Wednesday, May 30, 2007

#12: Castle Freak (Stuart Gordon, 1995)

Director Stuart Gordon, stuck with a much lower budget than he desired and a shitty distribution deal that sent "Castle Freak" straight to video, had to take plenty of consolation in the fact that his film's producer owned a castle. Seriously, a guy who produces straight-to-video schlock owns an enormous castle in Italy, and this movie was shot there. God, how did I end up with my life? You never hear anybody say, "He paid for that castle with proofreading money." (Full disclosure: I've never heard anybody say anything about buying a castle, pro or con.) So, what this movie lacks in funds, it makes up for in atmosphere--castle atmosphere.
"Castle Freak," loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story, is about a man-beast held captive in a castle's dungeon by an elderly woman, for reasons we discover near the film's end. She regularly beats him and lets her cat lick his food and has apparently removed his tongue and penis. The old lady croaks, and her American nephew, as the next-of-kin, inherits the castle. Little does he know he has also inherited the Castle Freak! The nephew has a sordid little past of his own. A recovering alcoholic, he smashed his car into a tree a few years previously while drunk, killing his young son and blinding his teenage daughter. His wife hasn't forgiven him, and he's dangerously close to a relapse. Complicating these matters, the castle freak escapes and terrorizes the family.

As you may have guessed by my plot synopsis, there's not a lot of humor in the film, which is unusual for Stuart Gordon. The two other Gordon films I've seen, "Re-Animator" and "From Beyond," nicely combine comedy, gore, and Lovecraft, but "Castle Freak" plays it straight, mixing classic horror themes and dysfunctional family drama. It works pretty well, and "Re-Animator" veterans Jeffrey Combs, as the nephew, and Barbara Crampton, as his wife, are surprisingly strong dramatic actors. Still, the melodrama is a lot more cliched than Gordon's inventive sense of humor, and I missed the jokes.
Another caveat is an unnecessary violent rape scene. I'm hardly a prude, but I'm not a big fan of violent sexual imagery, particularly in horror films, and this particular scene made me feel dirty and uncomfortable, and not the good kind of dirty and uncomfortable.
Now that I've scared you away from the film, let me tell you what I like about it. First of all, the castle freak himself is a great movie monster. Jonathan Fuller plays him with an intense physicality, combining the man-child qualities of Frankenstein's monster with a wounded, predatory wild animal. He's genuinely scary. The castle's lived-in authenticity keeps the film from looking cheap. The plot isn't belabored like it would have been if filmed Hollywood-style. Jeffrey Combs does a good job playing a drunk.

I'm pretty easy on horror movies, but, despite some problems with "Castle Freak," I think it's a good one.

He's a castle freak
Castle freak
He's castle freaky

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

#11: Brain Damage (Frank Henenlotter, 1988)

I have a soft spot in my head for schlock filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, writer/director of "Frankenhooker" and the "Basket Case" trilogy, but I'd never seen "Brain Damage" before. This was a terrible oversight. It's his best film. One of the last, and best, psychotropic drug films, "Brain Damage" is about an average guy, Brian, who lives in a modest apartment in New York City with his brother. He has a regular job and a nice girlfriend, Barbara. One night, feeling a little sick, he passes on going to a concert with Barbara and tries to sleep off his illness. He wakes up with blood all over the sheets and the back of his neck. He goes to the bathroom to try to figure out what's happening to him, and finds a small creature who resembles a hunk of brain with teeth and a long, thin tongue in his bathtub. The creature, escaping from its current keepers and winding up in Brian's place, has basically tongued a hole in the back of Brian's neck where it periodically injects a mysterious blue liquid into Brian's brain. This liquid supplies pleasant psychedelic hallucinations, but with the addictive aspects of heroin. Brian loves the high and is soon convinced by the creature, Aylmer or "Elmer" as Brian calls him, to hit the streets and have a little fun. Aylmer needs to eat brains, but he also needs to spend most of his day soaking in water to survive, so he finds some chump to keep high and help him do his brain-eating and water-soaking. The symbiotic relationship escalates, and Brian is soon freaking out his brother and girlfriend and some unfortunate New Yorkers. Aylmer is voiced by none other than TV horror host and fucking lunatic the "Cool Ghoul," an unbilled Zacherle. I love that guy.

