Welcome to the darker side of AICN! M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Here’s another piping hot batch of the good, the bad, and the fugly in horror fresh out of the oven. Eat ‘em up!
I also wanted to give out an open call to advertisers interested in helping to keep this column running. Any inquiries should contact me here!
On with the horror reviews!
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
Retro-review: VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST (1974)
Retro-review: WOLF GUY (1975)
Retro-review: GHOULIES II (1987)
Retro-review: BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)
DEAD WALKERS: RISE OF THE 4th REICH (2013)
THE PHOENIX TAPES ’97 (2016)
LAKE BODOM (2016)
And finally…Light’s Out: Sakhalin!
Retro-review: New this week on BluRay from The Film Detective Restored Classics!
VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST (1974)aka BLOODY VOUDOU, VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIE
Directed by Manuel Caño (as M. Caño)
Written by Santiago Moncada
Starring Aldo Sambrell, Tanyeka Stadler, Alexander Abrahan, Fernando Sancho, Alfredo Mayo, Eva León, Ricardo Rodríguez, Enrique del Río, María Antonia del Río, Kess Bridge, Louis Marin, Antony Houss, Fernando Hilbeck, Julio Peña
Retro-reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
While VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST is definitely a schlocky horror film full of faults, there’s a level of inept fun that is undeniable about it.
I guess voodoo is involved here, but I don’t know where the exorcist part of the title came from as VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST is actually a mummy story more than anything else. A couple Guedé Nibo and Dambhalla (played by Aldo Sambrell and Tanyeka Stadler) are discovered in passionate embrace on a beach by her husband. After a fight on the beach, Guede kills the husband, but both he and the cheating wife are captured by a local island tribe. Dambhalla is beheaded and Guede is mummified and placed in an ornate wooden casket. Flash forward to “today” and Dambhalla is reincarnated as a personal assistant and lover to her boss, a wealthy world traveler. They happen to get on a cruise liner that is carrying the wooden casket with the mummy inside and sure enough, the mummy awakens and attempts to reclaim his bride who has a vague memory of their affair. Many people are murdered on the path of reuniting Guede and his lost love.
Reminiscent of HORROR EXPRESS and strangely enough, JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST is a weird little film with cringe worthy moments such as Sambrell and Stadler first appearing in black face in their original incarnation. I understand it was a different time in which this film was made, but watching these opening moments is not going to sit well with most. Even when things come into present day, there’s a lost of blunders that seem to have made it on screen as if the filmmakers didn’t really care. In one scene where a man’s face is smashed in the mirror, the cameraman is clearly shown plain as day. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of appearances of camera crew, boom mikes, and other things that are not really supposed to be in frame.
The thing is, though, there are a few shots that are downright awesome such as a camera shot fixed on a crane as it moves the casket into it’s storage spot where the casket remains still and everything around it moves. It also incorporates the fish-eye lens more times than a P-Diddy video, in this case, giving off a rather effective surreal and unnatural effect when the mummy is on the move and creeping down corridors. Add in some rudimentary, but rather gory beheading effects and Paper Mache heads and an inexplicable finale set in an underground, day-glo landscape and you’ve found yourself entering into the so-bad-it’s-good zone.
I don’t want to over sell VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST, but there’s a lot of fun and wonky stuff going on in this one that I couldn’t help but like. The look of the mummy is pretty gruesome and while it’s a bit overlong, the age-old tale of time-spanning love is worth a look-see for those who like their horror with a heavy coat of schlock.
Retro-review: New on a special edition BluRay from Arrow Films/MVD Visual!
WOLF GUY (1975)aka WOLF GUY: ENRAGED LYCANTHROPE, ENRAGE WOLFMAN, WOLFMAN VS. THE SUPERNATURAL
Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Written by Kazumasa Hirai (manga series "Urufu gai"),Fumio Kônami (screenplay)
Starring Kyôsuke Machida, Shin'ichi Chiba, Saburô Date, Kôji Fujiyama, Tooru Hanada, Ryuji Hayami, Jiro Ibuki, Haruki Jô, Kenji Kawai, Hiroshi Kondô, Kôji Miemachi, Hideo Murota, Etsuko Nami, Hiroshi Nawa, Yoshio Neshima, Teruo Shimizu, Akemi Sone, Harumi Sone, Ryô Suga, Toshimichi Takahashi, Tadashi Takatsuki, Kinji Takinami, Yayoi Watanabe, Rikiya Yasuoka
Retro-reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
Whooo-Doggie! This is a weird one, but it’s also frikkin’ awesome. A mix between grindhouse, horror, crime drama, and kung fu thriller with a little bit of super-heroism tossed in for shits and gigs. That’s pretty much what WOLF GUY is all about. It’s an adaptation from a Japanese manga and it stars Sonny Chiba as a werewolf detective fighting supernatural crime. Do I really need to go any further with this review? Just get this one already!!!
For those who still need convincing, legendary badass Sonny Chiba plays Akira Inugami, last surviving member of the Inugami clan--a race of wolf people who become stronger when the moon is full. Akira takes on the more supernatural cases as a Japanese police officer. When Akira witnesses a man torn to shreds by an invisible force the victim labels as a tiger, it sends him down a rabbit hole of a case involving a gang-raped lounge singer with paranormal powers and a crime syndicate who wants to get rid of her. But even with the moon full, will Akira aka Wolf Guy be powerful enough to stop them all?
