Saturday, January 13, 2018

1/13/2018: Bad blood

Toxic Zombies aka Bloodeaters (Charles McCrann, 1980)
This month, I'll be talking about two regional low-budget horror indies with the word "blood" in the title that are both 90 minutes long, amateurish but charming, a little poorly paced, and an unusual spin on familiar horror subjects. First up is a rural Pennsylvania twist on the zombie movie from Pittsburgh filmmaker Charles McCrann. Deep inside a hard-to-reach area of federally protected wilderness, a group of marijuana growers are camped out and almost done harvesting their crop when they're surprised by two DEA agents. The agents kill one of the pot growers, but the growers gain the upper hand and shoot and kill both agents. The agents' disappearance brings a fed to the office of the head of the parks department, who is convinced to spray the area with chemicals in an effort to lure the growers out of hiding. The growers get covered in the stuff, which turns them into murderous zombies. Cue much outdoors zombie mayhem. The film drags in the second half, but there are moments of suspense, humor, and fun, and I have a lot of affection for regional independent filmmaking even when the results are dicey.
Director McCrann was a career-motivated guy who graduated from Princeton and Yale and spent most of his life working in finance, but he was also a film buff and horror fanatic who wanted to make a movie, so, at the age of 34, he got his buddies together and did it. Influenced by George Romero, McCrann used Romero regular John Amplas in a supporting role, and his and his friends' labor of love ended up finding distribution on the drive-in and grindhouse circuits. McCrann never made another film. He eventually became senior vice president of a large financial services conglomerate in New York City and was tragically killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack while working in his office at the World Trade Center.

Blood Cult (Christopher Lewis, 1985)
Our next regional indie was filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, using local theater actors, but director Lewis had connections to Hollywood. The son of Hollywood actor Loretta Young, Lewis grew up in Los Angeles, went to USC film school, and is the nephew of Ricardo Montalban and the older brother of a founding member of Moby Grape. Weird. He worked as a screenwriter of TV movies, a disc jockey, and a news anchorman, the latter job bringing him to Tulsa, where he started a video production company with his wife Linda. They marketed this production as the first horror movie to be shot on Betamax video and intended for the straight-to-video market, which isn't true, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they believed it. No matter the claim, the film has a weird documentary/home movie look that made me feel like I was spying on real people. The story of a series of murders at sorority houses on a small college campus, Blood Cult begins as a slasher film before turning into a police procedural about Satanic cults. Like Bloodeaters, the pacing drags in the second half, the ending is a bit confusing, the acting ranges from good to atrocious, and the low-budget regional feel has a lot of charm. I can't wholly recommend this movie, but it holds a certain curiosity for fans of '80s horror, shot-on-video films, or regional indies.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

12/16/2017: Reinvented humans

Blind Fury (Phillip Noyce, 1989)
Australian director Phillip Noyce is that dying breed jack-of-all-tradesperson in the Michael Curtiz mold who can successfully work in different genres, budgets, countries, and styles and, more often than not, come up with something worth watching. In a career that started in 1969, Noyce has directed underground short films (Better to Reign in Hell, Castor and Pollux), arty independent dramas (Newsfront, The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence), Hitchcockian thrillers (Dead Calm), mainstream Hollywood action movies and suspense thrillers (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Salt), TV episodes and miniseries (Revenge, Luck, Roots), and a couple of mega-flops (Sliver, The Saint). Then there's Blind Fury. An American remake of the Zatoichi story, Blind Fury is a medium-budget stupid-fun cartoon-violence '80s action B-movie with Rutger Hauer as the blind swordsman, facing a metric shit-ton of bad guys played by an oddball assortment of veteran character actors, up-and-coming character actors, a foreign movie star, and a comedian. This is a ridiculously fun movie that never takes itself seriously or stops to catch its breath, marred only by a couple of cheap early-digital visual effects and an annoying little kid. Hauer is Nick Parker, blinded in action in Vietnam but rescued by some kindly villagers who teach him how to enhance his other senses and kick ass with a sword. Cut to present-day '89, and Nick is wandering the back roads of Florida with his walking stick/sword, living a free-spirited vagabond's life, interrupted only by the occasional alligator and a beatdown he has to dish out to a punk who deliberately pours too much hot sauce on his taco. Nick stops in at the home of an old Army buddy he served with in 'Nam, but finds out his buddy is now divorced and living in Reno. He chats pleasantly with his buddy's ex-wife Lynn (Meg Foster) and annoying son Billy (Brandon Call), but soon finds himself foiling a kidnapping plot and escorting Billy to Reno to reunite him with his dad Frank (Terry O'Quinn) and kick a whole lot of bad-dude ass, assisted by Frank's girlfriend Annie (the late great Lisa Blount, who should have been in twice as many films). Those bad dudes are played by Noble Willingham, Randall "Tex" Cobb, Nick Cassavetes, Sho Kosugi, Charles Cooper, standup comic Rick Overton, and a handful of others. The action sequences are brutal, fun, over-the-top, and take place in such varied locations as cornfields, vans, ski resorts, nightclubs, casino floors, elevators, trams, and hot tubs. Blind Fury also contains my favorite movie credit of all time: "Supervisor of Tram Operations -- Squaw Valley - Phillip F. St. Pierre, Jr."

Alraune (Richard Oswald, 1930)
One of many adaptations of  Hanns Heinz Ewers' novel about the mandrake root, Alraune is a perverse bit of sci-fi/horror/psychosexual drama from the earliest days of German sound film. Albert Bassermann plays Privy Councillor ten Brinken, a scientist and professor who lives in opulence thanks to a wealthy princess who funds his experiments and his lifestyle. Ten Brinken has successfully created rats through artificial insemination, but on a challenge by his nephew, he becomes possessed with the idea of creating a human through the artificial insemination process. Through a bribe, ten Brinken collects the seed of a prisoner about to be executed and then kidnaps a prostitute from a boisterous restaurant/nightclub to carry the artificially inseminated child. I don't know how ten Brinken expects his work to get peer reviewed and accepted as a scientific breakthrough when he achieved it through kidnapping and bribes, but that's his problem. The film then jumps 18 years into the future, and the artificially created woman Alraune (Brigitte Helm, who also plays the prostitute) is a young adult. She believes she is the orphaned niece of ten Brinken, and she has a seductive allure that leads men to their doom. Several plot twists ensue before the film's lyrical conclusion. These early sound films can be pretty rough, thanks to the clunky and primitive early sound equipment, and Alraune suffers from this in its early scenes. Silent film near the end of its 30-year run was a beautifully expressive medium, and much of this innovation and technique was discarded to capture sound. In scenes requiring dialogue, the camera doesn't move (or moves awkwardly and abruptly), the framing is artless and stagy, and the actors sometimes look stiff and uncomfortable. Oswald's approach becomes artier and more expressive as the film progresses, and a scene of driving is punctuated by a highly effective pattern of quick edits and montage. The closeups on actors' faces are beautifully expressive, and the interiors are intricately detailed. Alraune is a fascinating piece of film history.