Friday, October 31, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 26: Zombies of Mora Tau (1957)

I am so sick of zombies.

Don't get me wrong, there are still some zombie movies being made that I have enjoyed and there are ways to tell a zombie story that won't make me just roll my eyes and move on. On the whole, however, I am absolutely sick of them and would not complain if horror movies were to declare them off-limits for the foreseeable future.

So when I began putting together my list of HubrisWeen films I declared that I was going to do my damnedest to avoid any film with "Zombie" in the title for my Z film. I quickly began to realize this was a doomed effort.

But then I realized: why not choose a zombie movie that isn't full of Romero-style flesh eaters? Why not choose a film about traditional zombies?

Yes, indeed that proved easier to swallow.

We open with a title card telling us that there exists a "twilight zone" between life and death, and the poor souls trapped in this in-between become--"The Walking Dead!" So that's two hit television shows that didn't exist yet name-dropped in the opening.

As an illustration of what the title card is referring to, we join our heroine Jan Peters (Autumn Russell) as she is being driven to her childhood home in Mora Tau, Africa. I'm not sure what part of Africa but it's whichever coast looks identical to California and is completely devoid of absolutely any black people. Though given this is 1957, I should probably be glad of that.

On the road, Jan spies a strange, shambling figure (Karl "Killer" Davis) covered in seaweed heading towards their car. To her horror, the driver, Sam (Gene Roth), runs the man over without any remorse--breaking a headlight in the process. Sam apologizes to Jan for not stopping, but tells her that her grandmother will explain. Well, Grandmother Peters (Marjorie Eaton) explains that the man was "one of them" and Jan expresses dismay that her mother still believes in that voodoo nonsense. Jan is still skeptical even after, later that evening, she sees her grandmother standing by the launch landing as another man with the same shambling gait walks right past the old woman and wades into the water until he disappears from view.

Mrs. Peters won't be the only believer soon. A ship has anchored off the coast, which proves to be a salvage expedition run by George Harrison (Joel Ashley), who is after some legendary diamonds supposedly found in the wreck of the Susan B, which lies 100 feet below their very position. He has hired professional diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer) to help secure these diamonds. Though Harrison's wife, Mona (Allison Hayes, better known as the titular giantess of Attack of the 50-Foot Woman), would like to invite Jeff to do a complete different kind of diving, if you catch my drift. The expedition's last member is Dr. Jonathan Eggert (Morris Ankrum, here not playing a general), who is along solely because of the legends attached to the diamonds--he's some kind of an anthropologist or some such, and he actually doesn't want a share of the loot.

The group toasts to their luck and, in a truly baffling bit, Mona throws her arms around Jeff and George responds to Jeff's discomfort with, "Oh, can't you take a kiss without making something out of it?" Whereupon Mona plants a big, wet kiss on Jeff and George looks on with a completely inscrutable expression. Is he angry? Amused? Hoping for a threeway? You got me.

At any rate, the crew are properly welcomed to the waters of Mora Tau when a mysterious figure rises out of the water and grabs one of their sailors. Another sailor fires at the attacker and is certain he hit the man, but it's no good. The sailor is fished out of the water, dead. His neck was broken, so at least he wasn't a victim of friendly fire. Naturally, when they put ashore Mrs. Peters and Jan are waiting for them and Mrs. Peters demonstrates that she knows that they lost a man, and furthermore she knows how.

See, Dr. Eggert had written to Mrs. Peters to let her know of their coming, so she got herself ready for the inevitability of their demise. She shows them a graveyard full of impromptu grave markers indicating 1906, 1914, 1923, 1928, and 1938--the years of various European and American expeditions that have come to raid the Susan B and instead found themselves victims of the zombies that guard the cursed treasure. Those zombies used to be the crew of the Susan B, who had found the diamonds in an ancient temple and attempted to make off with them, only to perish and sink under mysterious circumstances. The captain of that vessel was one John Peters (Frank Hagney), and you can guess whose husband he used to be.

Mrs. Peters has helpfully had graves dug for Harrison's expedition and the dead sailor is deposited into one just as Mona falls into another. Terrifying enough on its own, but Mona is suddenly overcome with terror because she is certain the grave was meant to be hers.

It doesn't help that, shortly afterward, one of the strange men wanders into the bedroom that Jan and Mona are in. Jerry's attempt to physically force the zombie through the outside door nearly gets him killed, but Mrs. Peters shows them the one true way to drive away the walking dead--a lit torch. The zombies are terrified of fire, perhaps, she muses, because it's the only thing that can destroy them. Don't expect anybody to actually test that hypothesis, though.

Mona, Jan, and Grandmother Peters: Badass.
Mrs. Peters and Dr. Eggert talk and we learn that she has stayed in this zombie-infested jungle estate because she believes that if the cursed diamonds are found and destroyed, then her husband and the other walking dead will finally find eternal rest. Dr. Eggert is not sure that this expedition will be the ones to free her husband, seeing as how Harrison is not the sort of man to find precious diamonds and then dispose of them. But Mrs. Peters can dream.

Meanwhile, to Mona's disappointment, Jerry has taken a shine to Jan. After some painful 1950s flirting, Jan tells him about running down the zombie on the road and he decides they should grab a Very pistol--since if fire scares them, so should flares--and drive out to the scene of the collision to see if the zombie survived. Sure enough, they find the headlight fragments and the footprints of the zombie leading from the direction of the bay to the road...and then on past where the accident should have killed him. Showing some actual sense, Jerry says he'll mark the spot and they'll come back during daylight to investigate further. Naturally, the danger of the night is somewhat undercut by the fact that this sequence is so obviously day-for-night that the couple's flashlights aren't even on!

Unfortunately, when Jerry goes back to the car, the zombie decides it has had enough of just watching them from the treeline and grabs Jan to carry her off. Jerry stabs the zombie in the throat and then just gets slapped away for his troubles. When he comes to, the zombie has gotten far enough into the jungle that only Jan briefly regaining consciousness to scream allows him to follow her kidnapper to a mausoleum in a jungle cemetery. Jan has been laid out on an altar of some sort in the mausoleum, and Jerry is just in time as the zombies rise from their sarcophagi something to her. Well, Jerry uses the Very gun to dissuade the zombies from doing whatever it is that a group of zombies who haven't yet learned to gutmunch would do to a prone victim. He then rescues Jan.

"Hello!" "Hello! "Hellloooooo!"
And for the first time (but certainly not the last) I notice that the flares Jerry fires always seem to float above the zombies, offscreen, regardless of what direction he was aiming the gun when he fired.

The next morning, after having apparently spent all night telling his story to Dr. Eggert, Jerry asserts that he is certain he could find the jungle cemetery again if necessary. But that will have to wait, because it's time for Jerry to make his first dive down to the Susan B. Jerry hits bottom right next to the wreck, and discovers that the safe is easily visible from the outside--but then he's ambushed by a zombie. After a quick struggle, the zombie disconnects Jerry's airhose. (Which, I swear, is accompanied by a toilet flushing sound effect!)  And, unfortunately, as Jerry himself already observed: zombies don't need to breathe, but he does.

A word on these diving sequences: obviously, the challenge was that they needed to have the zombies able to attack someone in a diving suit. And since there are no actual walking dead in Hollywood, they had to get around their zombies' need to breathe. Apparently this film's director didn't feel like taking the same path as Lucio Fulci, who hired a stuntman willing to hold his breath and wrestle a shark for Zombie, so the obvious alternative was to film the scenes on a dry set. So, how did they get around the problem of making it look like the diver was exhaling underwater?

By installing a bubble machine in the diving suit.
Note bubbles emerging from the helmet.
To the film's credit, the bubbles actually do float straight up, so the suit must have a powerful fan in it as well. Also, it's adorable.

Jerry is hauled up before he completely suffocates and taken back to the Peters house, where Mrs. Peters offers an herbal remedy to stimulate his breathing since the nearest hospital is too far away to help him in time. Mona is convinced that Mrs. Peters is behind all this zombie nonsense that it takes Jan tasting the remedy to convince her it's not poison. Even then, when Jerry comes to and Mona walks in on Jan tending to him, she gets so rude with Jan that George barges in and backhands her. He gets so violent, in fact, that Mona chooses to run out into the jungle to get away from him. To the other characters' credit, they do seem at least disgusted by George's violence even though they don't do anything to stop it.

