Saturday, December 28, 2013

Genocide (1968)

Humans have a strange tendency to think that everything in nature is out to get us. Perhaps it is an artifact of eons past when we were the equivalent of fast food for most predators--not especially good, but easy to procure. Even now, we can hide our soft squishy selves behind barriers few predators can penetrate and still find ourselves terrified of the inevitable time that they do get through.

On a seemingly unconnected note, we also tend to fear conspiracy. This no doubt started in the early days of tribal societies, when it was easy to imagine (and probably, likely) that your compatriots were actually eager to work together against you and only wanted you to think they were helping you out. It's possible we fear conspiracies--both real and imagined--even more these days, so apparently we, as a species, have never actually reached the point where trust falls are advisable.

But worse than everything in nature wanting us dead for its own individual reasons, what if everything nature decided to conspire against us? What hope would we have if, one day, every living around us just decided it had had enough of our shit?

It's hardly necessary for every species to turn against us, though. All that it would really take is for just a handful of insect species to conspire against us. Humans are hopelessly outnumbered by insects and just think of the destruction insects cause when they're just going about their routine--and then imagine they decide to do it on purpose.

Kojima Island, in the Anan Archipelago, was uninhabited by humans for most of the twenty years since World War II ended. However, people have begun filtering back to the island chain it belongs to gradually but have not, as yet, taken Kojima back. Said humans include Joji (Yusuke Kawazu) and his wife Yukari (Emi Shindo). Yukari works for an adjacent island's hotel and bar, but Joji doesn't seem to have much of any occupation. He seems content to do whatever odd task can bring in some money, regardless of how moral such work might be.

That includes helping Annabelle (Kathy Moran), an insect enthusiast who recently arrived, to collect the various unique species of insect that have flourished on Kojima island in the absence of human interference. Of course, it's hard to collect insects when you're busy studying each other's anatomy. Joji seems to think he's being slick, but just about everybody on the islands knows about his affair with Annabelle--except for poor Yukari. Though she'll find out soon enough, as the hotel's proprietor insinuates what Joji and Annabelle are up to before attempting to force himself on Yukari.

If you think it's clear this film has a rather cynical view of humanity now, you better hold on tight.

Whilst sunning themselves on the rocks of Kojima's shore, Joji and Annabelle are in a prime position to witness a B-52 crash into the island, with only three of its crew bailing out in time. Of course, they weren't privy to several facts--one, is that the B-52 is carrying an H-Bomb; the second is that the plane didn't crash due to mere mechanical failure. Minutes earlier, the plane's black bombardier, Charly (Chico Roland), was overcome with Vietnam flashbacks after a bee appeared outside the plane's window. He opened the bomb bay doors and was seconds away from dropping the bomb when his crew mates overpowered him.

And the crew barely caught their breath before an enormous swarm of bees took out the B-52's engines, which is not something that usually happens at 30,000 feet.

Lt. Colonel Gordon (Ralph Jesser) is ordered to go to the islands to oversee Operation Broken Arrow--now there's a movie that could have been improved with the addition of insects trying to overthrow humanity--and he quickly proves himself to be the sort of hardass who doesn't need any encouragement to play Bad Cop. When Gordon finds Charly barely alive, scant feet from the cave where the other two survivors lie dead, covered with what appear to be wounds from insect stings--he naturally assumes foul play. And when Joji is reported trying to hock an Air Force watch that belonged to one of the hapless airmen, he becomes Gordon's chief suspect.

Yukari reaches out to Dr. Nagumo (Keisuke Sonoi), an entomologist in Tokyo that Joji also has been collecting specimens for. Nagumo is in the midst of testing the effects of the venom from a new species of Japanese hornet that Joji sent him on a Guinea pig when he receives the news of Joji's arrest. It doesn't end well for the Guinea pig, in case you were wondering. Nagumo knows Joji well enough to know the guy's a bit of an opportunistic schmuck, but definitely not a murderer so he is happy to come to the islands to help bail him out.

Nagumo finds himself involved in the investigation of the downed B-52, as well. He quickly ascertains that the airmen were killed by Kojima island's hornets, but the Air Force coroner insists it was blunt force trauma. When Nagumo goes to see the currently comatose Charly, he asks Dr. Junko Komuro (Reiko Hitomi) about Charly's condition when he was brought to the hospital. Komuro advises him that when she was treating him, he briefly regained consciousness long enough to say, "Insects!" over and over. This gets Nagumo even more curious about this mystery and he goes to see Annabelle, as she just so happens to be Joji's alibi.

Annabelle turns out to be a definite femme fatale, but she's also not one who sees any point in denying that she was with Joji when the supposed murders took place even though she has no real interest in testifying for him. She also muses with Nagumo about how fascinating the island is, one insect aficionado to another. Of course, Nagumo has a very optimistic view of humanity and Annabelle most certainly does not. In fact, when Nagumo suggests that the horrors of World War II need to be left in the past so humanity can move on, Annabelle disagrees on a highly visceral level. Of course, we shall find out soon enough that she has a very good reason to.

Charly wakes up screaming about insects when one of the island's hornets enters his hospital room, but Dr. Komuro drives it away and he calms down--except he doesn't understood why she calls him Charly. It seems he hit his head when fleeing whatever happened in the cave and has lost his memory. It all looks pretty bleak for Joji, so he is understandably upset instead of happy when Yukari announces to him that she is three months pregnant. Joji's outburst of self-pity causes Yukari to angrily chide him that insects have babies, too, and he should have listened to her when she told him not to go collecting insects. This may seem unrelated to the dilemma at hand, but naturally Yukari is being more prophetic than she realizes.

