Saturday, August 25, 2012

Movie Review: Killdozer (1974)


One of the great things about growing up in the 70's were all the truly bizarre T.V. movies that were produced and unleashed on unsuspecting audiences.  The horror genre in particular was well-represented with the likes of The Night Stalker, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Trilogy of Terror to name but a few.  Another standout, remembered for its title alone if nothing else, is the 1974 ABC production Killdozer.  I don't care what one may think of the finished product, you have to admire any team of individuals that would greenlight and participate in the making of a piece of cinematic art called Killdozer.  The ad pictured above pretty much captures everything you need to know going into Killdozer.  Six men in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a killer bulldozer.  Period.  End of story.  Recently through their video on demand vault series, Universal has released Killdozer almost 40 years after it aired, providing a chance for modern audiences to bear witness.  Revisitng this relic from my childhood, I was curious to see if it would live up to my fond memories and the positive cult classic repurtation it has developed over the years.  I'm happy to say the answer is an enthusiastic yes!

In a nutshell, Killdozer involves a group of construction workers on a Pacific island who unearth a long-buried meteor.  When the aforementioned dozer comes into contact with the meteor, a malevolent entity is transferred into the machine, and begins to dispatch the workers one by one.  That's really all there is to it.  This sort of thing is old hat now thanks to the likes of The Car, Christine, Maximum Overdrive, etc., but seeing a killer vehicle back then was something special.  Even crazier is that they chose a vehicle that doesn't move quickly, lending an air of additional absurdity to the proceedings.  Honestly this could have been an unmitigated disaster, but what makes it work are the performances from a credible cast and great production values. 

Killdozer boasts a surprisingly capable roster of familiar faces including Clint Walker (The Night of the Grizzly), James A. Watson Jr. (Airplane II), Neville Brand (Eaten Alive), and a pre-S.W.A.T. Robert Urich - and let me tell you these guys sell this premise with everything they've got!  Walker plays the foreman for whom the job represents a last chance to overcome alcoholism, and he is deadly serious and straight-faced for the duration.  The always reliable Brand is terrific as a crusty mechanic, and Urich shines in a brief role as the first victim who sounds the warning about the possessed machine.  By far though the award for brilliance in committed thespianism goes to James Wainright (Battletruck) who plays Urich's older best buddy.  This guy really lays it on thick about his friendship with Urich and his grief after Urich buys the farm.  It is way over the top for a movie called Killdozer.  The inappropriatene level of attention given to this character's devotion makes for the type of unintentional entertainment value cult movie fans (myself included) absolutely love.

In addition to the performances, the concept and production team for Killdozer is also top notch.  The film is based on a story by celebrated sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon (who also co-wrote the teleplay), it's produced by Herb Solow (the man responsible for the original Star Trek and Mission: Impossible), and the effects are by the legendary Albert Whitlock (Cat People, The Thing, Dune, etc.).  These are talented folks and the movie reaps the benefits of their participation.  There is a cinematic look to the film, the "cat and mouse" action is all well-staged, and when optical effects are called for they look pretty impressive for a 70's televison movie.  One could easily imagine Killdozer on a theatrical double-bill with Speilberg's Duel (it even starts with the Universal opening logo making it feel all the more like a theatrical release).

If there is any flaw in Killdozer, it's that there are a number of well-worn genre hallmarks that make appearances.  Specifically I was reminded a great deal of The Thing From Another World, to which this film owes a heavy debt.  Nevertheless, the fact that someone had the audacity to try and convince an audience that a self-aware bulldozer could be a credible threat to individuals that should have no problem outrunning it, earns substantial upfront good will in my book.  No matter how ridiculous Killdozer gets, the artistic team never winks at the audience.  Their commitment made the movie worthy of the grade school lunchroom debates that followed its airing, and qualify it as worthy of the fond memories it generated these decades later.  Viva la Killdozer!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Changes @ Fantasmo HQ

Hey Superfans!
For those of you not at our FantaSci event, there are some major changes happening at Fantasmo.  This half of Team Fantasmo will be departing the Commonwealth of Virginia for the Commonwealth of Kentucky to take on a library director position.  It's been an amazing 7+ years and I want you all to know how much I've appreciated the support you've shown the program.  We've watched almost 200 films together, some incredible (Can't Stop the Music), some not so incredible (The Ice Pirates), and some bafflingly awful (The Apple).  Regardless of the entertainment value of whatever was on screen, you made watching them fun and I'll certainly miss it!

Despite my departure, the other half of Team Fantasmo is committed to keeping things going!  So fear not, there are plenty more movies to be enjoyed or suffered through (depending on your point of view)!  I will also keep up the blog with updates on the shows and reviews of all things Fantasmo.  So keep watching here for the latest and greatest news.

On a related note my partner on 1 Great Movie, Original Superfan Tony Mercer, is going to keep that running as well.  Our first outing went really well, so hopefully it can continue.  We had hoped to have one more with both of us on hand this week, but alas the schedule didn't cooperate.  As soon as the next one is set, I will put the details up here on the blog.

