Saturday, 25 September 2010

Best of the Best 2 (1993)

Brakus cunningly uses his shiny codpiece
to distract the enemy

After Best of the Best passed the test, I figured I might as well watch the rest of the Best of the Bests, and this was the last theatrical release before the series was banished into direct-to-video pergatory. They managed to get back the same director (Robert Radler) and much of the original cast, including Eric Roberts, Chris Penn and Phillip Rhee, but they take the series in a very different direction. The first film was more of an inspirational sports movie, but Best of the Best 2 puts those same characters into a crazy action movie, with highly entertaining results.

After successfully beating the Koreans in an exhibition match, Alex (Roberts, now with a more sensible haircut) and Tommy (Rhee) have opened up a Karate school of their own. Alex's son Walter has matured into a budding martial artist and an entirely different actor, and although he fails to pass the final exam for his black belt, Alex gives a big tearful speech about how proud he is anyway. Walter has also found companionship in a new, much-older looking girlfriend, a TV sports reporter named Sue (Meg Foster).

The only other returning character is the All-American egomaniac and reformed racist Travis (Penn). He has been moonlighting at the Coliseum, supposedly a dance club but really a front for an underground fighting tournament for the super-rich. According to these types of movies there's a big demand for black-tie, no-rules deathmatches. Of course, these movies were made before things like UFC hit the mainstream, so we hadn't yet realised that, despite how exciting a kung fu vs capoiera fight might seem, these kind of tournaments always end up with a grappling expert pinning the other guy to on the floor and punching him repeatedly in the face and/or balls.

Anyway, the Coliseum is owned by a giant German bodybuilder named Brakus. Some of his henchmen call him "Mr. Brakus", but mostly it's just Brakus, like he's the bad guy from a barbarian film. He lives up to the name too, dressing his combatants up like gladiators and presiding over the fights from a big throne surrounded by beautiful women. The audience loves him too; whenever he waves at them they go nuts. He's played by Ralf Moeller, who you might remember from the terrible Conan TV series (but probably don't) or his many appearances in Uwe Boll films. He gets a more substantial role than usual here.

Since Travis beats the first round of the tournament easily, he acts like a conceited asshole and demands to fight Brakus in the next round. Brakus agrees, and Travis sneaks Walter into the Coliseum so he can watch the big fight, slipping some cash to one of the stagehands so he sit up in the scaffolding. Of course Brakus whips Travis's ass and, at the crowd's command, snaps Travis' neck. When Walter sees this he runs out into the street, the stagehand somehow not anticipating that Walter might freak out upon witnessing his friend's execution, and, after narrowly avoiding by a creepy pervert, manages to run home and recount the story to his father.

Tommy and Alex confront Brakus's manager/ring announcer (Wayne Newton), who denies the whole thing, so they fight their way inside and speak to Brakus directly. When Alex gets up in Brakus's face and asks if he killed Travis you expect him to deny it too, but instead he sneers "Easily" and starts beating the shit out of them. Tommy and Alex manage to escape the club, mildly injuring Brakus in the process, and the next day Travis's body shows up in a car wreck in the lake. The police write off Travis's death as an accident and Brakus sends his men out to murder Alex and Walter. Since Tommy gave Brakus a minor cut on his cheek, he orders that they bring Tommy back alive, so he can be put to death in the ring of combat.

After a run-in with Brakus's men, Alex and Tommy decide to hide out with some of Tommy's family way out in the country, and it's here that we get the bizarre revelation that Tommy Lee was raised by Native Americans. I don't get this part, since the first film had multiple flashbacks to his brother's fatal match with the villain Dae Han, and there it was clearly shown that he had Korean parents. I don't know, maybe they died from grief.

Tommy is also reunited with his brother James, played by Sonny Landham. It seems when they were young James fell in with a bad crowd and disappeared, returning many years later a thieving, violent drunk. Way to reinforce cultural stereotypes there, movie. James drunkenly challenges Tommy to a fight, repeatedly getting his ass kicked until he's spitting up blood and teeth and vomiting on himself. It's all rather pathetic and disgusting, but Tommy, Alex and even grandpa have a good old chuckle about it. It turns out that the car accident that ruined James' life was actually a death match with Brakus. This makes him one of only three people qualified to help them defeat Brakus, and since James never explains who the other two people are it looks like he is the one who is going to have to train them.

It's pretty weird that the only way they can think to resolve the situation is to engage in a brutal training regimen (plus the obligatory native American vision quest) so they can defeat Brakus in hand-to-hand combat. It never even occurs to them to go to the police or find a gun. I understand warrior's honour and all that, but since Brakus is sending waves of armed assassins after your 10 year old son, I think you get a pass. Besides, if they had gone to the police instead of spending weeks performing in grueling training montages, Brakus's men wouldn't have found them, Tommy wouldn't have been kidnapped and Tommy's grandma's place wouldn't have been incinerated in a huge, fiery explosion.

