Archive for August, 2005

Troll (1986)


Directed by: John Carl Buechler
Written by: John Carl Buechler (story)
Ed Naha (screenplay)
Produced by: Charles Band
Starring: Noah Hathaway, Michael Moriarty, Sonny Bono, Brad Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Gary Sandy, Phil Fondacaro, Anne Lockhart, and June Lockhart

If you’d told me yesterday that I would be watching Troll and doing a review, I would have asked you to lay off the prescription pain killers. I saw this so-called film on video in the mid 1980s and found it to be disappointing to say the least. I had been looking for a horror film along the lines of Goulies (another pre-Full Moon guilty pleasure from Charles Band). It turned out to be a silly, modern-day Fantasy about a boy, his sister, a witch, and an evil troll that wants to turn the world into his own dark fairyland. However, as I was flipping through channels this morning (As usual, I pay a huge amount for cable and often there are 150 channels of nothing!), I happened across this forgotten relic in letterbox format. I said to myself, “Of all the movies in the world, they’re showing this in widescreen? I’ll just watch a bit of it.” Famous last words. Before I knew it, I was having so much fun that I had actually watched the entire film.

Noah Hathaway plays Harry Potter (I’m not kidding), a teenager who moves into a new apartment building with his parents (Michael Moriarty and Shelley Hack) and his kid sister Wendy (Jenny Beck). Before they can unpack the first box, Wendy goes into the basement (When will they ever learn?) and meets Torok the Troll (Phil Fondacaro). The evil little being takes her form and begins going from apartment to apartment—turning tenants into pulsating cocoons that break open to release stop-motion vines and Muppet fairy folk. Only with the help of a centuries old witch (June Lockhart [old] and Anne Lockhart [young]) can Harry hope to stop this evil from taking over the apartment building and then the world.

John Carl Buechler and frequent Starlog magazine writer Ed Naha’s script is ripe with humor both intentional and unintentional. The casting is a who’s who of television past withLaw & Order’s Michael Moriarty, Saturday Night Live stars (and future husband and wife) Brad Hall and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, WKRP’s Gary Sandy, and the late great Sony Bono. Bono has the honor of being the troll’s first victim. We get to watch him scream in agony, puff up like a balloon, and turn into a wrinkled pod. Speaking of the effects, aside from the nice troll makeup, they are anything put special. Lockhart has a talking mushroom on her table and you can actually see the tablecloth rise as the performer works it from below. The other fairyfolk are puppets of the lowest order and what little movement they have alternates between jerky and floppy. Despite its many, many flaws, the film has a charm about it that draws you in and keeps you watching. The phrase “so bad it’s good” may be a cliché, but I can think of none better to describe it. At one point, for no apparent reason, Moriarty turns up the stereo and begins an extended air guitar and dance routine that will have you rolling on the floor and shaking your head at the same time.

For some, this is a bit of cinematic sludge from the 80’s that should be forgotten. I say, if you have 82 minutes to kill, there are far worse things you could do than watch Troll. Whether you’re laughing with it or at it, I can guarantee you will be laughing.

3 out of 5 stars for humor (intentional and unintentional)

2.5 out of 5 overall

Wicked Karnival Takes “The Bridge!”

Michael West’s short story “The Bridge,” which was originally intended as part of the prologue for the novel Cinema of Shadows, will appear in the Halloween Special Edition of Wicked Karnival Magazine available October 15.  The issue will also feature tales from horror masters Graham Masterton  and  James A Moore.

Whispering Corridors (1998)


A.K.A.: Girls’ High School Ghost Story
Original Korean Title: Yeogo Goedam
Directed by: Park Ki-hyung
Written by: In Jung-Ok and Park Ki-Hyung
Produced by: Choon-Yeon Lee
Starring: Choi Se-yeon, Kim Gyu-ri, Kim Yu-seok, Lee Mi-yeon, Lee Yong-nyeo, Park Jin-hie, Park Young-Soo and Yun Ji-hye

This is the film that started the Asian horror explosion!