So that's all for now.  Again thank you all for a wonderful 7 years, and rest assured I will be back to visit!  My only request is that Gymkata be screened in my honor every time I come to Virginia . . . is that really so much to ask :  )

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Movie Review: Monsignor (1982)


In his excellent book Superman Vs. Hollywood, author Jake Rossen recounts an anecdote in which Christopher Reeve cornered Sean Connery at a party and asked him for career advice.  Reeve was concerned that Superman "would make him a star and ruin his career, all at the same time" due to typecasting.  If anyone knew something about managing a career around portraying an iconic character, surely it would be James Bond himself.  After hearing Reeve's concerns about portraying the Man of Steel, Connery gave him the following advice: "If it's a big hit, do something completely different for your next picture.  And if the second one's a big hit, get yourself the best lawyer and agent in the world and stick it to them."  I have no doubt that Sean Connery thought he was giving Reeve sound advice, but upon viewing Monsignor my take is that Connery's formula is not to be applied in a one-size-fits-all type of fashion.

1982, now celebrating its 30th anniversary as a numerical notch in the belt of cinematic history, was a time when amazing movies were flowing out of Hollywood.  That summer in particular was a literal treasure trove in which one classic rolled out after another.  It was also a full two years since the previous installment of Superman.  The only other film Reeve had done as a leading man was Somewhere in Time, which came out in the fall of 1980, just a few months after Superman II.  While not a blockbuster, it was generally well-received, and meshed well with Reeve's likeable onscreen persona.  So in the spring of 1982, audiences knew Reeve essentially as Superman and a generally heroic, dashing cinematic figure.  Instead of coming out with another installment of Superman in that legendary summer, or at least another spectacular genre film, Reeve decided to put Connery's advice into effect with a vengeance.  In March of '82 he played Michael Caine's conspiratorial, murderous lover in Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap, and in October he followed that up by playing a corrupt priest in Monsignor.  Two very non-Superman like roles, and two movies not embraced with enthusiasm by the movie-going public.

Before getting into a general discussion about Connery's advice and Reeve's career, first let us address the business at hand - Monsignor.  I've got to be honest here, it's hard to know where to start with this movie, it's truly unlike anything I've ever seen.  The plot, such as it is, follows the rise of young priest John Flaherty (Reeve) from battlefield chaplain in World War II to Vatican treasurer.  Things starts out well enough with Flaherty attending the wedding of a close friend before he heads off to war, echoing the beginning of The Godfather.  Immediately following this promising start the film moves right into the thick of battle, where Flaherty heroically takes on a German battalion by himself.  This deed draws the attention of the Church hierarchy, and Flaherty is brought to the Vatican to serve as their treasurer.  This is all takes place in the first 15 minutes, and Monsignor seems to be moving briskly in the right direction.  Unfortunately upon Flaherty's arrival at the Vatican, things spiral downhill quickly and the movie earns its reputation as one of the elite circle of legendary Hollywood bombs.

Once Flaherty assumes his role as treasurer, he learns that the Vatican is short on financial resources due to the war.  Flaherty then coincidentally meets up with an old buddy, who is tied in with the Sicilian mafia in trafficking black market goods (e.g. chocolate, tobacco, liquor, etc.).  Flaherty, who up until this point would appear to be a pretty decent fellow, inexplicably decides it would be a good idea to funnel the goods through the Vatican commissary and take a slice of the proceeds to swell the Vatican coffers.  He cuts a deal with the local mob boss Don Appolini (Jason Miller), and receives the tacit approval of his superior Cardinal Santoni (Fernando Rey).  This pits Flaherty and Santoni against their rivals for the Vatican hierarchy Cardinal Vinci (Adolfo Celi) and Father Francisco (Tomas Milian).  Amidst all this supposed intrigue Flaherty also falls for a French nun (Genevieve Bujold), who he deceives regarding his identity as a priest.

This is one crazy movie, but not for the reasons one might think.  If memory serves me correctly, I recall at the time there being a bit of an uproar about how the Church was portrayed in this film.  In truth though this movie never reaches the type of intensity of your typical mob movie (e.g. Goodfellas).  Reeve's plot is actually pretty bland compared to that encountered in most crime sagas, and frankly the restrained approach the film generally adopts renders the whole organized crime thread pretty dull.  Basically the whole thing comes off as Reeve making some questionable decisions, and partnering with some seedy individuals who never come off as particularly ominious.  Jason Miller (The Exorcist) plays the villain of the piece, and I could totally see him being great in a mob movie role.  In Monsignor though he never seems like a mob boss, and therefore any sort of implied threat he might represent cannot be taken seriously.

And herein lies one of Monsignor's two key problem areas - the characters do not play the way the movie intends to portray them.  Not only is Miller's mob boss not villainous, but Reeve doesn't seem either diabolical or particularly clever for that matter.  In fact, the cues the movie gives you would have you believe we're watching Superman playing a member of the clergy.  The film's score is by Superman's own John Williams, and as Reeve is dashing about orchestrating black market dealings the score is light, chipper, and triumphant.  Adolfo Celi (Thunderball) and Tomas Milian (Django Kill!) are Reeve's adversaries in the Vatican, working to uncover his underhanded dealings, yet are portrayed as the bad guys!  Fernando Rey (The French Connection) is Reeve's mentor, tacitly approving of his schemes, and is portrayed as a likeable Yoda-type figure.  Granted in The Godfather we are primed to sort of enjoy the antics of Marlon Brando, James Caan, and Al Pacino, but here the supposed bad guys are portrayed as flawed, but really pretty okay folks.  It's bizarre.