Gordon and Nagumo are both intensely interested in Charly regaining his memory, but while Nagumo wants to prove Joji's innocence Gordon just wants to know where the H-Bomb is. Gordon becomes instantly suspicious of Nagumo when the entomologist reveals that he knows what "Broken Arrow" is code for, but he agrees to let Nagumo help Charly regain his memory. Nagumo apparently thinks triggering Charly is the best way to do it, as he shows the poor amnesiac a reel of insects preying on each other. This does, however, allow Charly to flash back to when he and the other two airmen were ambushed in the cave by a swarm of bees or hornets. Charly escaped but then plunged off a cliff and was knocked out.

This doesn't prove a damn thing to Gordon. Charly was a known drug addict, who had turned to narcotics to try and self-medicate his PTSD. (Which begs the question of why he was still on duty, but never mind that) Clearly this was all a hallucination. Nagumo is convinced, however, and he and Dr. Komuro go to investigate the cave. Meanwhile, Gordon gets news that the plane was found--but the bomb is still missing. If that's not bad enough, after Nagumo and Komuro find a jar used for transporting insects inside the cave where the airmen, someone fires a shot at them and retreats. Perhaps Nagumo and Gordon are both right: it was insect.

Joji escapes from police custody as he is about to be transported to Tokyo to face trial and hides from the police in Annabelle's bed. He's going to wish he'd just been sent to Tokyo, as two armed thugs killed the MPs that were transporting Charly while Joji was playing hide the fugitive with Annabelle--and then said goons bring Charly to Annabelle's bungalow for questioning about what exactly the B-52 was carrying. Seems Joji's mistress is not just a misanthropic bug enthusiast after all. Annabelle decides that threatening Charly with a cigarette is not sufficient to get him to talk, so she puts him inside insect netting and releases the island's hornets into the netting. Faced with being stung by an insect whose venom will drive him mad before killing him, Charly reveals that the B-52 was carrying an H-Bomb.

Unfortunately for Charly, Annabelle doesn't actually give a shit about an H-Bomb. She reveals the number tattooed on her left breast to everyone in the room as a prelude to the explanation of what she's really after--I guess Joji either did not notice the tattoo before or didn't understand the significance of it, given that Annabelle is pretty damned Aryan in appearance, at least superficially. Yes, Annabelle and her family were sent to Auschwitz and only she survived. Having seen what humanity is capable of, she is determined to see that the species is wiped out and has been breeding Kojima's hornets with that goal in mind. So poor Charly will not be spared from her wrath.

It's actually rather a horribly believable touch that at no point does Annabelle realize that torturing and killing Charly--a black man and therefore a member of group not only innocent of any of the atrocities she endured but even less privileged and equally as persecuted--makes her just as awful as the Nazis who destroyed her family. Those who have known oppression and persecution have a tendency to gleefully oppress and persecute other even less privileged groups when they are given the opportunity. Just look at how gleefully Israel took to oppressing Palestinians and how they viciously they've taken to persecuting African immigrants who, essentially, are in the same position in Israeli society as the Jews were in Germany when Hitler first rose to power.

Now that I've used a killer insect movie to criticize Israel, let's get back to the movie: the goons let the now deranged Charly loose back on the nearby island with a gun and Charly proceeds to attempt to assault Yurika and Dr. Komuro. Gordon and Nagumo arrive just in time for Gordon to shoot Charly dead after he tears off Komuro's clothes. Nagumo notes that Charly has been stung repeatedly--and then the insects in the trees begin singing, "Genocide," over and over. Nagumo is momentarily puzzled by the meaning of the English word until Gordon advises it means, "The extermination of mankind."

That the insects are singing about exterminating humanity is alarming enough, but upon examining Charly's body Nagumo discovers that the insects who stung him also laid hundreds of eggs inside his flesh.* That would be bad enough, but the Air Force coroner informs Nagumo that the bodies of the other two airmen have already been shipped home. So not only does Kojima have a population of insects determined to eradicate us, now they're spreading.

[* This is a common trope in killer insect/arachnid films, but I don't find it too silly in this instance. After all, wasps and hornets are related, and wasps are the insect that is famous for having a life cycle that inspired that of the xenomorphs in Alien]

It can actually get worse, unfortunately. Nagumo deliberately allows a hornet to sting him, allowing the venom to work its hallucinatory effects before being injected with an antidote. The effects of the venom somehow allow Nagumo to tap into the hive mind intelligence of the insects and he discovers that it's not just the insects of Kojima that are in revolt against humanity. Insects all over the world have decided that they aren't going to sit back and let humanity wreck the biosphere with radioactive weapons. The attack on the B-52 was a preemptive strike and they are determined to wipe out humanity before we can destroy the world. Of course, if humanity continues on its current course, the insects are going to be too late to stop us.

1968 seems to have been a banner year for films whose central theme is, "Well, we're all fucked." Night of the Living Dead and Shochiku's (the studio that produced Genocide) own Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell are just two examples I can think of off the top of my head. I'm not entirely sure why 1968 was when all these films with bleak opinions on the future of mankind came out, but I'm sure I could easily speculate for a paragraph or two.

Genocide was released in the US under the slightly less depressing-sounding title, War of the Insects. This is technically an accurate title, except it implies something rather more overblown than this film. You may have gleaned from my plot description that this is a film largely built on low-key dread than out and out spectacle. It's no surprise that most people who go into the film claim it is boring. I think those people need to get off my damn lawn.

This is an almost relentlessly nihilistic film. The film is book-ended by nuclear explosions, which sums it up pretty well--and indeed the implication at the end is that it is far too late. Of the characters we meet, only Yukari, Dr. Nagumo, and Dr. Komuro come the closest to being decent human beings. (I can't judge Charly as the poor bastard is never really given a scene where he isn't unconscious or being driven mad) Joji, while he eventually does the right thing, is kind of a selfish prick--and most everyone else we meet are sort of the worst examples of humanity you can imagine.

