Monday, January 23, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Frogs (1972)

By the 1970s, mankind had finally realized that, as species go, we were pretty much the worst thing to ever happen to the planet – what with treating the natural world as our own personal dumping ground, pumping pollution into the air, and poisoning the waters with chemicals – and so the modern environmental movement was born.

Not only was this a hopeful development for the survival of the Earth but it was also terrific news for connoisseurs of B-movies as “eco-horror” became a popular trend and the ‘70s became a decade when – on screen, at least – nature had finally had enough of man’s bullshit.

In Frogs, directed by George McCowan and written by Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees, a young Sam Elliott stars as Pickett Smith, a freelance photographer busy taking pictures of the trash-strewn Southern swamplands surrounding the island estate of the wealthy Crockett family. While paddling around the Crockett’s property, Pickett’s tiny canoe is accidentally overturned by the careless motorboat antics of cocky Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke), who’s racing across the water with his sister Karen (Joan Van Ark) along for the ride. After capsizing Pickett’s canoe, Clint and Karen fish Pickett out of the water and, after apologizing, take him back to the family estate to change into some dry clothes.

The Crocketts are preparing to celebrate the next day’s 4th of July holiday as well as the four Crockett family birthdays that all fall within the month of July and Pickett is invited to stay. The hard boiled patriarch of the Crockett clan, the wheelchair bound Jason Crockett (Ray Milland of X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes), whose fortune was made in chemicals, grills Pickett on why he was taking pictures on his private property but it doesn’t take long for Pickett and Jason to develop a bristly, but not disrespectful, rapport.

Pickett explains that he’s doing a layout on the effects of pollution but all that environmental talk doesn’t hold much water with Jason Crockett. Bitter and bullheaded, he doesn’t have any apologies to make or any remorse to express for the way he treats Mother Earth. And he also holds no patience for the army of frogs that are slowly encroaching on his property day by day and the ever-maddening cacophony of croaking that they unleash every night so Pickett’s talk of environmental abuse falls on deaf ears.

With the entire Crockett clan gathered at the estate for the holiday celebration, we’re introduced to the kind of large cast that’s always a clear indication to horror fans that a film’s body count will be high. And in that regard, Frogs does not disappoint. Besides Jason, Clint, and Karen, there’s also Clint’s wife Jenny (Lynn Borden), their two preteen kids, as well as various aunts, uncles, cousins along with household staffers Charles (Lance Taylor Sr.) and Maybelle (Mae Mercer) – and not a single one of them are the least bit alert to the fact that, on the eve of America’s greatest holiday, that nature has declared war on them.

As the 4th dawns, the various animals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects that make their home on, or around, the grounds of the Crockett estate roll out their own plans for celebrating Independence Day. Rather than the expected cookout and fireworks, it’s the Crockett’s vs. the Croakers in a 4th of July showdown. As various species come together in an unlikely coalition, with the frogs presumably acting as generals, it’s like Cyrus’ unrealized plan in The Warriors to unite every gang in New York City into one unstoppable army. Here, it’s about the unprecedented affiliation of frogs, lizards, alligators, spiders, birds, turtles and – just for good measure – leeches (apparently snails, crickets, and earthworms missed the memo and failed to show up for battle).

Those who haven’t watched the movie might (understandably) assume that Frogs goes for the campy approach but it doesn’t. There’s no winking, no ironic acknowledgment of how absurd the premise is. This was, thankfully, a movie made years before it became customary to approach B-material with a smirk. Taking a straight-faced approach with this story does present challenges, however. Like, how is it believable that any full-grown adult would get done in by the likes of frogs or butterflies?

The answer is that they’d have to practically shoot themselves in the foot first and that’s more or less exactly what happens to one character here as they make the mistake of running with a rifle in hand only to trip and shoot themselves in the shin – which then makes them easy pickings. Other doomed characters in the film simply aren’t able to get the upper hand when it counts – no matter how unimpressive their attackers might be. When you get taken out by a turtle, for example, that’s a humiliating death – even if it is a snapping turtle and thereby must be automatically considered to be more ferocious than any ordinary turtle.

All the deaths in Frogs are protracted and quite nasty. They’re kind of sad to behold, frankly, as the characters get it pretty bad – most notably dotty old Aunt Iris (Holly Irving), who has cause to regret her hobby of collecting butterflies during her last tortuous moments on Earth.

As silly as it might be to consider that this absurd film is even the least bit unsettling, I maintain that Frogs possesses a weirdly disturbing quality – perhaps because it spends so much time lingering on the suffering of each victim. No one dies a sudden, quick death in this movie and the howls of agony that some give out are grim to behold as they are slowly overwhelmed by the vengeful emissaries of nature.

The original blueprint for the eco-horror subgenre, of course, was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds (1963) but Hitchcock was not interested in serving up a message and, in keeping with the Daphne du Maurier short story that his film was based on, left the motivation of his feathered fiends unexplained – an artistic choice that made The Birds difficult to imitate.

It wasn’t until environmental abuse became a hot issue that filmmakers were given a story hook they could understand in regards to unleashing nature on man. As a result, the eco-horror films of the ‘70s have always seemed to be a separate species from the enigmatic Birds – even when they involved actual birds.

Among that group of revenge of nature films, in which payback was the order of the day, Frogs remains a movie that leap (frogs) past its creepy crawly competition.