The other major problem with Monsignor, and for my money what makes it memorable and worth watching, is that I don't believe I have ever seen worse performances from a group of talented actors.  To begin with, the movie is a who's who of genre film actors.  Rey, Celi, Miller, Bujold, Leonardo Cimino, Joe Pantoliano, and Robert Prosky all turn up and hit career lows.  It's as though they don't have any clue what they're supposed to be doing with these characters, and furthermore for such a lively bunch the energy level is at rock bottom.  The only one who comes off as interesting or awake is Tomas Milian.  Milian, for those unfamiliar, was a major Italian star in the late 60's and 70's.  He was in some of the greatest spaghetti Westerns and crime films to come out of Italy.  When I saw he was in the movie, receiving the highly coveted "and" credit, I got really excited.  Unfortunately he is underutilized, and featured in only a few key scenes.  Still it was great to see him, and he provided a brief respite from the torturous proceedings.

Standing head and shoulders above the other poor performers though is Christopher Reeve.  Let's be clear on one thing upfront, I am a HUGE Christopher Reeve fan.  Superman 1 and II were far more important to me as a kid than Star Wars, and perhaps never has there been a more pitch perfect performance in a film series than Reeve's portrayal of Clark Kent/Superman.  In Monsignor however, Reeve is playing against his strength (i.e. being the greatest of good guys) and it doesn't work for a minute.  We never buy him as a baddie, and I don't think he does either.  Reeve looks completely lost when trying to play heavy, and it's an absolute train wreck.  And so we come back to that advice Sean Connery offered to Reeve.  If you look at Connery's career, indeed he did seem to practice what he preached.  He did plenty of Bonds, but he would alternate with other unrelated films.  Here is a partial list of some of those "classics": A Fine Madness, Shalako, The Red Tent, The Offence, Zardoz, Meteor, Wrong Is Right, Cuba, etc.  Not exactly a roster of classics.

After Bond, while Connery certainly found work, it's pretty clear he wasn't hitting home runs left and right.  Much like Reeve, anything he did that strayed far from his persona was not a smashing success.  If you look at his career closely, it wasn't until The Untouchables and his Oscar that Connery launched into his great second act.  And that great second act featured a whole lot of Connery doing what he did best - playing likeable tough guys.  Here is a partial list of those films: Highlander, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Rock, etc.  It seems to me that Connery learned that it was wise to play to his strengths, and The Untouchables gave him a wonderful opportunity to course correct.

The problem for Reeve was that he never had a chance like The Untouchables.  All he got was his Never Say Never Again in the form of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. (Note: For the record I do enjoy Never Say Never Again, but I think most would agree it is far from Connery's finest hour as Bond).  His big comeback movie was John Carpenter's Village of the Damned, and we all know how that turned out.  In other words, Reeve took some questionable advice and charged down a path that ultimately short-circuited his career.  If he had embraced his heroic, leading man image, which honestly was where his significant talent was gathered, I think we all would have been treated to a far more volumious cinematic legacy.  Instead we have to sift through the likes of Switching Channels and Noises Off . . ., before we hit a Remains of the Day.  Alas.

To sum up, Monsignor is truly one of the worst movies I've ever seen, and may perhaps feature the worst performances ever from a name cast (a remarkable feat indeed).  It clocks in at an exhausting 121 minutes, but for fans of bad movies I have to give it my strongest recommendation.  You'll also be pleased to know that it has recently been given a wonderful treatment on DVD by Shout Factory, with a clean, anamorphic transfer, allowing you to appreciate its epic grandeur.  Run, don't walk, to check this out! 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

FantaSci X!


Hey Superfans!
Hard as it is to believe, our annual sci-fi/fantasy convention FantaSci is turning 10 years old this summer!  In honor of this amazing milestone, we've lined up one of our best events yet.  Here are the essential details:

When: Saturday, July 7th, 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. (Note: Library closes @ 5:00 p.m. and reopens @ 7:00 p.m. for the evening Fantasmo)

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

Schedule of Events:

10:30 a.m. - Horror Films of the 1990's - Presented by: John Kenneth Muir

10:30 a.m. - Tarzan's Zip Code: Where Exactly Did the King of the Jungle Live? - Presented by: Deborah Painter

11:00 a.m. - Lightsaber Demonstration - Presented by: Tidewater Alliance

11:30 a.m. - DC's New 52 & the Phenomena of Comic Reboots: Brilliant Ideas or Total Disasters? - Presented by: Justin Cristelli & Ryan Claringbole

11:30 a.m. - Has Everything Been Done Before? How Writers Can Create New Stories to Keep the Reader Engaged - Presented by: Tony Ruggiero, G. R. Holton & Jim Bernheimer

11:30 a.m. - Why We Love/Hate Star Trek - Presented by: Starfleet Atlantic

1:00 p.m. - Fantasy/Paranormal Fiction Cliches to Avoid: Keeping Things Fresh - Presented by: Daniele Lanzarotta, CW Nash, David Niall Wilson, and JM Lee

1:00 p.m. - A Culinary History of Klingon Food - Presented by: Will Aygarn

1:00 p.m. - Food in Ficton Writing: What are Your Characters Eating and Why Does it Matter? - Presented by: Leona Wisoker, Tony Ruggiero, Ashanti Luke & Elizabeth Blue