There is so much cool in this film I don’t know where to begin. I guess I’ll just start with Chiba who is the epitome of cool here. This film, despite it’s supernatural leanings, tries to set Chiba’s Akira character up as a James Bond type—always on the case, always slick with the women, and always on top when it comes to a fight. Chiba shows some mad fighting skills throughout the whole film as he pummels and tears through groups of bad guys like they were nothing. The weird thing is, apart from his bushy eyebrows, Akira doesn’t really wolf out at all. He just becomes stronger and more resilient when the moon is full. So while he can take a few bullets to the chest and can bend bars with his bare hands, Chiba never really gets any hairier than he usually is. Still, he refers to himself as a werewolf in the film and part of a race of werewolves. Werewolf or not, Chiba is suave when he’s with the ladies and tough as nails when taking on the bad guys. No STREET FIGHTER fan should be without checking out Chiba in this unconventional, but highly entertaining role.
There is so much weird going on in this one. Wolf Guy tosses coins at his foes like throwing stars with deadly accuracy. He leaps from cliffs, steals his adversary’s gun and blows them all away, all the while being pummeled with bullets himself to no effect. The lounge singer is able to unleash an invisible tiger which lashes into people, tearing skin and clothing. One of Wolf Guy’s adversaries tosses a mouse at him before strangling him with a noose. Wolf Guy has a weird sexual encounter with the Queen Mother of the wolf clan and has mixed feelings about her as his wife AND his mother. All the while the film is adorned with a funky score that feels more like it would be at home in a blacksploitation film than a Japanese action horror mash-up. Here’s just so much great kookiness afoot here it’s just one of those films that make one sit back and marvel at the creativity or lunacy it took to make this film.
WOLF GUY is a sequel to HORROR OF THE WOLF, though that one did not feature the awesome Sonny Chiba. I haven’t seen HORROR OF THE WOLF, so I can’t compare the two, but the irresistible force that is Chiba most likely makes WOLF GUY much more of a must-see badass action-filled oddity than its predecessor. This is a sheer delight of a film that should not be missed.
Special features for this Arrow BluRay include; new English subtitle translation, a new video interview with actor Shinichi 'Sonny' Chiba, a new video interview with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, a new video interview with producer Tatsu Yoshida, and trailers.
Retro-review: New in the Empire Pictures BluRay Box Set Collection from Full Moon Entertainment!
GHOULIES II (1987)Directed by Albert Band
Written by Charlie Dolan (story), Dennis Paoli & Luca Bercovici (screenplay)
Starring Damon Martin, Royal Dano, Phil Fondacaro, J. Downing, Kerry Remsen, Dale Wyatt, Jon Pennell, Sasha Jenson, Starr Andreeff, William Butler, Donnie Jeffcoat, Christopher Burton, Mickey Knox, Romano Puppo, Ames Morton, Michael Deak, Anthony Dawson, Donald Hodson, Carrie Janisse, & Hal Rayle as the voice of all of the Ghoulies!
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Empire Pictures made some amazing films in the 80’s. The precursor to Full Moon Entertainment stretched their budgets and put varied and extremely creative images on screen. These mini-epics tackle horror, sci fi and beyond and now they’ve collected them all in one huge, badass box set. I’m going to be covering each film in this collection over the next few weeks, but if you’re a film collector, you’re going to want to grab this set as soon as possible as there are only 600 of them. Check out this sizzle reel featuring some of the iconic films collected in this Box Set.
The original GHOULIES (reviewed here) was watchable because it had so many laughable moments that represented the most ridiculous aspects of the 80s--break dancing, rock video smoke machines, midgets in medieval garb, bad puppetry, bad hairstyles and even worse clothing. GHOULIES II doesn’t really have any of that.
Well, the puppets are still bad.
But besides the little beasties on the ends of puppeteer hands, GHOULIES II has very little to do with the original. This one opens with a priest who attempts to destroy the little monsters by throwing them into a vat of toxic waste that just seems to be lying around for priests to throw monsters into. The priest instead takes the toxic plunge, and the Ghoulies make their way into a nearby circus van that happens by the building. Once back at the circus, which is being bought out by an asshole businessman who has no respect for the tradition of the circus, the Ghoulies run amok killing freaks, circus performers, and the crowd without compunction.
The problem with GHOULIES II is that it takes itself too seriously. The noble circus performers are fighting the big business corporation shtick was worn out in the 80s when this was around, and it’s even more tired with this re-watch. There’s a Shakespeare-quoting dwarf who proves that the screenwriter owns a book of quotations and knows how to use it, and the love story between the hunky magician’s assistant and the dancing girl makes soap opera acting feel thespian. All of this is done with a heavy hand, killing all the fun the original had at encapsulating the 80s bad fads.
