspire the production of a sequel to an unpopular film, and now we had all gathered to share in the realization of that dream. This was to be the grand start of a new franchise to rival our childhood favorites such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, etc. We were at the beginning and would be able to tell the tale to others – “we were there.” The anticipation was palpable, almost unbearable, and finally we were let into the auditorium.

I have no recollection of the previews. I remember the THX logo coming up (still a novelty at that time) and people cheering. Then things started to happen too fast. There was old MacLeod at the opera, and then he started talking about remembering Zeist. Then we were quickly sent back in time to another world where Michael Ironside lived, never a good sign. Then he squeezed some eels and sent MacLeod and Ramirez into the future. Next we learn MacLeod has built an ozone shield and that rebels are trying to shut it down. Flashback to Zeist and Michael Ironside is sending two spiky-haired henchmen who laugh like hyenas to kill MacLeod in the future where he is now old and mortal. MacLeod kills them and then yells really loud, which results in the resurrection of Ramirez. And all this in about 20 minutes!

Not that it took that long before I was officially off the case. Honestly as soon as he uttered the word “Zeist” I had a sinking feeling, and shortly thereafter I knew Ebert was right. In fact I remember my friend and I turning to each other at the same time when he said the Zeist line with puzzled looks. It was amazing how fast we all went from cheering and clapping to outright dismay. I’ve never seen an audience turn so quickly and dramatically during a screening, with the possible exception of Episode I. Even in that instance though there were enough things done well (e.g. the pod race, the final lightsaber duel) that the experience didn’t turn ugly. Highlander 2 was an exercise in shellshock, with each new scene bringing additional upset. Yeah “we were there” alright.

After that the legacy was tarnished and the damage was done. Then a few years later we found out, via the new invention called the Internet, that the makers of Highlander 2 were putting together a revised version to fix all the problems. Short of scrapping the whole thing I wasn’t sure how such a feat could be achieved, but they were calling it the “most radical rethinking” of a film ever (or something to that effect). If it meant repairing the good name of Highlander then I was all for it. Eventually it was released on video as the “Renegade Version,” and indeed it was a “radical rethinking.” Gone were all references to Zeist, and the film had been re-edited with new footage added. Apparently when it was cut for theatrical distribution it was taken out of director Russell Mulcahy’s hands. As a result sequences were placed out of order, and whole pieces of exposition removed. The reconstruction put the narrative back together properly, and sure enough things did make a little more sense.

But more sense does not necessarily a great movie make. I’m sure in its own way Ishtar makes sense, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to laud it as a work of genius. Yes the removal of the Zeist references help the film fit in better with the established mythology, and yes the proper sequencing keeps the narrative on track, but the end result is still an unsatisfying piece of work as a follow up to Highlander. The first film was a swashbuckling adventure that was both fun and absorbing, whereas the second outing was a dystopian nightmare that provided nothing but gloom and inappropriate humor (e.g. John C. McGinley’s evil exec, the spiky haired henchmen, etc.). Worse still it ripped off qualities of the first film and did so poorly. Michael Ironside’s General Katana is nothing more than a bad Kurgan clone (which I don’t believe is his fault, but rather a bad script), we get a quick repeat of MacLeod falling in love with a mortal (Virginia Madsen) that is absolutely ridiculous, and Ramirez is awkwardly brought back to dispense sage advice, to name but a few glaring problems. So “renegade” or not Highlander 2 just didn’t cut it.

Amazingly despite the financial failure of the sequel, the series managed to chug on and become a full blown franchise. A television show was launched that developed a following, two feature films came along later, and more recently a DTV outing arrived that makes everything that came before look like genius. This of course doesn’t even consider video games, novels and other tie-ins. Yet none of these have ever held a candle to the first film. Here’s the part that’s going to come as a shocker though – for my money the only other entry that merits any consideration is Highlander 2: The Quickening! You see to me the television series, and I know it has its followers, was always a lackluster affair. Adrian Paul on his best day couldn’t compete with Lambert’s portrayal of MacLeod, and the production always seemed cheap. The films forget about it. The third film was a total ripoff of the original, with Mario Van Peebles substituted for Clancy Brown, and did nothing to advance the mythology. And Highlander: Endgame rewrites things so that Lambert can get killed and never win the prize?!? Sorry I’ll have none of that.

This brings us back to Highlander 2. Viewed in the “renegade” format, the film is just a disappointing/sometimes confusing entry that fails to satisfy. The tone and setting do not mesh well with the original, making it seem like a sequel belonging to another franchise. It has a Blade Runner type of environment that is completely disorienting as a successor to the mean streets of 80’s New York City, much less the Scottish highlands. Furthermore we are introduced to an old MacLeod who has squandered the prize by creating a shield to protect the Earth from gaps in the ozone layer?!? On one level it’s a fascinating and dark premise that MacLeod would botch the prize, but the shield comes off as so ridiculous that any cool factor of taking the franchise in an unexpected direction is diminished significantly. In a way this downturn of events makes Highlander 2 a kindred spirit with the likes of Alien 3, save for the fact that the latter kept a tone that anchored it as belonging to the rest of the series. Depressing and glum can work if you keep things consistent and follow through.

Of course it should come as no surprise that the “renegade” cut feels out of step, as it was crafted by extracting a key plot point – Zeist! The removal of all Zeist references was a calculated maneuver by the filmmakers to pacify upset fans, but Zeist was not a mistake (as a side note you may recall this sort of thing happens all the time in Seagal DTV movies, where space aliens are removed and referred to as mobsters, etc.). Zeist was a consciously crafted story element that attempted to explain the origin of the immortals and the nature of the prize. On one level I can understand the desire to do this, as there is curiosity generated by this point of mystery. It would be interesting to know who they are and where they come from. When asked about the whole thing in the original Ramirez responds “why does the sun come up” or “are the stars just pinpricks in the curtain of night.” Who knows. The fact is if you’re going to purport to know you’d better come up with something more brilliant than Zeist and General Katana, lest you risk upsetting a legion of fans.