You'll probably remember the somewhat unconventional ending of Best of the Best, where the villain Dae Han (played by Rhee's actual brother) apologises for killing Tommy's brother and offers himself as a replacement sibling. Well here he makes good on that promise of brotherhood, helping Alex fight his way into the Coliseum so he can rescue Tommy. Like in the first film, Eric Roberts is totally unconvincing in a fight when stacked up next to his Korean counterparts, and it's only when Phillip Rhee steps up that the fight choreography gets interesting. The highlight is during the last part of the film where Brakus forces Tommy to face a string of opponents in the ring, each with a different theme and fighting style, before finally facing off against Brakus himself.

Unfortunately this film does not end with Brakus breaking down and apologising for killing Travis, offering himself as a replacement BFF. It's a shame; it would have been cool to see Brakus wearing a cowboy hat and listening to country music on a boom box. Instead Tommy kills Brakus in one of those bits where the bad guy feigns death so he can attack the good guy when his back is turned. Thus Tommy takes him out with a Bruce Lee style neck stomp and still maintains his honour. As part of the house rules Tommy is offered The Coliseum as a prize, but he turns it down. Who wants to run one of those underground death arenas anyway? So much stress. Plus I don't think Tommy would look as good in a shiny cape.

Apart from the unusual ending, the first film stuck to a predictable sports movie formula. This one sticks to a predictable action movie formula, so it's a lot more ridiculous but also more entertaining. A lot of this comes down to Brakus, who is a surprisingly memorable bad guy. I liked the idea of this fierce warrior with an anachronistic code of honour being the one in charge, and Wayne Newton's character being the level-headed henchman keeping his shit under control. A lesser film would have made Brakus second fiddle to some asshole in a suit, but this film knows that when it comes down to a guy in a cape versus a guy in a suit, the cape is always going to win.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Piranha (2010)

I thought this film was actually called Pirahna 3D, sticking to the formula of the third entry in a horror series being in 3D, but apparently it's just called Piranha and it's a sort-of-remake of Joe Dante's 1978 original. Like that film it's about (spoiler) killer piranha being let loose on a popular tourist destination, but thankfully they've ditched the played-out military experiment angle for the simpler if less plausible explanation that an earthquake has split open a subterranean cavern, releasing thousands of prehistoric piranha that have survived there for millions of years by cannibalising each other, even though ecosystems do not work that way. You know, that old chestnut.

The main character is this nerd Jake, played by Steven R. McQueen. I was going to make a joke about him being no Steve McQueen, but it turns out it's actually his grandson. He is a resident of of a town in Arizona called Lake Victoria, a tourist destination popular with college kids. Every year he wants to take part in the Spring Break debauchery but his mother (a surprisingly hot Elizabeth Shue) is the sheriff, so he always has to stay home and babysit his little brother and sister. This year, however, the sleazy producer of a Girls-Gone-Wild-esque video series (Jerry O'Connell) offers him a job as a location scout, so he sneaks away for some fun on O'Connell's party boat, along with two porn stars (one a real-life porn star, the other Kelly Brook) and his would-be girlfriend Kelly (Jessica Szohr, who, like all teen actors these days, is from Gossip Girls).

There's nothing really new or interesting here and no real twists in the plot. Jake is your standard audience-identification character, as he wears a t-shirt from a hip band (Pixies) that everybody in the film hates for some reason, and he is in love with a girl who is dating some jock-asshole. You know he is going to save the day and win her love and he does. Surprisingly there isn't an evil capitalist who wants to keep the lake open, it's more a case of the drunken Spring Breakers not listening to the sheriff. There are also a couple of little-kids-in-peril, which are usually tension-killers but since I know Aja has the stones to kill them off they weren't too bad. These are not rich or compelling characters by any means, but I'm not going to make any jokes about the movie being in 3D but the characters being 1D. It's played out. Sorry.

There's also a whole bunch of minor characters. Adam Scott is a badass ocean seismologist, who gets to ride around on a jetski blowing piranhas away with a shotgun. Ving Rhames phones it in as the Deputy Sheriff, but dies a heroes death, chopping up dozens of piranhas with an outboard motor. Christopher Lloyd has a minor role as the eccentric scientist who tells them all about the creatures when they bring one in for analysis. Actually I think he's supposed to be a pet store owner, but he just so happens to have prehistoric piranha fossils in his back room, so fuck it, he's a scientist.

The film also opens with a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, and just in case you didn't know it was a reference to Jaws he sings Show Me the Way to Go Home. If I recall the original film had quite a few Jaws references as well, so I thought that was pretty cool. In another nod to Jaws, there's a scene where the sheriff gets a call from her son, and when she realises in horror that he's out on the lake rather than at home with the kids they imitate that dolly-zoom effect from the shark attack scene (or more accurately Vertigo). Although the son doesn't say where he is, she immediately hops into a boat and sails out to their location. Plot holes like this abound, such as the mystery surrounding O'Connells assistant, played by Paul Sheer, who just disappears from the film with no explanation.

With the plot holes and forgettable characters, this film is a lot like a SciFi Originals monster movie, the main difference being that this one actually delivers the goods. Once the piranhas crash the Spring Break festivities, the movie turns into an all-out gorefest, where pretty much every money shot you can imagine from a film like this is realised in graphic detail. You know that gag where someone is pulled out of the water only to reveal that the bottom half of their torso has been chewed off? That happens about five times, and once with a topless parasailer with massive jugs. Some of the deaths, such as where a girl gets her hair caught in a boat propeller, cross that fine line between squirm-inducing-fun-time-at-the-movies and Jesus-this-is-pretty-fucked-up. Plus most of it is realised through top-quality practical effects.