Night falls, and Mona still hasn't returned. Mrs. Peters tells the others that the zombies have Mona and if they've had her this long, it's too late for her. Still, George, Jerry, Dr. Eggert, and two sailors make the trek to the mausoleum and find Mona lying on her back on the floor. The zombies rise as Mona is carried away and it's only by setting a gasoline fire at the door to the mausoleum that the group escapes. However, Mrs. Peters immediately declares that Mona is dead when she sees the woman's blank stare and shambling gait.

Naturally, the others dismiss the only person who's been around zombies for 50-odd years and take her into a bedroom. She won't close her eyes and go to sleep, so George stops watching for for a minute--and she immediately grabs a switchblade and wanders into the room where the two sailors are sleeping. (In the same bed, I might add, so--hello, sailor!) She stabs one and goes after the other, who woke up in time to escape his fellow's fate. In a combination of very well-made rubber prop and very good sound design (I hope!), the surviving sailor throws a candlestick at Mona and hits her right in the forehead. She doesn't even wince and advances until the others hear his scream and restrain Mona. At Mrs. Peters' urging, the zombified woman is returned to her bed and then surrounded by lit candles.
"Turn around, bright eyes..."
George is even more determined to get the cursed diamonds now, so he and Jerry suit up and go down with lit acetylene torches. For some reason they do this at night, but probably because they want to leave as soon as possible and hoped the zombies were still trapped by the fire.

They aren't.

George is quickly swarmed because, again, he refuses to actually use the torch on the zombies. Perhaps because the "torches" are clearly some kind of reflective plastic meant to simulate a focused flame. George is hauled up safely, and Jeff manages to crack open the safe and extract the chest containing the diamonds. He's then hauled up as well...

...only that chest is a homing beacon. And, in a sequence foretelling so many zombie movies to follow, they swarm the deck of the salvage ship. The torches they have aboard burn down too quickly and the flares run out. The sailors all jump overboard and swim to shore--luckily for them all the zombies are on deck--but George (who was somehow wounded during the dive), Dr. Eggert, and Jerry are trapped in the cabin with the zombies trying to bust their way inside.

Jerry hits on a way to save them all from certain death, not that George is much a fan of it. Jerry fashions a torch, grabs the chest, and hops in the launch to head to shore. George may be convinced Jerry is cheating him, but even he can't deny that the zombies break off their attack to follow the chest. When Jerry lands in the bay and comes into the house, Mrs. Peters helps him to figure out how to open the chest and extract the diamonds--which he hides in Jan's scarf. But Mrs. Peters insists the diamonds must be destroyed to end the curse. Jerry feels that surely selling the diamonds would do just as well, especially in America with an ocean for the zombies to have to walk through in order to follow him.

Oh, but they're already following.

Diamonds are a ghoul's best friend.
Well, George barges in and grabs the chest, not having time to confirm if Jerry had opened it and relieved him of his booty. He grabs Mona, who naturally fixates on the chest immediately--the zombies are apparently not able to tell the difference, either, or else Jerry left some diamonds in there--and prepares to depart as the zombies turn back towards the launch. Unfortunately, he set the chest down long enough to untie the launch and as Mona grabbed it. When George tries to pick his wife up, she caves his skull in with the chest and joins her undead companions as they head into the jungle.

Well, Jerry convinces Jan and Mrs. Peters to leave with him. But when they get to the launch, the zombies return--having somehow figured out that the chest was empty. And now, in what I can only assume is a function of the filmmakers realizing they were almost at the 70 minute mark and needed to cut things short for matinee length, the film just completely drops any pretense of logic.

Mrs. Peters sees her husband standing there in his waterlogged uniform and, seeing her face, Jerry relents and gives her the diamonds to "destroy." This means that Mrs. Peters drops them over the side of the launch into the shallow water of the bay (!) and then Captain Peters suddenly disappears (!) leaving his clothes behind. "I'll never be rich again," Jerry sighs, because apparently no one could ever possibly retrieve diamonds from five feet of water. The End.

So, when the diamonds were under 100 feet of water that could only be reached by experienced divers, the zombies were cursed because somebody could find those diamonds--but when they're in water shallow enough that your average kindergartner could retrieve them, the zombies are finally at peace?! Yeah, the only way that ending makes any sense is if they were trying to wrap things up as quickly as possible and ran out of ideas.

Up to that point, Zombies of Mora Tau is actually a very enjoyable pulp adventure. Not only do you have a pack of creepy zombies, but you have Allison Hayes vamping it up as a femme fatale and Marjorie Eaton being a badass old lady who fearlessly faces down zombies while also not being as reckless about it as all of her male costars--most of whom nearly kill themselves in the process.

And, of course, you can't downplay the fact that this film is rather unique in the realm of zombie lore. These zombies are of the traditional variety: resurrected corpses brought to life by magic or voodoo. However, unlike most traditional zombie films there is no zombie master. These zombies aren't doing the bidding of a mortal villain: they're somehow controlled by those cursed diamonds. As such they're weirdly similar to the Romero-style zombies we all know and are absolutely sick of these days.

Bottom line, this film is a very enjoyable romp full of delightful pulp tropes--and adorable bubble effects--that completely falls apart at the very end. But as I said, it's only 70 minutes long, so it breezes by quickly enough that you don't really mind that it trips over its own feet in the last 2.

Did I mention the bubble machine? Because that's still just so adorable.

Welcome to Day 26, as we bring HubrisWeen to a close. It has been a wild ride and I highly suggest you check out how my compatriots chose to end their journey. (Hint: It's really, really hard to avoid a movie with "Zombie" in its title)

Will we do this again next year? Stay tuned to find out...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 25: You're Next (2011)

Pleasant surprises are one of the best parts of being a genre fan.

When I first saw trailers for a movie about a house under siege by creeps in animal masks, I assumed it was just another torture porn horror flick. Had I known it was originally released in 2011, but did not get a wide release until 2013, I'm sure I would have fought even harder against my friend's suggestion that we go see it.

I guess I owe her one, because she made the right call and You're Next proved to be almost nothing like what I had expected.

The film starts off, not horribly promisingly, with a sex scene between a middle-aged man and his much younger girlfriend. After he finishes, he goes to take a shower, leaving her to make herself a screwdriver and blare some music on the stereo. Stepping out of the shower, the man finds that the sliding glass door between the bedroom and living room has something written on it in what appears to be blood. He can't read it at first, because it's written so it can be read on the other side of the glass, but we get to see that it says "You're Next."

If he appreciates the nod towards proper grammar, he doesn't get to express it. For right about then he sees his lover's dead body lies on the other side of the glass. And then somebody in a Lamb Mask (L.C. Holt) attacks him.

This may seem like a typical body count murder, but it will actually be relevant later on.

We now join Australian ex-pat and grad student, Erin (Sharni Vinson) as she rides along with her boyfriend, and former professor we will later learn, Crispian (A.J. Bowen), as he drives them to his parents' vacation home for a family reunion in celebration of his parents' anniversary. There's some banter about what to expect, but despite Crispian's doom and gloom, Erin is excited to meet his family. Though it is a little unnerving that his father works for a major defense contractor.

His parents, meanwhile, are just arriving at the house--which just so happens to be down the street from the murder house. Family patriarch Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey (Barbara Crampton! Whom I felt immediately ashamed at not recognizing when the end credits rolled, but to be fair I'm not used to seeing her fully clothed for an entire film) begin unloading their car and settling in--but then Aubrey hears someone upstairs when she knows that she and Paul are both downstairs. She freaks out and refuses to stay in the house, but Paul is stubborn and goes to investigate. Paul gets a false scare when Crispian runs into him, having just arrived--and wondering why his mother is in the driveway crying.

Erin is doing her best to comfort Aubrey, considering it's not an ideal first meeting. Aubrey is eventually convinced that it's okay and the house is safe. Soon after, Crispian's brother, Drake (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Margaret Laney, credited as Sarah Myers) arrive; followed by his other brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his girlfriend, Zee (Wendy Glenn); and finally baby sister Aimee (Amy Seimetz) and her boyfriend Tariq (horror director Ti West, of House of the Devil and The Innkeepers fame).

The next day, as the menfolk work on barbecue and the like, Aubrey sends Erin to go fetch something from the neighbors. Naturally, it's a no go because nobody answers the door, but Erin manages to avoid discovering why just yet. Meanwhile, Crispian gets to have a hugely uncomfortable talk with his dad about some academic promotion he failed to achieve. The kind of talk where your dad makes you feel like a failure because of circumstances beyond your control. Ah, family!