That being said I still prefer “The Quickening” to the “Renegade Version.” While I appreciate the fact that the latter corrects certain sequencing issues, the removal of Zeist is nevertheless evident throughout the film. Something always seems off with the story. Beyond that issue though, the film is actually weaker for not having the courage of its original convictions. Minus Zeist Highlander 2 is just a blah sequel with pretty looking sets and big explosions, and therefore totally forgettable. The addition of Zeist makes Highlander 2 something special, it makes it an utter disaster of epic proportions. As such it becomes watchable as a curiosity, a spectacle of sorts. And make no mistake it is a beautiful failure. This was a lavish $35 million production. The sets and effects are nothing short of spectacular on every level. They are unfortunately not served by a good plot or performances, but there is no fault to be found from a technical standpoint. The train yard battle between MacLeod and Katana’s henchmen in particular is a visual feast that can hold its own among the best blockbusters. It’s also one of very few reasons I occasionally return to the film after all these years.

In the final analysis I would submit that if you have sworn off Highlander 2: The Quickening (non-Renegade), you should have another look. I’m not saying you’ll find a good movie or come away having discovered a lost classic. It’s still a bad movie and a worse sequel. What you will find is a spectacular failure, a wonder for the eyes, and the second best Highlander film among an array of flotsam. Unfortunately you’ll have to track it down on VHS or laserdisc as it has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray. Only the Renegade Version has received treatment on the latest formats. Chances are The Quickening, much like the original Star Wars trilogy or THX-1138, will never be released again in favor of the altered version. It’s a shame because the Renegade Version doesn’t tell the full story, and will leave future generations puzzled. On the other hand it will add to the mystical oral storytelling quality, allowing those “who were there” to regale the uninitiated with tales of Zeist, broken cinematic promises, and bitter disappointments.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fantasmo By the Numbers

Remember back in the 70's and 80's how a lot of popular sitcoms would screen an episode filled with clips? The characters would gather together and recall highlights of their previous escapades, allowing the writers and cast to slack off for a week. Happy Days, Family Ties, Growing Pains, The Facts of Life, Three's Company, etc., all employed this oh so clever tactic. Well today's blog post is essentially my version of the "clip show," a recall of blog highlights over the past several years, allowing me to produce a post with a minimum of effort : )

Actually that's only partially true, the reason I'm doing this highlight reel is because I'm guessing some of you may find this info as fascinating as I do! Being out on the Internet the Fantasmo blog gets visits not just from all of our devoted local Superfans, but from all over the world. My librarian training has instilled in me an interest in statistics and random factoids, and as such I keep track of information related to the blog (e.g. number of visits, visit length, entry and exit pages, etc.) just to see how it's being used. Things start to get really interesting when looking at keyword activity (i.e. the search terms people use to get to the blog), as certain movie reviews have been visited by literally thousands of people. More surprising still are the titles that are getting all these hits, because they mostly aren't what one might expect. Frankly they tend to be the most obscure and offbeat stuff.

So today I'd like to share with you the top 10 Fantasmo movies based on how many folks are seeking them out on the blog. Bear in mind that these are ranked in numeric order according to how many hits they've received. I've also included links so you can revisit the reviews in case you missed them the first time around. Prepare to be shocked, disturbed, and possibly lose your faith in humanity at what is the #1 film on the blog (hint: it has something to do with the poster pictured above)!

10. Hardware: This one is pretty good. Essentially a riff on Mad Max and Terminator, but with a unique sense of style that is decidedly un-Hollywood.

9. The Octagon: My first two-fer review, which also includes a writeup on the much better (in my opinion) Ninja III: The Domination. The problem is that it's dead boring for most of its running time, and features an endless, droning internal monologue by Chuck Norris describing the goings-on in excrutiating detail. Nevertheless The Octagon is an important film in that it marked the U.S. cinematic debut of the ninja.

8. Kill Switch: No top 10 here would be complete without a Seagal movie, and I'm happy to say Internet searchers did not disappoint! Although I must confess Kill Switch would not top my list of the most important Seagal movies, it does feature the worst editing I've ever seen and the most bizarre movie ending in DTV history (or otherwise).

A thing I found interesting was one of the keyword searches used to find the page: "cannibal clown Steven Seagal." While I understand why that landed the seeker on the review, taken out of context for someone who may not have seen Kill Switch that has to sound intriguing! On a related note a keyword search used to find the Seagal film The Keeper was: "Steven Seagal wearing hat." If you've even seen the trailer for that one you'll understand. Unfortunately The Keeper didn't have enough searches to crack the top 10, hats notwithstanding. I'll share a few more unusual keyword searches as we move along.

7. Looker: A strange piece of 80's sci-fi from Michael Chrichton, with Albert Finney playing a plastic surgeon wielding a gun that shoots light. Not great but sports some interesting ideas.

6. Megaforce: One of the worst films of all time . . . but I must confess I love it. In the review I call it "gleefully awful" and that pretty much sums up everything you need to know. The fact that it's clocking in at #6 tells me that a lot of you out there share the same tastes, which is both heartwarming and terrifying at the same time : ) Somewhere Barry Bostwick is shedding a single tear.

Here was a fun keyword search used to find the page: "the good guys always win even in the 80s." Easily THE classic line from the film!

5. Slipstream: An overlooked late 80's movie that was intended to be Mark Hamill's comeback movie. Alas it didn't secure domestic distribution and died quietly overseas. Actually the film is very cool, and Hamill is in fact brilliant in it.

Great keyword search: "super radical maneuver movie." I do describe one stunt as a "wildly radical maneuver," yet this makes me wonder what the seeker was expecting to find? Could've been Megaforce!

4. John Woo's Blackjack: No two ways about it this is among Dolph Lundgren's best films, and is arguably Woo's best film (with the possible exception of Hard Target) since he left Hong Kong. One of the coolest and most bizarre aspects of Blackjack is that Lundgren's character has a fear of the color white. This leads to an ingenious shootout in a milk factory (I kid you not), and perhaps the greatest one-liner in action film history.

Lest you think I'm kidding about the reputation of this milk sequence just check out these keyword searches: "dolph lundgren milk scene" and "dolph lundgren getting afraid of milk." Really it would be more accurate to say that Blackjack was afraid of milk, as I'm sure Dolph wouldn't blink an eye if confronted with a dairy product.