2:30 p.m. - Paranormal Investigating for the Writer: Myth & Reality - Presented by: Pamela K. Kinney

2:30 p.m. - Puppet Masters: The Wild, Wonderful World of Puppeteering - Presented by: Elizabeth Pasieczny & Craig T. Adams

2:30 p.m. - Lessons From the World of Self-Publishing - Presented by: Jim Bernheimer, David Niall Wilson & JM Lee

3:30 p.m. - Torres Vs. Zombies - Presented by: Alfredo Torres

3:30 p.m. - Klingon Makeup & Forehead Construction - IKV Devastator

Library closes @ 5:00 p.m. and reopens at 7:00 p.m.  Fantasmo begins at 8:00 p.m. featuring cheesy 80's double-feature of Spacehunter & Metalstorm!

That's the basics on one of our best lineups ever!  You can get full details on guests and participants over at our wonderful fan run site at: www.fantasciconvention.com (BIG thanks to Marie Bridgeforth for her terrific work on the site!!).  See you all at FantaSci on July 7th!




Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Behold . . . 1 Great Movie!

Hey Superfans!

We've been talking about this for a few months now, and the day is almost upon us . . . we're launching a new movie program called 1 Great Movie!  If you haven't heard us discuss it yet, let me fill you in on the pertinent details.  As you well know, at Fantasmo we are dedicated to bringing you the best (and worst) cult cinema has to offer on a monthly basis, with the often added value of delightful commentary, special guests, and related ballyhoo.  Typically we show a lot of horror, some sci-fi, occasional action, and other oddities which cannot be classified.  We recognize however, that there is a whole other world of movies out there that are not mainstream, but don't necessarily fit in with the mission of Fantasmo1 Great Movie is thus tailored to seek out THE BEST movies you've either never heard of, or that may have been unjustly dismissed/ignored by the critical community.

With that being said, we don't intend to serve you up a carbon copy of Fantasmo, so 1 Great Movie will feature a slightly different format.  One Friday per month, usually the week following Fantasmo, Fantasmo All-Star Tony Mercer (dramatically pictured below) and yours truly will host a screening of a movie we have decided is great.

 Fantasmo All-Star Tony Mercer

Your two self-appointed experts will open the screening by presenting our case (i.e. why we feel the movie is great) and then show you the film on the big screen (THE WAY IT WAS MEANT TO BE SEEN).  Following the screening we will then open the floor for discussion, and let you tell us if we were right or wrong.  We hope to encourage a forum for cineastes to delve into a heady exploration of buried celluloid gems, and call us on our missteps (which are sure to be few and far between - you guessed it, we won't be showing Gymkata anytime soon :  )

For our inaugural edition, taking place on Friday, June 8 @ 8:00 p.m., we will be screening Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.  When folks speak about Hitchcock, certain titles always are mentioned such as Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, etc.  However there are a number of outstanding titles that are mentioned far too infrequently for our tastes.  A little while back at Fantasmo we screened Hitchcock's Rope to an enthusiastic response, and were surprised at how many attendees had never seen or heard of it!  With this in mind Tony and I felt that a lesser known Hitchcock outing would be a great way to kick off the program, and hopefully get you in our corner/avoid scorn and contempt from the word go (Tony wisely talked me down from French Connection II for our kickoff session, but rest assured one day it will happen).


So without any further ado, here are your full 1 Great Movie: Episode I details:

When: Friday, June 8 @ 8:00 p.m.

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

Great Movie:  Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

As with Fantasmo the doors will open at 7:00 p.m. for pre-show discussions about all things cinema, and we'll make with the formal proceedings at 8:00 p.m.  We're looking forward to this next fantastic addition to our film offerings here at the library, and hope you'll join us for this historic first edition of 1 Great Movie!  See you there!





Friday, May 18, 2012

Want to See a Particle Accelerator?


Here's a little off-topic coolness for your Friday afternoon.  This came up at Fantasmo last week, and sounds like an amazing event!  The Jefferson Lab is having an open house tomorrow in which you can see everything from particle accelerators to powerful lasers in action.  If you get a chance to make it out it should be a one-of-a-kind opportunity . . . sort of like watching Razorback on the big screen June 1st (I'd say they're in roughly the same league right? :  )

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fantasmo Episode 71: Killer Critters

Hey Superfans!

Our summer season is in full swing, and what says summer better than a couple of killer critter movies?!?  Jaws gave you fair warning that it wasn't safe to go in the water, and our two classics will add idyllic coastal islands and the Australian Outback to the list!

The first killer critter movie we'll be featuring is the 1977 film The Pack starring the incomparable Joe Don Baker.  Directed by Robert "Gymkata" Clouse, The Pack finds Baker playing a marine biologist on an island resort battling a horde of wild dogs.  Let's just review that real quick.  The director of Gymkata, Joe Don Baker playing a marine biologist, and a pack of killer dogs.  If that doesn't equal B-movie gold I don't know what in the world does :  )

But that's not all!  The second feature on the bill is the 1984 thriller Razorback, starring television icon Gregory Harrison (Logan's Run).  Razorback was the feature film directorial debut from legendary cult director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), and chronicles one man's battle against a giant, killer boar.  Mulcahy takes what could have been a run-of-the-mill monster movie, and turns it into one of the most visually interesting movies of the 80's.  If you remember how cool the cinematography and editing was in Highlander, imagine that level of artistry applied to a movie about a giant, killer boar.  Yep, pretty ridiculous, but also amazing.