Speaking of latex and silicone enhancements, this movie also delivers a lot of naked flesh. It's weird, because the modern age of high-speed internet porn have given titty movies have a quaint charm, like homemade butter or casual racism, but this movie has a pathological obsession with boobs and asses that makes Russ Meyer look like a puritan. Even Jake's 10-year-old sister is obsessed with titties. The movie doesn't go five minutes without cutting back to Spring Break (WOOOO!!) where some girl is shoving a big pair of 3D boobs in your face. There's even a wet t-shirt contest hosted by Eli Roth (playing himself presumably), which seems a little redundant when there are so many topless girls on display.

I especially liked this leery, over-the-top approach to nudity as it often dipped into hilarious self-parody. One amazing scene has two naked girls frolicking underwater in slow motion, while classical music plays in the background. It's straight out of a trashy 70s Euro-horror film like Tombs of the Blind Dead, so of course I loved it. Jerry O'Connell's character plays into this atmosphere perfectly. It's weird to think that the fat kid from Stand By Me would end up playing such a date-rapey asshole, snorting rails of coke with porn stars and pressuring underage girls into performing belly-button tequila shots. By the end of the film, you feel he almost, almost deserves his grisly fate.

With the current wave of 3D movies, everyone (well, maybe just James Cameron) seems intent on turning 3D (and the associated increase in ticket prices) into a subtle, seamless part of the moviegoing experience. After seeing Piranha 3D though, I wonder if maybe it works better as a gimmicky sideshow attraction. I thought Friday the 13th Part 3 hit the high watermark when Jason Voorhees squeezed a guy's head so hard his eyeball flew into the camera, but Piranha finds even better ways to crassly exploit the third dimension. I was ready to give Aja the crown when an actress vomits into the camera (wow, it's like a drunk girl is really throwing up on my face!) only for him to outdo himself when a cartoon piranhas fight over and then barf up a half-eaten penis. Well played, Aja, you are the king of 3D vomiting.

Admittedly I don't see movies in 3D that often, so I try and stay out of the 3D Holy Wars about whether a movie is "true" 3D or not. Apparently this is one of the fake ones. The CG was rendered for 3D, but the live-action stuff is fake since Aja wanted to shoot on film and those special 3D digital cameras don't work underwater. It's clear that the film was made with 3D in mind though, so even though it went through the dreaded post-conversion process like Clash of the Titans or The Last Airbender, it doesn't look blurry or muddy. If you don't want to pay the extra few bucks I think this movie would still be very enjoyable in 2 dimensions, although I wouldn't recommend going any fewer dimensions than that.

(On a side note, when I saw this film they showed a bunch of pre-trailer advertisements, then they put up a title card telling you to put on the glasses and showed the exact same advertisements, only in 3D. What the hell is that shit?)

This one was directed by Alexandre Aja, and although he hasn't turned into the Master of Horror we were all expecting after Haute Tension, I've found a lot to enjoy about all his films, even the goofiest ones. This one is probably his dumbest to date, but it's also his most enjoyable as it delivers exactly what you want when you go to see a dumb, fun horror movie about killer piranhas in a compact 88 minutes. They are fairly blatant about setting up a sequel, so hopefully it will borrow the flying piranhas from James Cameron's Piranha 2, finding all new ways to debase and abuse the 3D technology that Cameron himself pioneered.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Best of the Best (1989)

Sally Kirkland assures Eric Roberts that "There is no pain."
Easy for you to say, lady.

I got this film (and it's sequel) in one of those cheap boxed sets of martial arts flicks, but it stands out amongst the others in that it's more like a real movie, with a cast of recognisable actors and a script that's more about human drama rather than kicking people in the face. It's actually more of an inspirational sports movie about that just so happens to be about martial arts, rather than a straight action film. It's like Karate Kid for grown-ups, or at least Karate Kid starring grown-ups.

The main character is Alex Grady (Eric Roberts), a auto-factory worker and single dad. He is thrilled when he is offered the chance to tryout for the U.S. National Karate team and fight in an exhibition match in Korea (they are clearly practicioners of Tae Kwon Do, but the movies uses the two terms interchangeably), even though he has a busted shoulder from a previous competition. Making the team will also mean being separated from his son for three months, so in return he makes the somewhat brash promise that he will win the competition.

During the tryouts we are introduced to the rest of the team. There's a Korean dude named Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee). There's a Buddhist new-age hippy type named Virgil (John Dye). There's Travis (Chris Penn), a racist asshole who wears a cowboy hat and carries around a boom box blasting country music. Lastly there's Sonny (David Agresta) who... is Italian. When Sonny meets Virgil he makes a comment about a competitor that "His momma probably didn't breastfeed him right" and Virgil responds "Uh, breastfeeding is actually very high in iron, I was very fond of it as a child." Kind of weird. I don't know, maybe he was one of those kids who was breastfed until he was six. Would explain a lot, actually.