That doesn't mean we spend the whole film waiting for these horrible people to become insect fodder, however. The story is low-key and rather deliberately paced, but I honestly cannot conceive of how so many people can find this boring. There is a genuine buildup to the reveal that the insects are going to kill us all and we are already too late to stop it. And as unconvincing as most of the effects for the swarms of bees/hornets (the film mainly uses bees, but their behavior suggests hornets) are, the attacks are realized through some tremendously brutal means. In between the poorly super-imposed animated dots or bee footage, there are insert shots of Japanese giant hornets biting human skin and twisting the flesh. It certainly appears to be actual human skin, and it is absolutely horrifying on a visceral level.

It's also fascinating the way this film seems to be well ahead of its time. The idea of nature rising up against humanity for its sins was not a truly new idea, certainly this film owes at least a little of its genesis to The Birds, but the "nature strikes back" genre wouldn't truly take off until the early-to-mid 1970s. And it's astounding how many similarities to Irwin Allen's The Swarm are present in the film. You have the skeptical US military being called in after a swarm of bees takes out a crucial asset, and even a character testing out the effects of the bee venom on himself to see if his antidote works and experiencing a vivid hallucination. (Although, in this case the antidote does work)

The film is hardly perfect, though. For one thing, it can't quite decide if it wants to be a story about insects rising up against mankind, or a mad scientist breeding killer insects to destroy the world--so it goes for both. We have early hints that the insects are turning against us--a background news report on the radio about locusts destroying crops in India out of season, for instance--plus the scene where Nagumo channels the insect hive mind and is told that they are rising up against us to stop nuclear annihilation, yet the film also wants us to see this as all a result of Annabelle's tampering in God's domain. It doesn't quite mesh.

That said, this is an unfairly overlooked film and I am so happy that Criterion's Eclipse series gave me the chance to see it. I was especially inclined to like the film after the sequence of the insects (Cicadas? Crickets?) in the trees singing "Genocide"--I love little atmospheric touches like that.

This review is part of the TEOTWAWKI roundtable; for the end of 2013 we're reviewing movies about the end of the world and for the beginning of 2014 we'll be taking a look at what happens after that. The links below are for reviews from other participants. Check 'em out; they're good people and they write well about movies.

Checkpoint Telstar -- Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
Cinemasochist Apocalypse -- Phase IV
Micro-Brewed Reviews -- Invisible Invaders

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Last Dinosaur (1977)

Dinosaurs are awesome. Every kid knows this, though a lot of adults forget for some reason. Dinosaurs are so awesome that we, as a species, cannot seem to accept that something so awesome could cease to exist. Surely our world is big enough that somewhere, somehow, the dinosaurs have just been waiting for us to find them again.

That possibility gets more and more unlikely as fewer unexplored sections of our planet remain. Sure, there are claims of plesiosaurs (not actually dinosaurs, of course) in lakes that cannot possibly hide such creatures but we all know that that is bunk. And it is highly unlikely that Tyrannosaurus Rex is chilling out at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Yet, we still hold out hope for some lost world somewhere. A place where species that were actually separated by millions of years coexist with each other because fuck scientific reality. We want to see T-Rex fighting a Stegosaurus before chowing down on a Mastodon with our own eyes!

Enter Rankin and Bass, the same folks who informed our childhoods with the stop-motion Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer special and gave us a mostly faithful adaptation of The Hobbit that didn't require nine hours to tell. In 1967 they had co-produced Toho's King Kong Escapes--which one could easily argue is the best remake of King Kong ever produced and technically be correct--so they were no strangers to helping to foot the bill for a Japanese special effects epic with some white faces in the cast so white Americans wouldn't have to strain themselves by caring about the fate of somebody outside their ethnic group.

So ten years later, they co-produced today's feature. For The Last Dinosaur they skipped Toho and went straight to Tsuburaya Productions. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects wizard who gave us Godzilla, had founded the company with his family and Tsuburaya Productions gave the world the marvelous Ultra Q and the insanely popular Ultraman. They knew their stuff, but you might not know it if you watched this film. Perhaps the fact that Rankin/Bass intended this to be a TV movie meant that it was granted a much lower budget, but there is a reason this is film is not remembered for its effects--except possibly in an ironic capacity.

Masten Thrust (Richard Boone! Who will always be Smaug in my head, despite having not seen The Hobbit until I was well into my twenties) is an aging billionaire, captain of industry, and great white hunter. Decades ago he was the ideal specimen of man, but in 1977 he's a a relic of a bygone era. You might even say that he's a dinosaur, and the last one.

Look, the movie wants you to say this. They even just sang you a whole terrible song about it under the opening credits.

Well, Masten (I am not calling him Thrust the whole damn review) might yet have a chance at relevance. Ironically, it comes not from the futuristic Polar Borer that Masten has funded to explore the Arctic for new sources of oil but from something the Borer found that's even more antiquated than Masten.

The first Polar Borer expedition discovered a bizarre, almost tropical oasis inside the Arctic ice--possibly created by a volcanic crater. Of course, we only know about this because geologist Chuck Wade (Steven Keats) stayed with the Borer while the other four members went ashore--and were promptly eaten by a live Tyrannosaurus Rex. So, Masten holds a press conference to bellow incoherently at reporters. Oh, and to announce that he is dragging Chuck back to the prehistoric oasis to study the T-Rex in its natural habitat, along with a Masai tracker named Bunta (Luther Rackley), unspecified scientist Dr. Kawamoto (Tetsu Nakamura), and a reporter to be selected by the journalists present.

The selected volunteer from the press pool ends up being Frankie Banks (Joan Van Ark!), but Masten naturally refuses to take a woman along. As we know from earlier scenes, Masten sees women as nothing but sex objects. So Frankie successfully convinces him that she is fully capable by...having sex with him. I'm not sure how this convinces him, but it does.

