Friday, April 23, 2010

'Shrieker' is nothing to shout about

Shrieker (aka "Shriek") (1998)
Starring: Tanya Dempsey, Jamie Gannon, Parry Allen, Roger Crowe, Alison Cuffe and Jenya Lano
Director: Victoria Sloan (aka David DeCotaeu)
Producers: Kirk Edward Hansen and Charles Band
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

College students squatting in a hospital that's been abandoned for over 50 years come under attack when one among them summons an extra-dimensional horror known as the Shrieker. Five must die so it's summoner can control it. Will mathmatics Freshman Clark (Dempsey) learn the secrets of the Shrieker in time to save herself and her "roommates"?

"Shrieker" is a straight-forward monster film with a "Ten Little Indians"-style who-dunnit element thrown in. It's so straight-forward that it almost feels like an outline of a movie instead of a full-fledged one. It's short on character development, short on logic, and short on suspense, because there's not enough time to include that sort of materal in its very brief running time of just over an hour.

The fact that it's so short is probably the best thing I can say about "Shrieker". The director had enough sense not to pad his film with a bunch of pointless "mood shots" or never-ending establishing shots. Although I probably wouldn't have been too annoyed if there had been a little gratioutous nudity to pad the film, particularly since Alison Cuffe and Jenya Layno at one point both wear outfits that could have been even skimpier.

In that vein, I should mention that "Shrieker" features a cast that seems to have been cast more for their good looks than their acting abilities, but with the breakneck pace at which the film unfolds, there's barely time to notice anything about the cast other than their good looks. (Everyone gives an adequate performance for a low-budget, direct-to-DVD film... no one embarrasses themselves but no one does a remarkable job, either.)

However, I would have liked to have seen SOME development of the creature in the movie, at least as far as a better explanation of the how, who and why of it being summoned. It's a cool looking beastie--one of the better efforts during the late 1990s as Full Moon beginning its decline--but it needed more of a backstory.

"Shrieker" isn't the worst film in the Full Moon catalogue, but it's far from the best. But it is a film you can safely ignore, even if you're the biggest Full Moon fan on planet Earth.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Weird Science brings sexual perversion
'From Beyond'

From Beyond (1986)
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Ken Foree, Ted Sorel and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon
Director: Stuart Gordon
Producers: Brian Yunza and Charles Band
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A pair of physicists (Combs and Sorel) create a machine that causes our dimension to merge with another. They end up unleashing horrors--and sexual perversion--unlike any our world has ever seen before.

"From Beyond" is one of those gory, goopy movies that you do NOT want to watch while eating. If you like fast-paced monster movies with a high quotient of mad doctors--there is only one out of the five major characters who isn't a doctor who is unhinged in some fashion--and you don't mind sexually-themed horror, then you'll enjoy the heck out of this movie.

With excellent special effects--particularly during the final battle against the monstrous creature from beyond--and great performances by all the actors, this movie is a fun ride. Although only the first few minutes of the film is actually based on H.P. Lovecraft's story of the same title, Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton both capture the obsession and the madness that was a hallmark of many of his characters and stories. Further, the creatures and the entire style of the movie evokes the atmosphere of Lovecraft's writings. Even better, the film provides some great laughs to offset the terror, with Ken Foree (best-known for his role in the original "Dawn of the Dead") serving double-duty as comic relief and Macho Action Hero and succeeding equally well at both.

"From Beyond" is an excellent movie to show at a Halloween party where adults or older teens make up those in attendence. If you want to get a copy to show, make sure you get the unrrated DVD director's cut, because it features some really cool scenes that were cut to earn it an R rating during its original release--such the scene where Dr. Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) has her brain sucked out through her eye-socket and some of the bits of a tentacle-beast from Dimension Lovecraft getting to know Dr. Katherine McMichaels really well.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Full Moon Vampire Saga Continues....

Subspecies III: Bloodlust (1993)
Starring: Anders Hove, Denice Duff, Melanie Shatner, Kevin Spirtas, Ion Haiduc and Pamela Gordon
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Producers: Charles Band, Oana Paunescu and Vlad Paunescu
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After failing to rescue her sister from the clutches of the evil vampire prince Radu (Hove), Becky (Shatner) enlists the help of a young American diplomat (Spirtas) and a frustrated Romanian police detective (Haiduc) to stage a raid on Castle Vladislav. Meanwhile, Radu is educating the fledgling vampire Michelle (Duff) in how to use her new supernatural powers while attempting to corrupt her soul in order to make her is vampire bride in body as well as spirit.

"Subspecies III: Bloodlust" picks up at the ending of the previous film, seamlessly continuing the storyline of Michelle, Radu, and the fearless (but hapless) vampire hunters led by Michelle's sister Becky. Characters who had minor roles in the previous film take the spotlight in this one and they launch a concerted and believable (once one buys into the idea that vampires and witches exist) effort to bring down the vampires.