And while the Ghoulies themselves are spunky and troublesome in an after midnight-fed Gremlins sort of way, their limited mobility and corny play is really hard to watch. A late in the game giant Ghoulie reveal ups the fun ante a bit as he goes around eating Ghoulies, but despite a nice looking costume, the whole thing comes off as unfunny when it’s supposed to be funny and painful when it tries to be serious.
I will say I appreciate that they didn’t try to make the Ghoulies sympathetic here. They are still evil fuckers who would like to kill you more than anything else. Of course, later in the series with GHOULIES III: GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE, attempts are made to make us care for them. While they are kind of cute and are given a bit of heart as they are attracted to the circus by noticing a monster looking kind of like them on the side of the circus van, they still retain their menace the whole way through.
But it’s GHOULIES, a knockoff of GREMLINS, and at least this sequel doesn’t repeat itself much in terms of story. The puppets are ridiculously puppet-y and the rest of it is pretty bad. For the completists out there who want every little monster movie ever made (I’m sure there’s someone out there for this niche of geek), I guess this one is for you. Personally, I’ll just watch GREMLINS again for the real deal.
Retro-review: New on a special edition BluRay from Arrow Films/MVD Visual!
BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)aka ELMER
Directed by Frank Henenlotter
Written by Frank Henenlotter
Starring Rick Hearst, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry, Theo Barnes, Lucille Saint-Peter, Vicki Darnell, Joseph Gonzalez, Bradlee Rhodes, Michael Bishop, Beverly Bonner, Ari M. Roussimoff, Kevin Van Hentenryck, Michael Rubenstein, Angel Figueroa, John Reichert, Don Henenlotter, & John Zacherle as the voice of Aylmer!
Retro-reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
BRAIN DAMAGE was Frank Henenlotter’s return to horror filmmaking after a six-year hiatus after BASKET CASE and while both films have similar themes of symbiosis, body horror, and the fight for control over one’s urges, BRAIN DAMAGE feels like a step towards a more sophisticated message about drug addiction and loss of control.
Brian (Rick Hearst) is a typical college student living in New York with his brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald), dating a sweet gal named Barbara (Jennifer Lowry), and living a lazy, free-wheeling lifestyle which often includes sleeping in and slacking about. Everything is hunky-dorey in Brian’s life until he wakes up one morning with a foot-long parasite attached to the back of his head answering to the name Aylmer (pronounced Elmer). Aylmer turns out to be a friendly little guy despite looking a lot like Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo from SOUTH PARK and he strikes up a bargain with Brian; supply Aylmer with brains, specifically live brains, and Aylmer will shoot a powerful and addictive hallucinogenic drug directly into Brian’s brain through a needle which extends from Aylmer’s mouth. After feeling the effects of Aylmer’s drug, Brian ends up sacrificing everything he has, including his brother and girlfriend, in order to keep getting Aylmer’s drug. While Brian tries to cope with his addiction before it destroys his entire life, Aylmer’s former owners show up and aren’t too keen on Aylmer leaving them. All that and a cameo by BASKET CASE’s Bradley Brothers make BRAIN DAMAGE a rich and satisfying story of addiction and body horror.
The metaphor is pretty obvious here. While most addicts don’t have a worm-like monster mainlining drugs into them, BRAIN DAMAGE does depict the monstrosities of drug abuse and how the All-American boy with the perfect life can fall victim to it. Henenlotter doesn’t hold back on characterizing drug addiction as a monstrous turd with a pair of googly eyes and a cute smile as a means to highlight both the appealing and ugly aspects of drug use. The symbiotic relationship seems like an even trade at first for Brian, but as his need for the drug grows, Brian loses control of everything else in his life and eventually he cares about nothing but giving Aylmer what he wants so that Brian can get his next fix.
Henenlotter isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with his metaphor either with close up shots of Aylmer dislocating his jaw to extend a needle into the back of Brian’s head and then zooming in further to see the blue liquid seeping into his brain harnessing little lightning bolts of druggy goodness. But that’s not where the gruesome stuff ends as Aylmer burrows his way into the skulls of his victims and slurps up brain matter repeatedly throughout the film. This tactile way of attaining Aylmer’s sustenance makes for some truly glorious shots of grue and gore. This is a practical effects lovers dream with some amazing work on making Aylmer look like a real parasite and some goppy brain slurping grossness during his feeding scenes. And while the hallucination scenes are pretty rudimentary animations, it still works the way Henenlotter incorporates these drug induced trips in with scenes of Brian the way the rest of the world sees him—be they waves of blue water calm flooding over Brian in his bed or nightmarish dreams that he is pulling the brains out of his own head.