So says the trailer for Whispering Corridors, a Korean film from 1998 that has since spawned two sequels. In an apparent drought of originality, Hollywood has been mining Asian horror recently. It is odd that they have not taken aim at this gem, because its American horror influences are clear: the long Steadycam shots of empty halls (reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining), the slasher movie style killings, the bleeding walls that hark back to the original Amityville Horror. But the film accomplishes something Hollywood horror rarely attempts anymore: it has real and believable characters.

As the movie opens, teachers are being murdered one by one at a secluded girls’ high school—cruel teachers that have been terrorizing students for years. Who is responsible for these deaths? Is it one of the girls that have been harassed? Is it the new teacher—a former pupil who witnessed a horrible accident 9 years before? Or is there some supernatural force that walks these halls at night?

High school can be a scary place to begin with, but co-writer/director Ki-hyung turns this school into Hell on earth. By day, its teachers are strict and abusive—striking students hard enough to give them split lips and bloody noses. By night, its dark catacombs could be hiding anyone or anything. Thanks to the director’s eye for composition, and the editing skill of Ham Sung-won, every frame of this movie seems drenched in menace. The acting by the entire cast is top-notch. These girls convincingly portray a wide range of emotion: joy, fear, sadness, and above all…loneliness. At its core, this is a film about the need we all have to make some sort of connection with others—the simple need we have for a friend. And nowhere is friendship more valuable than in high school.

While not as frightening as some of the films that followed it, Whispering Corridors draws you in and keeps you interested to the final shocking frame. If you are a fan of Asian horror, or someone new to the genre and looking for a place to start, this is the movie for you.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Secret Window (2004)


Directed by: David Koepp
Written by: Stephen King (novel)
David Koepp (screenplay)
Produced by: Ezra Swerdlow
Starring: Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, and Charles S. Dutton

The best Stephen King adaptations have little to do with the supernatural. You doubt me? Let’s look at a few shining examples (no pun intended): Shawshank Redemption, The Dead Zone, Stand By Me, Misery, and Green Mile. Any vampires, killer cars, giant rat-bat things, alien invaders, or ghosts in any of these? Not a one. You see…when filmmakers get hold of one of King’s works, you can almost hear them say, “This is our vampire/killer car/giant rat-bat thing/alien invader/ghost movie.” And so they concentrate on whatever the “big bad” is and the characters become cardboard. Whereas if you give a filmmaker a story about people relating to one another, that’s what you get on film. Secret Window—based upon the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden” from King’s anthology Four Past Midnight—is not in the same league as Shawshank Redemption (one of my favorite films of all time), but I would rank it among the better films made from the words of the Master of Horror.

Morton Rainey (the always amazing Johnny Depp), a lazy yet best-selling suspense writer, discovers his wife Amy (Maria Bello) in a motel bed with another man (Timothy Hutton). Rainey moves out of the couple’s home in the city and takes refuge from the world in a small lakeside cabin. For six months he takes long naps and tries, unsuccessfully, to write a new novel. One day, he opens the door to his retreat and finds John Shooter (John Turturro) standing there. It seems Shooter is a writer who thinks Mort stole his idea for a story. But it’s not just the plagiarism that has him fuming. Oh no. You see, Rainey—Shooter alleges—had the gall to change his original ending, an ending that was perfect as it was. Of course, Mort denies the accusation. His story was published in an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine a whole two years before Shooter claims to have written it. Shooter’s not buying this alibi, however, and he gives Mort just three days to prove the story wasn’t stolen. At first, Rainey thinks the man is a harmless nut like other harmless nuts before him, but then bad things start to happen.

Chameleon Depp once more inhabits the skin of his character—displaying an unkempt Einstein mane and artistic goatee. He moves easily and believably from anger and frustration with his soon-to-be-ex-wife to absolute fear of a crazy stalker. Turturro is also at the top of his game. With his easy-going southern drawl and Quaker dress, he seems an unlikely villain. One look into his eyes, however, and you will get a sense of real, undeniable menace. When these two actors share the screen, it is simply riveting.