3. Quintet: This one feels a little out of place on the list, in that it is somewhat of a highbrow/artsy film. Directed by the legendary Robert Altman, starring Paul Newman . . . should be a far cry from Megaforce (sorry Megaforce). Quintet is, beyond being somewhat on the intellectual end of the spectrum, profoundly weird. Set in the near future, presumably after a nuclear war, mankind is on the verge of extinction. The only thing that provides meaning is a game of death called Quintet. This movie is not for everyone, particularly for those who enjoy well-paced movies, but I liked it. The way in which it was shot (with grease on the camera lens to imply coldness) irritated many, and the story is hard to follow. If you give it a chance though you'll see a Paul Newman film unlike any other, and a unique example of 70's sci-fi greatness.

Two interesting keyword searches: "quintet meaning of movie" and "how to play quintet." I take a stab at explaining the first query in my review, and am a little creeped out by the second keyword search. Hope no one is running Quintet games out there . . . might I recommend UNO or Old Maid as substitutes!

2. The Island: In many ways I think this is my favorite movie I've reviewed here on the site. This is a truly bizarre movie that had blockbuster pretensions, while managing to twist every aspect that qualified it for that ambition. Its existence is a minor miracle, and although flawed it never ceases to be thoroughly entertaining. From the author of Jaws, the director of The Bad News Bears, and the star of Alfie comes a new longitude and latitude for horror . . . welcome to The Island! Okay that's not the real tagline but it would have prepared audiences a little better for what to expect.

1. Smokey and the Bandit Part 3: That's right folks the most often read and visited review on the blog is none other the the concluding chapter of the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy. Unbelievable. This is actually the only movie Rob and I ever tried to get the audience to agree not to watch. After suffering through Part 2 we offered the alternative of checking out another movie, but our loyal Superfans soldiered on and insisted upon seeing this one . . . so maybe it does inspire a kind of inexplicable madness. Kind of a Pandora's Box type of thing. Either way this is a completely awful movie in almost every regard. My review gives the pertinent details, suffice it to say you have been warned.

And yes, the most oft used keyword search for the Fantasmo blog is: "smokey is the bandit." The horror, the horror . . .

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fantasmo Episode 59: Can't Stop the Music Vol. 4

Hey Superfans!

It's that time of year again and once again time for our annual holiday show which can only mean one thing . . . you can't stop the music! This year we're taking a little break from the title film (sorry true believers there will be no Bruce Jenner) and screening two musicals new to Fantasmo. Fear not Village People and company will return, it's just that we're really excited to finally be able to show these two movies.

First on the bill we have one of Rob's all-time favorites, a classic to be sure, in the form of Phantom of the Paradise. Directed by Brian De Palma (Carrie, The Untouchables), this 70's riff on Phantom of the Opera starring Paul Williams (Smokey and the Bandit, Battle for the Planet of the Apes) must be seen to be believed. Great music and wild imagery abound. It also features cult favorites Jessica Harper (Suspiria), William Finley (Silent Rage), and Gerrit Graham (Terrorvision). How can you go wrong with that cast?!?

Our second feature also stars Harper as well as Cliff De Young (F/X) and some faces very familiar to film buffs. You see Shock Treatment just happens to be the sequel to the most famous cult movie of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show! Some of you may be saying to yourself "I didn't know there was a sequel." The fact is it was mostly ignored upon initial release because it is a MUCH different experience than RHPS. Over time it has developed its own following, perhaps out-culting in the truest sense its predecessor. The songs are catchy, the ideas interesting, and the style pure Richard O' Brien. If you enjoyed Rocky you owe it to yourself to check this one out on the big screen!

Without any further ado here are your full Episode 59 details:

When: Friday, December 3rd

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322


8:00 P.M.: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

9:45 P.M.: Shock Treatment (1981)

So there you have it Superfans, two fantastic holiday musicals on our big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! You dare not miss it . . . and remember you can't stop the music so don't even try!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ghost Fire Haunts @ Fantasmo Friday!

Hey Superfans!

I'm excited to announce that this Friday's haunted house themed Fantasmo will feature a special opening presentation by the paranormal investigation group Ghost Fire Haunts! Pictured above is an upcoming conference they are hosting on paranormal research at the Cavalier Hotel called EPIC CON. Expect to hear more on that as well as some hair raising first hand experiences they have had. Should be a chilling experience, and a great prep for watching The Haunting and Hell House! See you tomorrow night!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Movie Reivew: Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Following Monster Fest I took a little vacation, hence the recent lack of updates on the ‘ole blog here. Not one to pass time unwisely, I ramped up my annual October horror film viewing tradition. I always like to make an effort to get around to titles I missed along the way, or haven’t seen in ages, so I’ve taken in a fair amount of older films during the first half of the month. One fine morning last week (over breakfast no less) I found myself clicking play on instant Netflix, launching none other than Return of the Living Dead Part II. I can’t really explain what made me choose that over a number of better looking titles, but I just had an itch to see if it was as subpar as I remembered. As a point of fact, I clearly remembered the evening and circumstances surrounding my original viewing back in 1988, but could not remember much about the movie at all . . . except disappointment.

As was customary back in the 80’s this was another B-movie I caught at my beloved ramshackle mall theater. Unlike its predecessor which was unleashed in the summer months, ROTLD2 came out in the bitter cold of January (a strange time to release a horror sequel if you ask me). I didn’t see the original during its summer run, but I have to say it’s one of my fondest video watching memories of 80’s horror. It had a wicked sense of humor, great effects, and oozed a genuine love of the genre. When Part II finally arrived I was pretty psyched to see how it would top the first outing. So a fellow fan and I made our way out to the cinema in bad weather, by this time we had abandoned our bikes for cars (the end of an era), and eagerly bought our tickets. I can remember the drive, the ticket buying, and a sort of depressing exit, but I can’t remember a thing about the viewing experience itself (which is unusual for me).

Over the years I figured I had just blocked my memory out whenever the film (rarely) came up in conversation. And that’s an interesting phenomenon in and of itself. There are a great many reviled horror films from the 80’s, not to mention a great many reviled 80’s horror sequels. In most cases if you bring up the original installment of a popular series around these parts, talk inevitably leads to discussion of nadirs. Fans love to debate the lowest points as it is always enjoyable to criticize missteps. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Texas Chain Saw, etc., all come to mind. Yet even when we showed ROTLD at Fantasmo I don’t recall that a word was said about the sequel. Let me tell you for the most part we are a pretty critical bunch, and to let an opportunity for commentary like that slip by is certainly atypical. With this in mind, my theory heading into ROTLD2 over breakfast was that the film likely wouldn’t be catastrophically awful, but rather bland and uninspiring.

