Saturday, July 4, 2009
Celluloid Horror Movie Reviews
Drag Me To Hell (2009)
By Steven Duarte
Sam Raimi has always been well respected in the horror genre especially considering his contributions to the genre. He perfected the use of demons in his Evil Dead series which paved the way for many other films such as Demons, Demons 2 and The Church. A viewing of any of these Italian films will no doubtingly show a resemblance to Raimi’s Evil Dead work. Raimi had completed the Drag Me to Hell script after he finished Army of Darkness. Instead of going ahead with the script he decided to pursue other areas which eventually led him to directing the Spiderman franchise. So finally we now have Drag Me to Hell, the maestro’s return to the horror genre. So was it worth the wait or should Raimi stick with directing Peter Parkers adventures? Read on to find out the scoop.
The basic premise of the story involves a young loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) who works for a major bank. One day an old Gypsy woman comes in asking for another extension on her mortgage. Christine is not sure what to do so she asks her manager. Her manager empowers her to make this tough decision. The decision that Christine makes affects her immensely. The story is not too convoluted and is your basic curse story. Raimi’s over the top gross out humor that we first became familiar with in Evil Dead is back. From gross out throw up scenes to an ongoing gag of the old disgusting Gypsy constantly losing her dentures, Raimi does not fail to deliver on the gross out factor. Raimi maintains this tone for the duration of the film. Another area that fans of Raimi’s style will recognize is the humor that he brings to his horror films. Some notable instances include a dancing demon and a certain talking animal. It is instances like this that led horror fans to love his older horror films from the past.
The only problems that I saw with the film include the blatant foreshadowing at the beginning of the film. While foreshadowing can be great when used effectively, it can also take away from the film. I figured out the ending midway through the film. While this did not ruin the film for me, it did take away from the ending, which was intended to be a twist. Another area that I saw as a problem was the overall mainstream appeal of the film. People who have never seen any of the Evil Dead films will just not get this film. In fact some of the people I saw the film with thought it was stupid. This mesh of horror/humor was new to them and they were not ready for it. While I normally despise the mainstream in general, I do recognize that mainstream provides the money needed to fund future films of the same nature. I fear that this lack of appeal to the mainstream will deter major studios from green lighting future films like this.
Overall I enjoyed the film and felt that it was a great return for Raimi. This film shows that the many years that he has been directing Spiderman films has not made him soft and that he is more than capable in the horror genre. On a last note, see if any of you horror fans can catch the numerous Evil Dead references.
Cast: Stan Ivar, Wendy Schaal, Lyman Ward, Robert Jaffe, Diane Salinger, and the one and only Klaus Kinski
Director: William Malone
Studio/Label: Diamond Entertainment Corporation
Release Date: 2000
Extras/Features: Trailer (and a nifty plastic case)
If there's an award for best "Alien" rip off, "Creature" is clearly the winner.
Director William Malone, who brought us other stellar pics, such as FeardotCom (2002), House on Haunted Hill (1999), and Freddy's Nightmares (1988), gave this the old college try as he sends a space ship full of B-actors and actresses to a black, storm ripped planet called Titan (hence the alternative title for this picture, TITAN FIND) and dumps them off into some aliens forgotten space menagerie. But not all of the creatures are dead, as the titular monster has survived 2000 centuries, and decides it's time to play with the humans.
There is a lordly introduction before the film rolls, to let us know that the U.S. and the Germans are at odds in space over mining rights, and that fierce profit battle is being waged back on Earth. None of this matters worth a hill of beans ten minutes into the film, but it's a nice way to start, knowing that there's never going to be peace, even with the riches of open space to welcome us.
Our intrepid crew finds Titan, lands upon its unstable surface, and promptly breaks the ship in two. To add to their headache, their air supply is dwindling fast, and something is knocking off the dumbass crewmembers. I'm not being mean here, but what else do you call someone who walks into a dark room without a weapon, on a ship known to have something deadly aboard? It's worse than Camp Crystal Lake in space. Well, the alien also likes to assimilate his victims, turning them into zombie like creatures, by the use of a small throbbing penis like monster it sticks to their heads.
To perk things up the film gets too dull (and it does suffer here and there of the over-expositional disease, found mainly in films that don't have confidence in the audience's intelligence), we have the one and only Klaus Kinski playing his, by now, trademark crazy mother-effer. He's the last surviving member of a rival German space team who has also crashed on Titan.