And the Polar Borer is off. Their arrival in the lost world is a lot less hostile than the first expedition. They see a couple Pteranodons that are slightly more convincing than the Pterodactyls from The Land That Time Forgot (but only slightly)...and then they encounter the first of the film's goofy monster suits, a charging Uintatherium--a type of prehistoric rhinoceros with formidable tusks. Chuck, hilariously, identifies it as being "one of the cerapapsians," which is A) not a word and B) clearly a mangling of "ceratopsian", which the creature most certainly is not. Whatever it is, it is going somewhere in a damned hurry. Everyone wisely gives it a wide berth, except for Frankie. In fact, she clearly would have been run over by the beast as she stood dumbly photographing it if Masten hadn't tackled her out of the way.

Having encountered verifiable proof of prehistoric life, the expedition makes camp. Then Dr. Kawamoto stays behind as the others go looking for the T-Rex. When Bunta climbs a tree to get a better view of their surroundings, we discover that Tyrannosaurs mastered stealth technology millions of years ago--for the Rex gets right up next to the tree before Bunta realizes it's even there.
Our star, ladies and gents.
The T-Rex is a guy in a suit, as you no doubt guessed. As theropod dinosaur suits go, this fellow is no Gorosaurus but I'd have to rank it a bit higher than the T-Rex suit in The Land Unknown as it at least doesn't look so immediately pathetic and weirdly proportioned. It also uses a roar that is a combination of Godzilla's and King Caesar's. It's definitely a goofy suit, but it actually has a sense of personality, which is always important in a movie dinosaur. Unfortunately, that personality is largely "bumbling oaf".

The Rex fails to eat Bunta, despite him being within easy grabbing distance. As the others prepare to flee, Masten immediately breaks his promise and attempts to shoot the T-Rex dead. However, his first shot does nothing and then his rifle jams. Bunta drives the Rex off with a spear to the chest and Chuck and Frankie instantly set on Masten for just being after yet another trophy. Masten asserts that the dinosaur has already killed four people and would have killed them, too, but nobody is much swayed by that argument.

Unfortunately, poor Dr. Kawamoto is one of two minority characters on the expedition, so the Rex successfully sneaks up on him and then apparently stomps him dead before eating him and wrecking the camp. (Maybe the T-Rex from Jurassic Park studied with this Rex before playing deus ex machina) The Rex then wades into the lake the expedition came up in and carries the Polar Borer off in its mouth. Which is pretty impressive, given the Borer somehow held five people and this is supposed to be an ordinary Rex and not an extra large specimen. You wouldn't know that based on the scale of the suit and miniatures, but the dialogue insists it is so.

The Rex takes the Borer to its larder, and then attempts to bury it. This manages to awaken the Triceratops that has been hibernating inside the rock wall of the Rex's lair (?!) and thus initiates the sorriest attempt at a theropod vs. ceratopsian fight ever put to film. For one thing, the Triceratops is two guys in a suit doing the old "horse" routine and its huge head is almost always off-balance. For another, it is horribly choreographed. The first thing the Triceratops does is impale the Rex through the belly, and yet the Rex shrugs this mortal wound off and ends up killing its opponent.

Ironically, this same, "nu-uh, I'm the awesome one so I win" attitude saw the Spinosaurus defeat a T-Rex in Jurassic Park 3, despite the Rex's first move being to chomp on the Spinosaur's fragile neck with its insanely powerful jaws.

The surviving members of the expedition come back to find their camp destroyed, which just encourages Masten to persist in trying to eradicate the beast in revenge. Chuck and Frankie just want to leave, but when they discover the Borer is gone--presumably sunk by the Rex, which is a lot more logical than the truth--they realize they have no choice but to play along with Masten's power trip. Unfortunately, the Rex is not their only enemy--for a tribe of cavemen have been watching the group and they do not stay in the shadows for long.

The Last Dinosaur is not a very good movie. Certainly, it has nothing on King Kong Escapes, However, I find myself immensely fond of it nonetheless. Some of that is because I have vivid memories of seeing a sequence of it on one of those video preview screens they used to have in Walmart stores to advertise the various VHS tapes they had for sale.The T-Rex seemed awesome to me as a lad, but I never was able to get the VHS and didn't even see the film until years later when I caught it during a marathon of dinosaur-type movies hosted by Marc Singer that also allowed to finally see At The Earth's Core, The People That Time Forgot, and a broadcast-TV-approved cut of Beastmaster.

So there is a tiny bit of nostalgia attached to the film that allows me to somewhat overlook the fact that it is a poorly written film and a poorly structured one. We came to this movie to watch dinosaurs, damn it, not a weird love triangle developing between Masten, Frankie, and Chuck (Bunta is black and doesn't speak a word, so clearly he's not even a momentary romantic possibility for Frankie) while they squabble with a bunch of Japanese actors in caveman costumes. (Admittedly, this is actually a nice shift from cavemen in movies always being European in appearance)

Meanwhile, after the Triceratops fight the T-Rex only shows up twice more: once to menace Frankie and be humiliated when the others tie a boulder to his tail; the second to eat Bunta (oh, like you're shocked) and then fail to be killed by Masten's homemade catapult before attempting to stomp Masten and Frankie, then get bored and leave. The latter sequence was, incidentally, how I first learned the movie existed.

So, for a dinosaur movie it doesn't deliver all that well on the dinosaurs. Certainly, there are worse examples (ahem), but the dinosaurs in this film are rather sparse and their execution is hilariously lackluster. Even if you've never seen the film itself, you've probably seen the sequence where Masten attempts to kill the beast with a catapult. In slow-motion, the rock collides with the Rex's skull--which promptly indents and then pops back out. In slow-motion, in case I didn't stress that enough.