The film opens up with one of the zombie-containing canisters featured in ROTLD bouncing off of a military transport, and landing in the sewer system near both a developing suburban neighborhood and conveniently another graveyard. After that quick intro we switch to the neighborhood and our hero Jesse (Michael Kenworthy), who comes into contact with the canister during a hazing ritual by a couple of local bullies. The bullies foolishly open the canister, and the gas seeps into the graveyard setting off a chain of events more or less identical to the first film. James Karen and Thom Mathews even return as a pair of bumbling grave robbers, who meet a similar end to their doomed warehouse employees from the original. As the dead start to rise it’s up to Jesse, his sister, a cable repairman, and a hapless doctor to stop the zombie invasion before the military undertakes the nuclear option.

Watching ROTLD2 this time around I have to tell you I was surprised at my reaction. Unlike that first viewing so many years ago, I sort of enjoyed the movie. It’s not so much because it was particularly good but for two reasons. First I wasn’t going in with high expectations, quite the opposite. This film was free from the baggage of following on the heels of the best zombie movie of the 80’s. Second it was an okay way to kill 90-minutes on a morning where there was nothing particularly better to do. Sure neither of these reasons constitutes high praise, but the fact that it was both tolerable and mildly entertaining was a bit miraculous given what I was prepared to discover. The film manages to walk a fine line between goofy fun and ho hum mediocrity, with the former just edging out the latter. If there’s any tragedy here it’s that some tweaks (e.g. better effects, balanced storytelling, directorial restraint) could have put ROTLD2 into the good category.

Essentially ROTLD2 is a remake of the first film, right down to the appearance of Karen and Mathews. The problem is that all the edginess, not to mention the punk rock soundtrack, that was such an integral part of the first outing are missing here. Writer/Director Ken Wiederhorn manages to pack in many of the key events we are familiar with, but instead of leaning toward horror goes heavily toward comedy. This sort of thing can work if done correctly. Sam Raimi for example remade Evil Dead as Evil Dead II, indulging his love of Three Stooges style humor. The problem is Wiederhorn is no Sam Raimi. Many of the jokes fall flat, and Karen/Mathews in particular become caricatures of their former incarnations. In ROTLD they were funny because they were reacting to their situation in a genuine, if outrageous manner. Here they come off as Laurel and Hardy, never as real people. Worse still is the fact that Wiederhorn mistakenly believes that to see these two, and everyone else, yelling at each other a lot equals a whole lot of funny. Honestly Ricola or Halls must have had a stake in this film, as the actors must have all blown out their vocal chords by the time it was over (they make Guttenberg in Can't Stop the Music look restrained by comparison).

Given that Wiederhorn opted for a comedic approach, another element that suffers is the horror of the zombies. In the original they were gooey and genuinely frightening. Sure they had some tongue-in-cheek lines, including the constant battle cry of “brains,” but they never failed to be menacing. Here the make-up is never on that level, and most of the time the creatures end up looking like second-rate extras from the Thriller video. Wiederhorn even pays homage to Thriller in the finale, when a zombie wanders into frame dressed like Michael Jackson was in the video. Clearly the director was more strongly influenced by John Landis than Dan O’Bannon, which wouldn’t have been a problem if he could have copied Landis more successfully.

Hearing all of this might lead you to conclude that Wiederhorn was a director without merits, but prior to ROTLD2 he did have a minor classic under his belt. In 1977 he made the terrific aquatic Nazi zombie epic Shock Waves, starring the great Peter Cushing. That film played things straight, or at least as straight as things can be played where aquatic Nazi zombies are involved, and the results were outstanding. I can’t even recall a single joke being cracked. Interestingly Wiederhorn also eschewed gore in that movie as well, opting for a subtle, creepy approach (or at least as subtle as things can be when dealing with aquatic Nazi zombies). Obviously he carried over the anti-gore sentiment to ROTLD2, but unfortunately didn’t repeat the nuanced execution of everything else. Arguably Shock Waves was a fluke as Widerhorn went on to make Meatballs Part II, but that in no way tempers my recommendation.

Another problematic element, depending on your point of view, is that the protagonist this time is a pre-teen boy. This was a big trend in the 80’s thanks to E.T., and personally I’ve never cared for it. If anyone can cite an example of a situation in which it’s worked, save perhaps for The Goonies, I’d be happy to hear it. More often the child actor proves either annoying, unskilled, or both. In the case of ROTLD2 I would say unskilled is the order of the day, with leading “man” Kenworthy turning in a very unconvincing performance. On the plus side he does look like he’s having a good time, so at least he doesn't act like the whole business is an uninteresting chore (Jake Lloyd anyone?). On the flip side his nemesis Billy (Thor Van Lingen) is one of the better parts of the film. Van Lingen is a great bully, and when he becomes zombified he provides an enjoyable villain. As a side note Kenworthy actually was in the awesome remake of The Blob the same year, before disappearing into complete oblivion. Thankfully Kevin Dillon took center stage for that, so things worked out okay.

I should also mention that a couple of other 80’s faces show up here to round things out. In addition to Karen and Mathews we also have on hand Dana Ashbrook (Waxwork, Twin Peaks), Mitch Pileggi (Shocker, X-Files) and Suzanne Snyder (Weird Science, Night of the Creeps). Like everyone else they are given little to do but yell loudly, however I would say that Ashbrook comes off better than anyone as the slightly restrained cable guy. Their presence does manage to give ROTLD2 a little more weight, if for no other reason than it is an assemblage that counts as a solid time capsule of the 80’s. Furthermore even if the happenings on screen are somewhat lackluster, at least you have some familiar, reliable players to usher you through the experience.

In the final analysis while I can’t enthusiastically recommend ROTLD2, I can say that it’s not as bad as I remembered it being. It has a decent villain, Karen and Mathews are fun to watch for a while, and there are a couple (literally) of laughs. If you can for 90-minutes forget that it is supposed to be a sequel to the best zombie movie of the 80’s it’s an okay way to pass the time if you have run out of zombie movies to watch on Netflix streaming, or if you have never seen it and need to satisfy your curiosity. Probably the greatest offense committed by the film, and the reason it remains largely forgotten, is that it is indeed defiantly average. Neither a film to be celebrated, nor relentlessly mocked. I almost think it’s better to be one or the other myself, although those few unfortunate enough to have seen Meatballs Part II may disagree with me.