But don't worry; his histrionics don't last too long. Before we know it, he's alien toast, and now one of the zombie things, and ready to kick some American ass.
The film gets better as the crewmembers decrease. Must be some kind of math formula for it, I guess. In any case, the atmosphere gets pretty spooky once there's only three left, and the shadows literally jump at you.
The music is a throwback to the days before everyone decided that synt-music was what every 80s horror film just had to have to make it complete.
The production work is not too bad for a Malone flick, and the special effects sort of work at the end, when the beasty gets...well...I'll let you find out how it ends.
THE CHURCH (1988)
Cast: Tomas Arana, Feodor Chaliapan, Hugh Quarshie, Barbara Cupisti, Antonella Vitale, and Asia Argento
Director: Michele Soavi
Studio/Label: Anchor Bay
Release Date: 2002
Michele Soavi bio
In medieval Europe, a band of crusading knights massacre a village of suspected devil worshippers, and then build a large gothic church atop the cursed remains.
Flash-forward to present day, to the still-standing elaborate cathedral, as a visiting historian uncovers an ancient bit of parchment that helps him unlock the basement crypt/doorway to Hell. Archaic mechanisms click into place, trapping a group of people inside the church as all Hell breaks loose.
Co-written and produced by maestro Dario Argento (Suspiria), THE CHURCH helped to cement the reputation of director Michele Soavi (Stagefright, Cemetery Man, two fantastic horror flicks of incredible visceral humor and intelligence) as the new master of Italian horror. This was originally intended to be a spinoff of Bava and Argento’s DEMONS and its sequel, and was known as DEMONS 3, but the studio decied after seeing its complexity and stunning visual to release it as a standalone picture instead.
All I can say is: if you’ve never seen this one, you’re missing a hell of a visual treat. Anchor Bay take this underrated classic of Italian horror and really give it the tender lovin’ care it deserves for a DVD release. The full screen is especially awesome during those sprawling architectural trawl shots that Soavi uses to wonderful effect. The sound is enhanced, so even a regular television still picks up those little nuances that make the background sound work so well. And the music…WOW! How can you pass up a chance to hear not just the great idols of Italian horror soundtracks, Goblin, but also Keith Emerson? The music plays like another character to the story, as it winds and insinuates itself throughout Soavi’s dark scenery.
A very young Asia Argento turns up as Latia, daughter to the abusive church maintenance man. The rest of the cast gives great performances as the church begins to eat them up, one at a time.
There are two scenes in particular that I’d like to point out, and they stand for me as demarcations in THE CHURCH, cinematic moments that tell you that the people who put them together knew their business visually, and knew that what they were doing was bigger than themselves. They’re both towards the end. One is a full screen shot of a man who has become a demon. He’s winged and even has a winding Boa Constrictor-like tail. The shot is so sweet for a horror fan that it’ll bring tears to your eyes.
And if that one doesn’t do it, then the second shot will for sure.
It’s a full head-shot of a demon rising from the crypt beneath the church. But the head is made up of dozens of people hanging together on this massive framework to give the subtle impression of a demon’s face slowly coming up from Hell.
As I said, Anchor Bay really puts their hearts and souls into this one, folks. They even present it uncut, uncensored and fully restored from the original vault materials. THE CHURCH is a must-own for true-blue horror fans, and for anyone who loves the pure visual beauty of film.
DEVIL'S NIGHTMARE (1972)
Cast: Erika Blanc, Jean Servais, Jacques Monseau, Ivana Novak, Lorenzo Terzon
Director: Jean Brismée
Studio/Label: Image Entertainment
Release Date: October 21, 1998
Extras/Features: Original Belgian trailer and three trailers for different European exploitation films.
Seven bus tourists find themselves stranded in an ancient Italian castle haunted by the succubus daughter of a reclusive Nazi war criminal. Each tourist cleverly represents a different deadly sin, and the beautiful and seductive Erika Blanc punishes all of them for their earthly pleasures. There's sex (both classic European exploitation type lesbian sex and good old hetero-sex, if you're not feeling up to seeing two pairs of heaving breasts), food, drink, stormy nights, creaking doorways, hidden chambers of lost treasure, and did I mention Erika Blanc?
Wow! If she doesn't get your...erm...attention then you must be dead already.