Much like BASKET CASE, BRAIN DAMAGE is the story of a boy and his symbiotic friend. But while BASKET CASE dealt with the bond between brothers and the need for those brothers to eventually grow apart and be their own person, the connection between symbiote and host in BRAIN DAMAGE shows how inseparable the two become when each provides the other with something the other needs. Both film highlight, at least to a point, how working together can lead to positive things for both host and parasite. The Bradley Brothers work well together when they are looking for revenge on the doctors who separated them, that is, until Dwayne is distracted with a female love interest—something Belial can never have, and their partnership dissolves because of that change in plans. With BRAIN DAMAGE, Aylmer is in control most of the time and while it seems like it is a give and take relationship, Brian is definitely getting the short end of the stick, though he can’t see it through drug-addled eyes. While Brian tries to kick the habit, he never really is able to do it all the way to the end. So while Dwayne eventually grows apart from Belial (I’m talking about the first one, not the sequels where Dwayne and Belial’s relationship shifts and fluctuates), Brian never is able to separate film Aylmer. Both films do a great job of depicting how a partnership can be convoluted, misguided, and downright ugly as the balance of power shifts and resentment arises. But the films seem to be moving in different directions with Dwayne and Belial growing apart as the story goes on, while Brian and Aylmer continue to become more dependant on one another. It’s interesting to watch these two films together as it highlights the subtleties of Henenlotter’s filmmaking and writing and how it seems to have developed over time. It is also interesting to point out that as the BASKET CASE films move on, the relationship between Dwayne and Belial become more like Brian and Aylmer’s in parts 2 and 3 of that series. BRAIN DAMAGE may not be as iconic as BASKET CASE, but it is a much more mature film and shows growth in metaphorical heft and sheer entertainment value. While BASKET CASE is gritty and real, BRAIN DAMAGE is a much more polished film by a filmmaker who continued to grow from one film to the next.
This BRAIN DAMAGE BluRay from Arrow includes; an isolated score, a brand new audio commentary by writer-director Frank Henenlotter, “Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage” a brand new documentary featuring interviews with actor Rick Herbst, producer Edgar Ievins, editor James Kwei, first assistant director Gregory Lamberson, visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti, “The Effects of Brain Damage” focusing on FX artist and creator of 'Elmer' Gabe Bartalos looks back at his iconic effects work on the film, “Animating Elmer” featurette looking at the contributions of visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti, “Karen Ogle: A Look Back” centering on stills photographer, script supervisor and assistant editor Karen Ogle recalls her fond memories of working on the film, “Elmer's Turf: The NYC Locations of Brain Damage” a featurette revisiting the film's original shooting locations, “Tasty Memories: A Brain Damage Obsession” an interview with superfan Adam Skinner, “Brain Damage Q&A with Frank Henenlotter” recorded at the 2016 Offscreen Film Festival, image galleries, original theatrical trailer, “Bygone Behemoth” an animated short by Harry Chaskin, featuring a brief appearance by John Zacherle in his final onscreen credit.
New on DVD in the ZOMBIES: THE AFTERMATH Collection from MVD Visual!
DEAD WALKERS: RISE OF THE 4th REICH (2013)Directed by Philip Gardiner
Written by Philip Gardiner
Starring Philip Berzamanis, Jane Haslehurst, Bob Lee, Nathan Head, Rudy Barrow, Jack Burrows, Nikki Webster, Rachel Littlewood, Eirian Cohen, Melissa Hollett, Dayna Shuffle
Find out more about this film here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
No budget doesn’t have to mean no creativity. Check out the films by Sonny Fernandez if you don’t believe me. But I don’t know what DEAD WALKERS: RISE OF THE 4TH REICH is trying to do. It certainly doesn’t succeed in entertaining.
The story focuses on a soldier named Alpha (Philip Berzamanis) who is reporting back to his superior about a Nazi army and their dabblings in raising the dead. Through flashbacks and dream sequences, we see the soldier’s arduous journey and the horrible things he’s experienced in order to relay this information back to his superiors.
The problem with DEAD WALKERS: RISE OF THE 4th REICH is that it is all style and no substance and even the style isn’t that stylish. Every scene is shot through a filter so you’re not sure what’s happening in the here and now and what’s a flashback or what’s a dream. The editing is both frantic and disorienting as it doesn’t really offer up any kind of grounding or perspective for a viewer to latch on to. Because so little time is spent getting to know any of these characters, it’s hard to care at all about them. Everything is in night vision green, security camera grey, or dreamscape blue tone, so it’s hard to get a read on who is who, what is what, or is any of this is real or if it’s all a dream. On top of it all, the English accents are so thick, the music is so overpowering, and the sound is so muffled that it’s hard to understand what anyone is saying. Plus the gore really isn’t anything other than blood spattered faces. The film tries to put you in the head of a person experiencing PTSD, with Alpha experiencing all kinds of nightmares and hallucinations. I guess the film does too good a job as conveying the disorientation someone experiencing this disorder goes through as by the end, one just don’t know what is up or down and the worst offense of all, I didn’t really care to find out which is which.
The rise of a new army of Nazis would be a pretty scary thing and if they had the power to raise the dead, that would be even scarier. Too bad this film is more concerned about using filters and rapid fire edits to tell that tale. Hopefully, someone will come along and do that story some justice. DEAD WALKERS: RISE OF THE 4TH REICH tries to do so, but fails miserably.
Here’s hoping the other two films in this ZOMBIES: THE AFTERMATH Collection aren’t as bad as this dud.
New on DVD from MVD Visual!