This is a silly little film. It's not very good and its special effects lean heavily towards the special. (Bad as the dinosaur suits are, the miniatures and optical effects are even worse) However, that kind of adds to its charm. I highly recommend it to fans of b-movies and those with a soft spot for dinosaurs. Though, the non-dinosaur sections will definitely wear on the patience of any child who watches this, dinosaur enthusiast or not.

Admittedly, my main reason for choosing to review this film today is that I definitely have not reviewed enough dinosaur films on this site--especially given I named it after a dinosaur--and given that this is a Rankin/Bass film that takes place at the North Pole, I feel it qualifies as a Christmas movie.

Certainly, Santa Claus: The Movie would have been so much better had it ended with this T-Rex devouring John Lithgow.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Beast Within (1982)

I love werewolves. I'm not sure why, exactly. Maybe it's because wolves are among my favorite animals--I always hated how they were the villains of most fairy tales as a child--or maybe it's because I find the ability to ability to change into something less mundane than a human being very appealing.

And yes, I realize most werewolves don't have a choice in the matter because it's a curse they can't control. You take the bad with the good, I say.

At any rate, werewolves are near the top of my list of favorite monsters--or would be, if I had an actual list--and like just killer crocodilians I am inevitably drawn towards films about them. Unfortunately, as with movies about killer crocodilians, most werewolf movies are terrible.

However, another awesome aspect of werewolves is that you can still basically tell a werewolf story without it actually being about a man who turns into a wolf. Any basic shapeshifter can follow the werewolf template.

And sometimes that means you get a were-cicada. Sort of.

The town of Nioba, Mississippi has a terrible secret. Unfortunately, newlyweds Caroline (Bibi Besch!) and Eli MacCleary (Ronny Cox!) don't have any inkling of that as they pass through it on their honeymoon in 1964. So when they get a flat tire just outside of Nioba, Eli thinks nothing of leaving Caroline alone in the car with their dog while he hikes back to get a tow.

Unknown to either of the MacCreary's, someone or something in a farmhouse cellar has just broken free of his chains. The cellar dweller quickly makes its way through the woods to the wrecked car. It promptly kills the dog--as is required by the monsters' union--and chases Caroline until she knocks herself out on a tree. Her barely glimpsed assailant then rapes her and departs, leaving her limp form to be discovered by Eli when he returns with the tow truck. As they leave the scene, two gunshots ring out--so presumably the fiend that raped Caroline has been dealt with.

Seventeen years later, Caroline and Eli have put the horror of that night far behind them--except that now their son, Michael (Paul Clemens), is sick and no doctor in Mississippi can figure out what is wrong with him. So Caroline forces Eli to face the truth--Michael may not be Eli's son, biologically. The only thing to do is to leave Michael in the hospital's care and go to Nioba to see what they can find out.

The town is somewhat less than helpful. Judge Curwin (Don Gordon) acts as if he's never even heard of a rape before when Eli meets with him. Edwin Curwin (Logan Ramsey!) at the newspaper office takes a lot of convincing to let Caroline glance at the old papers, and when she takes a newspaper front page discussing the murder of one Lionel Curwin in 1964, Edwin and the Judge have a secret meeting about how bad this is.

When Caroline and Eli meet with Sheriff Pool (L.Q. Jones) and Deputy Herbert (Meschach Taylor!), they find the Sheriff is quite a bit more helpful--but then he's relatively new, since he took over when the old Sheriff died in 1969. He tells them that Lionel Curwin wasn't just murdered--he was torn apart and partially eaten before his home was burned down. Worse, the culprit was never found.

Michael, as it turns out, may have some insight on that. He has been hearing a voice in his head and seeing visions of himself inside an old farmhouse and trying desperately to keep the trapdoor to the cellar closed as something tries to get out. Michael wakes from his latest vision and escapes the hospital in a car (no doubt stolen) and makes his way to Nioba. Once there, he finds the farmhouse and investigates the basement...

...Michael then finds himself at the house of Edwin Curwin. Edwin makes small talk with Michael after inviting him in for hamburgers, thinking him a grocery delivery boy. Well, until the sound of an oscillating synthesizer effect--er, I mean "cicadas buzzing"--gets Edwin's attention. And then Michael seems to undergo a subtle transformation and tears Edwin's throat out with his teeth.

Michael stumbles away from the scene with surprisingly no blood on himself and finds himself at the home of Amanda Platt (Katherine "Kitty" Moffat), whereupon he collapses and is taken to the office of Doc Shoonmaker (R.G. Armstrong!). Michael seems miraculously recovered and Eli and Caroline are eager to depart, but Michael refuses. He wants to stay in Nioba a while. Eli assumes this is because Michael has taken a shine to Amanda.

He's not entirely mistaken. Michael goes to see Amanda to thank her for helping him and they go for a walk in the woods by a bog. When Michael finds out Amanda's father is Horace Platt (John Dennis Johnston!), a cousin to Lionel Curwin, he recoils momentarily but then ends up making out with Amanda...until her dog interrupts by bringing them a severed arm he's just dug up.

The Sheriff and several townsfolk find far more skeletons, bones, and body parts buried in the bog. Worse, they seem to be the bodies of people thought to have been buried in the town cemetery--and they all show signs of being gnawed on. Combined with Edwin Curwin's death, it seems as though Lionel Curwin's murderer has returned--and that something far more sinister is also going on.

They're right on both counts. A sinister conspiracy has been hidden under the town's nose for the past 17 years, and Michael is killing off the conspirators one by one. Only, it's not actually Michael. Michael is just a shell and soon that shell will be shed, just like a cicada's skin. Only this is going to be a lot more unpleasant for everyone involved.

The Beast Within, while ostensibly based on a book I've yet to read, seems largely to have been conceived as a cash-in on The Howling and An American Werewolf In London--in that it is, effectively, all a set-up for a climactic transformation sequence when the titular beast within makes its way out of Michael. Even the film's promotional material is all geared towards selling you on the last 15 minutes or so of the film.