Actually this may be the best Belgian horror film to come out of the 70s. The production values are pretty classy for a Euro-plotation venture. The acting is decent, the soundtrack compliments the creepy Gothic atmosphere of the movie's darkest moments, and the colors are as eye catching as anything Mario Bava painted to the screen. There's even, dare I say, a theme. Sin is bad. Being pure and chaste is good. Okay, so it's a simple theme, but more than you'd expect from such a film.
But let's talk about what made this film memorable way beyond its years.
Her character is the driving force behind "The Devil's Nightmare", as she encompasses the tortured lust of a demon, and the melancholy of a diseased soul out of control. But don't think this means she shirks her duty as killer Succubus sent by the devil to take some souls to Hell. She does her best to show ironic death to all of her victims. We get beheadings, impalements, and even a death by turkey drumstick. Interestingly enough, there is no final God vs. the Devil battle. Just a quiet agreement between a rather sardonic looking Satan and the one surviving member of the tourist group, the chaste and pure young priest. How he ever refused the advances of Erika Blanc, I'll never understand.
JUST BEFORE DAWN (1982)
Cast: George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, and Deborah Benson
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Studio/Label: Shriek Show
Release Date: July 26, 2005
Anamorphic Wide screen
Commentary with director Jeff Lieberman
Cast and Crew Interviews
Shriek Show Trailers
Original Film Trailers
When five young campers ascend what they think is an uninhabited mountain paradise for a weekend of camping, they find out the hard way that they aren't alone.'
How many times have you read that same description, or at least something suspiciously similar, on the advertisement of a plethora of post "Friday the 13th" slasher flick? I mean, it seemed for a while there that all a producer had to do was come up with an isolated place, maybe a holiday of some kind to throw on the name, hire a bunch of talent less actors and topless actresses, and voila, he had himself a sure fire drive-in hit.
The funny thing is that "Just Before Dawn" actually outdoes "Friday the 13th" and its subsequently weaker protégés.
For those acquainted with director/writer/producer Jeff Lieberman's films (Squirm, Blue Sunshine, etc., etc.) know his movies are never simplistic and juvenile. He's a creator who can always be trusted to make you think long after the film has rolled end credits. And with "Just Before Dawn", he makes the slasher film almost artistic. Lieberman takes this simple storyline and imbues it with social messages about pollution, rape of the land by uncaring masses bent on exploiting its resources, and even manages to pull off a fairly subtle sexual empowerment subplot within the strictures of what is essentially a slasher flick with a brain. He keeps this running through the film, as the lead heroine, Connie, becomes the symbol of female power by movie's end. She becomes more and more powerful as Warren (her he-man boyfriend) becomes less and less sane, reasonable, and powerful as his friends begin to die or disappear.
He gives us a nasty twist halfway through the movie, but it's the end that will leave you shaky. You will not see the end coming. No gimmicks here, but I promise it will be a surprise for all.
His killers are a duo of mountain men, who by film's end seem to become symbolic protectors of the violated sanctity of nature. Lieberman even goes so far as to plant an abandoned church in the middle of the forest, and makes it the killers' headquarters, adding yet another clue that this God's country (i.e., the mountain) is sacred.
Granted, some will find the social message a bit heavy handed. But it keeps the story honest, and raises it way above the standard slasher flick bullshit.
Shot in Silver Falls State Park, Silverton, Oregon, the cinematography is particularly good, harkening back to William Girdler's ability to shoot forest scenes that looked both beautiful and daunting all at once. As a director, Lieberman knows how to give us sublime pastoral scenery, beautifully rendered in wide shots, and plenty of long pullbacks to show how isolated these characters soon become once they leave the road, and keeps a pace that misleads and then tightens into a tense denouement.
The sound effects are definitely a large part of the story, adding tension and depth to the scenes, as we hear noises as if we were stranded in the night with no knowledge of what hides just beyond the shadows. Shriek Show has done a bang-up job of making the sound almost another character in movie, one that pounces and scurries off stage, and unnerves.
And I have to say that Brad Fiedel does some wonderful things with the music. It's eerie, in the tradition of Goblin. The soundtrack is full of electronic pulses and sounds that border on nonsensical music, and he manages to convey the very mountain's voice of warning doom.
My final assessment of this lost classic of the pre-Friday the 13th days is that "Just Before Dawn" does for camping in the mountains what "Jaws" did for night swimming. If you have the money and time, pick up the newly remastered edition from Shriek Show (most definitely an up and coming contender for the Anchor Bay crown of excellence). It’s worth every penny.