Originally published on 7/3/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Vampire (1979)

Having not read Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel, I didn’t know what to hope for from the first footage of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter but I have to say my initial reaction upon seeing the first clips was one of slight dismay. The sight of Lincoln boasting apparently superhuman strength as he splinters a tree into toothpicks with one mighty swing of an axe and seeing him engaging in Matrix-style fighting moves told me right away that this wasn’t the kind of vampire hunter movie I was hoping to see. Then again, they just don’t make those kinds of movies anymore.

While Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter might well turn out to be great fun (if not for me, then at least for others), my weariness at watching the overblown action elements on display in its commercials and trailers sent me searching for solace in old-school vampire hunting as depicted in the 1979 TV movie Vampire.

1979 happened to be a banner year for bloodsuckers with the release of both John Badham’s Dracula remake and Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu in theaters and on TV, the premiere of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot adaptation as well as the serial The Curse of Dracula as seen on the short lived but fondly recalled NBC series Cliffhangers. Lost in the shuffle was Vampire, a minor but entertaining TV movie that was intended as a pilot for a series that never came to be.

Directed by the wonderfully named E.W. Swackhamer (who, during the course of his career, directed episodes of everything from I Dream of Jeannie to The Partridge Family), Vampire was co-written by Steven Bochco, who would go on to be the co-creator, writer and producer of some of the most successful and critically acclaimed TV programs of the ‘80s and ‘90s – including Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue. Bochco’s co-writer on Vampire was Michael Kozoll, whose previous television credits included penning a couple of episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker and who would later reteam with Bochco on Hill Street Blues as co-creator and fellow head writer.

Bochco and Kozoll’s script for Vampire is not nearly in the league of their better known work but it is serviceable, if rudimentary, and it has the advantage of being brought to life by a top-notch cast – including Jason Miller (The Exorcist), E.G. Marshall (Creepshow), Kathryn Harrold (The Sender), and bad guy extraordinaire Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer, Bad Dreams). Even Maniac’s Joe Spinell shows up in one scene as a police captain.

With a cast like that, it’s a crime that Vampire has been largely forgotten over the years. As Vampire begins, the construction of a new church in San Francisco causes the slumbering form of Anton Voytek (Lynch), a seven hundred year old Hungarian prince, to awaken. Forty years earlier, he was buried on the site when his old lair collapsed on him during a fiery battle with a police detective determined to extinguish Anton’s evil from the world once and for all and he has laid there ever since, oblivious of the passing decades until the recent construction began.

In charge of the building project are the happy couple of esteemed architect John (Miller) and his wife Leslie Rawlins (Harrold). Thanks to this project, their stars are rising on the San Francisco social scene but all that success and happiness is about to be shredded once their attorney and friend Nicole Decamp (Jessica Walter) introduces them to her new boyfriend – the dapperly-dressed smoothie known as (da-dum!) Anton Voytek. Anton, like any good vampire, has a fortune to his name but when he hires Nicole’s trusted friend John Rawlins to excavate an old estate in order to retrieve the many priceless artifacts and works of art that he has accumulated over the years, John recognizes many of the works as being stolen goods and drops the dime on Anton.

Anton is arrested and although his new lady friend bails him out before dawn (with barely enough time for him to flee through the streets of San Francisco back to his coffin), Anton vows revenge on John and he soon makes good on that threat by paying Leslie a night time visit. After Anton shatters John’s world, bloodsucker style, Vampire becomes a bitter battle between John and his undead adversary, with a curmudgeonly ex-cop named Harry Kilcoyne (Marshall) allying himself with John in order to stop Anton for good. Harry’s ex-partner is the one who put Anton in the ground years earlier and now it falls to the vigilant Harry to continue the fight. But will these two mortal men be enough to end an immortal vampire’s reign of terror?

During the course of this writing, the sad news was announced that Richard Lynch had passed away at the age of 72. As you would expect based on Lynch’s infallible record of essaying evil doers, he makes for a hell of a vampire – both sinister and suave as he rocks his impeccably slick late ‘70s duds. He isn’t on screen long in Vampire but his impact is felt throughout the film. As with every role he ever played, his persona leaps off the screen.

For their part, Miller and Marshall make an appealing pair of vampire hunters. For younger fans, I expect that Vampire might come across as being as dusty and dry as (cemetery) dirt but for older fans – or for anyone who needs a respite from non-stop razzamatazz – following the dogged and determined efforts of Miller and Marshall makes a welcome mental tonic. At this point, to watch a vampire film where the vampire hunters are just two craggy-looking dudes tooling along the San Francisco coast in a station wagon is ideal to me. I’ve had enough of bullet time, slo-mo, CGI, all of it.

There’s no gymnastics in Vampire, no 30-foot leaps in the air, no morphing, and I like it like that. Vampire is so low tech in fact, that it looks like there wasn’t even enough money in the budget for fake fangs but that’s cool. They do, however, feature an effect that I’ve never seen utilized in a vampire film before – when Anton is struck by a cross, instead of the usual sizzling skin, electrical sparks fly off him.

As Vampire was intended to be a series pilot, the movie’s conclusion is an open ended one. There’s no final staking, no roasting at sunrise, none of the usual climatic payoff that you’d expect from a vampire film. The best John and Harry can do is momentarily route Anton’s plans but given recent events, it’s actually a comfort to see Lynch slip freely into the night – his brilliant brand of menace fought to a standstill but undefeated and ready to return with a vengeance.

Originally published on 6/20/12 at Shock Till You Drop.