And so, that evening the family settles down to dinner. Naturally, Crispian's misgivings turn out to be well-founded as some clearly familiar sniping eventually turns into arguing. Drake, in particular, proves himself a massive douchebag. (Fitting, since the actor resembles a douchebag I used to know) First Drake mocks Tariq's artistic endeavors (he makes documentaries for "underground film festivals") and then he sets his sights on accusing Crispian of impropriety for dating a former student.

But that's nothing compared to what happens when Tariq sees something outside one of the dining room's huge windows--and takes a crossbow bolt between the eyes while investigating. In the subsequent panic, another bolt hits Drake between the shoulder blades. It's only Erin's cool head that gets the others out of the vulnerable position in the dining room to the largely windowless front hall. She also stops the others from pulling the bolt out of Drake's back, saving him further injury.

The group quickly discovers their cell phones are being jammed. Whoever's doing this is deliberately isolating them. Deciding that someone needs to go for help, even over Erin's objections, it's eventually decided that since Aimee is the fastest--well, second-fastest, but Drake can't run right now--Crispian and Felix will stand by the front doors and fling them open once she gets a running start. Surely, their assailants will struggle to hit such a quick target.

Of course, they don't need to. A garrote wire has been strung across the outside of the threshold, and it severs Aimee's jugular. The others can only watch helplessly as she bleeds out at their feet. Having to watch her only daughter die is too much for Aubrey and Paul takes her upstairs to lie down. Except that Aubrey isn't alone. A man in a Fox Mask (Lane Hughes) crawls out from under the bed--man must have the patience of a Graboid--and buries a machete in Aubrey's face. The others hear her scream but are too late to save her, and Fox Mask found time to write "You're Next" in her blood before vanishing.

Erin takes charge, directing everyone to secure the windows while she continues trying to reach 911 by sending text messages. As she is securing the windows in the kitchen, a man in a Tiger Mask (Simon Barrett) smashes through the window and grabs her. Erin is not the easy victim he expected, however, and he gets a knife to the hand for his trouble--pinning him to the window frame. However, he still manages to escape after Erin frees herself from his grasp.

Kelly, in the midst of covering Aubrey with a sheet, decides to check under the bed. Oh, hey, Fox Mask is still there. Kelly panics and runs out the front door, narrowly ducking under the garrote wire. Drake, a bit groggy from some pain pills he was given, attempts to follow and catches the crossbow bolt on the wire. Without thinking he pulls the bolt out...and immediately passes out from pain and blood loss. Crispian decides it's time to play the hero and, after going to check the cars--which, naturally, are all missing vital engine parts--he volunteers to go for help. Erin tries to remind him that there are an unknown number of hostile psychopaths who are really good at killing people and he's a paunchy academic, but it's no use and away he goes.

Oh, and Kelly? She finds her way to the sliding glass back door of the neighbor's house, but the man on the couch won't react no matter how much she pounds and yells. Of course, we know why but she doesn't find out until Lamb Mask looms up behind her and smashes her through the doors. Kelly now sees the man on the couch is quite dead, but she's too dazed to get back and flee. So Lamb Mask takes his axe, sets her head up like a croquet ball and then swings his axe into it. Lamb Mask has a seat on the couch to admire his work.

Erin, meanwhile is rallying Felix and Zee to help her round up weapons. She has just grabbed a meat tenderizer when Kelly's body is thrown through the dining room window and Tiger Mask enters, looming over Erin--and she smashes his knee with the meat tenderizer and then proceeds to tenderize his skull. Repeatedly. When she pulls the mask off and asks if either Felix or Zee knows the guy, Felix understandably replies, "It's...kind of hard to tell, now."

You see, as Erin will later explain, she had an unusual childhood. She was raised on a survivalist compound by her father. So those psychos in the animal masks have no idea what they're dealing with. Although, Erin may not know, either. You see, this is not just some random attack. This was planned, and the danger outside isn't the only thing Erin should be worried about.

"Hey, is this the place for The Wicker Man auditions?"
I was a little hesitant on spoiling one of You're Next's greatest surprises, but given it's kind of a major selling point I figured it needed to be pointed out: the fact that Erin may be the most uniquely capable Final Girl ever. About the only way her opponents could be more out-matched would be if she had Ripley and Sarah Connor backing her up.

The part seems to have been written specifically for anyone who ever expressed annoyance with useless characters in a slasher movie. And while, technically, You're Next isn't a quite a slasher film, it definitely should be exactly what the doctor ordered if you're one of those people. When's the last time you saw anyone kill an antagonist with a blender outside of an early Peter Jackson movie?

The acting is quite good and very naturalistic, apparently a result of this film being an offshoot of "mumblecore", a horror subgenre I've otherwise avoided to my knowledge. Many conversations almost feel improvised or else copied verbatim from actual family squabbles. It's also clearly a film with a very dark sense of humor, but never to the detriment of the menace its masked assailants promise. Sure, they're fallible and mortal, but these are are still men who know how to kill you and well.

And, while definitely gory, You're Next doesn't wallow in slow, horrible death like so many films in the aftermath of Saw. These killers are here to make everyone dead, not to torture them. That as definitely part of the pleasant surprise for me, as I never looked back at the Saw franchise after part two and have no desire to--or its illegitimate spawn.

If you like horror movies, you'll definitely love You're Next. If you don't, well, this probably isn't going to change your mind.

"Bring it, Voorhees."

This concludes day 25 of HubrisWeen, which means the end is nigh! Check out what the other maniacs chose for their Y movie by clicking the banner above.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 24: Xtro II: The Second Encounter (1990)

When it comes to Alien rip-offs, it's hard to think of one that will leave you feeling as skeezy as Xtro. However, I'm not here to get into that film's cinematic crimes--that's Checkpoint Telstar's job this go-around--but rather to tear into its sequel.

That's most likely for the best since I'd spend at least a paragraph griping about how nobody involved in the first film knew that garter snakes don't lay eggs.

At any rate, Xtro was not a film that anybody was crying out for a sequel to. Yet, the film's director, Harry Bromley Davenport, was struggling to find any opportunities outside of the exploitation circuit that had given him his start and, for money's sake, decided to give the public what they didn't want--seven years later.

The hitch was that Davenport had retained the rights to the film's title but not its story. So he couldn't actually have his sequel follow up the events of the first film. So, instead, he created a completely different--and more conventional--Alien and Aliens rip-off. Unfortunately, it turns out that it was only the sleaze that had made his first effort worth watching in the first place: without it, Davenport proved only capable of delivering an unremarkable rehash of a rehash.

We open at a secret mountain base, presumably in the Rockies. Like all secret military/science complexes, it's deep underground. Some government representative is on hand to breathe down Dr. Alex Summerfield's (Robot Jox's Paul Koslo, who there delivered the infamous line, "I have already killed you...[pointing to forehead] here!") neck about the Nexus Project. Seems the project was already tried once in Texas with disastrous results. Summerfield objects that the issue there was that the person in command had no business being there.

Well, at any rate the project's other current head, Dr, Julie Casserly (Tara Buckman, who looks like Meg Foster and Linda Hamilton got Brundleflied) is busy getting all the systems running. As its name implies, Nexus is a method of inter-dimensional transport. Three volunteers in space suits are about to go through to another dimension and create history.

Well, the machine works to get them through, all right, via an effect on par with the Phantom Zone from Supergirl. But the communication equipment doesn't work, so all the team in the home base gets is some scrambled video of a budget-conscious (plainly miniature) alien landscape full of dead trees and giant spheres. And then something goes wrong, but they can't be entirely sure what. Maybe something attacked the team, but they are definitely in distress.

Seeing that the trio has 12 hours of oxygen left, something should be done to help them. Casserly wants to call in someone named Shepard, but Summerfield sneers that it's only because Shepard was her lover. Summerfield also blames Shepard for the disaster in Texas and he suggests sending a strike team through Nexus to rescue the explorers. The government man tells them to do both...and leaves the movie.

Casserly goes to find Dr. Ron Shepard (Jan-Michael Vincent, the "name" actor of the film) at his cabin. After some words about where their relationship was left, Shepard correctly guesses that Casserly is there because something went wrong. You see, Shepard knows because whatever went wrong in Texas happened after he went through Nexus. Which means that all the talk about how the three explorers going through was "historic" is kind of bunk. If the first man to walk on the moon smashed the lunar lander to pieces after he returned to Earth, you wouldn't say having a second guy walk on the moon was historic.