Once again, the cast all give admirable performances, with Anders Hove making Radu even more disgusting in this installment than he had been in the previous ones. At the same time, however, he manages to evoke some degree of sympathy in the viewer as well. (He's a hideous, murdering monster who has more than just a few screws loose, but the love he has developed for Michelle--however twisted--and the pain it is causing him that she doesn't love him back gives the character a dimension that both makes him increasingly creepy but also gives the viewer something to relate to.)

In some areas, this film continues the trajectory started with the first "Subspecies" sequel, increasing the quality of the film instead of decreasing it as is the usual pattern when it comes to sequels. In other areas, the film holds its own quite nicely, and the end result is a film that will provide a satisfying viewing experience for lovers fo vampire movies of all stripes.

The script for this installment of the series is the best so far. I've already touched upon the great performances given by Anders Hove and Denice Duff, performances that wouldn't have been possible if they hadn't been provided with a great script as their starting point. The scripts quality is also manifested in the comic relief character of Lt. Marin (portrayed by Ion Haiduc), who has scenes that manage to inspire laughter on the heels of, or even during, some of the film's most intense and scary moments. The only complaint I have with the script is that I would have liked to have been given a bit more of a solid ending, but what we have isn't decent enough so that's a minor complaint.

The film isn't as impressive in the photography and lighting area as its predecessor was, with many of the shadow and transformation effects being acheived with animation or composite shots instead of simple lighting and camera tricks. The overall look of the film also isn't quite as dramatic as "Subspecies II", but it's still far beyond the average low-budget horror film and it is still good enough to place this film among the best movies to ever emerge from the Full Moon film factory. It is without a doubt evidence that the Golden Age for Charles Band and his Full Moon label was in the early 1990s. (Band may yet rediscover how to mount productions as impressive as this one, but nothing he has produced in recent years even comes close.)

"Subspecies III: Bloodlust" is one of the very best vampire films ever made. It should be on the "must-see" list of any serious fan or student of genre.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A sex change brings Life After Deth

Trancers 6 (2002)
Starring: Zette Sullivan, Jennifer Capo, Robert Donovan, Jere Jon and Timothy Prindle
Director: Jay Woelfel
Producers: Johnnie J. Young, Maurice Smith and Charles Band
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Time-traveling Trancer Hunter Jack Deth discovers he truly is his own ancestor when he finds himself inhabiting the body of the daughter he sired during a previous trip to the 20th century (Sullivan). He must save her from a new breed of Trancers in order to save himself and the future from oblivion.

I love time-travel stories and the twist arising from the tangle of history created by Jack Deth fathering a child in the past is a fun one and it makes me favorably disposed to this film from the outset. The fact that Full Moon returned to the series' roots as a sci-fi tale and dumped all the fantasy nonsense from Parts 4 and 5 make me like it even more. And given that the film finally resolves to my satisfaction the troubling question about why Jack and his future didn't cease to exist when he definitively wiped out even the origin point of Trancers in Parts 2 and 3--makes me like it even better.

The performance by Zette Sullivan--which basically consists of a skinny girl doing an impersonation of Tim Thomerson's original film-noir macho portrayls of Deth--is cute icing on a well-made cake.

Unfortunately, the cake is a little on the stale side. For all the appealing points of the film, there is a atmosphere of "been here before" throughout it. Previous films featured conspiracies, powerhungry politicos and "trancer farms" like the ones we find in this film (even if screenwriter Joyner used these elements to more effectively than ever before establish why the dark future that spawned Deth's half-destroyed world still comes into being). The method of creating Trancers is different, but the general trappings are the same, so the sense of retread in inescapable.
The film also has some of the worst continuity control I think I have ever seen. Sullivan's costume changes repeated from moment to moment, and her hair is up one second, then down the next. She has carries a purse that has a remarkable ability to appear and disappear and even change shape!

The inability to hide the low budget that this film was made on is also ever-present. Like just about every movie that Band has been involved with since the turn of the century, the film suffers from production values that are but a pale reflection of what his films once featured. And this drop-off is even more evident on the DVD edition that I acquired of the film, as it contains the original 1985 "Trancers"; "Trancers 6" looks flat and amateurish when viewed in close context with that other film.

Still, if you enjoyed the first three films in this series, I think you'll find enough here to like this one as well. Zette Sullivan is funny and cute, and it's a shame that she hasn't had any film roles since 2002.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Double Feature:
Puppet Master and Puppet Master 2

Puppet Master (1989)
Starring: Paul Le Mat, Robin Frates, Irene Miracle, Barbara Crampton, Kathryn O'Reilly, Matt Roe and William Hickey
Director: David Schmoeller
Producers: Charles Band and Hope Perello
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After their friend commits suicide following his discover of a supernatural secret possessed by WW2-era puppeteer and toymaker Andre Toulon (Hickey). four psychics travel to the mansion he killed himself in to investigate. They soon regret launching their investigation, as Toulon's greatest creations--a group of singularly twisted dolls--come to life in order to stalk and kill them in gory ways.