Couldn't find a TV spot for Vampire but hey, here's a nifty promo for Cliffhangers from '79 with a bit of Michael Nouri's Dracula! Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor (1990)

From the moment it was announced that Ridley Scott would be filming Prometheus, a film vaguely described as being set in the Alien universe, the overriding question was how much of Alien’s DNA would finds its way into the film. After having my questions about Prometheus’ mysterious Alien factor finally answered, I was inspired to revisit another film with its own “alien factor” – 1990’s Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor.

Initially developed as a sequel to 1983’s cult creature feature The Deadly Spawn, Metamorphosis evolved into something entirely separate from that earlier film. Deadly Spawn producer Ted A. Bohus returned to shepherd this new project but even though it was planned to be a straight sequel, for whatever reason those plans were scrapped and what emerged was a film that tread the same B-movie terrain and kept the same love of monster movies and old school FX as The Deadly Spawn but was otherwise unrelated.

Written and directed by Glenn Takajian (with “additional story material” credited to Bohus), Metamorphosis involves two teenage sisters who break into the top secret bio-research lab where their dad works as a security guard after they suspect that their dad (who never came home after his previous night’s shift) may be in trouble there.

Of course, these girls are 100% correct and, in fact, the situation is much worse than they anticipated. It seems that the government has happened upon some alien tissue so they’ve entrusted it to a research group called TALOS to run experiments on it with the hope that it will lead to some new, and undoubtedly awful, developments in the bio-weapons field.

But as movies have shown us time and again, alien DNA has a way of not behaving – especially not when it’s meddled with by scientists – and sure enough, once the tissue is spliced with lab animals and used to create mini-mutants, it’s just one infected human host later (as the head researcher suffers a nasty bite) and the TALOS facility finds itself dealing with the revolving transformation of Dr. Michael Foster (George Gerard) as he undergoes a prolonged and gruesome evolution.

As grim as the situation looks as the ailing scientist grows less human by the day, things will quickly go from simply ugly to apocalyptic if this human/alien hybrid gets free from the confines of the TALOS facility and hits the outside world. Making matters worse is the fact that Dr. Viallini (Marcus Powell), the sinister, white-haired scumbag who calls the shots at TALON, refuses to risk exposing what they’ve been up to in their labs so there’s no option to seek outside medical counsel for the researcher’s worsening condition.

Before long, the mutating Dr. Foster won’t be just writhing in a bed, he’ll be out on his feet (or slithering on his freshly slimed tentacles) looking to bring the pain and woe to any poor sap that happens to be walking the halls of TALOS – including security guard John Griffen (Matt Kulis), father to two spunky teenage daughters.

As you can gather from its simple set-up, Metamorphosis’ narrative is a by the numbers affair. Ultimately, this is a movie that’s mostly about having its characters fleeing down corridors with a slime-dripping, fang-filled, tentacle-lashing creature breathing down their necks but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great fun, or that its characters aren’t appealing. As formulaic as Metamorphosis is, Takajian mixes things up a bit by relating a good chunk of the action in flashback.

We begin in the middle of TALOS’ troubles as John Griffen investigates an anomaly alert in one of the labs only to be confronted with a bloody bio-researcher stumbling out of a lab, gasping his last breath. After Viallini and Dr. Foster’s fellow researcher (and romantic interest) Nancy Kane (Katherine Romaine) discover the carnage, we cut to hours later as Viallini has Foster recapping to two intimidating goons – Mitchell (Tony Gigante) and Jarrett (Greg Sullivan) – as well as to the audience the whole back story that brought the TALOS corporation to this point.

Once the flashbacks are over, the movie stays in the present for the duration of the film and the creature action escalates right through the climax. As to be expected in a low budget production, the acting in Metamorphosis ranges from adequate, to amateurish, to awful – but it should be said that even the worst performances have some charm.

Tara Leigh plays responsible older sister Sherry Griffen while Dianna Flaherty is her rebellious little sister Kim and Patrick Barnes is Sherry’s slightly dorky boyfriend Brian. For Barnes, Metamorphosis was his one and only acting credit while it was Flaherty’s last after appearing in two previous genre faves from Troma – The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High. Tara Leigh has appeared in only a handful of projects since, including Joe Dante’s 2006 Masters of Horror segment, “The Screwfly Solution.”

Whatever caliber of acting talent Metamorphosis had or didn’t have to assist in bringing its story to life, the movie’s real star power lay in the accomplished FX work of Vincent Guastini (who handled the film’s makeup chores) and Don Taylor (in charge of visual FX). Generally, low budget creature features keep their monsters lurking in the shadows but that’s not how it is with Metamorphosis.

Here, the creature is seen in full view in brightly lit corridors and labs and is seen often and it’s all done with practical effects. As with The Deadly Spawn, there are even several stop motion shots in Metamorphosis, too. Showing savvy showmanship as well as a canny use of their funds, Takajian and Bohus don’t shoot their wad early, saving the biggest and best FX for the climax.

With a prolonged climatic rampage on tap, this is the rare low budget monster movie that doesn’t show a last minute diminishming of resources. Projects like Prometheus are exciting because it’s never a bad thing to see an A-class filmmaker mounting a large scale sci-fi/horror picture with the money and muscle of a major studio behind them but Metamorphosis represents the flip side of that coin well.

It may have gotten somewhat lost in the direct to video shuffle of the early ‘90s and failed to garner the same cult following that The Deadly Spawn has but Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor holds the torch for B-monster movies just as high. It’s got heart, genuine enthusiasm and its low budget only seems to enhance – rather than hinder – its ambitions.