Writer/director David Koepp, who adapted Richard Matheson in the highly underrated Stir of Echoes, does an excellent job of translating King’s prose to the screen. This is every writer’s nightmare given celluloid life. Koepp’s pacing (and an amazing score by Philip Glass of Candyman fame) works to build suspense and a palpable sense of dread. There are several shots—including one where a camera on a crane swoops in to a window, goes through a window, then snakes its way through the house and actually goes into the mirror image—that are breathtaking to behold. There are also nice moments of dark humor sprinkled throughout. The elderly sheriff has taken up cross-stitch to help with his arthritis, and Mort—while watching his wife kiss her lover goodbye in front of the house they once shared—begins to sing The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” The only gripe I have withSecret Window is that I figured out where it was going before it got there. Still, even though I knew what was happening, Depp’s masterful performance kept me glued to the screen until the final unsettling frame.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. I’ve got me a hankerin’ for some corn on the cob.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Suicide Club (Unrated) (2002)


Original Japanese Title: Jisatsu saakuru
Directed by: Shion Sono
Written by: Shion Sono
Produced by: Masaya Kawamata
Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Akaji Maro, Masatoshi Nagase, Saya Hagiwara, and Hideo Sako

When I was younger, we used to go up to the fountain drink dispenser at restaurants and put a little bit of every flavor drink into our glass. We called the resulting mixture a “suicide.”

If you took the creepy horror of Ringu, mixed it with the black comedy and social satire of Heathers, the crime procedural of Law & Order, and the musical insanity of The Rocky Horror Picture Show…the concoction would be Shion Sono’s Suicide Club.

The film opens with 54 school girls lining up at the edge of train platform. We watch helplessly from our chairs as they link hands and begin to chant: “One…two…three!” The group then falls in front of the oncoming train. We see its wheels slice through their skulls and rip their bodies apart. We witness blood on an unfathomable scale—a tsunami of blood that sprays and washes over the screen (and believe me, even though I just described it to you, you can not possibly be prepared for the horror…the perverse humor of actually watching it for yourself).

As the police begin to investigate, people all across the city start to leap out windows and carve themselves up with kitchen knives. Is the stress of everyday life in Japan getting to everyone, or is some darker force at work here? Maybe it’s too much television, as one parent points out. Or perhaps it’s the music of that girl band that seems to be everywhere you turn. Or could it be that strange website?—the one where new dots appear for every death that occurs?

Writer/director Sono takes his narrative down many dark alleys, but some lead to shocking dead end. At one point, a police informant is kidnapped by a crazy cult and taken to a deserted bowling alley. There, she watches as the cult leader sings and dances among white sacks that are strewn across the lanes—suddenly stabbing the women that are writhing around within them. It’s a well edited, well photographed, truly disturbing scene…that…goes…nowhere. It’s as if it belongs in some other movie. Sono also loads the film with more philosophical nonsense than all three Matrix movies combined, resulting in an ending that answers everything and nothing all at the same time.

Just like those fountain blends we made as children, Suicide Club has a little bit of everything and not enough of anything. Some will find it to be a social commentary on fads. Others will ponder the meaning of its psychobabble. Me, I found it to be an enjoyable blend of dark humor and creepy dread. The mix isn’t for all tastes, but I liked it well enough.

3 out of 5 stars

‘Salem’s Lot (2004)


Directed by: Mikael Salomon
Written by: Stephen King (novel)
Peter Filardi (teleplay)
Produced by: Mark Wolper
Starring: Rob Lowe, Andre Braugher, Donald Sutherland, Samantha Mathis, Robert Mammone, Dan Byrd, James Cromwell, and Rutger Hauer

First, a little annoying autobiographical info…

Stephen King’s 1975 novel ’Salem’s Lot is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it a dozen times, and every pass brings new insight. The story works on every level: as a discussion on the life and death of small town America, as a love story, as a character study, and as a vampire tale. If you haven’t read it yet (What kind of horror fan are you?!?!), get ye to the local book depository and begin at once! I mean it. Go. I’ll wait.