There's also one of those tough-as-nails coach types, Couzo, played by James Earl Jones. He's a pretty great choice for the role since he spends most of the movie yelling at people in his booming baritone. After the team makes selection he gives them one of those "for the next three months your ass is mine" type speeches where he insists that they will "eat, sleep and shit competition", although if you're eating and shitting competition it would suggest that you're not properly digesting the competition. Try some enzyme supplements or probiotic yoghurt.

The rest of the movie follows the standard sports movie template. There is some tension between team members at first but eventually they learn to work together etc. Couzo believes in establishing comraderie through adversity, for instance his first team-building exercise is to take them to a bar and watch them wreck shop in a bar fight. Travis's unrepentant racism never seems to be as much of a problem to Couzo as it probably should be. At one point he makes racist comments to Tommy (small penis jokes, owning a laundry etc) and everybody laughs, even Couzo. You're training for a Tae Kwon Do competition, asshole, you don't get to be racist. By the end of the movie it seems like Travis has worked through his issues, but I guess that must have happened off screen.

Although Alex Grady is ostensibly the hero of the movie, Tommy Lee is probably the most interesting character. It's revealed that when he was a boy his brother was killed during a match with the Korean champion Dae Han. Consequently Tommy is scared of hurting his opponents and pulls his punches (and kicks). When the coach finally convinces him to let loose he breaks the pressure-sensing pad and knocks Virgil unconscious. Tommy is so guilt-stricken that he gets on his motorcycle and rides off, but is driven back to the team through the power of the 80s rock montage. In fact, lovers of the 80s rock montage will find a lot to like about this film, as it doesn't go five minutes without a training montage of some description.

Couzo has an assistant named Don (Tom Everett) who compiles statistics and handles the technical stuff, but he is also forced to take on an expert in Eastern philosophy to help with the spiritual side of their training. Her name is Catherine Wade and she's played by... uh... Sally Kirkland. Couzo isn't happy and I'm with him on this one. She's acts like a new-age flake and doesn't do anything except teach yoga, meditation and recite cheesy fortune-cookie sayings. They don't even have one of those flashbacks where one of the guys remembers her words of wisdom and it inspires them to victory. They could have easily cut her from the movie without losing anything.

She also wimps up the place by whining that Couzo's being too harsh on his team. On some level she's got a point; just before the big match Alex's son gets hit by a car and put into a coma, and when Alex insists that he go to visit his son Couzo kicks him off the team. He lets him back in obviously, and even flies his son out to Seoul to watch the big match, but I don't know what kind of strings he had to pull to the fly the kid out just a day or two after he woke up from a coma. Turns out that Couzo was the coach of the U.S. team when Tommy's brother was killed by Dae Han, and he blames himself for not pushing them hard enough and teaching them to ignore irrelevant distractions like their loved ones being in comas etc.

The Korean team are presented as single-minded martial-arts robots. They train 24/365 and never speak except to bark orders in unsubtitled Korean. Dae Han even wears an eyepatch. However, the more I think about it the more I feel that the American team are actually the bad guys of the movie. The U.S. team are these cocky outsiders with no respect for Eastern tradition or culture, and at least one of them is an unrepentant racist. During the interleaved training montages we see that the Americans use state-of-the-art gym equipment and high-tech pressure pads, like Ivan Drago, while the Korean team train by meditating under freezing waterfalls and jogging through the snow. In fact, during the final match the American team wear black while the Korean team wear white. I'm with Team Korea.

The final battle is shot well, but the American actors look pretty unconvincing next to the real-life Korean Tae Kwon Do experts. I had to laugh when John Dye is throwing these molasses-slow kicks and the referee is shouting that he is "capitalising on his speed". Nice try, mate. During Alex's match his opponent gives him a brutal axe kick that dislocates his gimpy shoulder, so Tommy begs his teammates to "Pop it!" and he manages to defeat him with only one arm. Very Karate-Kid-esque, he even goes into a wobbly-ass crane stance at the beginning of each round. He'll probably lose his job at the auto-factory but at least he kicked a Korean dude in the face.

By the end of the film I really thought I had a handle on where this film was going (it isn't called Second Best of the Best after all) but damned if it didn't throw me for a loop. The match comes down to a final battle between Tommy and Dae Han, with the Koreans slightly in front. Dae Han is barely standing after Tommy has kicked the crap out of him, and the rest of the team recognise that a final blow from Tommy will kill him. The team convince Tommy to hold back, running down the clock and losing the match to the Koreans. During the medal ceremony Dae Han not only thanks Tommy for holding back and apologises for killing his brother, but offers himself as a replacement brother. I don't think I've ever seen that happen in a movie before. I think they push the sentimentality a little bit too far when the Korean team hand over their well-earned medals to the Americans, but I appreciate that they went more Rocky than Rocky II-IV.

Best of the Best was produced and co-written by the guy who played Tommy, Phillip Rhee, and Dae Han was played by his real-life brother Simon. Apparently he started producing his own films after he recognised the lack of opportunities for Asian-Americans in the film industry, so it's kind of sad that such a thoroughly whitewashed film is his biggest success. Still, as far as this kind of stuff goes it's pretty good.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Island Claws (1980)

Who brought the lemon butter?