At any rate, the Strike Team is brought in just as Casserly returns with Shepard. It consists of leader McShane (Jano Frandsen), explosives guy Baines (Nicholas Lea), wannabe Buddhist hippy-type Zunoski (Rolf Reynolds), and vaguely ethnic guy Mancini (Nic Amoroso). But before they can even get briefed, there's a signal from the rendezvous point in the alternate dimension, and Nexus is able to pull back one of the explorers--Marshall (Tracy Westerholm). Unfortunately, she's unconscious when the medics pull her from the machine so she can't tell them anything about what happened.

Summerfield tries to question her on his own, however, which results in her waking up long enough to lash out at him, scratch his neck, and then pass back out. And then Shepard is caught trying to sneak in and inject poison into her IV. Summerfield is convinced that Shepard doesn't want Marshall to survive because he won't be special any more, but Shepard tries to tell him he doesn't understand. So Shepard is handcuffed to a pipe and the Strike Team prepares to go through the Nexus to rescue the other two explorers.

They never get the chance, however. The biological contamination alarm goes off because Marshall is in the midst of a John Hurt moment. But whatever's inside Marshall doesn't just punch its way out of her and tear its way into the air duct: it also drains her body of all fluids, including the IV bags being pumped into her system! That's admittedly a neat touch. Though her dehydrated corpse looks more like it was set on fire than drained when we see it.

You have no idea how hard it is to not make a Joan Rivers joke here.
The contamination alarm means that almost the entire facility is evacuated except for the Strike Team, Shepard, Casserly, Summerfield, and a few technicians. This is a strange way to deprive your film of expendable meat. But then, the film seems very reuctant to tear into the expendable meat it has in any significant way. One scientist working by himself sticks his head into a vent after some powder falls out of it and stares at the ceiling fans inside the vent (!) until suddenly the slimy whatsit deigns to drag him into the vent to his fate.

Also, funny how the creature apparently thirsts for fluids so much as to drain its host entirely in a matter of seconds--but it spends the rest of the film dripping fluids. If it's that thirsty, then its body failed to adapt a means to retain liquid and it would probably die of thirst soon anyways.

However, unfortunately for Baines, it doesn't die that fast. See, Baines has been making eyes at an attractive nurse (doctor?) and he wanders into sickbay and tries to get a, uh, physical examination from her since he's tired of waiting for orders regarding their mission. She's amiable, but before the film can provide any exploitative elements, she decides to go lock the door--and is killed off screen. And I do mean off screen. Baines goes to investigate her disappearance from the film, sees the monster in the vent and--in a moment cribbed from Predator--he shoots into the vent and his team runs in and does the same until part of the ceiling collapses.

The remaining survivors convene in a conference room and try to decide what to do. Whatever the creature in the vents is, it's been tripping so many sensors that the computer that runs the facility has not only sealed them in, but in 13 hours it will flood the facility with a massive dose of radiation. Casserly wants Shepard to take charge since he knows what they're dealing with, somehow, but Summerfield isn't keen on that idea. McShane, however, has taken charge and he feels Shepard's input would be valuable.

Now, you may notice that Shepard is more or less taking on the Ripley in Aliens role here. This feeds into the bizarre feeling that this whole movie is a sequel to a movie we weren't privy to. We already know that it in no way follows the events of Xtro, so these hints at a bigger story are more frustrating than anything.

It's decided that the Strike Team, Shepard, and Casserly will search for the creature while Summerfield and a technician whose name I didn't catch and whom the IMDb refuses to help me identify will stay in the control room. McShane grabs his Smart Gun, which I can only assume he stole off of Vazquez.
"Hey McShane, you ever been mistaken for a man?"
"No. Have...wait, what?
The group finds something left by the monster, which the dialogue can't decide is an egg or feces. Nobody bothers to examine it further, so we'll call it feces--especially since Baines flies into a rage over Zunoski cracking wise about what it's been eating. Zunoski actually apologizes for his insensitivity, so that's something.

Zunoski and Casserly also share an admittedly amusing exchange here:

Zunoski: "Dying's not so bad. We'll get a new body before you know it."
Casserly: "Yeah? Well, I just got this one in shape."

Finally, after interminable amounts of searching the monster suddenly punches through a wall--and through McShane's head. The others quickly flee when the creature comes after them, escaping through an air vent.

The creature somehow follows them, which--given the bulk implied by the puppet--seems unlikely.

"Kindly move closer so I can reach you with my claw. I--I can't actually move toward you."
The group finds themselves trapped by a hatch and radio the control room for help. Summerfield suggests to the technician that they should leave the creature contained, even if it means it kills the others. Unfortunately, the others hear this. They make it through the hatch and to a ladder in a ventilation shaft. For some reason they climb down when the control room should be up.

The monster follows and gores Mancini, who had been stuck on the ladder due to a case of vertigo. Baines tosses a grenade up to Mancini and the mortally injured man pulls the pin and--something on fire falls past the others and hits one of the giant ventilation fans, leaving a blood smear. It is only through later dialogue we find out that that was supposed to be Mancini and the monster.

Though naturally it's never that easy.

After Zunoski punches Summerfield out, it's decided that Baines and technician guy will try to scale the elevator shaft to get to a spot where they can radio the surface. While loading all Baine's explosives--so he can blow the hatch in the elevator--Zunoski jokes that Baines has "enough C4 to blow up the World Trade Center!"

Yeah. That joke would get awkward within 3 years of the film's release, and super awkward 11 years later.

About this time Summerfield is beginning to feel the effects of those scratches. Some awkward video-based hallucinations of the other dimension, and a normal-yet-inhuman Marshall hint that maybe he's going to follow her example. Summerfield almost bows his own brains out, but changes his mind. Meanwhile, after an interminable climb Baines blows the hatch on the bottom of the elevator just in time for the monster to appear out of one of the elevator doors and terrify the technician into falling to his death.
"Boo! Ha! Gets 'em every time."
Baines assumes that the technician was hit by falling debris and continues on--only to be ambushed by the creature. He falls back into the elevator and the creature lands on top of the elevator, sending it plummeting to the bottom of the shaft. Baines rigs all his C4 to detonate on impact--and the explosion somehow fails to kill Shepard, who was standing scant feet away from the elevator doors when they were blasted open. Maybe to try and explain how the monster survived, because you know it did.

About this time, Shepard realizes that Summerfield has been acting strange and reviews the security footage of Marshall in sick bay. After seeing the scratch, he tells Casserly and Zunoski that Summerfield is incubating and if they don't do something they'll have an even bigger problem on their hands. So it's time for more searching. Yay.

Casserly and Zunoski find Summerfield, but the doctor has a gun and shoots Zunoski. As Casserly tries to calm him down, he suddenly falls over and the monster looms up behind him. Surprise? Of course, this time Shepard is waiting with the Smart Gun and he shoots the monster to pieces. This time the death takes, but now they have to get Summerfield taken care of. So Casserly powers up Nexus and Shepard heaves the infected scientist onto the platform.

But Nexus is taking too long to warm up and Summerfield is about to burst and release spores. Shepard does his best to keep the swelling man on the platform, but he looks like he'll be going with if Nexus does activate. Suddenly, Zunoski shows up, alive, to help Casserly throw the switch. Shepard gets clear and Summerfield is Phantom Zoned just as he explodes like a ripe fruit. So sadly he will not be fist-bumping the monster.

The three survivors collapse on the floor of the control room in relief as the countdown to radiation flood stops at 15 minutes. An alert tellls them that the surface door has opened, meaning that rescue teams must have arrived--but then the control panel monitor switches on and the trio sees that Marshall is addressing them. The End.

What?! No, seriously, what the fuck was that ending? Near as I can tell, the director saw John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness and decided to rip it off but didn't understand why it worked. It makes absolutely zero sense in context.

Prior to that moment, Xtro 2 is not exactly a good film, but it's a serviceable enough entry in the gallery of Alien rip-offs. The main weaknesses are that none of the characters make any impression, the monster is largely immobile, and the pacing is slow as molasses on a cold day. And then that ending comes along and just puts a layer of turd frosting on top.