So without any further ado here are your full Episode 71 details:

When: Friday, June 1 @ 8:00 p.m.

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

Films:

8:00 p.m.: The Pack (1977)

9:45 p.m.: Razorback (1984)

So there you have it Superfans, two outstanding killer critter movies back on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN!  See you there!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dillzilla Strikes!



Check this out! Longtime friend of Team Fantasmo and local filmmaker/puppeteer extraordinaire Elizabeth Pasieczny has just posted the official teaser for her upcoming film project Dillzilla: Titan of Terror! If you look closely you will spot Fantasmo All-Stars Craig T. Adams and Debra Burrell, and if you look even closer you'll note this was shot in none other than Smithfield, VA!

Stay tuned to Pickleman Productions for the latest developments, and catch Elizabeth at FantaSci this summer!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fantasmo Episode 70.5: Team Fantasmo Vs. Dracula's Family


Hey Superfans!

True to our word, your Team Fantasmo has rescheduled the awesome movies we had planned for our delayed March show!  How better to kick off our summer season than with two classic Universal horror sequels: Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula!  You've heard this one before, so we'll skip right to the pertinent details :  )

When: Friday, May 11 @ 8:00 p.m.

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

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Dracula's Daughter (1936)

9:30 p.m.: Son of Dracula (1943)

So there you have it Superfans, two outstanding horror classics to wash away the aftertaste of our Schlock-O-Thon. 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!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Fantasmo 7th Anniversary Schlock-O-Thon Extravaganza


Hey Superfans!

It’s that time again, time to ring in another glorious year of Fantasmo!  Prepare to be astounded when I tell you that April marks seven, count ‘em seven, Fantasmorific years of us bringing you the best cult cinema has to offer!  Now as everyone well knows seven is widely considered to be a lucky number.  That’s terrific news for your Team Fantasmo, because we were a little worried we might not be able to top last year’s Schlock-O-Thon anniversary episode.  You may recall, those of you brave enough to relive the horror, that we screened three amazingly terrible movies: Megaforce, The Green Slime, and Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze.  Honestly the task of finding a film as deliriously awful as Megaforce seemed almost impossible.  Thanks to lucky number seven, we believe we’ve pulled off the impossible.  For this very special edition of Fantasmo we’ve dug up three of the most outrageously bad movies of all time for your viewing enjoyment and cinematic education.  Without any further ado, here are your full Schlock-O-Thon details:

When: Friday, April 27, 8:00 p.m.

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

Films:

#1 Yor: The Hunter From the Future (1983)

#2Enter the Ninja (1981)

#3The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

So there you have it, perhaps our most unbelievable Schlock-O-Thon lineup yet. Come share in the celebration as we ring in year 8, and bear witness to these masterworks of madness on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Movie Review: Grave Encounters (2011)


Just after the first of this year I found myself fighting a head cold, and I ended up being home sick for a few days. For the duration I was more or less confined to the couch, which led to a Netflix marathon since I was too sapped of energy to do much of anything else. During those days I discovered an outrageous show called Ghost Adventures which is apparently a continuing series on the Travel Channel. The basic premise is that 3 guys who are paranormal investigators get locked up in a creepy location overnight with special equipment and try to provoke ghosts into appearing. Whether you believe in anything that takes place on the show is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned, because these guys are wildly entertaining. Normally in these documentary style television programs the host tends to be the voice of reason, and often projects a demeanor of professionalism. The GAC crew, particularly the leader Zak Bagans, wanders on the scene like they just drove in from the frat house. It makes for an unusual setup, and the folks they are interviewing often seem taken aback by their fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants modus operandi.

In their overnight investigations the trio employs a variety of equipment types, which measure everything from electromagnetic energy spikes to EVP monitors which capture spirit voices amidst white noise. If you allow yourself to go with it, the show is a lot of fun and pretty creepy at times. It only gets really hard to stomach when they push things too far with possible possessions and the like. The best aspect of the whole enterprise, and one which I hadn’t seen tried to the extreme it is in GA, is that Bagans and company actively insult the spirits, calling them cowards, losers, etc. Needless to say this is pretty over-the-top, and much more entertaining than watching a serious scientist monitor instruments. It also helps that they rely almost entirely on their night vision camera viewfinders to navigate their way through the pitch black environments, providing a chuckle or two when they trip over a misplaced piece of furniture now and then.

So to bring all of this to the business at hand, I recently discovered a related film that blew me away on a couple of fronts. The film is called Grave Encounters and is both a parody of Ghost Adventures, and an unbelievably scary thrill ride. The plot in a nutshell is that the crew of a Ghost Adventures style television show called Grave Encounters disappears while investigating an abandoned hospital. Their footage has been found by the network and is being revealed for the first time. So it’s your basic found footage setup a la Blair Witch and so many others. If you were scrolling through your Netflix queue and came across it, Grave Encounters would appear unremarkable. The cover image is unimpressive, and the description has the ring of some cheapo DTV title. Worse still it’s directed by a duo calling themselves The Vicious Brothers, which did not sit well with me. Brotherly director teams have a hit and miss track record in my experience, leaning more toward the miss side. Honestly after The Brothers Strause and their Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem, if you are any sibling duo other than Joel and Ethan Cohen, you’ll be working at a disadvantage to impress me.