Originally published on 6/11/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: The Unborn (1991)

Horror tales are often thought of as being concerned solely with the end of life, preying on our universal fears of death and decay, but the act of bringing new life into the world has provided almost equal inspiration for terror with pregnancy, birth, and the rearing of children continually exploited for all their panicked possibilities.

With the very likely to be heinous romantic comedy What To Expect When You’re Expecting currently in theaters, I couldn’t help but think of the many attention worthy counter-programming options to be found in the horror genre.

While several horror classics involving pregnancy and its potentially awful aftermath instantly come to mind, like Rosemary’s Baby or It’s Alive, I’m going with a largely forgotten item from the back catalog – 1991’s bloody baby bonanza The Unborn.

Written by the duo of John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris under the shared pseudonym of Henry Dominic (the duo’s more recent efforts have been much more high profile, such as the last two Terminator films) and directed by Roman Flender (who later went on to helm 1999’s minor cult fave Idle Hands), The Unborn stars Brooke Adams (The Dead Zone) as Virginia Marshall, an author of children’s books who has struggled for years to have a child of her own.

After several miscarriages, Virginia and her husband Brad (Jeff Hayenga) visit the offices of Dr. Richard Meyerling (James Karen, of Return of the Living Dead), a fertility specialist who might have the answer to their prayers (watch for a pre-Friends Lisa Kudrow in a brief appearance as Meyerling’s receptionist). Virginia is deemed fit to participate in Meyerling’s experimental in-vitro fertilization program and before long, Virginia and Brad are expecting their first child.

Of course, what the joyful couple is too late to find out is that Meyerling is something of mad scientist and the genetically pimped out baby currently growing in Virginia’s belly is not going to bring the couple much in the way of happiness. Brancato and Ferris could’ve constructed The Unborn as a paranoid thriller, making the viewer question whether Virginia is only imagining the worst about Dr. Meyerling and her baby or whether her suspicions are real but while we’re told that Virginia has a history of mental problems and as events spiral out of control she has to wonder whether she’s cracking up, we know from the jump that something diabolical is at the heart of Meyerling’s miraculous practices because it’s not just Virginia who’s having issues.

The film begins with a pregnant woman under Meyerling’s care undergoing violent contractions at home only to have her stomach burst open as her frantic husband is on the phone calling for an ambulance. It’s an attention grabbing opening and it serves notice that this is not going to shy away from being an exploitation film. Clocking in at a brisk 85 minutes (an ideal running time for a B-movie), The Unborn doesn’t waste a minute in getting down to the nitty gritty of fetal fury.

While we do understandably have to wait until the final act to see what kind of kid Virginia is going to deliver, Flender isn’t in slow burn mode here. The Unborn isn’t just about waiting for Virginia’s baby to arrive. Instead, we see several vicious vignettes unfold along the way as Virginia comes into contact with other patients of Meyerling who are further along in their pregnancies than she is – and none of them are having a happy time of it. Not the couple that has given birth to a genius daughter thanks to Meyerling’s intervention only to see that gifted daughter kill their preexisting mentally handicapped son. Not the woman who, driven mad by the weird effects of her pregnancy, stabs herself repeatedly in the stomach but only manages to put herself – rather than her baby with its cockroach-strength resiliency – in critical condition. And absolutely not the lesbian couple (whose non-pregnant half is played in a rare serious turn by comedienne Kathy Griffin) who engage in a bloody battle to the death as the mother-to-be realizes that she can’t share her love with anyone except her baby and decides that she needs to bludgeon her girlfriend to death with a hammer.

Produced by Roger Corman, The Unborn is ruthless in a manner that horror fans are sure to approve of, cheerfully going for as many appalling, tasteless moments as possible. With such highlights as a live mental meltdown occurring on a morning TV talk show (a very pregnant Virginia, promoting her new book, tries to get the word out to the world – hysterically shouting to the camera that “they’re eating us alive!”), a grimy back alley abortion that fails to slow the stride of a determined super-fetus (nobody puts baby in a dumpster!), that same aborted – but still extremely frisky – baby murderously wielding a long knitting needle, and a climatic decision from Virginia that can only be considered to be a perverse ode to motherly instincts, The Unborn is a rousing addition to the killer baby sub-genre.

A word of caution: The Unborn is not recommended to casual genre fans that limit their horror diet to the absolute cream of the crop. For them, the merits of The Unborn would be hard to discern. But if, like me, you’re the kind of dedicated (some might say foolhardy) genre buff who has spent thousands of horrors scrapping the bottom of the barrel, renting every last horror title that their local video store stocks in the hopes of discovering a neglected gem, The Unborn is the kind of rewarding find that makes that often thankless task worthwhile (or at least momentarily tolerable).

Like a good B-movie should, it goes to a few funky places that your typical studio genre film wouldn’t. Amid the mostly sanitized horror product of the early ‘90s, The Unborn’s scrappy nature and occasionally humorous winks (like a close-up of a blood spattered Baby On Board sign) helped it to stand out and over twenty years later, it still holds up as a modestly mounted but gonzo thriller that keeps throwing curves at the viewer until the final frame.

The mewling mutants of The Unborn might not be the bundles of joy that their birth mothers were hoping for but horror fans ought to consider them to be prime candidates for adoption.

Originally published on 5/21/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Monday, January 9, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Burnt Offerings (1976)

Some horror films are of such enduring power and undeniable craftsmanship – films like Psycho, The Exorcist, Carrie and The Shining – that they find a new and devoted fan base with each subsequent generation while others reside almost exclusively in the traumatized memories of the generation who first encountered them.