Which is a damn shame, really, because it's a fantastically silly sequence. First off, it involves most of the surviving characters standing around Michael's hospital bed and watching as he turns into a gooey monster. Secondly, the effects take their cue more from Rob Bottin's work on The Howling than the superior work of Rick Baker on An American Werewolf In London. The transformation scenes in the latter follow a sequential pattern, so you can see how David Naughton goes from human to enormous wolf in the span of a few minutes and it all looks as "realistic" as such a thing can. Whereas, the effects in the former don't follow any obvious sequential order and consist of a lot of silly looking air bladders. However, The Howling at least is a case of quantity over quality--The Beast Within has one big set piece and it looks sloppy.

Also, despite what most people will say when they describe this movie--and what I, myself, said above--it is not actually about a were-cicada. Michael's transformation is meant to mirror a cicada's in that he is the vengeful reincarnation of a man who apparently had some kind of kinship with nature that allowed him to resurrect himself by impregnating Caroline and then bursting out of Michael's body 17 years later. And "cicadas buzzing" accompany him when he goes on his rampage--why the filmmakers couldn't just sample cicadas like dozens of other horror movies have done for their non-cicada-based monsters is beyond me--but he looks nothing like a cicada.

And that's a damn shame, because this...
...looks a lot cooler than this:

Er, the one on the right.
That's, wisely, a much better shot of the creature than you'll get in the film. It's a pretty terrible suit and keeps to the shadows. Honestly, a cicada man would have looked much better. Just watch the "Garamon Strikes Back" episode of Ultra Q,
Yes, he would eventually become Baltan on Ultraman.
So, the monster blows. How about the rest of the film?

Well, on the one hand, the film makes no sense. There's no genuine explanation of how Billy Connors, the wronged man who found a supernatural way to return to deliver justice to a corrupt town, managed this specific trick. That, by itself, is not a problem. However, when the protagonists eventually uncover Billy's skeleton in the basement where he had been chained and fed only on corpses, Deputy Herbert comments that it can't be Billy because it's "too big", and indeed his skeleton looks inhuman. Unless you're a Wendigo, eating human flesh generally doesn't transform you into an ogre. Again, not a huge deal, but you can tell that--as the director apparently claims--there was some exposition left on the cutting room floor.

Also, the film should really have been more about Michael. This is basically a werewolf story, after all. The Wolf Man didn't focus on the town constable and Larry Talbot's father figuring out what happened and then occasionally cut back to Larry wolfing out and killing someone. An American Werewolf In London didn't focus on the doctor's attempt to find out what happened to David and then cut back to him going on rampage.

Sure, Michael and Amanda have scenes together and Michael isn't kept in the background except for when he goes murder-happy--but we never get a true sense of him as anything more than a MacGuffin. Hell, when his parents are told what Billy Connors was like they recognize similar traits in Michael--but we sure as hell don't. We should feel for Michael as he begs to be killed before the monster inside him can tear its way out. Instead, our reaction to seeing his hollowed corpse is only slightly more blasé than his parents. And I can't even blame Paul Clemens for Michael's lack of dimension, as this is clearly a structural fault.

That said, this is is actually not a bad film. When we eventually find out the town's dark secret, it is wonderfully macabre. The performances are all wonderful, as well. And while I must warn that the film does contain two rather graphic rape scenes, they are A) nowhere near as brutal as, say, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and B) don't exist solely as an excuse for some nudity as in most films of this era.

Ultimately, the film just needed a couple more runs over the screenplay and a better monster and this might be a classic. And hey, the black guy makes it out alive! Sad that that's enough of a rarity that I need to comment on it, huh?

All in all, it's worth seeing if you're into horror movies, but you certainly aren't missing a lost classic if you skip it.

Also, as with Saturn 3, Shout! Factory has done a marvelous job with the Blu-ray for this film. It doesn't have much in the way of special features, but it sure looks amazing. Though I'm sure the monster suit would be happier if it didn't.
Sinus headaches, man.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saturn 3 (1980)

For a species that went from scrounging for nuts and berries to landing on the moon, humans are surprisingly resentful of change. In fact the majority of us either hate it or fear it. Nothing quite demonstrates this as well as our fear of robots run amok, turning on their masters.

A robot is, in essence, nothing but a tool. Most of us have no innate fear of a hammer or a car, beyond simple learned caution. Yet put a robot in front of us and a fairly large amount of us will be very uneasy almost immediately.

Science fiction and horror movies are both responsible for this uneasiness and reacting to it. Robots have been turning on us so frequently for the past century that it's remarkable anybody in these movies keeps making the damn things.

Yet we are a species that thrives on change as much as we fear it. Fire may burn us, but we still rely on it. Cars kill hundreds of thousands of us each year, but damned if we're going to scrap them all. And so it must be with robots. So what if one day they'll overthrow our civilization, they're awesome!

Saturn 3 opens auspiciously by ripping off three different highly influential movies at once. First, its obvious immediate inspiration (or, at least, inspiration for being greenlit) with its title forming piece by piece as in Alien. Then, we open with an obscenely large spaceship looming over the camera, as in Star Wars. And the sequence is accompanied by a theme that could only be described as the composer being told to get as close to "Thus Spake Zarathustra"as possible without just outright playing it.

The Not-Star Destroyer is currently in orbit of Saturn, about to launch a one-man lander to Saturn 3, a hydroponics laboratory on an unnamed moon of Saturn. The lander's occupant is running late for its launch. He's about to running even later than he realizes, for waiting for him in the locker room is Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel!), already suited up and waiting for his comrade. As the hapless tardy astronaut tosses out mocking expositional dialogue about how Benson was declared too mentally unstable for the mission, he fails to notice Benson strapping himself in and reaching for the emergency hatch release.