By the way, am I the only one who thinks the poster for ROTLD2 bears more than a passing resemblance to the poster for Fright Night?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fantasmo Episode 58: Haunted Houses Volume 2

One of our most popular episodes ever was the one in which we highlighted the haunted house subgenre. Those of you who made it out to that one may recall we had a very cool opening presentation by the Center for Paranormal Research and Investigation, followed by The Amityville Horror and Burnt Offerings. Those are two great films to be sure, but we held off showing THE BEST HAUNTED HOUSE MOVIES EVER MADE with the knowledge that we would eventually hold a sequel to that spooky evening. This time out we will be screening Robert Wise's classic The Haunting (no Liam Neeson CGI fests here), as well as The Legend of Hell House ("the Mount Everest of haunted houses") starring Roddy McDowall. Personally I think Hell House is one of the creepiest movies I've ever seen, and it's written by the great Richard Matheson (I Am Legend). We're talking some great stuff! As for an opening presentation we're working on something special, so stay tuned to the blog for updates. Without any further ado here are your full Episode 58 details:

When: Friday, November 5th

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322


8:00 P.M.: The Haunting (1963)

10:00 P.M.: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

So there you have it Superfans, two haunted house classics back on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! You dare not miss it!

Friday, October 1, 2010

The 7 Days of Monster Fest - Days #2-7: Everything Else!

Due to circumstances beyond control, unfortunately I wasn't able to do a daily post this week. However Team Fantasmo never gives up, so I'm putting it all into one action-packed post. So here are a few more highlights you don't want to miss!!

#1 - Godzilla: A History in Film (Part 2) - If you caught Part 1 of this last year you'll know that Fantasmo All-Stars Tony Mercer (The Original Superfan), Lee Hansen, and Chris Johnson have a LOT to say about Godzilla. This year finds them entering the 70's and beyond, for what promises to be a stunning conclusion!

#2 - The Bowman Body Documentary - Premiere footage of the upcoming Bowman Body documentary, hosted by Director Sean Kotz and The Bowman Body in person!

#3 - Dr. Madblood 35th Anniversary Extravaganza - An all-afternoon celebration of 35 years of Madblood featuring the good Doctor, his cast and crew, and many participants from over the years!

#4 - Haunted History of Tidewater and Travels for the Haunted Tourist - Find out the local haunts and places of interest throughout the country!

#5 - Horror Trivia - The ultimate trivia competition, so BIG we have to hold it twice!

#6 - Costume Contest - Everyone's favorite is back! All ages are welcome, so come out in your best costume!

So there are 6 more excellent reasons you don't want to miss this year's Monster Fest (as if you needed them : ) See you tomorrow bright and early at 9:00 a.m.!

Friday, September 24, 2010

The 7 Days of Monster Fest - Day #1: The Lost Skeleton Returns Again

Continuing a tradition I started here on the blog last year, today I begin the countdown to Monster Fest by highlighting 7 cool things that will be taking place. Not content to kick things off lightly, the first item in the spotlight is The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. Some of you may remember a few years back at Monster Fest we screened the mega-cult hit The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, hosted by its special effects creator Cortney Skinner. Well flash forward to present day and it has now spawned a sequel! For the uninitiated Lost Skeleton is a loving tribute to the sci-fi/horror films of the 50's, with a generous dose of tongue-in-cheek humor thrown in. Cortney will be on hand during the day to talk about his involvement with the sequel, and A Dark and Stormy Night which was produced by the same team. He has also graciously agreed to kick off our evening Fantasmo by introducing a special screening of The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. How cool is that?!?

So there is your day #1 highlight, stay tuned for more amazing Monster Fest happenings over the next week!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Steven Seagal is Lawman Season 2!

Things have been fairly quiet on the Seagal front up until the past month or so, and I haven't written on the subject in quite some time. The peace was officially broken on Labor Day weekend with the release of Machete, marking Seagal's return to the big screen (in a villainous turn no less). Sadly, while the film debuted to decent business, it disappeared out of the top 10 pretty quickly (and is barely still in theaters). Sadder still is that I haven't had a chance to see it, and likely won't until it hits home video.

My spirits were brightened on Tuesday of this week however, when I discovered that the second season of Lawman was posted on Itunes. Right now you can download an extended preview clip which is pretty dramatic, easily rivaling the most intense moments of season one. Honestly I was a little surprised that season two came to be, as the first outing had only so-so ratings. Either way I'm happy to see round two for Chief Seagal and his brigade.

This spike in Seagalogical activity prompted me to investigate what else he has coming up, and that led to an even more fascinating discovery. First off in October his next DTV (direct-to-video) feature Born To Raise Hell is scheduled for release. It looks like one of his standard revenge vehicles, but with DTV you just never know what crazy surprises to expect (especially when it comes to Seagal). The real mindblower though is that he has a TV series coming out in 2011 called Southern Justice!! I know nothing other than that at this point, save for it is listed as having 13 episodes and his character name is Elijah Kane (classic). Over on Wikipedia it also claims he has a movie (presumably DTV) coming out in 2011 that is directed by Dolph Lundgren!! Hope Dolph co-stars as well, but either way an exciting prospect.

Now if he would only put out a new album, and finally(!) release the third flavor of his Lightning Bolt energy drink, the long-rumored Root Beer Rush! Still this is pretty satisfying news all around.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Monster Fest VII: Monster Fest Meets the Wolf Man

Hey Superfans!