1976’s haunted house yarn Burnt Offerings would be an example of the latter, a staple of Gen-Xer’s childhoods whose reputation as a supremely frightening film has dimmed over the years. With Tim Burton’s revival of Dark Shadows currently in theaters, some fans will naturally want to take a look back at producer/director Dan Curtis’ original supernatural soap opera but thinking of Curtis’ contributions to the genre (‘70s horror wouldn’t have been the same without him) made me curious to revisit his adaptation of Robert Marasco’s 1973 novel.

Curtis’ work was almost exclusively for television (besides Dark Shadows, Curtis was responsible for many other well-remembered genre offerings, including the famed 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror as well as the initial two Night Stalker television movies) but Burnt Offerings was a rare excursion into feature filmmaking for Curtis – even if many of its most ardent fans ironically first discovered it not on the big screen but on TV.

Burnt Offerings tells the tale of the Rolf family – the married couple of Ben (Oliver Reed) and Marian (Karen Black), along with their twelve-year-old son David (Lee H. Montgomery) – who rent the sprawling, if slightly dilapidated, Allardyce Mansion for the summer for the too-good-to-refuse amount of $900. Now, even the most novice horror fan knows that whenever accommodations come cheap, no good will come of it. But while the low price tag on the Allardyce Mansion definitely should’ve have been a red flag moment for the Rolfs, they really should have started running the other way as soon as they met the batty brother and sister who were renting them the property – Roz and Arnold Allardyce, played with eerie eccentricity by Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith.

As an everyday safety measure, it’s important to learn to observe warning signs when they appear – especially warning signs that reveal themselves in bright, blinking neon – but unfortunately the Rolfs never developed that skill so not only do they shrug off the cheap rent and the spooky siblings (who like to talk about the house as though it were alive) but they even agree to take care of the Allardyces’ elderly mother who resides in a secluded bedroom in the mansion’s attic.

As the Allardyces explain, their mother never leaves her room and a tray with food will have to be prepared three times a day and left outside the mother’s door. What could be easier? Why the Allardyces would entrust the care of their mother for the entire summer to a family of strangers is briefly questioned by Ben but then quickly brushed off. After all, when you have the opportunity to live in a mansion for the entire summer for just $900, why ask too many troublesome questions?

Pushing aside whatever minimal doubts they might be harboring, the Rolf family head to Allardyce Mansion with the elderly Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) in tow to share in all the fun and frivolity to come. Of course, the big dream summer they were hoping for doesn’t quite pan out. Ben suffers odd fits of blind rage (he tries to drown David in the swimming pool at one point), the once-spry Elizabeth (who chatted excitedly about acquiring her learner’s permit while on the ride up to Allardyce Mansion) quickly starts to deteriorate – wanting to sleep her days away and beginning to doubt her own memory – and Marian develops a weirdly obsessive relationship with the unseen Allardyce mother. Marian goes past leaving prepared trays to actually entering the woman’s room and once she does so she is quick to block anyone else in the family from making contact with their mysterious housemate.

Scripted by Curtis along with frequent collaborator William F. Nolan (Trilogy of Terror, The Norliss Tapes), Burnt Offerings is a slow burn of a film as the Rolfs gradually come apart under the uncanny influence of the house. While the house had been in a state of disrepair and neglect when they arrived, the longer the Rolfs stay and the worse their own mental and physical states become, the better the house looks. Even the dead flowers in the greenhouse are coming back to life and it doesn’t take a seasoned student of horror to see where things are heading.

It’s always odd to revisit movies that once terrified you and to see them with very different eyes and Burnt Offerings definitely appears very different now than how I – and surely how many of my generation – remember it. It no longer has anywhere near the same intensity (and not just because it’s dated – there are movies of even older vintage that I still find frightening) but yet some of its imagery is still effective.

The recurring specter of a black-clad chauffeur (Anthony James) was a chilling sight for me a child and it’s easy to see why James’ coldly smiling face (his eyes hid behind a pair of reflective sunglasses) was distressing. James’ chauffeur (who never utters a line of dialogue) is right up there with Reggie Nadler’s Mr. Barlow from Salem’s Lot when it comes to the great boogeymen of ‘70s horror.

James’ creepy chauffeur aside, what really made Burnt Offerings so traumatic to a generation of ‘70s kids was its shattering ending. Even during the ‘70s, when downbeat endings were the norm, Burnt Offerings’ grim conclusion – marked by possession, a fatal plummet, and a crumbling chimney stack – packed a special punch with its distressing depiction of the annihilation of a family.

Every child wants to believe that their parents will always be able to protect themselves, each other, and (most importantly) them from harm but the finale of Burnt Offerings offered no comfort in that regard. While it wasn’t uncommon for the protagonist of a horror film in the ‘70s to meet a bleak fate, I can’t think of many – if any instances – where an entire family came to such an alarming end.

I think every kid who watched Burnt Offerings on TV back in the day walked away afterwards looking as dazed as if they’d been hit upside the head with a 2×4. And, of course, information traveled slower then so movies were more apt to catch viewers off guard. You couldn’t find spoilers on the internet so movies had a greater advantage of surprise.

As much as Burnt Offerings buried deep psychic splinters into the memories of children who encountered it thirty some odd years ago, it’s a much more tepid experience today. I imagine that any viewer coming to Burnt Offerings for the first time now would find the film to be irritatingly slow and uneventful.