Before going any further I’ll say this – if you don’t like found footage movies then Grave Encounters is not likely to change your mind on the subject. For myself, I think the found footage setup has been established as a legitimate category within the horror genre, and when done right I think these films are as scary as anything I’ve ever seen on film. In my mind what makes them so effective is how down-to-earth they are in terms of avoiding showy digital effects or big budget production values. Hollywood has forgotten how to make a truly scary A-list film (e.g. The Exorcist) and these found footage entries are about the best thing going as of late.

Grave Encounters is for roughly 75% of its running time an utterly brilliant movie. The first half hour or so is more or less setup, and is a masterful riff on Ghost Adventures. We are introduced to the footage by the show’s producer, who lets us know the footage has only been edited for time. After the brief intro we jump right into the footage which shows the Grave Encounters crew going through their pre-lockdown interviews with parties associated with the hospital. The crew is composed of 5 members instead of 3 as in Ghost Adventures, including a host, a psychic, and three camera crew members. As we see the raw footage of the host Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) going through his introduction and interviewing the experts on the hospital, we discover the show is a total sham. He encourages the interviewees to embellish their stories, sometimes going as far as paying them to make things up. Rogerson doesn’t do a straight impersonation of Bagans, but he nails the style of Bagans in a way that is absolutely hilarious if you’re familiar with Ghost Adventures (and honestly you would benefit from watching a couple of episodes before sitting down with this). He’s a charlatan with a cocky attitude, but drops hints that on a deeper level he believes in the supernatural. He just happens to place a higher premium on his ego than on the otherworldly.

The slow setup as the group tours the hospital may throw some off the case, but getting to know the characters pays off when things start to go crazy. The crew are convincing as real people, seeking a little glory while having a blast chasing ghosts they don’t actually believe in. The tour of the building also includes creepy foreshadowing for later (e.g. a window that likes to open on its own), and provides a sense of geography that allows one to identify with the crew’s anxiety when things start going haywire. I admire movies like this that take their time setting things up, because more often than not it pays off in the long run. The current trend in horror leans more toward instant gratification, eschewing subtlety in favor of gore and jump scares. Grave Encounters, again for 75% or its running time, nails an atmosphere of anticipatory dread punctuated with some truly bone-chilling moments.

Once the crew gets locked in for the night, they proceed to walk through the premises using their night vision cameras (just like Ghost Adventures). Things more or less go as they expect initially with nothing much happening as they theatrically challenge and taunt the ghosts to show themselves. As such they try to embellish by overacting (e.g. the psychic sensing spirits), but they don’t have to do so for long. When they start using the EVP recorders and asking questions, unsettling voices start materializing. This leads up to a literally hair-raising moment when a spirit physically interacts with the sole female crew member. The crew utterly freaks out when this happens and runs back to their base camp at the lockdown entrance. They become so terrified by what they’ve seen that they decide to sit tight until morning when the doors are opened back up. The crew member who had been monitoring them from base decides he’s brave enough to go and collect the static cameras that had been set up throughout the building, and heads off solo with a promise to return shortly.

This is where things kick into high gear. The crew member fails to return, and the others go to search for him. In so doing they discover the hospital has changed, and its geography no longer makes sense. It has become a maze with no apparent exit. As they move through the darkened corridors we see from the POV of their cameras, and it is absolutely terrifying not knowing what may happen at any given moment. Noises are heard from off camera, there’s a flash of movement here and there, all hinting at some unseen terror lying just around the next corner. It’s Blair Witch times ten scary. I watched this with a pair of headphones on, completely immersed in the sound design, and it was flat out amazing how effective it was in drawing me in. So much so that it became hard to watch. I can count on one hand the number of movies that have pulled off such a feat to this extent, and Grave Encounters has joined that exclusive club.

Sounds great right? Well you may recall I mentioned that the movie was successful for 75% of its running time. When the film hits that 75% mark things take a turn. As the crew is exploring, attempting to find the missing crew member and the way out, the movie does a major reveal of one of the malevolent entities inhabiting the hospital . . . and it is perfect. It scared the living daylights out of me, absorbed as I was by that point. It involves a digital effect, which usually results in pulling me out of the movie. Here they don’t linger on it, largely because the crew immediately scatters in all directions. The speed of the reveal keeps you from dwelling on it as an effect, and the result is one of the most disturbing images I’ve seen in a horror film in some time. Not disturbing in the gut-churning/Hostel type of way, but in a freaky/shakes you to the core manner. If you’ve seen the last five minutes or so of [REC] that’s the kind of disturbing vibe I’m talking about.

At that point in the proceedings I was thinking that Grave Encounters might be a mini-masterpiece, and it comes very close to hitting that mark. Unfortunately after the initial reveal the filmmakers get carried away. Entities are revealed frequently, and the situation no longer feels genuine. The Brothers Vicious switch abruptly to a kitchen sink approach that quickly breaks the wonderful tone they spent the first hour establishing. Thankfully the movie is almost over by this point, so there isn’t a great deal of time for things to be utterly ruined. I believe they were riffing on [REC] and its ending, but they don’t come anywhere close to duplicating the success that brilliant film’s finale. Either way it’s an unfortunate turn of events.