On the other hand, the film

Okay, the film has no actual redeeming qualities. Oh, it has little moments like Zunoski wearily repeating the impending radiation purge warning that they've been hearing for hours--but those are spread far and wide among lethargic "searching the corridors" sequences and bickering scenes between actors who aren't much interested in actually acting. The worst offender is Jan-Michael Vincent, who apparently so refused to give a shit that he made the director--who was, himself, making this movie against his will--furious. Apparently, Vincent even refused to learn his damn lines and had to be fed them during filming. Boy does it show.

Whatever else can be said for Xtro, it's memorable. Xtro 2? Um, well, there's the horrible karma of the World Trade Center joke and...uh...yeah, that's about the only thing I remembered about the film before I rewatched it for this review. This is the sort of movie you watch for 90 minutes and then completely forget about it. It's not painful, it's not good, and it's rarely engaging on any level.

I can't even recommend this to those who are cinematic masochists, because it's not even that bad. Lifeless and inert, never rising to any form of quality nor sinking to the depths of awfulness. It's like flat soda in cinematic form.

Sure, it's not the worst thing you've tasted, but why the hell would you drink it?

Thus concludes Day 24, the day of the damnably challenging letter X. As you can see by the fact that all three of us chose the Xtro franchise in one way or another.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 23: Wolfen (1981)

What if werewolves were real?

I don't mean in the supernatural sense, either. What if werewolves were an actual biological entity? Imagine an intelligent canine creature that humanity could easily have assumed was really a human in wolf form. Imagine that this creature has been preying on humanity in secret for centuries. What would happen if it was in danger of being found out by modern humanity? What would it do to defend its secret?

To find out, I suggest you read The Wolfen by Whitley Streiber. I say that because, in order to fairly evaluate Wolfen it is necessary to look at it completely separate from its source material. It's not quite a case of "in name only," as the two do proceed along similar plot lines, but the film is so divergent from its source that comparing it is entirely unfair.

In some ways that is a negative, because the plot of the novel is very streamlined and direct, while the movie's plot--as we shall soon see--is a bit of meandering mess. However, don't assume that means that the film is without merit. Indeed, there are many reasons why I'm willing to forgive its messy plot.

We begin in New York, as real estate mogul Christopher Van der Veer ( Max Brown) is overseeing the groundbreaking of a new development in a rundown neighborhood full of crumbling buildings and indigents. But something is watching Van der Veer from a ruined church nearby, something with eyes that detect wavelengths that the human eye cannot even dream of. (As rendered by a POV cam set on "solarize") And whatever it is, it's not happy about his new project.

As Van der Veer and his wife, Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo), drive across a bridge in their limo that evening, a Native American high steel worker we'll come to know as Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos!) watches from the cables and angrily throws his bottle of booze at their car as it passes. The couple and their Haitian bodyguard don't seem overly bothered by this and continue on to Battery Park.

While Pauline tools around the empty park under Eddie's loving gaze, the something is watching them. Their dog, a Borzoi, is the first to realize the watcher is there and promptly abandons its masters. Their Haitian body guard, Sayad Alve (John McCurry) realizes they're being watched next and draws his revolver, but whatever the creature is it's so fast that it tears his hand off before he can get off a shot and then kills him before he can scream. Then it hides in the windmill sculpture the couple is playing in--waiting until he sees it to take out Van der Veer, slashing his throat, and then finally tearing Pauline's throat out so thoroughly her head is nearly severed. Van der Veer staggers away and collapses on a nearby grate.

Homocide detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney!) wakes up and goes for a jog before stopping for coffee and donuts. He's apparently on some sort of suspension, no doubt because he's the kind of "asshole who gets things done" character that writers love and real people can't fucking stand working with, so he's a bit surprised to get a beep on his pager. Calling in, he speaks to his boss, Warren (Dick O'Neill), who wants him to get his ass down to battery park--they have a triple murder and maybe even a sexual assault and cannibalism for him to take a look at. When Wilson asks how he's supposed to get down there, Warren growls, "Fly!"

He means it, though, and Wilson arrives by helicopter. Warren's in a foul mood because Van der Veer basically owned Manhattan, his lineage tracing all the way back to the Dutch who bought the island, and the Mayor is breathing down his neck. Speak of the Devil, the Mayor (Sam Gray) appears with two people in tow, an aide and Ross (Peter Michael Goetz). Ross runs ESS, Executive Security services, and Sayad worked for them. The coroner is taking forever to arrive, but Wilson points out that their best man is already on the job. He's referring to Whittington (Gregory Hines!), rocking out to his Walkman as he examines the crime scene.

Whittington and Wilson clearly know each other well, based on the banter as they walk through the crime scene while Whittington catches him up. He shows Wilson the severed hand of Sayad and Wilson notes that the man had a ring with a goat's head and pentagram on it and intones, "Voodoo." First I've ever heard of those symbols being associated with voodoo instead of Pagan magic or Satanism, but it could be that I'm the ignorant one here. But given the film's ideas of American Indians later on, I'm confident in leaning towards the film not knowing shit about voodoo.

Thankfully the voodoo thing won't go anywhere, since this film didn't need another red herring subplot, as we'll see soon enough.

We also find out that whatever killed Van der Veer took his brain, which is more than a little unusual even for this crime scene. As the two discuss Pauline's death and the fact that it's possible for the brain to survive decapitation for several minutes--and we all know if a movie brings that up, it'll pay off like Chekov's severed head--it becomes increasingly clear that there's no clear motive to the killings. Nothing was stolen from the corpses, and nothing points to an abduction gone wrong. And then there's a darkly humorous moment where it's implied the people carting off Pauline's body dropped her head.

At the morgue, Wilson walks by an attendant played by Reginald VelJohnson, who is currently admonishing a corpse with gunshot wounds to the head, "I told you that you shouldn't have been messin' around with that bitch!" Wilson waits in an examination room while Whittington meets with the big brass, eating chocolate chip cookies from the grocery bag he is inexplicably carting aound with him--though it has zero baguettes in it, so it's not at first clear that it is groceries--amongst glimpses of the ghoulish process of examining cadavers. When whittington comes to talk to Wilson,he points out that there's something unusually wrong with the victims: metal usually leaves a residue that shows up on x-rays, but the victims don't have a speck of it. Yet only metal could do the kind of damage they're seeing. Wilson suggests that maybe it could be some kind of industrial plastic, but Whittington glumly points out that he doesn't have a way to taste for synthetic weapons.

Ross over at ESS HQ jumps to his own conclusions. Van der Veer has a niece who is some kind of rich girl wannabe revolutionary Pattie Hearst figure. The whole crime scene stinks to Ross's nose of a terrorist execution and he wants an expert brought in, criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora). She has a lot of experiences with terrorist behavior, and so she becomes Wilson's partner on the case. Wilson isn't thrilled about being partnered with a shrink but, for him, he's actually quite polite when they meet to talk about terrorist-style murders.

Meanwhile, a junkie in the neighborhood of that ruined church gets his latest fix. He wanders into another ruined building and suddenly hears what sounds like a baby crying--but the solarized POV cam sure isn't a baby and it slashes his throat and drags him into the shadows. Whatever it is that killed the junkie, it roughly discards one of his internal organs. The junkie isn't the first to go out this way in that neighborhood, as the construction crew working on Van der Veer's site soon discovers when they uncover mutilated human remains in the rubble they're pushing around.

Wilson and Neff had been investigating Van der Veer, including a visit to his office on Wall Street, where they learned of his project for urban development. The groundbreaking of which had taken place just days earlier. Wilson and Neff go to investigate the worksite and find their way to the ruined church. In the church, Neff hears what she swears is a baby crying and goes into the tower to investigate. However, Wilson hears what sounds like a wolf howling and hurriedly rushes up, grabbing Neff and causing them both to fall down the stairs before fleeing the building. They don't see the glowing eyes watching them depart.

The body parts found in the South Brox interestingly prove to be a clue to the Van der Veer murders. See, there were hairs found on the Van der Veers that the NYPD's forensic hair specialist can't identify, other than they aren't human. And the same exact hairs were found on a liver in the South Bronx. Who, or what, the hell could want to kill some indigent in the South Bronx and the most powerful man in Manhattan?