It’s that time again, time for another frightastic edition of our annual MONSTER FEST program! For those of you Superfans new to Fantasmo, MONSTER FEST is a daylong convention which features panels, special guests, costume contests, film screenings, etc. I have to say this year’s edition may be our best yet, as it highlights a special anniversary and features some of the coolest guests we’ve ever had the privilege of welcoming. The date of the program is Saturday, October 2nd, and it will be held here at Chesapeake Central Library (298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA, 23322) as always. A few schedule items are still developing, so this isn’t entirely set in stone, but the mostly final schedule of events is as follows:

9:00 a.m. – Classic Horror Trailers

10:00 a.m. – Zombies 101 – Presented by: Lynn Shipp

10:00 a.m. – The Haunted History of Tidewater

11:00 a.m. – Horror Trivia Contest

11:00 a.m. – The Making of The Lost Skeleton Returns Again & A Dark and Stormy Night – Presented by: Cortney Skinner

11:00 a.m. – Travels for the Haunted Tourist – Presented by: Mike Joyner

12:00 p.m. – Costume Contest

1:00 p.m. – Godzilla: A History in Film (Part 2) – Presented by: Tony Mercer, Lee Hansen, and Chris Johnson

1:00 p.m. – Things That Go Bump in the Night: Are Ghosts Making a Comeback in Fiction & Non-Fiction – Presented by: Pamela K. Kinney

1:00 p.m. – “Hi There Horror Movie Fans”: The Bowman Body Documentary Sneak Preview – Presented by: Sean Kotz and The Bowman Body

2:00 p.m. – Dr. Madblood 35th Anniversary Celebration – Featuring Dr. Madblood and Friends

3:00 p.m. – Horror Trivia Contest

5:00 p.m. – Library closes and reopens at 7:00 p.m. for evening presentation

Film Schedule (show starts at 8:00):

The Lost Skeleton Returns Again – Hosted by: Cortney Skinner

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
The Fly (1958)
A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

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 with lots of fun giveaways. For continuing updates stay tuned to the official web site at:

So there you have it Superfans, your MONSTER FEST itinerary! A full day of frightening fun! See you there!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Escapism Film Festival 2010

Speaking of The Carolina Theatre and Retrofantasma, also coming up there at the end of the month is their annual Escapism Film Festival. Once again it's another amazing lineup with titles including: Star Trek 2, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape From New York, RoboCop, The Muppet Movie, Enemy Mine, The Last Starfighter, Legend, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Legend of Billie Jean, and The Secret of NIMH. That's an outstanding list of classic films, but the MOST interesting highlight of all is that they are screening Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 35mm! It of course will include the awesome "James Bond" opening credits that didn't appear in the television version, which is worth the price of admission alone. Many folks forget that Buck was released theatrically just like Battlestar Galactica. Having seen it at the drive-in back in the late 70's I can tell you it's fantastic seeing it on the big screen!

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Envy Report: Retrofantasma Vs. Terror in the Aisles

Our doppleganger program Retrofantasma in North Carolina has an amazing lineup for October including Hammer movies, Tom Atkins, and the classic 80's pseudo-documentary/clip show Terror in the Aisles. Back in the early 80's when horror movies were all the rage Universal released this 90-minute montage into theaters hosted by genre veterans Donald Pleasence and Nancy Allen. It actually features more than just Friday the 13th/Halloween style movies though, including suspense films of the day such as Nighthawks, Vice Squad, etc. After its initial release on VHS and laserdisc the film went out of print, and apparently is unlikely to be released ever again due to rights issues. Sigh.

So that's the story, but get this - the print of Terror in the Aisles that Retrofantasma is screening is the last 35mm print of the film in existence, straight out of the Universal vault! I don't know about you but information like that just causes my jaw to hit the floor. It's hard to believe that a fairly major movie released in 1984 could be in danger of oblivion. Making matters worse is that a DVD/Blu-ray release is never going to happen, so unless you track down an old copy of the VHS forget ever seeing this again.

Hard to say how I would react to this film now, but I remember loving it as a kid. How can you go wrong with a film comprised of little else other than clips of some of the greatest horror movies of the 70's and 80's? With intros by two classic genre stars? If you never had the pleasure of seeing this, a road trip to North Carolina might be well worth it. Did I mention the same evening they are also screening the last existing 35mm print of Halloween III: Season of the Witch?!?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Toxie Invades the Byrd!

Once again in conjunction with Horror Hound magazine the historic Byrd Theatre in Richmond will be screening another classic on October 9th at midnight. Past shows have included Zombie, Demons, and Dark Night of the Scarecrow. For this latest installment they have selected Troma's greatest contribution to the history of cinema in the form of the original Toxic Avenger. Toxie was a cult cinema icon in the 80's, spawning a whole franchise complete with a toy line, Saturday morning cartoon, and video games. Make no mistake like any other Troma property Toxic Avenger is a cheap production, but it has a great deal of wit and energy. As a result it ends up being much more entertaining/tolerable than many Troma outings. That's the beauty of Troma though, there are always those gems mixed in with everything else : )

In any event it should be a lot of fun to see The Toxic Avenger in such a prestigious venue. I saw 1-3 in the theater back in the day at our local art house cinema, and they definitely work best with an audience!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Movie Reviews: Piranha (1978) & Piranha 3-D (2010)

Last week I trekked out to the theater for the second time this summer (after Predators), to check out one of the other must-see movie events of 2010. I’m of course talking about Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3-D. For the record the 3-D gimmick alone is not enough to motivate me, there has to be something else going on to convince me I have to see a film on the big screen these days. In fact the only 3-D film I’ve seen since this present craze started was My Bloody Valentine, again a remake from my childhood era (you can see the trend here). While the nostalgia factor certainly played a role, there’s a bit more to it than that. Those titles in particular were extremely successful on an entertainment level when compared to some of their other contemporaries. Piranha was a drive-in classic, blessed with a coming together of soon-to-be Hollywood A-listers under the guidance of Roger Corman. My Bloody Valentine had a great setup, and the mine atmosphere provided for a memorably terrifying finale. Unfortunately the Valentine remake, despite the presence of Tom Atkins, was a major letdown. As such my expectations for Piranha were not all that high. The big selling point was director Alexandre Aja who has put out some pretty interesting stuff over the past few years, including a remake of The Hills Have Eyes which I ultimately enjoyed more than the original. Having seen Piranha 3-D and the original last week, I feel that nothing less than a dual review would be appropriate.

First off Piranha '78. I must confess that Piranha is something of a special movie for me. The poster above has to be one of the greatest genre posters ever created. Sure it’s a play on Jaws, but I’ve always found it to be much more terrifying. Something about that fish is more malevolent than the shark, and the girl on the raft feels a little more real than the swimmer on Spielberg’s poster. For whatever reason it captured my imagination as a kid, and thoroughly creeped me out. I remember begging to see this one at the drive-in, but my parents decided this was one we should sit out. It wasn’t until about a year later that I finally saw Piranha at a neighbor’s house on HBO. Incidentally that neighbor was the first on our street to have the service, and I remember being blown away that I could sit in his living room and watch uncut theatrical movies . . . and Piranha was a stunner! Let’s just say that the promise made in the poster, unlike many genre movies of the era, was fully kept.