CATATONIA (2014)Directed by Frank S Petrilli
Written by Jason Chester, Kim Kleemichen, Vincent Kulish, Frank S Petrilli
Starring Kim Kleemichen, Tom Petrone, Vinny Bernardo, Chris Paul Kelley, Ann Parkhurst, Katie Hodges, Daniela Rivera, Pamela Rose Cichy, Stan Saja, Jessica DiGirolamo, Bob Waters, Mondo Medina, Shannon Leigh Milich, Becky Byers, Delaney Smeal, Christopher DeJoy, Arturo Guzman, Despina Victory, Rebecca Godoi-Pasquino, Heather Cooksey, Scott Chester, Stewart Sprouse, Vincent Kulish, Mark F. O'Brien, Diane Pickett, Theresa Davis, J. Wright Chester, Samantha Kulish, Richard Attanasio
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
CATATONIA is a direct sequel to the low budget found footager PLAY HOOKY which focused on a group of kids skipping school and breaking into an abandoned asylum only to run into a demented person posing as a security guard. Dropping the found footage motif, CATATONIA follows the sole survivor of the original film Rosie (Kim Kleemichen) who is catatonic in a mental facility and haunted by her traumatic encounter as well as a faceless woman only she can see. Due to budget cuts and contrivances only found in bad horror films, the killer from PLAY HOOKY, Charles “Buddy” Dewitt (Tom Petrone), is transferred to the same mental facility. While the staff struggles to keep the two patients from running into one another, strange things keep on occurring around the hospital.
So as with PLAY HOOKY, CATATONIA is not an altogether great film. The acting is bad. The lighting and camerawork is not the most inspired. And I seriously doubt anyone behind the film has ever done a lick of research on mental health care as this film could be a “what not to do in mental health” manual for the remedial. But I have to give it up to the filmmakers behind CATATONIA and its predecessor as this film takes the story in a new and very different direction. Too many sequels end up rehashing almost everything that has been done before, serving as a mere echo of what worked in the original. Even the biggest budgeted films are guilty of this. Instead of following the same story as PLAY HOOKY, CATATONIA uses the same characters surviving from the previous film, but surprisingly tells a different story. While the characters of Rosie and Buddy are carried over, their roles shift dramatically as the villain of this one isn’t a psycho killer, but an entire hospital filled with absolutely horrible people. This decision to move the story forward rather than just get stuck on repeat is something I wish more sequels would try.
That said, given my experience as a therapist in the mental health field, this film annoyed the shit out of me in the way mental health workers are depicted. Every bad cliché from every asylum movie you can think of is represented here. And while I can understand a few bad eggs on staff, it’s hard to believe that this hospital filled with sadists, rapists, neglectors, and simple buffoons would actually be up and running. I’ve seen my fair share of misguided and downright mean-spirited mental health workers in the profession, but the extreme representations of mental health here got under my skin in the way they were cartoonishly represented. What really befuddles me is that the filmmakers can get the mental health field so wrong, yet they are able to work with some pretty sophisticated metaphors when they show how Rosie is translating all of this trauma underneath her catatonia. The metaphorical chases with Rosie trying to find her way out of an abandoned building with her younger self latched to her hand and a masked female creature chasing after her are actually quite effective, but everything taking place in the hospital in the real world is broad and downright dumb. CATATONIA is admirable that it takes chances with the story and has a deft usage of metaphor. It’s just too bad they just went to extreme and unbelievable lengths with their bad guys.
Available for free on Amazon Prime!
THE PHOENIX TAPES ’97 (2016)Directed by Anonymous
Written by Anonymous
Starring Peter Miller, Dustin Miller (in documentary footage), actors in found footage are never identified
Find out more about this film here, @ThePhoenixTapes97, and on Facebook here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
There are a few films out there focusing on “the Phoenix Lights” phenomenon. Recently THE PHOENIX FORGOTTEN was released in theaters. But another film focusing on the incident is available and it’s a pretty strong effort. Here’s how it fares against my Found Footage Questionnaire.
What’s it about?
The film begins with the father of a government agent giving an interview about his deceased son. He reveals that his son joined the military and was doing some top secret government work before he died. Later, the father finds video tapes walled into his son’s room. The footage on the tapes occur during the famous “Phoenix Lights” incident of 1997 when thousands of people witnessed strange lights in the sky that is believed to be a UFO. The tapes follow four guys out to find a fishing hole in the Phoenix desert who witness what they think is a meteor shower, followed by weird lights in the sky, and soon an actual alien encounter.
Are the actors successfully acting like they aren’t acting?
Actually, everyone involved in this film look and act like regular people saying regular things. As I watched this, I found myself liking this group of bros and thinking that they act pretty much the way my friends and I used to act as twenty-somethings on mancation. This might not make the film a female-friendly one, but these guys seemed like regular guys and not actors picked off a modeling shoot. This made everything much more believable which is what a found footage film should be going for.
Does is seem like this footage was actually found and not untouched by additional production (which means there is no omniscient editor making multiple edits or an invisible orchestra providing music)?
This film does an excellent job of trying to make what is seen through the lens is exactly how it happened. There are no multiple edits from different angles, it’s all one handheld camera the whole time. This may drive folks who get motion sickness from those types of films nuts, but it definitely feels authentic. On top of that, aside from the produced interview segments at the beginning, middle, and end of the film, which uses ominous music along with the interviews, there isn’t any music in the found footage itself distracting from the authenticity of it.