As good as the book is, I had not yet read it when, as a ten-year-old boy, I was able to con my babysitter into letting me watch the second half of Tobe Hooper’s original 1979 miniseries. I sat there on the couch, with all the lights off and a big quilt pulled up to my eyes, and watched this creepy, terrifying thing unfold. I loved every minute of it! This has to be, hands down, one of the most frightening movies ever made for television. The image of the vampire boy scratching at the window still haunts me to this day.

Which brings us to this 2004 adaptation…

Writer Ben Mears (Rob Lowe) returns to his boyhood home—the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot (also known as ’Salem’s Lot). He has come to write a new book about the old house that sits on a hill high above the sleepy little village. The Marsten House. It seems that many years ago, owner Hubby Marsten was a closet Satan worshipper who performed child sacrifices and unholy rituals. He also had an ongoing correspondence with a German antiques dealer named Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer). Soon after Ben’s arrival, he reconnects with his old English teacher (the great Andre Braugher) and meets Susan Norton (Samantha Mathis)—a young woman who loves his writing and wants to get to know the author better.

But Ben isn’t the only newcomer to this rural paradise. Mr. Barlow’s assistant Richard Straker (Donald Sutherland) has purchased the Marsten House and is opening a shop in town. Soon, children start to disappear and the local doctor (Robert Mammone) finds residents becoming sick with a strange virus. With the help of a drunken priest (James Cromwell) and a young boy (Dan Byrd), Ben must discover the root of this strange evil before it is too late.

The teleplay by Peter Filardi has a completely different feel than the 1979 original. Rather than concentrating on spookiness and scares, he focuses much more on “the town” of ’Salem’s Lot. If you’ve read the novel (And you’ve all read it now, right?), you know that King paints the town itself into a major character. Filardi tries to do the same, giving us many more characters than the original. In addition to Ben, Susan, Mark, Matt, and Dr. Cody, we get Dud, Ruthie, Father Callahan, and the real Barlow. In the original miniseries, he was a blue-skinned, rat-faced Nosferatu. The Barlow in Stephen King’s book was a charismatic guy more akin to the traditional Dracula, and Rutger Hauer is more than willing to sink his teeth into the role. The setting is modern, so no bad hair or polyester suits to distract us from the story, and the narrative comes much closer to the original text than the first. Some King purists may fault the writer for what he does with the character of Father Callahan. I didn’t mind, however. The ’79 miniseries only featured Callahan for about five minutes, and Barlow made short work of him in that version.

Despite the larger canvas, director Mikael Salomon keeps things moving. Tobe Hooper’s Lot relied on slow tracking and racked focus to build suspense. Salomon’s approach is much quicker. Faster moving cameras, quicker cuts…even his vampires move faster. They climb walls and crawl across ceilings. When a stake goes into their hearts, their heads bounce around as if they are having epileptic fits on fast forward. Then, for some reason, they fly up into the ceiling and explode into a rain of ash.

So, is any of this scary? Not really. In going for the character study, the filmmakers have sacrificed much of the fright that made the original so memorable. But this is a goodcharacter study. It’s just a shame someone can’t figure out how we can have it both ways. Bottom line…if you want to be scared, my advice is to stick with the 1979 version. But if you want a good story with some chilling moments and exceptional acting, look no further than this ’Salem’s Lot.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Devil in the Flesh 2 (2000)


Directed by: Marcus Spiegel
Starring: Jodi Lyn O’Keefe and Nick Corri

As I write this review, I have spent the last week suffering from Kidney stones. Now, I’m not a woman and I can’t even imagine the pain that my wife (or any woman) went through to give birth, but I’m sure these little buggers are almost as painful as that. Knowing this, believe me when I tell you that watching Devil in the Flesh 2 is only slightly less painful than having these stones. I tell you this because I care and because I don’t want anyone, friend or enemy, to go through the agony I have endured for the last 90 minutes.