There were plenty of copycats in the wake of Jaws, and certainly Piranha was a riff on the material. Unlike its fellow imitators however, Piranha had the good fortune of top talent in almost every department. First off it was produced by Roger Corman during a period in which he was hitting home runs with his el cheapo productions. We’re talking stuff like Death Race 2000, Big Bad Mama, Humanoids From the Deep, etc. It would be downhill shortly after the early 80’s, but for a time he could do little wrong. Pulling from his pool of rising stars, Corman tapped Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) to direct. Dante was an expert editor of trailers, and Piranha was his first solo directing effort. Writing duties were given to none other than art house superstar John Sayles, who took the premise and injected it with dark humor and great characters. Those characters were then brought to life by a B-list who’s who with Bradford Dillman (Escape From the Planet of the Apes), Heather Menzies (Sssssss), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Barbara Steele (Black Sunday), Keenan Wynn (Point Blank), Belinda Balaski (Food of the Gods), Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) and for good measure Corman favorite Dick Miller. We’re talking a dream list here!

It’s kind of amazing how John Sayles went from writing great B-movies like Piranha, Alligator, and Battle Beyond the Stars to name but a few, to celebrated, high-brow indie director. Unlike other Corman graduates like James Cameron who continued working in genre pictures, Sayles bailed and went for more traditional dramas like Eight Men Out and Matewan. It’s like if you found out David Mamet had written Grizzly or Day of the Animals prior to Glengarry Glen Ross. If you ever wondered what would happen if a brilliant writer penned a killer fish movie you need look no further. Sayles provides a cast of terrific characters, show stopping attack sequences, and most importantly a knowing wink to the genre. The humor in Piranha is often cited as one of its greatest strengths and no doubt that is true. However what Sayles does so miraculously is bring out the humor, while at the same time honoring Piranha as a serious horror film. In so doing Piranha exists as more than just a parody, Sayles allows the film to have the cake and eat it too.

Did I mention the cast? Well let me do so again, because a good cast is worth repeating. When I was a kid I was seriously under the impression that Bradford Dillman was a major star. Between Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Piranha, and being Dirty Harry’s captain, he kept turning up in things I really liked (and he was terrific in each). As the leading man in Piranha he gives what is probably his best performance as a cranky mountain man turned hero. Heather Menzies also turns in a great performance as his spunky partner in stopping the aquatic invasion. While they anchor the film ably, what is so wonderful about Piranha is that Dante loads it with cameos by genre stars who have a ball with the material. McCarthy as the mad scientist and Miller as the evil developer are noteworthy standouts (it’s actually my favorite Dick Miller performance). Better still is that Dante gives them enough time onscreen so that the cameos don’t come off as blink-and-you-miss-them stunt casting (I’m looking at you Rob Zombie). Honestly a better roster in genre cinema you will not find.

Dream lists aside if you have a film titled Piranha, you still have to be sure you are able to deliver a horde of killer fish. In the pre-CGI 70’s this was no small feat. Even Mr. Spielberg had trouble delivering a single, albeit big fish on a much larger budget. Fortunately Corman’s resources also included a talented bunch of effects artists and a brilliant young editor. Making the piranha come alive were Phil Tippett (Star Wars, Jurassic Park) and Chris Walas (The Fly), using everything from fish on poles to animation to make it all work. They were aided in their endeavor by future Academy Award-winning editor Mark Goldblatt (Terminator 2), who employed lots of judiciously timed cuts that make the piranha attacks appear frighteningly real instead of like fish on sticks. Honestly a film produced by Roger Corman in the late 70’s about killer fish has no business looking this good. I screened it this week on Blu-ray and was blown away. Don’t get me wrong it is still clearly a 70’s movie with practical effects, but what they accomplished for the time is stunning.

I’ll give you just one example. There’s one intense sequence in which the piranhas attack a summer camp where a tube race is taking place. As the piranhas approach there is an underwater shot in which you see them forming up in the background, with a swimmer’s legs dangling in the foreground. The shot is clearly accomplished via animation, but the composition is so artistic that you don’t even care. It’s like some beautifully designed matte painting from an old school horror/sci-fi film. The point is this – the shot is completely unnecessary. Dante could have simply just had the bathers start reacting as the piranhas launched their attack, but he took the time out on what was a shoestring, breakneck schedule to insert a cool-looking effects shot. It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes piranha stand out from its lesser brethren.

I would be remiss in my duties if last but not least I failed to mention the musical score. Corman tapped composer Pino Donaggio for scoring duties, and it proved to be an interesting choice. Donaggio became a recognizable name in horror cinema throughout the 70's and 80's lending his talents to films such as Roeg's Don't Look Now, Argento's Trauma, De Palma's Dressed to Kill and others. He became Brian De Palma's most frequent collaborator, and interestingly Piranha's score bears a certain resemblance to Carrie (in my opinion). Unlike the booming score to Jaws, Donaggio favors a more subdued type of sound that infuses the proceedings with a sense of doom. This serves as a useful counterpoint to the humorous aspects of the script, making sure that after you've laughed you still take things seriously. His scoring of the summer camp attack in particular is absolutely terrific and on par with Williams' work in Jaws.

Piranha was successful and eventually spawned an unrelated 80’s sequel directed by James Cameron and starring Lance Henriksen. This time the fish can fly. I just saw it for the first time last year, having heard nothing but bad things and expecting the worst. It wasn’t great to be sure, but what I found out is that a movie directed by James Cameron and starring Lance Henriksen can only be so bad. In fact I sort of enjoyed it. It’s certainly no Piranha, but it was an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes. There was also a mid-90’s remake starring William Katt and Alexandra Paul, which I saw on late-night television several years ago. My recollection is that Katt was an okay stand-in for Bradford Dillman, but that the film didn’t have much else going for it. Well now we’re in the far flung year of 2010, some 32 years after the original, and finally Piranha has received the big budget treatment with an up and coming horror director. The question is does it measure up? The answer is – sort of.