By the time Captain Deadmeat notices what Benson is up to, the emergency hatch has been opened and he is immediately sucked out into space. Well, he was in his suit so he might have survived that--except whomever thought putting an airlock in the ceiling of a locker room was a good idea also thought it should be placed behind metal slats so that anybody blown out by decompression would be trisected on their way out. There's also no alarm to alert anybody on the ship that an emergency hatch was blown, so Benson is able to close it behind the poor minced bastard and take his place when the lander is launched.

The lander's route, amusingly enough, takes it through the rings of Saturn. This is kind of a flawed idea on several levels. First, while the effects for this bit are ambitious, they're only slightly more convincing than the infamous asteroid belt fight in Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla. Two, I haven't the slightest idea why you would deliberately fly a vehicle that is mostly a transparent bubble through a dense field of debris.

Somehow, Benson makes it to Saturn 3 and is greeted by its lone occupants Adam (Kirk Douglas!) and Alex (Farah Fawcett!)--the latter of whom, naturally, Benson instantly begins to lust after. Unsurprisingly for a man willing to murder to come to the place, Benson also wastes no time in being a complete asshole to both of them about how they are no producing enough food for the starving people back on Earth and in other corners of the solar system. Adam objects that they are producing as much as they possibly can, though he neglects to add, "considering some moron decided to station a small hydroponic food-producing facility on the far side of Saturn so that it routinely is unreachable for nearly a month at a time and then staff it with two people."

Benson advises that he is there to help increase their production. Adam and Alex are understandably confused about how one extra person is going to do much of anything to help production, but Benson is not actually there to help them grow plants--he's come to set up their new robot.

Their new robot, whom Benson christens "Hector", is one of the new Demigod series. The Demigod series are robots that look like a human--though the human in this case is seven feet tall, headless, and has been flayed. Demigods are also, technically, cyborgs. Instead of a traditional CPU they use a jar filled with genetically engineered human brain tissue. In this case, that brain-in-a-jar is programmed off of Benson's own brain through a remote signal jack implanted in Benson's skull.

I can only assume the pitch for this robot was, "Let's make a robot that is guaranteed to go murder-happy!"

Hector, however, takes a while to be ready for action. So the immediate danger is from Benson. See, Adam and Alex are actually romantically involved--exclusively. The idea that Alex's vagina is not meant for public consumption so angers and bewilders Benson that you can only assume he's not wearing a fedora because he didn't have room for it in the lander.

Of course, Benson is equally as bewildered by the concept of "dogs."
"So you're telling me this is the dangerous end? What does that mean?"
Yeah, Adam and Alex have a dog. I didn't mention the dog because this is a horror movie, so we all know we shouldn't get attached to the dog.

As Adam, Alex, and Benson work side-by-side--Adam and Alex on whatever they Hell it is they do, Benson on getting Hector running--Benson's predatory interest in Alex quickly becomes apparent to Adam. Adam's reaction is to worry about how old he's getting and that maybe Alex would be more interested in somebody else. To be fair, he at least worries first that Benson might be a threat to Alex before worrying about whether she's bored of his withered hide, but damn, Adam.

Of course, once Benson does get Hector running it turns out this triangle is going to grow another corner. See, Hector got the information in Benson's head, which means he's also a murderous psychopath who lusts after Alex. Unfortunately for Benson, Hector also has enough of his own mind to see Benson as just another rival for Alex's attentions. So when things inevitably go pear shaped, Benson is just as likely to be on the lecherous cyborg's chopping block.

Saturn 3 is, quite frankly, not a very good movie. Going into it, I had encountered exactly one positive review of it. Most people find it dull, stupid, and full of way more naked sexagenarian Kirk Douglas than most people are comfortable with. (Though Keitel stays fully clothed throughout, so that's an interesting change of pace)

Most people are technically right. As my synopsis indicates, the film is very deliberately paced--as it has to be, since you can't do a body count flick with exactly three main characters--and rock-stupid in many places. That said, it coasts by a lot on the surprising chemistry of Kirk Douglas and Farah Fawcett, and by the surprisingly compelling Hector. The cyborg gets no spoken lines up until the last quarter of the film, its face is little more than two LED lights on a swivel arm and its body, while subtly horrifying, is clumsy and largely immobile. This is largely due to the fact that all the wires and tubes on the robot suit were liable to pop off any time the actor inside moved. And yet, damned if Hector isn't a compelling villain.

He's certainly more compelling than Benson. Harvey Keitel's performance is incredibly, well, robotic. How much of this is due to Keitel's lack of emoting and how much is due to the fact that he is very obviously dubbed (by an uncredited Roy Dotrice) is hard to say. However, he's definitely the weak point in the film.

The film as a whole, pleasantly surprised me. In fact, I quite dug it--right up until the climax and the ending. For one, the way Hector is finally dealt with is incredibly abrupt and perfunctory given all the build-up to it. Secondly, the film ends on a note that is either happy or ambivalent--yet the score would have us believing it was some kind of sinister stinger. I found it disappointing and I was mostly digging the movie from its gloriously silly beginning. I can only imagine to somebody who was already hating it that it would just be the final insult.

Also, I have to say that while he may have been well past the point where one is traditionally expected to be filmed strangling Harvey Keitel whilst wearing nothing but a grimace, Kirk Douglas still looked damned good. So I, for one, didn't mind. Your mileage may vary.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also point out that the new Blu-ray from Shout! Factory looks amazing, as well. God bless them for continuing to do the Lord's work and release high-quality releases of movies most people would prefer to forget ever existed. Hell, they even fully restored the deleted scene the space bondage get-up Farah Fawcett is sporting in the Thai poster above hails from. This was apparently a big selling point in most of the film's original promotions.