"Brain Damage" is a tight, lean, economical, short, and inventive film. Even the strongest exploitation films tend to have pacing problems, but "Brain Damage" clips along without ever dragging. Henenlotter does a lot with his limited budget, the hallucinations are intentionally funny, the gore is disgustingly satisfying, the acting is strong, the visual palette of deep blues and reds is striking, a couple cast members of "Basket Case" have funny cameos, and a scene on the subway and the film's final scene are inspired lunacy. I like this movie. It's fun and weird, and I need weird fun in my life.

Zacherle, the "Cool Ghoul":

Dan Quayle should have consulted with Henenlotter before trashing Murphy Brown. Despite his films' blood, nudity, and profanity, Henenlotter is a family values man to the core. The "Basket Case" films are pro-family and urge brothers to stick together and look out for each other, even if one of them is a telepathic bloodsucking deformed mutant dwarf; "Frankenhooker" warns against playing God and promotes the old adage "you can't buy love," or more accurately, assemble it from the body parts of dead prostitutes; and "Brain Damage" is a cautionary, albeit metaphoric, tale about the dangers of drug abuse and addiction. Obama/Henenlotter 2008!

Monday, May 14, 2007

#10: The Borrower (John McNaughton, 1991)

I love the premise of this movie, and I love its execution. An alien, from a planet where all the lifeforms look kind of like human-sized flies and may have evolved from us (this part is kind of unclear), has been arrested for serial murder. Instead of capital punishment, he's given a sentence worse than death. He gets some of that devolution that Devo's always rocking about, and is scientifically transformed into a human (the lowest form of life) and banished to Earth to make his way in a strange new world. There's a catch. The alien-to-human transformation process is not without its glitches, and unfortunately the Earth's atmosphere will cause his head to explode after a few hours. This won't kill him, fortunately, but is a major annoyance. The alien is forced to rip someone else's head off and stick it on his own body so as not to arouse suspicion that he is anything other than human. The trouble is, in another 2-12 hours (depending on plot necessity), the head's going to explode again and it's back to square one. This premise fills me with glee. Thankfully, the director, John McNaughton, seems filled with glee as well, and so does his cast. Thanks to the beauty of the film's plot, most of the actors get a chance to play the alien, too, including my two favorites, blaxploitation legend Antonio Fargas and horror and cop movie vet Tom Towles.
McNaughton manages to keep this sci-fi/horror/detective/slapstick comedy/satire/gore/b-movie/art film consistent and expertly paced. Even the reliably bad acting of Rae Dawn Chong doesn't dampen the proceedings. I especially admired the scenes when Tom Towles, manning the alien head, wanders the streets of Chicago and briefly ends up in a homeless shelter. These scenes have a stolen realness and beauty (and appear to have been caught on the fly without permits and with one or two cameras, judging by the seemingly authentic reactions of Chicagoans on the street and real homeless people in the shelter and on the sidewalks in front of it) that belie the film's goofy b-movie exterior. McNaughton is an exciting director who manages to marry art and exploitation trash in worthwhile films like "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," "Mad Dog and Glory," and "Wild Things." (A friend of mine swears by "Normal Life," but I haven't seen that one yet.) "The Borrower" may be his thinnest and dopiest film, but it's still full of cheap thrills and ideas.
It's also the most good-natured film about decapitation I've ever seen, which in itself is worth a mighty recommendation.



Monday, May 7, 2007

#9: The Boneyard (James Cummins, 1991)

This ultra-low-budget B-movie is all over the place, never quite knowing what it wants to be, but its sloppy inconsistency is its greatest strength. If director and special effects man Cummins stuck with just one element of the goofy-ass script, this would have been an unremarkable film. I still can't call it remarkable, but it ain't boring. It encompasses a jaded, near-retirement detective and his moronic young partner, a middle-aged psychic who used to help them out until the job got to her (she's also in mourning for a dead child), a suicidal young woman, a mortician secretly under the sway of an ancient Chinese curse, zombie children, vomit and slime, a nearly abandoned morgue open for one more week, Phyllis Diller (as Miss Poopinplatz), Norman Fell as an aging hippy forensic pathologist, a mutant poodle, and a mutant Phyllis Diller.