Is there a valid reason the camera isn’t dropped and they just get the hell out of there?
At first, the guys are actually kind of fascinated with what’s going on, so they are filming with hopes to cash in on the footage to a TV station when they get home. Later, when shit starts getting real and deadly, the camera’s night vision is used as a light source for the one taking to video to see where he is going in the dark, which is a valid enough reason for me.
Is the lead in too long and the payoff too short?
There really isn’t much time wasted in this film. The beginning starts out with an interview with the father of a government agent who goes missing and finds the tapes hidden in his wall. When the video is played, it is the first night that the guys see what they think are meteors falling from the sky. So almost right off the bat, the crazy shit starts happening and the action happens consistently through the rest of the runtime to keep things from ever hitting a lull.
Is there an up-nose BLAIR WITCH confessional or a REC-drag away from the camera?
No confessionals, but there are three “REC drag-aways,” which to me is three too many. Again, this is a cliché I want to see retired as it is way overused in this genre. It was shocking ten years ago. Now, it’s just tired and uninspired. Find some new way to off folks other than tying a rope to their legs and dragging them into the darkness, please.
Does anything actually happen? Does the film add anything to the subgenre and is this one worth watching?
THE PHOENIX TAPES ’97 is actually a pretty strong found footage film. It goes out of its way to try to make the viewer feel like everything you are seeing is authentic and untampered with. There are solid moments of suspense and terror as the otherworldly threat becomes more and more real for the four guys on the tape. While the drag-aways made my eyes roll, there are a lot of really great and simple effects shots and a fun story filled with action and thrills pretty much through the whole film. I do like the way this film’s website is trying to go the extra mile and make it seem like these guys really did disappear and that these are actual tapes. The film even goes so far as to not identify the director, writer, and actors, and not even having a credits sequence at the end of the film. The way this movie plays out pretty much confirm that this footage isn’t real (specifically the repeated REC dragaways and the appearance of actual aliens), but it still deserves credit for going that extra mile to sell the BLAIR WITCH “this is all real” routine. While THE PHOENIX TAPES ’97 doesn’t really bring a whole lot new to the table, it does do found footage capably and rock solidly. Fans of the genre are going to want to find this footage.
Available on DVD from Unearthed Films!
FLOWERS (2015)Directed by Phil Stevens
Written by Phil Stevens
Starring Colette Kenny Mckenna, Krystle Fitch, Anastasia Blue, Tanya Erin Paoli, Kara A. Christiansen, Makaria Tsapatoris, Bryant W. Lohr Sr., Raychelle Keeling
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
I reviewed arthouse horror filmmaker Phil Stevens’ LUNG not too long ago. I found that film to be a visually enthralling look inside a brain confounded in madness and guilt and a man trying to make sense of being a murderer. Stevens’ first film FLOWERS deals with the other end of the murderer/murderee dichotomy, focusing on the tales of a handful of female victims who seem to wake up after being disposed of by a murderer in the crawlspace in his house. It’s a film that again takes the viewer into some uncomfortable areas and again it borders on the thin line between grotesque and beautiful.
Each corpse has a story to tell, both about the way they ended up in the crawlspace of a killer and what they are experiencing in their own afterlife seeming trapped inside the killer’s house. Filmed without a single word spoken, FLOWERS is a grimy and greasy film that isn’t afraid to take the viewer into disgusting places in order to tell each victim’s story. As each corpse makes their way through the crawlspace, through the walls, and into the rooms of the killer’s home, they seem to come to terms with their deaths in their own unique ways. Some keep on fighting to be alive, others give up and futilely try to kill themselves again, others try to repair their wounds, while others don’t seem to know they are dead yet. Each story is fascinating in that everyone has their own unique storyline.
Still, I know a lot of folks are going to not give FLOWERS a shot. It’s definitely arthouse horror. The lack of humor to release the feelings of disgust and horror is uncomfortable for some. The lack of dialog will be hard for some people to feel empathy for these awakened dead girls. If you don’t like films that refrain from spelling themselves out, this simply is not going to be for you.
FLOWERS is not a film I’d recommend for the occasional horror viewer. It’s for the hardcore horror fan who can see the beauty in the blood. I loved the artistic compositions Stevens chose to present each corpse’s own exquisite hell. Each scene is decadent, ornate, and ripe, on the verge of rotting—like a photograph by surrealist Joel-Peter Witkin. If you’re fed up with studio made attempts at horror and want to experience something more akin to the inner workings of a madman’s psyche, check out the artsy nightmare that is FLOWERS. Like it or not, I doubt you’ll forget it once you’ve seen it.
New this week on DVD/BluRay from Magnet Releasing!