For that, Whittington refers Wilson and Neff to Ferguson (Tom Noonan!), a zoologist at the Central Park Zoo. He's currently feeding a rat to a python when they arrive, which naturally is edited so it takes way less time than an actual snake feeding. Being an eccentric character, Ferguson briefly asks if maybe they're not looking for a snake. At any rate, one glance at the hair and Ferguson immediately identifies it, which seems a bit unlikely honestly, as Canis lupus. Ferguson laughs at their ignorance of Latin nomenclature with, "You want to meet 'im?" And he promptly goes into a back room, whistles like he's calling a dog, and produces a stuffed wolf.

Ferguson can't ID the exact subspecies, but he's certain the hairs are wolf hairs. When he's told the hairs came from a crime scene, Ferguson gets irritated and begins stroking a stuffed skunk. (That's...that's not a euphemism) Wolves don't attack people, he (correctly) points out. And he waves away the crime scene photos, basically refusing to answer the question of whether of wolf could do that kind of damage. He also shoots down the suggestion that it could have been a trained wolf, arguing that it wouldn't be a wolf then. (Um, yes it would) He then goes off on a rant about how wolves lived in harmony with nature, "like the Indians," (?!) until the white man showed up with the "Genocide Express."

Ah, yes, you see this film hails from the time period when Hollywood was realizing how horrifically American Indians had been treated from the days of Columbus until...well, white people haven't ever actually stopped treating them like shit, have we? Unfortunately, the response was transform the stereotype of Indians from scalping, inhuman savages to a magical fairy race that lived in harmony with nature. Still offensive and condescending, just in a different way. Oh, and they somewhat moved away from casting white people as Indians and more towards casting anyone with a brown complexion. Any actual Indian who got cast was usually a background role or just there to somehow make it okay that the central Indian characters weren't actually Indian.

I'm so glad we've moved away from that trend--

Oh. Right.
At any rate, Ferguson's completely inexplicable Indian rant reminds Wilson that he knows of a certain Native revolutionary who decided to actually do something about that centuries-old grudge against thieving palefaces: Eddie Holt. Eddie did time for plotting a bomb threat and killing "an apple"--no not that apple, Wilson means a conservative Indian, "red on the outside, white on the inside." Now Holt works high steel, like so many other Natives.

Which means the film is now introducing another red herring character, even if we actually saw Eddie at the film's beginning, at about an hour in. The film already had enough with the whole ESS and terrorism, especially given the audience knows that terrorists don't usually have heat vision and live in ruined churches so they can eat junkies. Eddie's contribution is that he starts talking about shapeshifting when Wilson visits him at the top of a suspension bridge. "It's all in the head," he tells Wilson before taking advantage of Wilson's fear of heights to slip away and thus dodge any further questions.

Wilson follows Eddie that night and sees him take part in some kind of ritual after leaving a bar with two other Indians. [Okay, terminology evolves so if there's a preferred term I could be using instead of outdated and/or offensive language, somebody please tell me so I can make this review less offensive] My guess is that he takes peyote or some equivalent, because Wilson follows Eddie as he heads down to the beach, strips naked, and begins acting like a wolf. He runs down the beach snarling and foaming at the mouth, he howls at the moon, and then he spies Wilson and corners him...before dropping the wolf act and saying, "Dewey, I told you, man--it's all in the head!"

So if you ever wanted to see full frontal Edward James Olmos, this is the movie for you.

Having safely established that Eddie is not actually a werewolf, Wilson drives to Neff's apartment and sits in his car, thinking. Wilson wasn't privy to the POV cam following his car's tracks over the bridge from the South Bronx and--killing a consruction worker on the way after it failed to avoid his detection--so he doesn't realize he's being hunted. However, he suddenly realizes he's being watched and, in a moment more or less actually taken from the book, he catches a quick glimpse of a wolf on the garden wall of Neff's building. The wolf is gone before Wilson can flip on his headlights to confirm he saw it, but he trusts his first impression. He quickly makes his way inside her apartment to ensure that she's safe and then the film's most unbelievable sequence occurs: Wilson and Neff have sex while the wolf POV watches from a nearby balcony.

I choose to believe we see the sex scene this way because there's no way to realistically sell the audience on their sudden romance. The two have zero chemistry and their relationship feels strictly professional--they're barely friendly, much less sexually attracted to each other. It'd be less ridiculous to see Wilson plant a sloppy kiss on Whittington and then bend over a coroner's table for Whittington to pound him. Hell, I'm kind of sad that doesn't happen, now.

Speaking of being fucked, Ferguson is in his office talking into a recorder about wolves while watching footage of helicopter wolf kills. Watching Sarah Palin's home videos when a wolf POV is watching through your window is a bad idea--and no, I have no idea how the wolf knew that Ferguson was a relevant target. At any rate, hearing the other animals get upset by the presence of an unexpected carnivore causes Ferguson to call 911 and report a fire at another address (!) and give his name as "Peter Wolf" before taking his gerbil-powered motorbike out to a tunnel to try and communicate with the wolf he now knows is out there. Of course, you may be wondering why he would do that, but that's because this is another bit lifted from the book and placed A) in the wrong point of the narrative and B) removed of the context that Book Ferguson had discovered that "vampires" were actually people who had learned to communicate with the "werewolves" and he believes he can do the same using the old signals he discovered in his research. Here, Ferguson is just a complete doofus.

The end result is the same, of course. Ferguson fails to communicate anything to the wolf other than, "I am made of meat" and he exits the picture when his gerbil bike proves unable to outrun a wolf.

Wilson and Whittington meet at Ferguson's office the next morning. Whittington has done some digging and found that, in New Orleans, they found a liver with a canis lupus hair on it. He's checking with Chicago and other big cities, but one thing is clear: a lot of people go missing each year in big cities that nobody cares about, like drug addicts and the homeless, and suddenly a few human body parts turn up in their place. Body parts that look like they have teeth marks in them, and are all diseased. It's Whittington's belief, and Wilson's for that matter, that some kind of unknown wolf subspecies has adapted to living in human cities and feeding on the humans who won't be missed. Both have realized that Ferguson is missing, but they don't yet make the connection that he was silenced.

While Neff is busy following up the terrorism angle that Wilson has long since abandoned, Wilson and Whittington set up sniper positions in crumbling buildings around the old church with radios, night vision scopes, and high-powered microphones. After several hours of nothing happening, Whittington starts goofing around--mooning Wilson and accidentally opening a beer can in front of his mic so that he almost blows his own ears out. Wilson sees what appears to be animal breath by the church, he goes to investigate. The tower is empty, though, and opening doors just almost gives Wilson a heart attack when he disturbs some pigeons.

Unfortunately, it turns out their quarry was a step ahead the whole time--and we get our first good look at one of them when it slips down behind Whittington. It's a wolf all right, and an actual wolf. As it turns out, a snarling wolf is a truly terrifying thing to behold.

"I'm gonna huff, and puff, and tear your liver out!"
Exit Whittington as the wolf pounces on him and rips his throat out. Wilson arrives too late and screams to the heavens over Whittington's body, as the wolf watches.

For some reason, Wilson goes to the Indian bar. Eddie and the others explain to the shell shocked Dewey that "it's not wolves, it's Wolfen." After white men arrived and disrupted the balance of nature, the smartest of the Eastern American wolves "went underground," hiding in the cities that developed and adopting the castoffs of society as their new prey animal. Wilson had all his superior technology and he still couldn't defeat the Wolfen, and he won't be able to. The Wolfen kill to feed and to protect their hunting ground, their family. Then the bar patrons laugh it all off, pretending they've all been watching too many cowboy movies and telling Wilson not to believe any of this bullshit.

It'd almost be clever if the film didn't so clearly subscribe to the noble savage tropes.

Wilson finds himself at Van der Veer's office, trying to parse everything that's happened. He suddenly makes the connection between Van der Veer's urban renewal project and the Wolfen's hunting ground. The film of the groundbreaking that plays on a projector in the office shows the ruined church prominently and Wilson has finally figured out that Van der Veer was killed to stop him from destroying the source of the Wolfen's food.

And here we have a typical Hollywood fuck up when it comes to "intelligent" animals, one which the novel actually largely avoided. In the novel, the Wolfen risked exposure because they accidentally killed some undercover cops and thus had targeted someone who would be missed. Their other victims were those who could potentially reveal their secret existence. The opening "murders" here, however, imply an understanding of real estate development that it is simply impossibly for wolves to understand so intricately.