The film's tone veers from police procedural to murder mystery to overly serious drama to broad sitcom comedy to creepy horror to goofy horror to action thriller and closes with what would have been the cheesiest '80s song ever written if it hadn't been 1991. I can't recommend this one to anybody who doesn't like horror or cheap B-movies, but as an avid fan of both, I got a lot of enjoyment out of it.

Norman Fell's part was originally offered to Alice Cooper, who turned it down. I really wish I had been listening in on the brainstorming process that led to that decision:
"Guys, Alice Cooper won't do it. Who can bring something similar to the role?"
"Norman Fell?"
"I love it!"

This is the only film in which Phyllis Diller appears without a wig.

Director James Cummins decided after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that horror was too negative for our modern world. Here is what he does now.

Read Spacebeer's take on "The Boneyard" here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

#8: The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988)

Remakes have been a part of the movies almost since the movies began, and I honestly don't have a problem with them. I find nothing ethically or creatively suspect about cover songs or multiple interpretations of plays by different theater companies, so why would I have a problem with a movie being remade? However, the cuckoo-bananas over-saturation of purely market- and/or stupidity-driven remakes we have been bombarded with for the past ten years really, really, really gets on my goddamn nerves. The culmination of stupidity this week is a planned remake of Hitchcock's "The Birds" in which the reason for the birds' attacks is their revenge on humans for global warming. I wish I was fucking kidding about that. (There is a special place in movie hell for Harvey Weinstein, in particular. He buys the rights to foreign films and keeps them out of circulation in theaters and on DVD -- sometimes for a few years, sometimes indefinitely -- so an American movie-star remake can be distributed without having to compete with the original artistically or, more importantly for Weinstein, financially. Perhaps worst of all, a lot of the planned remakes never even got off the ground but the originals are still unavailable thanks to Capt. Asshole Weinstein.) Maybe what bothers me the most about all these remakes are their attempts to wipe the slate clean for teenage viewers. These anemically scrubbed-up and dumbed-down customer-copy receipts may end up replacing the originals for current and future generations of moviegoers. However, as recently as 1988, remake plague had yet to infect Hollywood. Remakes were approached as variations on a theme, not arrogant or greedy attempts to replace or usurp the originals in our collective memories.

Chuck Russell's remake of the fifties drive-in classic "The Blob" is so much better than it has any reason to be or should be. I saw it when I was a kid, and I expected to be disappointed this time around. However, I like it now more than I did then. Russell obviously loves the original and assumes that his audience is at least familiar with it, and he, and the entire cast and special effects crew, seem to be having a really good time. Whether the shoot was a happy or torturous one, I have no idea, but the dumb fun onscreen is infectious. It helps that Russell is remaking a goofy B-movie and not something like "The Third Man" or "The 400 Blows," but he seems to care about actors so much more than you would expect for a movie about a giant blob of killer goo. The film is loaded with excellent performances from character actors like Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark, Art LaFleur, Jack Nance, and comedian Del Close (one of John Belushi's biggest inspirations). Even the teenage parts are surprisingly well-played by Donovan's son Donovan Leitch (as a jock), Shawnee Smith, and Kevin Dillon, Matt's brother, as the neighborhood bad boy. Laugh if you will at those last three names, but Matt should be way more ashamed of his work in Paul Haggis' "Crash" than Kevin should for "The Blob."

This film may have helped kick-start one of Hollywood's most negative trends, but it was also one of the last of that unfortunately dying breed of handmade special effects films. Predating CGI by a handful of years, the gore effects look great. Maybe someday I will warm up to CGI, but mostly I think it looks like total fucking dogshit. There is nothing like the real thing, and lovingly handmade special effects look sooooo much better than the hyper-stylized video-game bullshit we're pretty much stuck with now. I'm possibly a Luddite, but the proof is on the screen. (Some of the effects during the climactic scene are pretty bad, but this is an intentional tribute to/parody of the original.) Give me blood and guts generated by humans, not computers. Is that too much to ask?

Some of my fellow Cassavetes and Tarkovsky fans may be baffled by this blog or my recommendation of movies like "The Blob." What can I say? I'm a complicated man. A complicated, mixed-up, drunken, stupid man. Blob!

To see what happened when we paused the DVD to grab a beer, click here!