I have a weird amount of affection for the Night of the Crabs series of books by Guy N. Smith. They are trashy and not particularly well written, but they are full of sex and violence and giant crabs and sometimes that's enough. It's prime source material for an entertaining monster movie, but the only film adaptation of the series that I have heard of is this one, the 1980 made-for-TV movie Island Claws. Apparently it's based on Night of the Crabs, but really it has nothing to do with the book aside from the idea of giant mutant crab(s). Selling the movie rights did help pay for Smith's house, so it least something good came out of it.

The movie takes place on a small, idyllic fishing community somewhere on the Florida coast. It must be a pretty slow news week, because a news reporter named Jan Raines (Jo McDonnell) is sent out to interview a team of marine biologists investigating the effect of increasing water temperature on crab growth. Conclusion: Delicious! For the next phase of the experiment they are going to examine the effect of topical application of melted butter. They also discover that higher ambient water temperature can cause vast increases in size and growth rate, and wouldn't you know it, the local nuclear power plant has just dumped a whole lot of super-heated, radioactive water into the bay. Don't worry though, the owner of the plant says that everything is fine and there's nothing to worry about. Phew!

One of the marine biologists is the blonde, square-jawed Pete Adams. He takes a shine to the sexy young reporter, as he reveals on a visit to his surrogate father Moody, the very Irish owner of the local watering hole The Half Shell. Moody is played by Robert Lansing, who had already established his monster movie bonafides in Empire of the Ants a couple of years earlier. Moody raised Pete Adams from childhood after his parents were killed in a drunk-driving accident. The drunk driver in question was the nuclear plant owner Frank Raines and Moody still holds a grudge, so he's not too happy when Pete reveals that he's sweet on Jan Raines, his daughter.

With all this gripping human drama, you might have forgotten that this movie is supposed to be about killer crabs. Clearly this film lacks the kind of budget to show giant crabs rampaging through the town, so for most of the film they have to make do with implied violence and lots of regular sized crabs. The problem with this is that regular-sized crabs aren't particularly dangerous or scary, so to ensure a fatality the victims generally have to act like complete morons. Take, for instance, the first victim, a creepy Deliverance-esque banjo player who presides over the nightly hoe-downs at The Half Shell. He lives in an abandoned school bus, and during the night he is faced with dozens of tiny crabs pouring in the windows and doors. Rather than simply step over the crabs and exit the bus he freaks the fuck out, spilling some kerosene lamps and causing the whole bus to go up in flames.

Similarly for one of the scientists, Lynn, who flips out for no good reason when walking through the forest. While she's running from nothing in particular (although the lighting is so poor it's almost incomprehensible), she trips and lands face first in a pile of innocent crabs. You'd think she'd be used to crabs, being a marine biologist and all, but instead she screams her head off and runs into the claws of a giant crab that is lurking just off screen. Pete and Jan find her and take her to the hospital, where the doctor explains that she might just lose her arm.

Because this movie doesn't have enough subplots already, there's also a part about the tension between local fisherman and some Haitian immigrants that have set up camp in the forrest. The local fishermen blame them for Lynn's injury and put together an angry mob, although it doesn't really make sense that the Haitians would hack up a local's arm for no reason (the fishermen mention voodoo, as if that explains everything). Still, I've got to admit that it's a little suspicious that the Haitians have never been attacked by the crabs even though they've been sleeping outside every night. Maybe the crabs are racists too.

The best death scene in the film by far is that of Moody's dog Trouble, truly worthy of Shakespeare. He totters pathetically onto the beach, smeared with fake blood after an off-screen run-in with the crabs, before collapsing into a heap at Moody's feet. Moody tries to get Trouble to the vet, but he dramatically expires on the passenger seat of his car. Bravo! Clearly everyone else in the film agrees, because the rest of the cast show more energy and emotion over Trouble's death than they do towards any of the other victims in the film. I don't think anyone even mentions the death of the poor banjo geek.

Sadly they could only afford one giant crab, and it only appears in a couple of scenes. Firstly there's a part where it smashes a house trying to get to Pete and Jan, but we only see it's claw. In the last ten minutes of the film you see the crab in it's entirety, and it's a pretty impressive creation. If this film were made these days it would be terrible CG, but here it's a giant animatronic puppet about 20 feet across. It looks pretty menacing but unfortunately it has limited articulation and is clearly stationary. Only a couple of people die during this scene, and only because they were dumb enough to stand motionless within reach of it's claws.

A giant model like this is clearly made to be blown up in a fiery explosion. You can ram it with a truck full of gasoline, cram an LPG tank in it's mouth, or you can go the Jaws: The Revenge route and have it explode for no reason at all. Not here though, as Pete just hacks off it's eye stalk with a metal spike and it keels over dead. Maybe they wanted to keep the model for a sequel, or maybe it had to be returned to roof of Joe's Seafood Shack. Either way it's a pretty disappointing ending.