At any rate Wilson is suddenly interrupted when a wolf skin falls on him from above. It was thrown on him by Warren, and Neff is standing there laughing. While Wilson was busy getting his ass kicked by super-smart canines, ESS was raiding the terrorist compound of the "Götterdämmerung" cell. They claimed responsibility for the Van der Veer murders and their motto is "The End of the World. By Wolves." Naturally, it fails to explain the deaths of junkies and other riff raff in the same manner, but Warren doesn't care.

Or rather, he doesn't care yet. On the way to the car, Warren, Neff, and Wilson suddenly find themselves surrounded by wolves on the city street. James Horner is the film's composer, incidentally, and he is at his James Horneriest here--basically the same tense score he'd use for suspenseful sequences Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens. And it makes the whole sequence even more awesome.

Warren refuses to listen to Wilson and makes a break for the car. His gun hand is torn off first, and then when he makes it to the car to radio for backup he finds that a Wolfen is already in the backseat.

"Take this car to Cu--huh? What do you mean we already did that joke?"
And Warren, upon exiting the car in desperation, gets to be the one to discover that the whole thing about the head surviving decapitation for several minutes is very true. Wilson shoots the gas tank and, using the explosion as a distraction, he and Neff flee up to the safety of Van der Veer's office.

Right. Safety.

Sure enough, the wolves bust in through the windows and confront Wilson and Neff. Wilson finds himself facing down the White Wolf that is coded as their leader because of course it is. He not only lowers his gun, though Neff is more reluctant to lower hers, but he drops the bullets out of it. And then he smashes the shit out of Van der Veer's model of the proposed urban development project. This satisfies the White Wolf, who howls, and then all the wolves fade away. The Hell?!

Backup arrives to find a destroyed office, which Wilson just blames on "terrorists." "Götterdämmerung?" "Yeah. Götterdämmerung."

And we end with a happy montage of wolves running through the Bronx as a voiceover talks the usual spiel about mankind's hubris and nature triumphing. The End.

It's coded as a humbling and uplifting ending, which not only puts it at a polar opposite of the denouement of the novel that promised all-out war between humans and Wolfen was basically imminent now that their existence was exposed, but it's a moral that makes no sense. Basically, the privileged in American society are gonna go on obliviously while wolves kill and eat the people whom those privileged are already preying on--most of whom are represented as poor people of color. Wow, the palefaces really got taught a lesson there.

It also makes no sense because what did Wilson do, beyond a symbolic gesture, to actually ensure the development project Van der Veer started wouldn't go through? Hell, he blamed the terrorists and they were all implied to be killed in the raid on their compound. So what's going to change there?

It may sound like I'm being very negative towards the film, but the truth is that for all its bloated excess of plot and almost total disregard of a pretty awesome source, I kind of love the film. Oh, it's stupid and full of cliches, yes, but there's so much to recommend it.

For one, there's the use of actual wolves which far too few wolf movies can claim. Then there's the James Horner score and for all his self-plagiarism (and, you know, actual plagiarism), I love me some Horner music. But most importantly is the film's portrayal of New York. Too many movies of New York, especially after 9/11, portray the city in as beautiful and charming a light as possible. Even muggings in those movies seem quaint.

But this New York is as raw and feral as the wolves that prowl it. Buildings are crumbling, weird people are all around, and everything just feels dirty. Perhaps its director Michael Wadleigh's background as a documentary director, but there's no question that he's showing you New York as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The film desperately needed a firmer hand in the scriptwriting stage, as I really would love to know why it was felt necessary to add so many red herrings and irrelevant subplots to a movie about "werewolves." However, there's no question that the film is both a fascinating film and a marvelous time capsule of a New York long gone.

Is it a good film? Overall, I'd say yes. Could it have been better? Absolutely. And, had it not been a box office failure, I'd say it was a prime candidate for a remake. On the whole, though, I'm happy it turned out the way it did because it certainly is a very unique experience.

Thus concludes Day 23. Click the banner to check out the other W movies!

Monday, October 27, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 22: The Velvet Vampire (1971)

The film that opened the floodgates was unquestionably Hammer Studios' The Vampire Lovers, but whatever the reason the 1970s were lousy with what have been termed as "lesbian vampire" movies. The grand majority hailing from continental Europe: Vampyros LesbosDaughters of Darkness, Female Vampire, and Vampyres just to name a few off the top of my head.

Of course, most of these were actually bisexual vampires, but most people have a hard time believing that bisexuals are real in 2014 so good luck convincing them in the 1970s.

The films all tended to be on the surreal side, full of dream imagery and more importantly dream logic, and usually featured an innocent heterosexual couple falling into the clutches of a seductress vampiress (or two). And, from an exploitation perspective, they were all riddled with female nudity.

So it's only natural that someone would make an American attempt at a "lesbian" vampire movie, and even more natural that Roger Corman would have some involvement. It's also not that surprising that the film would be hilariously terrible.

For starters, when I said "dream logic" in reference to the subgenre of lesbian vampire movies, that could easily be seen as a euphemism for "total lack of logical character behavior or sensible plotting." That is true whether we are talking about the European films or this example of an American imitator.

We get a hint of this right off. A beautiful woman (Celeste Yarnell) in a red dress is walking down the strangely empty sidewalk outside a plaza in Los Angeles. We will later learn she is Diana LeFanu, and our titular vampire--and about the only actor in the film who's not utterly incompetent. At the moment, though, she is just some random woman who is suddenly attacked by a guy who is a dead ringer for Snake from The Simpsons. Snake pulls a knife and tackles her to the ground, clearly intent on sexually assaulting her--until she stabs him with his own knife. Diane then washes the blood off her hands in a nearby fountain and continues on to her earlier appointment at The Stoker Gallery.

Yes, really.

At the gallery, a bunch of clay sculptures of people are on display, while blues artist Johny Shines (himself) plays "Evil-Hearted Woman," which is singled out in the opening credits. I like to imagine that the sculptures are the work of Dick Miller's character from A Bucket of Blood, but the artist is never adequately identified. At any rate, two vapid blondes are admiring the sculptures, Susan Ritter (Sherry Miles) and Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett), and Lee is using it as an excuse to hit on Susan, who responds to everything he says to her with a half-hearted, "Yeah."

This thrilling conversation is interrupted when the gallery owner, Carl Stoker (Gene Shane), introduces them to Diane--who immediately addresses them as a married couple. Meaning that the awful flirting was some kind of a game the couple plays, I suppose. Diane is, bizarrely, very intrigued by the couple and invites them to her place out in the desert. Lee is game, because Diane is gorgeous and he's incredibly incapable of subtlety, but Susan is more than a little reticent.

Nevertheless, the next day the couple drives themselves out into the desert. The first sign of trouble to come is that the "Last Chance" gas station they stop at is staffed by a rude mechanic who refuses to pump Lee's gas (Que Horror!) and the station's owner, who is perfectly willing to pump gas--but responds to a request for directions to Diane LeFanu's place with a flinch a few degrees subtler than a Transylvanian bartender being asked where Castle Dracula is. He still gives the directions, though, without the expected warning to stay away.

Doesn't matter, anyway, as the couple's car breaks down and Diane unexpectedly comes to their rescue in her Dune Buggy. Yes, a vampire driving a Dune Buggy in the California sun, as you might expect of a movie from the 70s. [In response to my comment about this during our viewing, my girlfriend replied, "So will people look back at the 2000s as the decade where vampires played baseball?" I could only disgustedly groan in response]

Steal her look: stupid hat, black gloves, red sweater, blood of the innocent, and Dune Buggy.
At her desert home, Diane treats her guests to dinner served by her Native American manservant, Juan (Jerry Daniels). Had this been a Jess Franco film, Juan would have been named Morpho and been a lot less talkative. And yes, Juan seems for all the world to be Latino but Diane talks of how her family raised him and he left his tribe on the reservation to live with her, and to the best of my knowledge Latinos weren't forced to live on reservations even in the mid-20th Century.

The dinner also features Diane and Lee exchanging sexual innuendo via talking about...driving her Dune Buggy. Calling it a single entendre is giving the writing too much credit, as the only way it could be less subtle is if one of them said, "And by 'Dune Buggy', I mean vagina." Susan is not amused, but also oddly not all that angry that her husband was seconds away from grabbing their hostess by the breasts and making honking sounds.

This will not be the first time we are left to ponder if this is by the movie's design or the fact that Sherry Miles couldn't act her way out of a wet paper bag.