Back when it was a contemporary film, that lack of full-throttled pacing wasn’t an issue. Movies weren’t so geared to be adrenaline rides then. Even young kids were open to enjoying movies that rolled their stories out leisurely. Attention was more easily given. But that was then, and now Burnt Offerings is more of a test of patience than it is a test of nerves.

Still, the cast remains impressive. You can’t go wrong when a family is played by Oliver Reed, Karen Black, and Bette Davis (to his credit, Lee H. Montgomery – who also had appeared in the killer rat film Ben – manages not to be annoying as David) and the conclusion is still a nasty piece of work (in a PG movie, no less). Over the years, it’s become something of a neglected item when it comes to ‘70s horror but legions of fans that saw it at the right time in their lives will always carry a torch for Burnt Offerings.

Originally published 5/11/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Friday, January 6, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Two Evil Eyes (1990)

On paper, it looked like a dream project – horror masters Dario Argento and George Romero re-teaming for the first time since Argento served as producer on Romero’s seminal splatter masterpiece Dawn of the Dead (1978) but this time each gentleman would be directing one half of an Edgar Allan Poe anthology.

Originally, Argento had planned the film to involve two other directors as well (reportedly John Carpenter and Wes Craven), but scheduling conflicts and other concerns caused Argento to pare it down to the more manageable duo of just he and Romero. Even today, when expectations for their newer work has diminished some, I believe it’d still cause plenty of fan excitement for Argento and Romero to be collaborating on a project like this but back then, Two Evil Eyes held the promise of being a true event.

In addition, FX maestro Tom Savini was on board to supply his patented brand of grisly Grand Guignol so with that kind of killer talent and with such classic source material to work from, Two Evil Eyes looked like one of the most promising pictures of the increasingly horror-starved late ‘80s/early ‘90s. If anyone was going to show the world how it was done and put horror back on the map again, you couldn’t do much better than the combined forces of Romero, Argento, and Savini with the spirit of Poe guiding them.

As anticipated as Two Evil Eyes was, though, it ended up shuffling quietly onto home video with zero fanfare in the fall of 1991. At the time, the general verdict on Two Evil Eyes was that it came dangerously close to giving Poe a posthumous black eye but with the Poe-inspired The Raven currently hitting theaters, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit Argento and Romero’s tarnished team-up to see if it’s improved at all with age.

As far as Romero’s contribution goes – an adaptation of “The Fact in the Case of M. Valdemar” (previously adapted as part of Roger Corman’s 1962 anthology Tales of Terror) – the answer, unhappily, is “no.”

This remains one of the flattest offerings in Romero’s filmography. To be fair to Romero, his work on Two Evil Eyes seemed hampered from the start. His original choice for adaptation was “The Masque of the Red Death,” which he envisioned as an AIDS parable taking place in a high rise tower in the future, but even though he had completed a screenplay and hoped to cast Donald Sutherland in the lead as Prospero, Argento felt that Romero’s take on “Masque” wasn’t in the spirit of what he wanted the film to be and adding to that dubiousness, the news that Roger Corman was mounting his own remake of Masque of the Red Death caused Argento to use his position as producer to force Romero to choose a different Poe tale as source material.

Romero eventually settled on “Valdemar” – less out of a passion for that slight tale than out of wanting to avoid any overlap with Argento’s segment, which utilized so many familiar Poe plot elements that “Valdemar” was simply the rare Poe story that didn’t share too much common ground. In contrast to the metaphorical richness and potential for social commentary found in “Masque,” however, “Valdemar” offered a somewhat hokey premise involving hypnotism that had to be fleshed out into an actual story.

The story that Romero hatched – involving Jessica, the scheming younger wife of the wealthy, elderly (and near death) Ernest Valdemar, and her ruthless lover Robert (who is also Valdemar’s physician) – was disappointingly routine, with its plotting lovers, reanimated corpse, and sense of ironic justice feeling more in line with EC Comics than with Poe. Because Robert happens to have Valdemar under deep hypnosis when the man passes away, Valdemar is suspended in a state between life and death. Until Valdemar’s business is settled, it can’t be known to anyone that he’s dead so in order to ensure that Jessica inherits her full due, Robert withholds the command for Valdemar to “wake up”.

The catch is that having Valdemar existing in that limbo between this world and the spirit world serves as a gateway for what Valdemar describes as “the others” (a concept that brings a hint of Lovecraft to the story) to come through. These macabre elements are given a lackluster treatment with most of the running time devoted to the mundane machinations of the two money-hungry lovers. As Romero himself noted at the time (in an interview in Fangoria #95), “it feels like I’m directing an episode of Columbo.”

While Romero corralled some of his best Creepshow veterans for Valdemar – E.G. Marshall as Valdemar’s lawyer, Adrienne Barbeau as Jessica Valdemar, Bingo O’Malley (who appeared in Jordy’s various visions in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill”) as Valdemar, and Tom Atkins in a brief appearance as a police detective – sadly, none of the performances register as more than perfunctory.

Say what you will about Romero’s later-day output but at least films like Bruiser (2000) and Survival of the Dead (2009) bear Romero’s personal stamp whereas Valdemar seems like a work for hire assignment for which Romero had little feeling. On the flipside of that, Argento’s delirious, depraved The Black Cat is clearly one of his best works – so much so that his full-throttle passion for the material only makes Two Evil Eyes feel more like a lopsided film.