There are some films that one should allow to live in memory. For me, "Puppet Master" is one of those. I first saw this movie in 1990 or so, and I remembered the general story, and the cool stop-motion killer puppets. However, I had absolutely no memory of how awful the acting is, nor how bad much of the dialogue is.

This is probably still one of the best movies to ever emerge from Full Moon Entertainment, and while that may sound like I'm damning with faint praise, I'm not intending to do so. The stop-motion photography and the design of the very creepy killer toys in the film are top-notch, as is the use of sound throughout the film (especially where the toys are concerned). Leech Woman is every bit as disturbing as a I remembered!

Aside from the puppets, the only other thing that works here is the villain (whose nature I won't comment on for fear of ruining the film for those who may not have seen it). He is a truly monstrous character and the final act of the film, where he is revealed along with the full monstrousness of his actions--making the killer puppets look like the toys they are by comparison--is some of the very best movie making that Charles Band has ever presided over.

Although crippled by the bad acting, the creativity of the story and the deadly toys go a long way to making up for that shortcoming. The stop-motion animation is extremely well done, and it's worth seeing this creepy movie for that alone.

Puppet Master II (1991)
Starring: Elizabeth Maclellan, Charlie Spradling, Jeff Celentano, Collin Bernsen, Steve Welles, and Gregory Webb
Director: Dave Allen
Producers: Charles Band, David DeCoteau and John Schouweiler
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Paranormal researchers (Celentano, Maclellan, Spradling, and Webb) charged with figuring out what drove the sole surviving psychic from the first "Puppet Master" movie insane discover that not only do Andre Toulon's living puppets haunt the old hotel on Bodega Bay, but Toulon himself (Welles) has returned from the dead!

"Puppet Master II" is a creepy and atmospheric direct sequel to the first "Puppet Master" film, but it is also one of the weakest entries in the entire series. It's fairly poorly acted, it's got an illogical script--yes, even taking into account that it's a movie about killer puppets--and Toulon and his puppets are out of character when taking into account the original film and other sequels into account.

Every other "Puppet Master" movie I've seen but this one shows that Andre Toulon was a fairly decent guy who perhaps loved his creations more than he did himself. That is not the Andre Toulon we have here. What we have here is a twisted maniac who makes the villain from the first movie look like a saint. The puppets are also out of character, in-so-far-as they are doing evil for the sake of doing evil, something which they've not done in any of the other "Puppet Master" films I've seen. Worse, the behavior of the puppets doesn't even make sense in the context of this film alone. (Without spoiling too much, I can reveal that the puppets are helping Toulon and doing what they do in order to secure a recharge of magic to keep themselves going. They ultimately turn on their creator when they discover that they're not going to get what they want... but they should have turned on him long before. If there isn't much "magic juice" available, what's Toulon doing making a new puppet?)

And the puppets aren't the only ones behaving in illogical fashion because if they did things that made sense, the film would come to a screeching halt. Early in the film, the researchers get one of the puppets on video tape just before it murders one of their numbers. Another member of the team had already mysteriously vanished. These are researchers hired by the federal government to check out the place, but do they call upon the resources that implies? Do they even contact the local cops? Even after some freakish guy they think might be dangerous appears and claims to own the hotel? Nope, because this script is so badly thought out that EVERYONE (even magic puppets) has to exhibit Stupid Character Syndrome or the story simply won't work.

The film is further weakened by the fact that the Bodega Bay Inn as featured here doesn't look at all like the interiors of the Bodega Bay Inn from "Puppet Master". The filmmakers took enough care to give the impression that the characters here were seen mostly in a different part of the hotel, but why were the rooms and the hallways leading to them so much smaller and cheaper looking? This is especially evident in the room that is destroyed by the new flame-throwing puppet Torch.

Speaking of Torch, the film is at its best during the scenes involving this new addition to the Toulon menagerie--a puppet dressed like a Prussian officer that shoots gouts of fire that incinerates anything in his path. And I think that's the main problem with this film. Full Moon head-honcho Charles Band has never made any bones about the fact that he is looking for merchandising synergies with the movies he produces. He wants to sell dolls and resin models and other knickknacks based on the films, so a new puppet means a new piece of merchandise to sell. I don't begrudge him that, but I wish more care had been taken with the rest of the movie and the characters within it.

"Puppet Master II" has some neat moments, and it's got more spookiness in it than other films in the series, save the original, but it is an odd-man out among them. I think all but the biggest fans can safely skip it.