The plot of the new Piranha is not a whole lot different than the original. In the ’78 version the piranha were a government experiment to be used for the purposes of eco-terrorism/ending the Vietnam War. In 2010 there is nothing political going on, the piranha are simply prehistoric creatures released by an underground earthquake. Also this time instead of attacking summer campers and resort guests they attack spring break goers. Sure it’s not a carbon copy, but we’re not talking giant leaps here. Really though in a movie about killer piranhas I would argue that the plot is not the key to success. Dante and company figured that one out and focused on performances, humor, and piranha effects. Fortunately Aja gets the joke too, but he turns his focus almost entirely on stomach churning gore . . . in 3-D. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen his previous films, but it’s a bit of a gamble in that to enjoy this take on the material you have to accept Aja’s choice. If you are looking for anything other than visceral thrills prepare to be sorely disappointed.

Having said that I went in to Piranha 3-D expecting exactly what I received, 80 minutes of CGI piranhas attacking swimmers . . . in 3-D. The only creativity employed was in the ridiculous quality of the attacks, which were meant to do nothing more than make one burst out laughing. There’s no suspense or horror in this movie, it’s simply a theme park ride taking the viewer from one outrageous sequence to the next. Aja keeps the gags coming so fast and furious you don’t have time to consider how silly it all is because you’re too busy taking in the next absurdity. On the one hand it is indisputably fun, but on the other I never need to see this movie again (in fact I pretty much can guarantee I won’t). These gags are good for one time only, which is where Piranha ’78 and ’10 part ways. Dante’s film is clever and has plenty to offer on repeat viewings. Aja’s is loud and dumb, but thankfully he knows it and embraces the vibe with gusto. Had he not fully committed the film would have been a lackluster outing, not too far removed from the land of SyFy Channel original movies.

One thing Aja does pay homage to with regard to the original is the use of the cameo. Here we get Richard Dreyfuss hilariously reprising his role from Jaws, Ving Rhames as an outboard-motor toting piranha slayer, Christopher Lloyd doing Doc Brown as a piranha expert, etc. I also have to give credit to Jerry O’Connell for stealing the show as a slimy movie producer, he’s come a long way since Stand By Me. While these are all great I do have to say that Aja doesn’t pull them off as well as Dante. He sort of falls into the Rob Zombie trap in that he understands it’s cool to pack in some cameos, but he doesn’t quite use them to full effect. Nevertheless they’re a good deal of fun, and in a movie this lightweight it’s hard to complain too forcefully.

After the screening I had occasion to chat with Fantasmo All-Star Lee Hansen, who works in the film biz, and he told me that some of the PR had referred to Piranha 3-D as the next installment in the Piranha franchise. We both found this to be erroneous and hilarious. Can you really count the “sequel” which maintains no continuity, the remake, and this unrelated 3-D effort as part of a coherent franchise? Do people truly walk into a Piranha film with a defined set of expectations based on previous Piranha films? I think not. It’s still fun to watch studios attempt these labored connections in the hopes of making an extra dollar. For myself I have no regrets about seeing the new one in the theater, in fact if you have any interest at all 3-D is definitely the way to go. This movie is about big, noisy thrills (in case I haven’t made that clear) and it would be almost useless to watch it at home (unless you have a major home theater setup). I’ll take the ’78 original any day of the week over the empty calories of the new model, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Fantasmo Episode 57: Tales From the Vault of Amicus

Hey Superfans!

A BIG thanks to all of you who came out this past weekend to support our BIG Freeplay event! The day was a major hit and we hope to make this an annual occurrence. Also a HUGE(!) thanks to the gaming enthusiasts who provided the machines and made it all possible: Matt Crainer, Mike Barnett, Ethan O'Toole, and Derek Williams. Here's looking forward to Freeplay 2011!

In the realm of things coming soon, we're gearing up for our pre-Monster Fest September show and have a great double-feature lined up for you! Once again we're returning to the wonderful world of Amicus anthologies, with arguably the two best entries from their esteemed catalog: Tales From the Crypt & Vault of Horror. Those titles are no strangers to fans of classic comic books (or HBO for that matter), as they are based on the classic EC horror comics of the 1950's. The films feature a host of great stars including the likes of Joan Collins, Peter Cushing and Tom "Dr. Who" Baker, inhabiting some truly spine-tingling tales. There's really no going wrong here, and it's a perfect warm up for Monster Fest : ) Without any further ado here are your full Episode 57 details:

When: Friday, September 17th

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322


8:00 P.M.: Tales From the Crypt (1972)

9:45 P.M.: Vault of Horror (1973)

So there you have it, two Amicus classics on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! You dare not miss it!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Nightmares In Red, White and Blue Coming Soon!

If you missed our special screening at Monster Fest last October, you now can see Joe Maddrey's excellent review of the American horror film in the comfort of your own home! Nightmares In Red, White and Blue is slated for release according to Amazon on September 28th (it's hit video-on-demand already). The film is packed with fantastic clips, interviews, and is narrated by the great Lance Henriksen. If you're a horror fan you definitely want to check it out!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Freeplay: Part Deux

Hey Superfans,

You may remember back in January we were supposed to have a big classic gaming event called Freeplay. Alas it happened to conincide with a major snowstorm, so we had to postpone the festivities. Well we're ready to give it another try, and the event is now scheduled to kick off on Saturday, August 7th at 9:00 a.m. Just like Monster Fest and FantaSci it will run all day, and feature a variety of programs and panels. In addition there will be classic, coin-operated video game machines on hand for everyone to try out (no coins necessary, hence the "free"). Best of all we will hold a very special Fantasmo in the evening, featuring two classic video game films on the big screen called TRON and The Last Starfighter (with which you may be familiar : ) Our massive schedule for the day is as follows:

9:30 a.m. - Screening of The Wizard

12:00 p.m. - Vintage & Modern Computer Gaming - Presented By HRGeeks

1:30 p.m. - Screening of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters -
Hosted By Afterburner High Score Record Holder David Hernly

4:00 p.m. - Homemade Arcades & Repair - Presented By Derek Williams

7:00 p.m. - Screening of TRON

9:00 p.m. - Screening of The Last Starfighter

. . . and as mentioned before the video games will be available for free play all day long!

If you're a fan of all things video game related, or just like these undeniably awesome movies, you dare not miss what is sure to be the ultimate event of its kind in this area!! See you August 7th!!