As Romero told Cinefantastique in CFQ’s December 1990 issue, “As I was writing Valdemar, I had a few pangs of ‘Gee, should I be more studious?’ And when I read Argento’s script – which is such a love poem to Poe with references to many of his stories – I thought he was doing a much purer thing. I felt a little like I had been lazy.” Whether Romero’s assessment of his efforts is too harsh or not, it’s undeniable that Argento as a Poe scholar and aficionado simply schools Romero – making one wish that Argento had either done the entire film on his own or that he had perhaps collaborated with someone closer to his own sensibilities, like Michele Soavi (Stagefright, The Church) – then a protégé of Argento. In fact, Soavi briefly did some second unit directing on The Black Cat, followed by Luigi Cozzi (Alien Contamination).

Harvey Keitel stars as Rod Usher, an intense photographer who specializes in grisly crime pics. He lives in an upscale row home in Pittsburgh with his girlfriend Annabel (Madeleine Potter), a professional violinist. Rod and Annabel’s relationship is a testy one, with his hostile demeanor in conflict with Annabel’s dreamy, sensitive personality. Events take a turn for the worse when Annabel adopts a stray black cat that Rod takes an instant disliking to – a feeling that is only acerbated by Annabel’s need to protect the animal. When Annabel is out one afternoon, Rod strangles the cat – photographing the deed as he does it – and disposes of the body.

Annabel suspects Rod of killing the cat but can’t prove it but when Rod later publishes a collection of his photos titled Metropolitan Horrors (briefly considered as a title for the film) with the cover photo being her cat being choked, she knows. A confrontation leads to Rod murdering Annabel and, in true Poe fashion, sealing the body behind a wall in his home – an apparently perfect crime.

Using Poe’s tale only as a loose framework, Argento and screenwriter Franco Ferrini (who previously collaborated with Argento on Phenomena and Opera) turn The Black Cat into a true Poe-pourri of references to Poe’s entire body of work with images, names, and lines of dialogue lifted from a wide range of Poe’s short stories and poems – including “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Berenice,” “Annabel Lee,” and “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.”

Argento is so thorough in paying tribute to all things Poe that a picture of the French poet Charles Baudelaire – whose translations of Poe’s work were instrumental in advancing the critical appreciation of Poe – can be spotted hanging on the wall along the staircase in Rod Usher’s home.

An effective portrait of a tormented psyche, The Black Cat is hampered slightly by an odd sense of naiveté in regards to the kind of public reaction that Metropolitan Horrors would generate. If such a book were published, even with assurances that no animal was harmed, Usher wouldn’t have time to worry about being tormented by a cat because he’d have to deal with his home being picketed by angry animal rights activists.

Also, the concluding moments of The Black Cat are awkwardly staged. I understand that Usher must perish in the manner that was prophesied by the markings in the cat’s fur but I doubt that even the most distraught mind would think that trying to exit from a second floor window while handcuffed to a dead man weighing in the ball park of 300 pounds is a winning idea.

I remember being confounded by these closing moments the last time I saw the film about twenty years ago and they make no more sense now. Argento and Ferrini should’ve sought a better way to end their tale but unfortunately it is what it is. Luckily, what it is is still mostly great. The Black Cat was Argento’s first film shot in America (he really revels in showcasing the city of Pittsburgh), it was his first film with big name actors, and the opportunity to pay homage to Poe (and perhaps a sense of unspoken professional competition with Romero) served to bring out the best in him.

When it comes to writing the book on Poe, cinematically speaking, that honor is likely to always remain with Roger Corman. But Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes endures as a heartfelt toast from one dark dreamer to another.

Originally published on 4/26/12 at Shock Till You Drop.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Ticks (1993)

As most horror scenarios typically necessitate isolating the main characters from immediate aid, it’s not surprising that one of the most perennially popular settings for tales of terror has been your standard, dependable woodland cabin. Not only are rural cabins the perfect destination for teens and twentysomethings looking for a weekend away but they’re also the kind of place where all manner of mayhem can occur with little hope of rescue.

With Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s much-awaited The Cabin In The Woods revisiting and reinventing this archetypal horror trope, fans will no doubt be feeling nostalgic for past classics of the cabin in the woods genre. While the generally agreed upon gold standard of the sub-genre is The Evil Dead (1983) and its first sequel, 1987’s Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, I’d like to champion a mostly forgotten cabin in the woods film – 1993’s Ticks.

Ticks’ simple storyline concerns a group of semi-troubled city kids – including future Robot Chicken creator Seth Green as the agoraphobic Tyler, Alfonso Ribiero of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as Panic, a would-be gangsta whose intimidating street persona hides a good heart, and ‘90s Scream Queen Ami Dolenz (Witchboard 2) as the spoiled Dee Dee – who journey to a wilderness retreat under the supervision of eager social worker Holly Lambert (Rosalind Allen, of Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice) and her sociologist boyfriend Charles Danson (Bosom Buddies’ Peter Scolari).

What these kids and their adult chaperones don’t know is that they’re heading into a proverbial tick-ing time bomb. You see, thanks to hard economic times in this logging community, many in this serene rural area (including one muttering eccentric played by Clint Howard) have turned to pot farming to make ends meet and the use by some of an illegal chemical fertilizer on their covert cash crops has sent the local tick population into evolutionary overdrive. Slimy, pulsating cocoons harbor the next generation of super ticks and in rapid succession they start to hatch and as these cocoons of doom burst, the woods become alive with hordes of scampering, skittering, blood-sucking menaces.