That night, Lee and Susan cuddle naked in bed while Diane watches them through the most-obvious one way mirror that ever existed. The little viewing chamber is delightfully garish, too, with red curtains and an end table with a skull on it beside her chair. Se takes some time out from perving on them to try and seduce the rude mechanic from earlier, who had come over to "fix" her Dune Buggy. The actual Dune Buggy, not the figurative one. But he rebuffs her advances so she has Juan kill him. Susan hears the man scream after he somehow impales himself on a pitchfork (!) fleeing from Juan, but Lee assures her it was just a coyote (!) because he's a moron.

And then the film gets intentionally trippy: Lee and Susan share a dream, set to music that badly wants to be The Doors' "The End" when it grows up, where they are naked in a bed with a wrought iron headboard and red sheets in the middle of some dunes. A mirror is nearby and Diane walks out in flowing red robes and takes Lee by the hand and leads the naked man away. When Susan and Lee wake up and realize they both had the same dream, but slightly different interpretations--he was pulled away in her dream, in his dream she pushed him away--they decide to...go Dune Buggying with Diane.

Diane takes them to an abandoned mine. She explains that the mine was closed many years ago because miners were turning up dead, seemingly a result of animal attacks. After hearing this the couple still happily agree to join Diane in exploring the mine. When Diane gets too far ahead, Lee tells Susan to stay put and goes to find their hostess. And then Susan is attacked by a fake bat that a Hammer Dracula film would have turned down and an empty mine cart moving on its own. So being suddenly grabbed by Diane is actually a relief. Diane is excited to show the others that she found more of the same stone as her necklace, bloodstone (naturally), but Lee and Susan just want to leave the mine behind.

Okay, so an abandoned mine was a bad choice for a fun vacation. How about an abandoned Old West Village set? Susan has decided that she's had enough of wandering around in condemned structures and waits outside, stripping to her bikini to get some sun. Meanwhile, Diane and Lee put the moves on each other inside an old saloon. However, a sidewinder sneaks up on Susan and her screams put a stop to all that fooling around. Somehow the snake bites her on the inner thigh before Lee can fling it away with a stick. (Points to the film for not having him kill it) And then Diane pulls the old bullshit remedy of cutting the bite and sucking the venom out. Notice the last few gulps she doesn't spit out, of course.

Lee is all set to leave but now Susan--the one who was bitten by a Goddamned rattlesnake, remember--wants to stay because she's having a grand old time. Rather than taking this as a sign the venom has affected her, Lee concedes and they stay. First, though, Diane takes Lee to visit her husband's grave in a patently bogus cemetery. See, her husband died a week after they married and she's grieved ever since. She explains that she wishes she could leave, but that would require leaving her husband's grave and he can't be moved because he was mummified by Juan's tribe and would rot away outside the desert.

Lee doesn't see the fact that Diane's husband has a headstone proclaiming he died in 1875, yet, but he does get a taste of weirdness when the girlfriend of the mechanic appears in the graveyard to interrogate Diane after his whereabouts, which Diane feigns ignorance of. Lee is safely back at the house, though, when the girlfriend returns with a shovel, since she had early noticed one grave was fresh. Hilariously, the foley artist layers all kinds of owl hoots and coyote howls on the soundtrack here, but if it was supposed to be night then nobody tinted the footage. So the woman is digging up a rave and uncovering her barely buried dead boyfriend in broad daylight, before she is grabbed by Juan and then Diane bites her neck to drink her blood.

Our resident oblivious couple have the shared dream again that night. Only this time, Lee finds himself running toward the bed in slow-motion as Diane carves a symbol into Susan's breast. But when Lee wakes up, he goes downstairs to find Diane sitting in a ludicrously froofy robe and eating a whole raw chicken, liver first. Lee comments that that's a damn weird thing to do. Yet somehow that doesn't stop him from having sex with her, which Susan witnesses--and just watches.

The next morning Susan is understandably terse with Lee, who responds by fessing up to sleeping with Diane the previous night in the same way one would admit to drinking the last of their spouse's milk. For some reason he decides to take Susan over to see Diane's husband's grave. But unbeknownst to him, Diane has pulled back the cover over her husband's grave--which has no dirt in it--and lie on top of his coffin. Juan finds her and she confides in him that she is hungering more and more for blood and he tells her will help her and maybe even get her some of his people to feed on (!), but naturally she doesn't see the point in waiting and pulls him into the grave when he tries to pull her out. So Lee and Susan find Juan's drained body when they arrive shortly afterward.

Of course, he won't be her last victim, because you know she can't eat just Juan.

When Lee and Susan confront her about Juan's dead body and the fact that her husband's grave shows he died in 1875, Diane spins a bullshit story and then promises to call the cops. However, Lee calls the station that is supposedly fixing their car at Diane's request and finds out she told them not to fix it. And, anyways, the station owner tells Lee he can't fix it with a missing mechanic. Lee goes to confront Diane in her bedroom and finds out that her bed is the one from the shared dream. He does not react by rushing out the door and grabbing Susan on the way, but instead gets on the bed and allows himself to be seduced--and then drained of blood.

Completely drained of blood? Completely drained of blood!

Susan, who had been sunbathing, comes inside and can't find Lee or Diane. But she does find Diane's poorly hidden spy room--and Juan's body, lazily half-hidden behind the red curtain. When she charges into Diane's room, she also reacts to the bed by being seduced. Almost. See, Diane is terrible at hiding bodies and Susan hears Lee's body shifting behind the curtain behind the bed. Finding your husband's dead body in a woman's bedroom is a real turn-off. And, after stabbing Diane in the hand in self-defense, she flees into the desert and luckily happens upon the station owner driving around.

His reaction to finding a terrified woman running through the desert in nothing but a bikini and penny loafers is to ask, "Come on, in or out?" And when decides on "in", he gives her his coat and then complains she didn't thank him for stopping.

At any rate, Susan makes her way to a bus stop and catches a Greyhound to Los Angeles--only to find Diane is on the bus already, dressed in what can only be described as Madeline cosplay.

So, this, but replace the dog with a blonde woman who has no sense of self-preservation.
Once they get to Los Angeles, Susan tries to get a police officer to help but it's no good and then she finds herself running from Diane throughout the station. She finds a phone booth and rotary-dials Carl Stoker, who promises to come to the station at once when she breathlessly tells him what's happening. Only Diane is waiting outside the phone booth, and Susan has to escape by--opening the door and getting Diane's hand caught in the door.

I think Susan would be in more danger from the actual Madeline.

Susan runs out of the station and finds herself next to a huge cross...and notices that Diane freezes, transfixed in horror, at the sight of the cross. So Susan grabs a bunch of crosses and crucifixes from a street vendor and hands them out to a mob of strangers who, for some reason, immediately accept that Diane is a vampire and help Susan out by crowding around her and pulling off her cape so she can die from a combination of crosses and sunlight (which, um, suddenly bothers her, apparently). For all the mob knows they just terrified an innocent woman into having a heart attack but, hey, "dream logic."

At Carl's house, he and Susan discuss the curious case of Diane LeFanu. He claims Diane had a rare blood disease that required regular blood transfusions and that she must have believed herself a vampire as a result. Then Susan notices that Carl has the same dagger that Diane did, and then manages to cut her palm with it like an idiot so Carl can reveal the totally shocking twist that he's also a vampire!

This is a stupid, bizarre movie. Roger Corman was apparently not pleased with it and the director, Stephanie Rothman, admitted that the film's inability to decide if it was an old-school horror movie or an exploitation flick may have doomed it. I vote that it was doomed by terrible acting, a meandering mess of a story, and then the fact that it couldn't decide on a tone.

Some of this can definitely be attributed to a desire to copy the style of the European films I mentioned before, but not understanding why that style works in context. There's dream logic and then there's having your characters be complete idiots. Plus, the European films actually made an effort to be erotic in some capacity. Celeste Yarnell is beautiful, but just having her stand before the camera and occasionally be naked does not automatically add up to "erotic."

The Velvet Vampire is bad, plain and simple. Which I suppose I should have guessed by the title, since I personally find the touch of velvet to be equivalent to nails on a chalkboard. The movie tried to warn me, and I didn't listen.

And that's another thing--for a movie called The Velvet Vampire, I sure as hell can't recall its vampire ever wearing a single scrap of velvet!

That concludes day 22. Go see what my compatriots chose for V by clicking the banner above.