Of all the criticisms you can lay at Night of the Crabs, and there are a lot, you can't say that it's boring. This movie, however, is. It's boooooring. With five O's. It takes forever for the crabs to show up, and the plot wanders around almost as much as Lansing's Irish brogue. The script reads like they decided to put in all the traditional monster movie subplots (the love interest, the evil capitalist) but then lost interest and failed to follow up on any of them. Unlike Smith's books, the movie doesn't even have an environmental message. Frank Raines never receives his comeuppance, and in fact he only appears in a single scene at the beginning of the film. Sadly it looks like the world is still waiting for an acceptable Night of the Crabs adaptation, although in this film's defense I will say that the clickety-clicking noise of the crabs was just about perfect.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Guy N Smith Book Review - Satan's Snowdrop

Satan's Snowdrop is another entry in the rich tradition of flower-themed horror, which includes The Devil's Daisy, Beelzebub's Buttercup and other titles I just made up. I'm not sure what Smith had in mind when he named this book after the humble galanthus nivalis, but to be fair the main source of the horror is not really a killer flower but instead La Massion des Fleurs, a mysterious mansion in the Swiss Alps that was home to a Nazi torturer who died under mysterious and violent circumstances.

Obviously the locals give the mansion a wide berth, but an American family, Al and Veronica Pennant and their weiner son Tod, express some interest in buying the mansion and shipping it back to America, piece by piece. This part is pretty funny, because during their inspection the real estate agent realises that he just plain forgot to clean up the bloodstains and remove the blood-encrusted torture implements from the wall of the living room. You know how it is; you've got the freshly roasted coffee brewing on the stove, the pamphlets laid out on the table, but you forget to clean up the torture dungeon. It's always the little things.

Al decides to buy the property anyway, but soon strange things begin to happen. There's a horrible smell of putrefaction and horrific visions appear to them in the night, and although such incidents could easily be ascribed to some bad Chinese food, things eventually get worse. One of their party guests dies from a heart attack after a ghostly visitation and one of the renovation workers gets spooked by a ghost and falls off a ladder, breaking his back. Al comes to the Scooby-Doo-esque conclusion that a local is trying to scare them off the property by dressing up like a ghost, and the mansion is shipped back to America with only a prematurely ejaculating cabin boy (don't ask) among the casualties.

Naturally the hauntings continue after the mansion is reconstructed in Long Island. This culminates in their son Tod, and I'm not making this up, being chased through the house by a killer space hopper. Eventually he gets trapped between some undead zombies and the demonic rubber balloon, opting to leap down a third-floor stairwell to his death. I don't know, I would have taken my chances with the space hopper. After this incident Al and Veronica decide to sell the mansion to a family in the UK, the Parlanes, so La Massion des Fleurs gets shipped back to Europe.

Once the house is nestled in the heart of Warwickshire the hauntings continue. The Parlanes' pet Alsation and the local exorcist both die mysteriously, while their son Rusty has frequent visitations from the ghost of Tod Pennant, who warns them of the horrors of the mansion (presumably he leaves out the part where he was killed by a space hopper). The Parlanes put the house up for sale and move out, but no dice; Rusty is still beset by ghostly visions and finds himself blacking out and sleepwalking over to the mansion. Maybe they should have moved a little further away than a few houses down the street.

So far I haven't mentioned the titular flower which, as it turns out, is source of all the ghostly horror. The snowdrop was once at the focal point of a druidic ceremony, absorbing the soul of a human sacrifice. You may wonder why the ghosts are still in the house at all, but in fact they make a point to mention that the flowers from the garden bed have been shipped around the world with the house. This is stupid. Apparently the only way to appease the souls of the damned is to send the snowdrop back to it's original resting place at the peak of Reichenbach falls. Burning down the house? That won't do it. Stepping on the flower? Nope. Why? I don't know, but Tod's ghost says so and that's good enough for the Parlanes. They hop on a plane to Switzerland and do as he asks, but it's only after Mr Parlane is killed by the undead spirits that Ghost Tod reveals that they have to toss the bulb over the falls rather than plant it in the soil. Nice of you to bring this up now that he's dead, asshole. Anyway, they do it. Hauntings over.

The fact that the protagonists in a haunted house story never just pack up and leave is such an entrenched cliche that it's become a cliche to point it out, so it's clever for Smith to split the hauntings between two separate families. True the two families are fairly interchangeable, but the Pennants are slightly more interesting thanks to the tasteful, nuanced portrayal of Americans that we've come to expect from Smith i.e. Al Pennant is an arrogant asshole and Tod eats a hamburger at one point. If you can get past some cardboard characters (and if you've read much Guy N. Smith then you probably can) there's some nice tension and atmosphere and great torture scenes. Quality Smith.

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Human Centipede: First Sequence (2010)

Once in a while a film will come along that captures the imagination of a nation. Sometimes it will be about the power of a child's imagination, or the triumph of the human spirit against impossible odds. Sometimes, just sometimes, it's the story of a crazy German surgeon who wants to (spoiler) stitch three tourists together ass-to-mouth in order to create a human centipede. Seriously, I don't think I've ever heard so much buzz about a low-budget horror film before this one. We're talking a Snakes on a Plane level of unwarranted internet buzz. When people are making Human Centipede themed video games and jewellery, it's clear that things are getting out hand. Hopefully nobody got any Human Centipede tattoos, because that might be a hard one to explain to your grandkids.