Adding to the already dire danger is a unlikely pair of marijuana growers named Sir (Barry Lynch) and Jerry (Michael Medeiros). Looking to keep their activities hidden from potentially prying eyes, Sir (who seems to have modeled his slick look and archaic mannerisms after some ‘30s movie villain) and Jerry (a backwoods cretin straight out of Deliverance) have no qualms about resorting to murder but by Ticks’ chaotic climax both friend and foe alike will be forced to fight for their lives inside a single cabin under siege.

For a movie about mutant ticks, Ticks has a pretty fine pedigree of talent involved. Directed by Tony Randel (Hellbound: Hellraiser II) and produced by Brian Yunza (Re-Animator, Society), Ticks was a bright spot on video store shelves cluttered with ‘90s direct-to-video dreck. Make no mistake, Ticks is 100% B-movie cheese but Randel had proven himself to be a sure, if unspectacular, hand at the genre with Hellbound as well as with the offbeat vampire pic Children of the Night (part of the short-lived run of Fangoria Films) and Ticks reflected his no-nonsense but still respectful approach to genre fare.

Yunza also had a mostly rock-solid track record at the time and his involvement in a film then was a good indicator that you’d be in for a movie that delivered the gruesome goods. At the time of its initial video release, Ticks came across as a genial throwback to the popular eco-horror fad of the 1970s (represented by such films as Frogs, Kingdom of the Spiders and Day of the Animals). Ticks comes by that ‘70s vibe authentically as its storyline was originally conceived two decades earlier by the film’s special effects supervisor Doug Beswick (known for his stop motion work on such classics as Evil Dead II and The Terminator) in a treatment titled Cycle of Blood.

As Beswick told Fangoria prior to Ticks’ release, make-up maestro Rick Baker was briefly involved early on after he and Beswick met on the set of 1971’s Octo-Man. Said Beswick in Fangoria #123: “Rick hadn’t become famous yet and he was going to do the makeup while I did the stop motion.” But as it took a couple of decades for Beswick to find a producer that was interested in his idea, future Oscar winner Rick Baker never added Ticks to his resume (it’s a shame the film was never made in the ‘70s with Baker on board as it would’ve made for a great drive-in double bill with another eco-horror classic that Baker did work on, 1976’s killer worm tale Squirm).

Despite coming up with the concept, final scripting duties on Ticks fell to writer Brent V. Friedman, who had previously penned 1992’s The Resurrected, director Dan O’Bannon’s underrated Lovecraft adaptation of the story "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." But even if he wasn’t responsible for the screenplay, Beswick is still arguably the star of Ticks as the effects done under his guidance are a nasty, gooey delight.

Fans of practical FX often cite classics like Carpenter’s The Thing or Day of the Dead as examples of how hands-on movie magic can’t be matched by CG but while those films are certainly great, I think a B-movie like Ticks shows how a very minor film can be instantly elevated by ingenious, well-executed FX.

Ticks has an amiable cast of mostly familiar faces, unfussy direction, and a fast-paced, pulpy narrative but it’s the ticks that really make Ticks tick. For an exploitation film, Ticks is surprisingly mild-mannered (despite a cast ready made for being picked off, only one youth falls victim to the ticks – although it should be said that the torturous series of events that this character suffers through is rivaled on film only by The Passion of the Christ) but the ticks (including a supersized “Steroid Tick”) are glorious to see in action.

Certain genre films endure for a variety of reasons. Some films are so innovative that they change the visual language of cinema. Some feature iconic characters. Some films embody ageless anxieties better than others. Some are of such indisputable quality that “classic” is the only word for them. But all other virtues aside, sometimes simply having just one single element that no other film has is the key to genre immortality – even if the rest of the film around it is flawed.

So if anyone asks, “Is featuring the finest mutant ticks in cinematic history enough for a movie to be remembered?” the answer is “Hell yes!” With that in mind, here’s to Ticks, a movie destined to forever remain the standard against which all (if any) future killer tick flicks must be judged – as well as yet another helpful horror film reminder for kids to stay out of the woods.

Originally published on 4/12/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Out With The Old, In With The Old...

The arrival of the new year is usually a time of fresh beginnings and a casting off of yesterday's baggage. But I'm in a reflective, archival mood so I'm kicking off 2017 with some flashbacks to earlier times.

From April of 2012 to February of 2013 (with one final jump back in October of '13), I penned a column for Shock Till You Drop under the title of Retro-Shock Theater, in which I reviewed random classics and cult faves. The column faded due to an increasing lack of time on my part but while it lasted, I enjoyed the platform that then-STYD editor Ryan Turek afforded me to give celebratory shout outs to some of my favorite titles.

Shock Till You Drop has gone through quite a few changes since I wrote for them (as a sign that they may have suffered a touch of the hard times that have befallen much of the net lately, at some point along the way it appears they've been incorporated into their parent site of Coming and while my old columns are still to be found in the STYD archives, due to all the upheavals the site has undergone over the years, few - if any of 'em - still bear my name.

In the interest of preserving those old columns on the off-chance that STYD may one day vanish altogether (you never know!) or decide to strip their archives of older material, I'm going to re-run them here.

Believe me, I don't think that any of these columns are so deathless in their appreciation of film that they can't afford to be permanently lost to time but I have just enough pride in my work, whatever its meager merits may be, to want to protect it from oblivion. Will reposting all this old stuff encourage me to kick in some new posts? I highly doubt it - the idea of writing about movies now makes me want to slam my head in a door jam - but hey, you never know!

In the meantime, Happy New Year!