I can only imagine that expecting space dominatrix Farrah Fawcett and getting naked Kirk Douglas was more disappointing than finding out "The Thing" in Godzilla vs. The Thing is just Mothra.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sinister (2012)

While watching Sinister for the first time, a thought occurred to me: the majority of the horror genre is about punishing the curious.

It takes all kinds of forms. The scientist who wants to prove a theory about human nature and instead turns himself into a monster. The archeologist who uncovers a tomb and unleashes a mummy. The poor schmuck who uncovers a coffin and pulls the stake out of the ribcage of the skeleton inside.

Or the outsider who starts digging around in secrets that the town they've wandered into wants to stay buried.

Horror hates a shit-stirrer, to be blunt. Unfortunately for Elliot Oswalt (Ethan Hawke!), "Professional Shit-stirrer" might as well be his job description. Ellison is a true crime novelist, who first made it big with Kentucky Blood, where he helped to crack the case of an unsolved murder. Since then he hasn't managed a true hit, so out of a strong desire to avoid writing textbooks he moves his family to a small town in Pennsylvania--where a year earlier an entire family was brutally hanged in their back yard and one of the family members, their ten-year-old daughter, went missing.

Ellison's wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), pre-adolescent son Trevor (Michael Hall D'addario), and young daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) are less than thrilled about this, but they'd be even less thrilled if they were privy to knowledge that we are, thanks to the power of dramatic irony. See, at the beginning of the film we got to watch a Super 8 film of the murder (which brings back memories of my years as a film transfer tech), so we know that Ellison has moved his family into the actual house where the murder took place.

In a turn of events that is apparently all too familiar for the Oswalt family, they are greeted at their new home by the local Sheriff (failed presidential candidate Fred Thompson!), who is not at all thrilled by Ellison's arrival. Not only is Ellison an unwelcome outsider, but one of his last novels actually succeeded in fouling up a murder investigation so thoroughly that the killer was set free despite ample evidence. As far as the Sheriff is concerned, Ellison is nothing but an opportunist intent on cutting open wounds that hadn't even healed for his own glory.

The Sheriff isn't wrong. When investigating the house's attic, Ellison encounters an Emperor scorpion that has somehow gotten loose in Pennsylvania. (Maybe it was the family's pet?) He squashes it with a convenient box full of...8mm reels and a projector. A box that, according to Ellison's crime scene photos, shouldn't even be there.

And yes, the film reels are 8mm but the opening and the footage throughout the rest of the film is clearly Super 8. Sigh.

The reels are all labeled innocuously enough: "Family Hanging Out '11", "BBQ '79", etc. Of course, this does nothing to quell Ellison's curiosity and he watches the first reel. Turns out, "Family Hanging Out '11" is the murdered family hanging out in their back yard and then--hanging out in their back yard. Ellison starts to call the police to report evidence of the murder, but then glances at a copy of Kentucky Blood on his shelf and changes his mind. Sure, he could do the right thing, but he just happened upon the best material for a book he could ever have hoped for.

And that material pays even more dividends than he originally suspected. The next reel is a completely family and it ends with them, bound and gagged, being set on fire inside their car in their garage. Ellison has stumbled upon what could easily be the trophy case of a serial killer.

Except it isn't that simple. On one of the reels, a family is bound to lawn chairs and dragged into their pool to drown--and that's when Ellison notices something truly bizarre. Under the water of the pool, staring back at the camera, is a mysterious figure (Nicholas King) with a sharp nose, sunken eyes, and apparently no mouth. When Ellison tries to pause the film to get a better look at the figure, the relevant section of the film burns up. However, Ellison quickly discovers the figure is present somewhere in the background of all the previous reels and, using a digital camcorder and his laptop, Ellison gets a good frame of the figure's ugly face.

Meanwhile, strange things are happening in the household. Trevor's night terrors, which Ellison and Tracy thought he had outgrown, have come back. He's also acting out at school. And Ashley has been painting images of the murder on her bedroom wall. Then it somehow gets worse.

Late at night, Ellison hears somebody running around in the attic, but only finds a king snake, which couldn't have been responsible for the noise because--as will be pointed out to us later--snakes don't have feet. Ellison then finds the lid to the box of 8mm reels. It has drawings, done in a child's hand, of the various murders--and all of them include a figure labeled as, "Mr. Boogie." Ellison takes video footage of the drawings right before he falls through the ceiling. Upon reviewing the footage, he sees that he accidentally filmed his fall--and it appears that a bunch of tiny, ghostly hands grabbed him.

If you think he's freaked out now, imagine how freaked out he'd be seen that the still of "Mr. Boogie" on his computer had turned to look at him scant moments before. Has Ellison found something, or did it find him?

Sinister, at first glance, seemed to me to be very much a modern horror movie when I first saw trailers for it: wallowing in torture and loud jump scares. And it does have its moments of that. However, while the film does have some gore the most horrible fates are mostly implied--the film wisely relies on the inherent creepiness of grainy old film stock to set the mood.

I was pleasantly surprised by the film upon my first viewing. Watching it again for this review, I find it still to be an incredibly well-done horror story.

The film is not a character piece. It's not especially original. However, it is a very effective spook story and, like I said, immediately set me to thinking of how beautifully it shows how the horror genre feels about sticking your nose where it doesn't belong. The score is nicely distinctive and the use of Super 8/8mm is wonderfully atmospheric. And there is a jump scare with one of the 8mm reels that is incredibly effective.

If the film has a weakness, ultimately, it's that "Mr. Boogie" isn't horribly scary. He looks like the front man for a metal band more than the obscure ancient demonic deity he is meant to be. However, he is used sparingly enough that his presence allows him to unnerve us rather than his unremarkable appearance.

The film also more than makes up for this deficiency by featuring an uncredited Vincent D'Onofrio as Dr. FreeX!

In the end, the best recommendation I can give for Sinister is simply this: I wouldn't advise watching it right before bed.

Or after you've been stirring shit.