The main characters are these two dumb girls who are on a road trip through Europe. During their brief stay in Germany they decide to go to a nightclub which is way out in the sticks for some reason, and before long they get a flat tire in the woods, no cell phone coverage etc. After getting harrassed by a fat German pervert and bitching and at each other for a while, they decide to walk through the muddy forrest in their stiletto heels to find help. Eventually they stumble across this sweet house in the middle of the forest, and it just so happens to be home of the crazy surgeon. I mean, we know this guy has already been kidnapping people in the area for use in his experiments, and these two just walk right into his house. Worst luck ever. This is why everyone should learn how to change a tire themselves.

This surgeon is really creepy guy. Apparently he used to specialise in the separation of conjoined twins, so his house is plastered with photographic prints of conjoined twins. That's a warning sign right there. When a guy like that asks if you want a drink, you should politely say "No thanks" instead of asking for a glass of water and then obediently gulping it down when he seems way, way too eager to get you to drink it. Next thing you know you wake up in a basement laboratory with some Japanese tourist, and a mad scientist is patiently explaining how he's going to stitch you all together ass-to-mouth like he's about to perform a tonsilectomy.

I quite liked the absurdity of that scene too. You've got to laugh when you see the looks on their faces after they realise what he's planning, especially the Japanese guy since he can't speak English and has to glean information from the doctor's hand-drawn diagrams. I mean, that's a situation you don't find yourself in too often. I also liked that he used an old-school overhead projector, as with Powerpoint there's always that temptation to use whooshing text and cartoon clip-art. Would have spoiled the mood I think. One of the girls makes a last-ditch escape attempt before they go into surgery, a good effort but I don't know who they think they are fooling because we know she's going to be centipeded. We saw the preview.

The doctor puts the girl who tried to escape in the middle of the centipede as punishment. You might think that being at the end of the line would be worse, but I don't know if eating shit that somebody ate and shat out would be worse than eating ordinary shit. Either one is pretty bad I guess, but the girl at the end gets really sick so I guess the girl in the middle has the last laugh after all. The two girls are pretty annoying, so I think they made the right choice putting the Japanese guy at the front of the queue. His acting might not be any better, but since he only speaks Japanese it's not as noticeable to my delicate Gaijin ears.

I know what you're thinking. Surely he would need to stitch together 25 people for a true human centipede, since as it stands his creation only has 12 legs. Well actually centipedes don't necessarily have exactly 100 legs, and can have anything from a few dozen up to a few hundred, so a 12-legged centipede is not too far beyond the realm of possibility. However, centipedes always have an odd number of leg-pairs, so if he was going for biological accuracy he should have stitched on an extra pair of arms, or at least cut a pair off. But to be honest I don't think he thought things through that much. You'd think as a highly-respected surgeon he'd realise that this human centipede thing was a pretty bad idea from the get-go.

It's never really made clear exactly why he wants to create a human centipede, but the film implies that they are a replacement for his beloved "3-dog", a canine centipede he created from his pet dobermans. He even keeps a picture of his 3-dog on his bedside table. This is borne out in the way he treats his "human centipede" after the operation, ordering them to come on command, fetch newspapers and eat out of a dog bowl. It's like, dude, I have a name. Three names, actually. There's not really too much of a plot beyond this either. There are a couple of escape attempts and the doctor has to deal with the dumbest cops in Germany. I won't spoil the ending, but let's just say that the main girl has a pretty bad day. I'm not sure how they expect to do a sequel, and judging from the subtitle they clearly do.

To be honest the film is executed with a lot more restraint than you'd expect. The surgery scene is graphic but brief, and afterwards their mouth/asses are tastefully obscured by bandages. This is clearly a case of your own imagination being worse that whatever they show on-screen. That's not to say you should show it to your grandmother though. I mean, this is a movie about a bunch of people being stitched asshole-to-lips so that the each person shits into the next person's mouth. That happens in this film. Just so we're clear.

I should also note that the production values are pretty good and the actors aren't too terrible. The crazy surgeon is the role that Udo Kier was born to play, but I guess he was busy so they got this guy Dieter Laser instead. He has a pretty awesome name, but he's also really good in this role, hamming it up in all the right places. When he is teaching his creation tricks in the back yard he is almost crying in joy, and that's what I liked about this film; it wasn't a miserable, grimy Saw-like experience. There's a rich, dark vein of black comedy running right through this film, like dog food through the digestive tract of a human centipede. You need that kind of levity in a film like this.

A lot of films with a premise this crazy are let down in their execution, but I can honestly say that I got exactly what I expected from a film about a bunch of people being stitched together ass-to-mouth. I doubt it will be on any of my top ten lists, but it was pretty entertaining for what it was.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Cybertracker 2 (1995)

Hopefully he won't have to open a door or something

Cybertracker 2, or as I call it, C2: Adjudication Day, takes place several years after the events of Cybertracker, long enough for Eric Phillips (Don "The Dragon" Wilson) to grow a luxurious mane of hair. He is still working for the Secret Service, but now he's working undercover for some reason, and as the film opens he's in the middle of a drug sting operation at an abandoned factory. Naturally everything turns to shit and the place erupts into a massive firefight that goes on for nearly ten minutes. Bullets fly everywhere, tonnes of explosives are detonated and, of course, lots of cars flip over and burst into flames. This is a PM Entertainment film, after all.

