Saturday, November 19, 2016

#244: Biohazard (Fred Olen Ray, 1985)

In the wake of my country's suicidal decision to elect a fascist monster, Europe's move toward fascism, Brexit, and the horrors of what's to come, it seems completely ridiculous to write about a goofy monster B-movie. I feared the intertwined demons of global predatory capitalism and bigoted scapegoating would eventually cause something this cataclysmic, but a big part of me is still in shock, appalled by and embarrassed for and terrified of the direction western civilization is heading. A lot of good people are going to be hurt terribly by what's going to happen, and we all have to find our own ways of pitching in to stop it. We've also got to keep living our lives, finding spaces to celebrate what's good, having fun, staying sane. This is also important. In that spirit, and in one of the most awkward transitional sentences I've ever written, here's a little something about Fred Olen Ray's Biohazard.
Much like our country's response to the Trump candidacy, Biohazard is about a problem that is not taken seriously until it starts destroying people. Deep in the California desert, a scientist is working on something big, and the Army and Congress are taking notice. Two senators, an Army bigwig, and some career military types head to the desert to check out the vague, weird experiments Dr. Williams (Art Payton) is conducting in his desert lab with psychic Lisa Martyn (Angelique Pettyjohn). In a hilariously awkward scene, Dr. Williams gives a spiel about how he's using the psychic's powers in tandem with his science machines to grab actual objects from other dimensions and bring them to this dimension using science. Then he and Lisa actually do it.
The government and military dudes, including Hollywood veteran Aldo Ray as General Randolph, decide the mysterious container taken from another dimension belongs to the military. They order underlings Mitchell Carter (William Fair) and Roger (Richard Hench) to load up the weird container and follow the big shots back to base. Driving the big shots is gum-chomping, macho dickhead Reiger (David O'Hara), who has a long-standing feud with Mitchell dating back to Vietnam (though both guys seem too young to have seen any action there). Before they make it very far, a diminutive but deadly alien jumps out of the container and shreds Roger's face, making a hasty getaway immediately thereafter.  The alien looks like a four-foot-tall cross between a Power Ranger and a beetle and is played by the director's son, who was then five, six, or seven years old, depending on which source you read.
The rest of the film concerns Mitchell and Lisa's attempts to find and kill the alien, and the alien's path of destruction through a nearby desert town. There are lots of nods to Alien, some pretty convincing makeup effects, some pretty terrible non-makeup effects, hilariously awful dialogue, gratuitous nudity, the destruction of an E.T. poster, hobos waxing rhapsodic about cheap 1983 wine, and an abruptly hysterical twist ending followed by a blooper reel.
Fred Olen Ray, who I call the "Fassbinder of schlock," has 148 directing credits to his name and shows no signs of slowing down or learning how to make professional product, and for that, I salute him. His films are not very good, but they are a great deal of fun. This is Olen Ray's fourth appearance on this site, and I encourage his fans to check out my previous reviews of The Alien Dead, Alienator, and Armed Response. Ray's child Christopher, who played the alien, has followed in his father's footsteps as a prolific director and producer of B-movies, with 18 credits as director since 2008. His notable titles include Reptisaurus, Megaconda, Mega-Shark vs. Crocosaurus, and They Want Dick Dickster. I wonder what Thanksgiving is like at the Olen Rays. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

#243: Shock aka Beyond the Door II (Mario Bava, 1977)

The final film from Mario Bava, Shock sees the groundbreaking Italian horror director going out on a high note. This is a suspenseful, weird, visually powerful, creepy movie that skillfully weaves together the supernatural and the psychological, told so energetically that it's hard to believe an older man three years before his death is behind the camera. The film also benefits considerably from Daria Nicolodi's virtuosic performance in the leading role. Nicolodi has one of the most visually expressive faces in film, and Bava puts it to highly effective use here. Yeah, the movie has some cheesy dialogue, stiff English-language dubbing, occasionally baffling character behavior, and irritatingly patronizing male characters, but if these things are enough to turn you off, you're obviously not a fan of '60s-'80s Italian horror. The film's virtues are so much stronger than its flaws.
A word about the title. Entertaining Exorcist ripoff Beyond the Door had been a huge financial success a few years earlier, so the American distributors decided to cash in on having the same child actor, David Colin Jr., and released the film as Beyond the Door II in the United States. In addition to the presence of Colin, both films were horror movies about a family unit directed by Italians. Besides those superficial similarities, the films have absolutely nothing to do with each other and are sequels in name only. Not quite as egregious as the time the Spanish film about the murderous ghosts of some Knights Templar, Tombs of the Blind Dead, was repackaged for drive-ins as a Planet of the Apes sequel (a new prologue was filmed explaining that the Knights were actually ghosts of the apes from the Planet of the Apes movies, which might be my favorite stupid cash-grab in the history of cinema distribution), but still pretty silly.
Shock, co-written by Bava's son and Demons director Lamberto Bava (who has a cameo as a mover), is about a woman named Dora (Daria Nicolodi), her son Marco (David Colin Jr.), and her second husband Bruno (John Steiner) moving back into the country home Dora shared with her first husband, Marco's father, and which she still owns. Her first husband was a depressive drug addict who committed suicide at sea seven years earlier, and Dora has had trouble with anxiety, depression, and fear since then.
Now remarried to airline pilot Bruno, Dora is persuaded that a return to the peace of the countryside may be the perfect thing for everyone. After the obligatory few minutes of sentimental, happy-family cheese are dispensed with, things get pretty disturbing pretty quickly. Marco starts saying and doing incredibly strange things, but in classic macho, paternalistic Italian fashion, Dora gets the blame for being a nervous, fragile woman. Bruno even hides sedatives around the house and slips them in Dora's water without telling her, in order to calm her. He's kind of a douche. He's also frequently away from home flying planes, so Dora is alone with her newly creepy son and his newly creepy behavior.
Soon, Dora is losing her shit, having horrible but beautifully filmed nightmares, and dark family secrets get uncovered. Is she going crazy, or is the ghost of her former husband haunting her and possessing their son? The film skillfully avoids taking sides, and a pretty good case can be made for both supernatural and psychological explanations of the terrors happening in the home.
Nicolodi kicks ass throughout, giving one of my favorite performances in horror. She's so good at telling a story with her facial expressions, making you forget about the Italian tradition of overdubbing the dialogue later. Nicolodi is most famous for her work in many of Dario Argento's best films, and she wrote the screenplay for my favorite Argento movie, Suspiria. (She's also the mother of Asia Argento, and she and Dario were a couple for many years.) Bava was lucky to get her in this role, since she was coming off a pretty intense stretch of collaboration with Argento, both artistically and romantically, and the two had decided to take some time apart from each other, just in time for Shock. (Steiner would go on to work with Argento a few years later, in Tenebre.)
The film builds in intensity, culminating in a great final third that has one of my favorite surprise scares in horror. I'd seen the film once before, and I was happy to see that this scene had the same jump-out-of-your-seat effect on my wife, who was watching it for the first time. Shock is a real treat for Italian horror fans, with its stunning shot compositions, creepy red-haired child (I say this as a creepy red-haired former child myself), horror veterans behind and in front of the camera, and weird-ass prog/jazz/funk/hard rock score from the band I Libra. I love this movie. It's scary, fun, weird, occasionally ridiculous, and just the kind of thing I like.