Despite a weak finish, the first hour of Grave Encounters is well worth the trip. If you dig found footage horror, are willing to suspend disbelief, and have a great set of headphones, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this film. Even more so if you watch Ghost Adventures!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fantasmo By the Numbers: Volume 2


Hey Superfans!

I just received exciting personal news today that I made the annual Movers & Shakers list in Library Journal. LJ is one of the major publications in the library world, and this annual list highlights folks who are doing interesting things in libraries on various fronts. The Fantasmo site made an appearance in the write up, so I’d like to welcome all newcomers to the House of Fantasmo who may head this way from the article. Breifly put, Fantasmo is a monthly program co-founder Rob Floyd and I started up at Chesapeake Central Library seven years ago. Each month we show a double-feature of mostly outrageous cult movies, frequently accompanied by all manner of ballyhoo, gimmickry, guest speakers, etc. Here on the blog I talk about Fantasmo, related yearly events, and cult movies in general. In order to provide a proper introduction, I think it only appropriate to give new arrivals a sampling of what typically gets written about here beyond our programs and events.

With this in mind I have once again taken a hard-hitting look at the site stats to identify the top 10 most viewed articles of all time here on the blog. You longtime readers may recall the last time I did this this, the top ranking item was none other than my review of Smokey and the Bandit 3: Smokey is the Bandit. I know for many readers this revelation shook your faith in humanity to the very core (truly sorry about that : ) The good news, depending on your point of view, is that this year SATB3 has been dethroned! The bad news is that the new champ isn’t exactly Citizen Kane either . . . but then this wouldn’t be Fantasmo if Orson Welles appeared on the list (unless you count the time he lent his vocal talents to Transformers: The Movie). Not to let the cat out of the bag, but (spoiler) the image at the top has something to do with the top spot on the list. You have been warned.

So without any further ado, I give you the Fantasmo Top 10 . . .

#10: Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze: Rob and I screened this at last year’s Schlock-O-Thon Anniversary special to a delighted crowd. Some call this a dreadful adaptation of a classic pulp hero, but we found it to be an entertaining 1970’s cousin to the much-heralded cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

#9: The Keep: One of the rare critical misfires from celebrated director Michael Mann. The Keep is a surreal adaptation of the F. Paul Wilson novel of the same name, which bears little resemblance to the source material and one of the most questionable rubber suited monsters of the 80’s.

#8: The Cinema of Joe Don Baker: After getting a terrific response to a survey of the cinematic works of the incomparable Lee Majors (see #4), I thought I’d take a closer look at the canon of Walking Tall megastar Joe Don Baker. Apparently there are hordes of Baker groupies out there, skyrocketing this article to #8 on the all-time list.

#7: The Henriksen Principle of Elevation: Early last summer I participated in author John Kenneth Muir’s blog-a-thon celebrating the release of the official biography of character actor Lance Henriksen. In my contribution I discussed the phenomenon in which Henriksen, by investing himself completely in every role he accepts, elevates otherwise not so fantastic films to a higher level through his mere presence.

#6: The Island: I was really happy to see this one still made the list. One of the craziest bombs from the 80’s, and most certainly one of the most fun reviews I’ve posted.

#5: Smokey is the Bandit 3: Oh how the mighty have fallen, but at least it still made the list!

#4: The Cinema of Lee Majors: I posted this after seeing a Lee Majors Viking film on Netflix. This led me to ask two important questions, which readers also found equally intriguing. First: There was a Viking film starring Lee Majors? Second: Lee Majors actually starred in theatrical films? The answer to both was a surprising, and resounding yes!

#3: Highlander II: The Quickening: Rob will not even acknowledge the existence of this film, but I find it far preferable to the later sequels and television series. The filmmakers sought to answer the mystery behind the immortals, and the answer they supplied was one of the most infamous missteps in the history of cult cinema. Fascinatingly awful.

#2: Up the Academy: Possibly the worst movie ever made. So bad MAD Magazine had their name officially removed from the credits. Yes, that bad.

#1: Cool As Ice: The Internet searchers have once again done themselves proud by putting one of the most notorious films in Fantasmo history at the top of the list. Vanilla Ice’s stab at becoming a leading man. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

So there you have it blog visitors new and seasoned, a slice of the most statistically beloved Fantasmo postings. This will either serve as a reminder of why you love Fantasmo so much, or a cold bucket of water style wake-up call that you’re spending way too much time contemplating the cinematic importance of Joe Don Baker. Enjoy!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Breaking News!


Hey Superfans!
Due to unforeseen circumstances our program for this Friday, March 16th, will have to be rescheduled. Fear not, Team Fantasmo will still take on Dracula's Family in Episode 70, but it will be in May! Stay tuned for further details.

In the meantime, we will see you on March 31st for our special edition of Fantasmo at this year's Freeplay event. Our features will be two of the most recent game-themed epics: Tron Legacy and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Freeplay Returns . . . Again!


Hey Superfans!

March is a busy month here at Fantasmo HQ. Not only do we have our Universal horror double-feature on the 16th, but we’ll also be hosting the second annual Freeplay gaming event. The program will take place at Chesapeake Central Library (298 Cedar Road) on Saturday, March 31st. You may remember Freeplay 2 was scheduled back in August, but a pesky hurricane got in the way. Well that old hurricane may have won the battle, but it did not win the war. Freeplay is back stronger than ever!