XX (2017)Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic (“The Box”), Annie Clark (“The Birthday Party”), Roxanne Benjamin (“Don’t Fall”), Karyn Kusama (“Her Only Living Son”), Sofìa Carrillo (bookend animation)
Written by Jovanka Vuckovic (“The Box” screenplay, based on a short story by Jack Ketchum), Roxanne Benjamin (“The Birthday Party”, “Don’t Fall”), Annie Clark (“The Birthday Party”), Karyn Kusama (“Her Only Living Son”)
Starring Natalie Brown, Peyton Kennedy, Peter DaCunha, Jonathan Watton, Ron Lea, Michael Dyson (“The Box”), Melanie Lynskey, Sheila Vand, Sanai Victoria, Clayton Jackson, Laura G. Chirinos, Joe Swanberg, Jay Chirinos, Ozzy Villazon (“The Birthday Party”), Angela Trimbur, Breeda Wool, Morgan Krantz, Casey Adams (“Don’t Fall”), Kyle Allen, Christina Kirk, Mike Doyle, Brenda Wehle, Lisa Renee Pitts, Ruben Pla, Morgan Peter Brown, Lisa Costanza, Curt Cornelius (“Her Only Living Son”)
Find out more about this film here. @xxfilm, and on Facebook here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
While I try not to get too political, I do want to recognize that while there certainly have been prolific female horror filmmakers, it still has been a pretty male dominated genre. At last year’s New York Comic Con, during my quarterly “Reinventing Horror” panel, we discussed the fact that much of horror has been seen through one lens. Now, I try to stay out of gender politics for the most part, but I do want to give attention to a sort of opening of the gates in terms of horror from other genders, other races, and other cultures. What is terrifying to one culture, may not be so frightening to another (see the evil sheet from UNDER THE SHADOW that I felt to be less than terrifying). Still, there is something to be said about the human experience and some horrors are universal.
XX proves both points and while it is not an overtly political feminist statement, it is horror from the minds and cameras of female filmmakers. I didn’t know what to expect going into this film. Was it just going to be a bunch of castration scenes, or were these horrors going to be more sophisticated. Turns out it was the latter. XX is a horror anthology first and a female horror anthology second. This means that it never beats you about the head and shoulders that it is a movie made by women. It’s just a good movie and for that, I appreciate it all the more. XX had a limited budget, but still, all of the contributors seemed to have given their all and the end result is a mixed bag of fun, frightening, and thought-provoking horror that works. Sometimes, if you dig deep enough, there is a feminist message in there (you can do that with pretty much any kind of film, BTW), but those who want to come at this as simply a horror movie with a variety of scares are going to be surprised that this one can be viewed without taking politics into consideration. Then again, it’s there if you dg enough and I did so a few times in the below review.
The first segment is by former Rue Morgue Magazine Editor and producer of XX, Jovanka Vuckovic and I think was the perfect way to start off this anthology. The story is not overtly feminist in the least, but instead is more subtle with its message while never forgetting that this is a horror story. In “The Box,” a curious young boy asks a stranger on a train what is in a box he has on his lap. The man happily shows what is inside, despite his mother (Natalie Brown) attempting to keep her child from being nosy. When the boy gets home, he kindly refuses to eat dinner, to which his mother and father shake off as the boy sneaking snacks at school. But when this continues for days, with the child refusing to eat, the story gets much more dire. Soon, the boy is telling the rest of the family members, one by one, what the secret of the box is, leaving the entire family, save the mother, without hunger. The story exemplifies a fantastic build tension as each family member visibly withers away while the mother is forced to watch, not knowing what to do. This palpable dread is realized in an awesome, yet patient manner, progressing to a horrific end.
I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to look at this segment, and all of the others for that matter, through a feminist lens, as that is the point of this anthology. In this segment, it is the mother who works while the father is the stay at home dad. He is the one who gets emotional when the kids don’t eat, while the mother calmly observes and thinks nothing of it until it’s too late. I don’t want to read too much into this, but my interpretation is that “The Box” wants to address the real guilt women often get when leaving the home and going against gender roles. Brown’s mother character is rather distant at times, not pressing the issue or supporting her husband when he wants to make this hunger strike an issue. This reversal of gender roles in the household is a powerful way of subtly dealing with feminist issues, while all the while telling a compelling story with real heft. Patience, subtle musical cues, and some very miniscule CG to make people look emaciated make this a simple, yet powerful little opener.
Next up is “The Birthday Party” a fantastic dark comedy starring HEAVENLY CREATURES’ Melanie Lynskey. While this one plays shorter, it really does do a lot with very little as a well to do mother (Lynskey) tries to make her daughter’s birthday party the best it can be. Too bad father has died in his office over night. But Lynskey’s character doesn’t want to let that get in the way of a good party, so she does her best to try to hide the body from her child, her housekeeper, and all of the party guests. A lot of what makes this short segment so good is the fact that Lynskey is such a great actress with a lot of great comedic timing. The film, written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark (aka songstress St. Vincent) and directed by Clark, is best when it lets Lynskey shine in an almost Lucielle Ball like manner to try to cover up the body. Some nice musical cues set to slo mo towards the end makes everything nicely comedic and darkly dramatic all at once. This one was slickly produced, but very short. The final alternate title sequence for the short is equally entertaining.