When I saw the credits–saw that they looked as if they were generated on a high school computer–I should have run the other way. But silly me, I stuck it out. I’ve never been one to walk out on a movie. I’m always afraid that I’ll leave and it will suddenly get good. Then I’ll have to stand around at parties listening to how incredible the ending of the film was, and I will have to beat myself mercilessly for wimping out.

The film opens with a mental patient, Debbie Strong (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe), escaping from the hospital. How she makes it past security is never shown nor explained. She simply kills her nurse and runs down the hall. (The barbed wire fence we’ve just seen beneath the video credits is apparently no obstacle.) On a deserted stretch of desert road, Debbie meets a hotel heiress named Tracy who sprays pepper spray into her own eyes (she had the can reversed) and falls onto a pointy object. Bye bye Tracy. Debbie then assumes her identity and heads off to college where she falls in love with the first professor she meets. Her love instantly becomes an insane (after all, she is a mental patient) obsession and she spends the rest of the movie killing anyone and everyone who stands between her and her man.

Jodi Lyn O’Keefe is a beautiful girl, and I can tell she has some acting chops, but they are wasted on this lame cliche of a character that has been ripped off from Poison Ivy andStepfather movies. One moment, she is cool and calculating, the next she is a blubbering idiot. I’ve come to understand that she did not play the character in the original film, the appropriately titled DEVIL IN THE FLESH. That shame fell to Rose McGowan–who had the good sense not to return for this follow-up. With the ending of this movie clearly setting up yet another sequel, let’s hope Jodi will learn from Rose’s example.

2 out of 5 stars

Premonition (2004)


Original Japanese Title: Yogen
Directed by: Norio Tsuruta
Written by: Noboru Takagi and Norio Tsuruta
Produced by: Takashige Ichise
Starring: Hiroshi Mikami, Noriko Sakai, and Hana Inoue

What if you just happened to pick up a stray newspaper one day and found an obituary for someone you loved? Before you answer, look at that date. This is tomorrow’s paper. The events written here have yet to occur. If you act now, this horrible tragedy might not happen at all. So…what do you do? Do you try to stop it, or do you ignore the sign and wait to see what really transpires? And if you do decide to act…to screw with fate…what will happen to you?

No, this isn’t the plot for Final Destination 3. This is Premonition, director Norio Tsuruta’s slightly derivative but engaging tale of supernatural suspense.

The film opens with a loving family on the road to Tokyo. College professor Hideki Satomi (Hiroshi Mikami) has spent his entire vacation working on his laptop, much to the dismay of wife Ayaka (Noriko Sakai) and five-year-old daughter Nana (Hana Inoue), but his work is finally complete. All he needs to do is send an important email. They are driving through the countryside, however, and Hideki can’t get a signal. He asks his wife to stop at a roadside phone booth so he can plug in and transmit his message. While in the booth, he finds an old newspaper and reads an obituary that details the death of his daughter—an event that quickly comes to pass. Three years go by and this “newspaper of terror” (the title for the short story on which the film is based) suddenly makes a return. This time, will Hideki be able to stop the headlines from becoming a horrible reality?

Noboru Takagi and Norio Tsuruta have crafted a non-linear story that keeps you guessing and brings you to the edge of your seat. As a director, Tsuruta (Ring 0: Birthday) avoids the now familiar trappings many Americans have come to associate with J-Horror. No spooky, long-haired, pale-faced, dead girl contortionists in sight. Instead, Premonition builds and sustains a sense of unease that never lets you feel as if these characters are safe. Shots of a newspaper flying in the breeze might have been laughable in lesser hands, but Tsuruta makes this parchment truly menacing.

The film stumbles a bit near the end when it unexpectedly shifts from quietly building fear to becoming a time-travel fever dream. Satomi sees countless consequences to his interference with the newspaper’s implied destiny, and Mikami’s performance begins to teeter dangerously close to overacting (Think Cary Elwes at the end of Saw. Better yet, don’t think about it…ever!). But the filmmakers keep you caring about their characters despite these late bumps in the road.