For those who did not make it out to our inaugural event, Freeplay is a full day and evening filled with classic video game consoles, arcade machines, movies, and guest speakers. If you miss the experience of going into the arcades of the 80's, it will be a true trip down memory lane . . . and if you missed it the first time around you can now experience what all the fuss was about!


The fine folks of South Eastern Virginia Gaming make this event possible, and this year expect to be bringing even more machines than last time. In particular, due to their popularity at the first Freeplay, they are making a special effort to get more pinball machines!

Here is just a sample of the games to expect:

Arcades: Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Robotron: 2084, X-Men (4-player), Police Trainer, Fighting Vipers, Cruis’n Exotica, and more!

Pinball: Tron Legacy, The Dark Knight, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Hook, and more!

Consoles: Pong, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari Jaguar, NES, Super NES, Colecovision, Intellivision, Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Nintendo 64, GameCube, Playstation, 3D0, NEC, and more!

Computers: Commodore 64, Tandy, Atari, Apple II, Texas Instruments, and more!


Special video game movie screenings during the day include:

11:00 a.m.: Mortal Kombat

1:00 p.m.: Final Fantasy: Advent Children

3:00 p.m.: Double Dragon

Panel discussions will include:

Arcade & Pinball Repair

Gaming Comedy and History

Competition & High Score Gaming with Dave Hernly of Auric Arcade

The gaming and programs will run from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., after which there will be a special evening Fantasmo featuring Tron Legacy at 8:00 p.m. and Scott Pilgrim at 10:00 p.m.

So come out and join your Team Fantasmo for a full day of free gaming, free game movies, and free game programs . . . you can leave your quarters at home! You can also share your thoughts on the Freeplay 2 Facebook page! See you there!

And for those of you attending Galaticon that Saturday, come on over afterward there will still be plenty of action during our second half : )

Friday, February 17, 2012

Fantasmo Episode 70: Team Fantasmo Vs. Dracula's Family


Hey Superfans!
Hard believe though it may be, we are rapidly approaching our 7th year anniversary in April. This of course means we will once again be gathering the most outrageously bad movies we can lay our hands on for our mini-marathon, and let me assure you we have some great stuff lined up! Before we hit you with all that cheese, we thought it only right and proper to give you a really great double-feature to brace you for what's to come. With that in mind for our March show we'll be screening two classic Universal horror sequels to the one and only Dracula (which incidentally we have never shown believe it or not)! A favorite trick for these sequels was having a relation of the monster carry on the legacy, be it a son, daughter, bride, cousin, etc. In the case of Dracula we'll be highlighting the antics of his son and daughter.

Always the gentlemen we believe in ladies first, and as such our first feature is Dracula's Daughter. It's a terrific sequel that carves its own niche apart from the original, as Professor Van Helsing squares off against a Hungarian countess seemingly under the spell of the late Count Dracula. In Son of Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. takes on the title role playing one Count Alucard (wink, wink), brought to America to help make an heiress immortal. Those are the facts, and without any further ado here is your official Episode 70 lineup:

When: Friday, March 16 @ 8:00 p.m.

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

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Dracula's Daughter (1936)

9:30 p.m.: Son of Dracula (1943)

So there you have it Superfans, two outstanding horror classics to tide you over until our April extravaganza. 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!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Galacticon Returns!


This just in! Galacticon, the sci-fi convention organized by the Tidewater Alliance and Virginia Beach Public Library, is scheduled for Saturday, March 31st from 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. A full day of panels and programs, as well as local fan groups and vendors awaits! If you like sci-fi and fantasy, particularly Star Wars and Star Trek, you definitely want to check it out!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fantasmo Episode 69: Team Fantasmo Vs. The End of the World


Hey Superfans!
The New Year is off and running, and we're not slowing down one bit! Following hot on the heels of a special presentation we just did at MarsCon, your Team Fantasmo will be screening films of the post-apocalypse for our February edition. There's a lot to choose from under this heading, so we've picked out one of the cheesiest films, as well as THE movie which arguably is the highpoint of the genre. Of course I'm talking about Damnation Alley and The Road Warrior! That's right a night that runs the spectrum between Jan-Michael Vincent and Mad Max . . . should be one to remember that's for sure :)

Damnation Alley, for those who may not know, was supposed to be the big movie from 20th Century Fox in the summer of 1977. They poured most of their effort into it, while virtually ignoring another little movie coming out in May called Star Wars. On paper I guess giant scorpions, flesh eating cockroaches, and a wicked battletruck seemed more exciting that droids and Wookies, but we all know how that turned out. The Road Warrior on the other hand really launched the post-apocalyptic craze of the 80's, and made Mel Gibson an international star. His Mad Max character became a full blown icon which would spawn a third film to complete the trilogy, as well as a host of imitators (but few equals). So without further ado, here are your full Episode 69 details:

When: Friday, February 3rd @ 8:00 p.m.

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

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Damnation Alley (1977)

9:45 p.m.: The Road Warrior (1981)

So there you have it Superfans, the ultimate post-apocalyptic lineup! You dare not miss these cautionary tales back on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! See you there!