“Don’t Fall,” written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (who also contributed to the SOUTHBOUND anthology) delivers as straight forward a monster segment as you can get. As with all of these shorts, this one breezes by very quickly , but delivers some nice performances from THE FINAL GIRLS’ Angela Trimbur and Breeda Wool as a group of campers find themselves in an unmapped territory with ties to ancient evil beings. The result is an assault on a trailer home that is pretty epic, albeit very short and to the point. What this installment showed me though is that Benjamin knows how to make her shots exciting and vibrant. We’ve seen attacks like this in many a horror film, but Benjamin makes it all feel new and electric with come creative shots and some fresh gore. While this one went by too quickly for my liking, I liked what I saw under Benjamin’s direction in that it takes a typical horror scenario and makes it atypical through creative camerawork.
The final segment “Her Only Living Son” is from THE INVITATION’s Karyn Kusama and much of the same notes of paranoia that permeated every scene of her comeback film from last year occur in this short as well. This one focuses on the sacrifices mothers make for their children. Paced nicely with some fantastically wicked little beats along the way, this short follows a mother (POWERLESS’ Christina Kirk) who is struggling with the knowledge that her son is turning 18 and becoming a man. While on the metaphorical sense, this segment is steeped in empty nest syndrome, Kusama casts a more devilish pall over the dilemma by adding in a secret conspiracy, a pact made long ago, and a looming monster who is intent on taking her son away from her. This film could have easily been a continuation of such films as THE OMEN or ROSEMARY’S BABY as they all deal with motherhood and the fear a woman has that what they have created would one day become evil. Kusama shows her sophisticated storytelling skills by pacing this one out perfectly and coming to a conclusion that is dramatic and epic, though it plays out simply and probably didn’t break the bank. All in all, this is a nuanced and resonant segment that made me want to call my mother afterwards.
Each segment is bookended by the surreal and macabre stop motion animation one saw in those old Tool videos like “Sober” and “Prison Sex.” These segments were created and directed by Sofìa Carrillo, these set the tone nicely for these four segments utilizing broken toys wandering through a gothic mansion. XX is a fantastic little anthology, filled with both heady and hearty horror. I found it to be less of a political statement about womanhood and more of a simple statement that there are quite a few female filmmakers out there who are able to make good horror. I hope to see more from each of these filmmakers as all four segments were well produced and successful in telling compelling and terrifying little ditties.
Newly available exclusively on Shudder!
LAKE BODOM (2016)aka BODOM
Directed by Taneli Mustonen
Written by Aleksi Hyvärinen, Taneli Mustonen
Starring Nelly Hirst-Gee, Mimosa Willamo, Mikael Gabriel, Santeri Helinheimo Mäntylä, Pirjo Moilanen, Ilkka Heiskanen, Sami Eerola, Otso Ahosola, Ville Saksela, Iiris Kankkunen, Tommi Korpela, Jarkko Niemi,
Find out more about this film here, @bodommovie , and on Facebook here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
This old school slasher film from Finland sure does a lot of tried and true tropes well and still manages to feel fresh and ripe full of scares, thrills, chills, and surprises. LAKE BODOM is something fans of slasher films are going to want to get to the…bottom…of…
Bad puns aside, LAKE BODOM is a potent little horror in the woods tale about a quartet of good looking youngsters who decide it’s a good idea to go to the isolated site where a group of campers were massacred in the 1960. What could possibly go wrong?
While the setup and description I give in the above paragraph, one might think one can predict this horror in the woods flick beat for beat, but what makes LAKE BODOM so awesome is the fact that the entire film is absolutely unpredictable. I had no clue where this was going and once the bad stuff starts happening, the film keeps tossing surprises and twists at you right and left until the very end. This is a film filled with impending gloom that something terrible is going to happen to these teens in trouble and delivers on that promise in spades.
The likable cast is what draws you into LAKE BODOM. Specifically, the two main female leads Nelly Hirst-Gee and Mimosa Willamo. Hirst-Gee plays Ida, a straight-laced introvert with a strict father and large family. She has suffered through a horrible scandal at school where someone took photos of her naked and spread them around the school. Hirst-Gee is gorgeous and exudes an innocence that makes you root for her to make it through this nightmare unscathed. She is a powerful young actress with penetrating eyes and I hope to see more from her soon as she really is a lot of why this film works. Willamo plays Nora, Ida’s more bold and tough friend who sticks up for Ida and is trying to make her life normal again. Both actresses play off of one another well and as the story unfolds and their relationship becomes strained, the strength of these two actresses make all of the typical teen angst feel real, powerful, and important.
I don’t want to spoil LAKE BODOM for anyone and my advice for folks is to go into this one without digging too much up about it. It is a film full of intense moments, crazy surprises, and director Taneli Mustonen offers up sights, sounds, angles, and set pieces that will seem familiar to slasher movie fans until he pulls the rug right out from under you. LAKE BODOM is anything but typical and if you’re looking for tried and true tropes done in new exciting ways, this film is going to be necessary viewing for you.
And finally…how about another Light’s Out radio play? This thriller from the golden days of radio is entitled “Sakhalin” and it’s another twisted gem from the bent mind of Arch Obler. It…is…later…than…you think! Enjoy!
See ya next week, folks!
Ambush Bug is M. L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 15 years & AICN HORROR for 5. Follow Mark on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller and on his new website collecting posts for AICN HORROR as well as all of the most recent updates on his various comic book projects on MLMillerWrites.com.
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