As the film cleverly notes, sometimes there simply are no good choices. Thankfully, for fans of Asian horror, the same can no longer be said. Premonition is a well-crafted nightmare that effectively exploits our anxieties about the future—about things over which we have no control. What it does well, it does extremely well. I look forward to seeing what writer/director Norio Tsuruta will do next.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Taking Lives (Unrated) (2004)


Directed by: D.J. Caruso
Written by: Michael Pye (novel)
Jon Bokenkamp (screenplay)
Produced by: Bruce Berman
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, and Kiefer Sutherland

I’m a huge advocate of the “Unrated” DVD. Sure, sometimes it is just a marketing tool. In order to be “unrated,” you simply have to release a version that was never reviewed by the ratings board of the MPAA. If you add a scene of two people walking down the street, and you don’t submit that cut to the board, you can release it as “unrated.” In the case of horror, “unrated” has come to mean that the graphic ideas and images the old men and soccer moms of the panel found offensive can finally be seen by the fans for which they were intended. Cases in point: Re-Animator, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Suspiria…the list goes on and on. (And we fans are still waiting on Paramount to hear our cries, and the protests of the filmmakers themselves, and finally free the “unrated” versions of the Friday the 13th series from the vaults!) So when I saw the huge “Unrated” stamp on the DVD case for Taking Lives, I had to show my support and give it a spin.

My problems with the film began as it faded in from black. In the background, we hear a U2 song from 1989. We are then shown a title card that proclaims it to be 1983.

After a legitimately shocking prologue, we cut to an opening credit sequence that was clearly cloned from the movie Seven: scratched and warn microfiche of killings are shown with the cast and crews names typed in, and we see the killer’s hands as he dyes his hair, puts in contacts, and adjusts his false teeth.

The film is the story of a psychopath who kills people and steals their identities. He does it because their lives have something his current pitiful existence lacks. How appropriate that this film should do the same—taking on aspects of other movies that achieved a level of suspense, shock, twists, and eroticism the film desperately wants, but can not generate on its own. As I watched the plot unfold, I could not help but think of Seven, Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct, even Wild Things. And I found myself remembering just how good those films were, and just how lame this one was by comparison.

Academy Award-winner Angelina Jolie is a crack FBI profiler, Special Agent Illeana Scott. She has unconventional approaches to getting inside the head of a killer. She will lay in the grave where a victim was found and will surround herself with images of the defiled corpses—even going so far as to tape them to the ceiling above her hotel bed. She has been labeled a witch by other agents for her ability to hone in on suspects and provide vital information that leads to their capture.

Montreal detectives have a morgue filled with men who have had their hands removed and their skulls crushed. They have no leads and must call on Agent Scott’s expertise. She doesn’t disappoint, quickly theorizing that their killer is a chameleon who is “taking lives” in more ways than one.

The big “reveal” of the killer’s identity is clearly meant to be a surprise, and that’s the film’s main flaw. Who the killer is is obvious from the very beginning. Sure, they throw several red herrings our way to try and convince us otherwise, but it doesn’t work. In the TV series Columbo, we always knew who the killer was in the beginning. The joy of the show was seeing the detective figure it out and finally find a way to nail them. If this film had taken that approach, it might have been much more engaging. Instead, it spends all its energy trying to steer you away from the only suspect that makes any sense.

Taking Lives‘ one original and truly disturbing moment comes in the big sex scene between Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke—the only reason I can see for the “Unrated” brand. The two begin to seriously grind against a wall, and then on a table, before finally moving to the bed. Once there, they make love while staring up at those photos of the killer’s many dead and mangled victims. It’s a four star scene.

Too bad it’s stuck in the middle of a two star film.

2 out of 5 stars

Michael West Takes Center Stage in the Wicked Karnival!

The December issue of Wicked Karnival Magazine will feature Michael West as its Spotlight Author.  The issue will include an interview with Mr. West, a non-fiction article written by him, and the publication of his emotional short story “Goodnight.”