With weapons and vehicles that look pretty outdated even for 1995, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that this is supposed to take place in the near future, regardless of how many laser blasts are randomly dubbed into the sound mix. Well, the Near Future makes an explosive entrance in the form of Tracker 9, a low-budget Robocop with a minigun for one arm and a shotgun for another. Tracker 9 helps out when Eric finds himself on the wrong end of an uzi. He's a big improvement over the standard issue Core Tracker, and after the battle he and Eric have good chuckle together. I guess Wilson has gotten over his robophobia.

The Trackers aren't the only ones who have been improved since the last film. Even Agnes 3000, the computer AI that controls Eric's house has had an upgrade. No longer a disembodied voice who nags him incessantly, she is now a tiny holographic woman in a sexy sequined dress who makes creepy comments about going into "Privacy Mode" while he makes out with his hot ex-terrorist reporter wife Connie (Stacy Foster). The next morning they are visited by a young girl for one pointless scene where she does some Virtual Reality martial arts training. It's the mid 90s, so you've got to have some Virtual Reality in there somewhere. Otherwise how will people know it's the future?

The bad guys are an evil corporation that has developed the technology to create exact robot duplicates of people, which they hire out as assassins. They've been hired by the Vice-Governor to kill the Governor (pretty much the only way to get a promotion in the public service) and their overly-complicated plan involves creating an exact robot duplicate of Connie, then using it to take her place and assassinate Governor Quincy while he is making a speech at a press conference. Meanwhile they take the real Connie to an isolated barn to kill her in an explosion, making it look like she has returned to her terrorist ways and accidentally blew herself up while making bombs. Of course they balls this up, so Connie escapes and she and Eric go on the run, teaming up with Connie's camera man and fellow ex-terrorist Jared (Steve Burton) who died in the first film but I guess he got better.

Come to think of it, I'm not really sure why their terrorist organisation, the Union of Human Rights (UHR), has been disbanded. The friendly police captain Swain (Tony Burton aka Rocky's corner man) claims that the UHR was absolved of any wrongdoing after the first film and that the Computerised Justice System was dismantled, however in this film it looks like the Core Trackers are still around and are still executing criminals without trial. Can't fight Robo City Hall, I guess. One guy who is still fighting the good fight is "Trip" Tripwire, a nerdy ex-UHR explosives expert who likes to make Mr. Potato Heads out of plastic explosives and regularly refers to Cybertrackers as "Cyberfuckers". He lets Connie, Eric and Jared hole up in his hideout in an abandoned church while they figure out what to do.

With all these advanced Tracker models running about, OG Core Trackers are about as attractive and popular as G1 iPhones, but they still make an appearance in this film. The police dispatch a Core Tracker Classic to hunt down Connie and Eric, which culminates in a very familiar-looking chase scene through a concrete LA river catchment. I guess since the first film shamelessly ripped off The Terminator and Robocop, it's only fitting that this one seeks inspiration from Terminator 2 and Robocop 2. This chase scene tallies up a pretty impressive amount of destruction, with Eric in a Jeep unloading a mounted grenade launcher on an armoured car driven by the Core Tracker, as well as a heap of old cars which are lying around in LA's flood channels for some reason.

After the Core Tracker fails miserably, the bad guys unleash their secret weapon: an exact robot duplicate of Eric. Their plan is to send Don "The Cyber-Dragon" Wilson on a Terminator-esque rampage through a police station, framing him for the attack, and given Wilson's acting abilities you could hardly blame anyone who confuses Eric for an emotionless cyborg. Eric's robot doppelganger also has a face off with a Core Tracker, easily showing it who's boss by tearing off it's arm and punching off it's head. Pow! Robo-Eric then attacks our heroes at their hideout, fatally wounding Trip who volunteers to stay behind and set off his bombs while the others escape through some sort of underground tunnel system. Somehow they miss the opportunity for a Wilson vs Wilson kickboxing battle.

A loose collection of plot holes sees our heroes making their final assault on the bad guys at their corporate headquarters, along with the help of Tracker 9. Lots of hapless security guards get kicked in the head and Robo-Connie gets frozen with liquid nitrogen and shattered into a million pieces. Hasta la vista, baby! By the end of the film the bad guys see fit to bring out their other secret weapon, the SuperTracker. It's never really made clear what exactly is so Super about it, except that it isn't played by Jim Maniaci like all the others. It manages to knock Ericaround for a bit before he blows it up with a big industrial laser. Eric also faces off with the evil corporate CEO, who is also a kickboxer for some reason. Hey, why not?

PM Entertainment are pretty skilled at cramming their films with action and making them look like bigger films than their budget would suggest. This one is particularly action packed, even by the standards of the original Cybertracker. Nearly all of it looks like new footage too, except for a helicopter explosion and a few short scenes from the Governor's assassination, which were taken from the original Cybertracker. This is the kind of film where nobody seems to care about wasting ammunition and everything explodes, usually for no reason. This particular brand of excess can get pretty monotonous at times, especially with choreography, camerawork and editing that is strictly perfunctory, but it works long enough to distract you from the fact that virtually everything in this film has been done better elsewhere.