Friday, December 9, 2011

The original Harry Potter vs the Magical World

Troll (1986)
Starring: Noah Hathaway, Michael Moriarty, Phil Fondacaro, June Lockhart, Anne Lockhart, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Sonny Bono
Director: John Carl Buechler
Producers: Albert Band and Charles Band
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Teenaged Harry Potter Jr. (Hathaway) and his eccentric family move to a new city, but even before the boy has a chance to make new friends, an evil, shapeshifting Troll-king (Fondacaro) begins to transform the apartment building, unit by unit, into a replica of the world as it existed when fairies reigned supreme. Harry is called upon by an ancient sorceress and fairy princess (June Lockhart/Anne Lockhart) who has been waiting for this crisis to arrive to save not only his family but the entire modern world.

"Troll" is often described as a horror/comedy, but I think it's best described as one of the best fantasy films ever made. While there certainly are a few scary scenes, it's far more fantasy and fairy tale oriented than it is a horror film.

While the film is great fun and is decently enough acted and written, it does sport some pretty bad puppets and even worse special effects, even by the standards of the early 1980s. However, the humor and fast pace more than make up for these shortcomings. (As does the sequence where the fairy creature puppets sing a nonsense song that's both funny and creepy.)

Funny, suspenseful, magical, I think this is a fantasy film the whole family can enjoy.

By the way, Harry Potter and Harry Potter Jr. (portrayed by Moriarty and Hathaway respectively) in this film are the original Harry Potters. One wonders if Rowlings didn't "accidentally" take the name from this film, given that it's a story of secret magic in modern times.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Day of the Turkey Review: Necropolis

Necropolis (1987)
Starring: LeeAnne Baker, Jacquie Fitz, Andrew Bausili, and Michael Conte
Director: Bruce Hickey
Producers: Tim Kincaid, Cynthia De Paula, and Charles Band
Rating: One of Ten Stars

A witch (Baker) executed with her coven before she could complete a ritual to gain immortality, is reincarnated in modern times and returns to her old haunts--New York City, which stands where once New Amsterdam was--and sets about resurrecting the members of her old coven by sucking the souls out of pimps, hookers, and random trashy people. She also intends to complete the ritual to make herself and her coven immortal by finally sacrificing the soul she had targeted centuries earlier, which has also been reincarnated in modern times as a journalist (Fitz).

"Necropolis" is a schlocky, amateurish horror film originally released through Charles Band's Empire Pictures... and it has been dredged up from the dim past for release as one of the initial offerings in Full Moon's "Grindhouse" DVD series.

For that, it is perfect. This is the sort of garbage movie that represents the level of quality that most of those drive-in and B-movies embodied. It's got an illogical, badly paced script, atrocious acting, and pathetic special effects. But as a movie that's worth your time and money? I would say not.

That's not to say there isn't a sort of rough charm about it. It was also interesting enough to keep me watching in an effort to make sense of what the reincarnated witch was up to, why she was going about it the way she was, and why she remembered that she was reincarnated but no one else knew. And I also wanted to find out how she knew that the soul she was after was in New York City. I never did get any of those answers, but I was treated to the silliest witch dance this side of the improv jazz ballet featured in "The Witch's Mountain".

If you've got friends that like mocking films as they unfold, this might be worth checking out. Otherwise, I think this might be a film to skip. (That said, the DVD does feature some interesting bonus material, such as an interview with Charles Band discussing the hows and whys of his "Full Moon Grindhouse" series, and a handful of short films.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

At least the preview is great!

Killer Eye: Halloween Haunt (2011)
Starring: Erica Rhodes, Chelsea Leigh Edmundson, Olivia Alexander, Ariana Madix, and Lauren Furs
Producer: Charles Band
Director: Charles Band
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Jenna (Rhodes) recruits some friends (Alexander, Edmundson, Furs, and Madix) to set up the Halloween haunted house she runs with her mother. They soon trade work for getting half-naked and drinking while watching a cheesy horror movie they find in a box, "The Killer Eye". However, a magic crystal ball has a strange reaction to the movie and the half-naked girls... it brings a model of the Killer Eye from the movie to life, and the proceeds to make the movie a reality as well.

I give "Killer Eye: Halloween" haunt some credit for being a clever non-sequel to the original film. By making it just a movie within the world of the sequel, it both embraces and dismisses the suckitude it represents. For details, click here to read my review of "The Killer Eye". --it may well be the worst movie to appear under the Full Moon banner. Not even Jacqueline Lovell and Blake Bailey could do anything to save it.

I disliked the first film so much that I fully intended to ignore this sequel--I don't seek out films that I know I'm going to hate--but the fine folks at Full Moon sent me a little care package that included it and three other films. And on the disc of one of those other films ("Necropolis," which is debuting on DVD as part of Full Moon's Grindhouse series... and which I'll review next) was the preview for "Killer Eye: Halloween Haunt".

And what a great preview it was. It got me very excited to watch this film. In fact, it got my hopes up to the point where I thought THIS might be the film that would mark the return of the Charles Band who gave me "The Creeps" and "Blood Dolls". Or at least "Doll Graveyard".

But, as I settled in to watch the film, I quickly realized that I was not in for an old-time Full Moon experience, but something closer to the generally lackluster offerings that Band has delivered since the turn of the millennium.

The two biggest problems this time out is that what passes for the razor-thin story in the film is so flimsy that it barely manages to hold the scenes together, resulting in a sense that the film consists of vignettes rather than a coherent whole. Secondly, the characters are even flimsier than the plot, only qualifying as such in the most general sense as they barely rise above the level of stereotypes... and when you have a cast of actresses who seem to have been hired more for their bodies than their acting talents, giving them and the audience a little more meat on the movie's bones is a necessity.

The comedy in this horror comedy is virtually non-existent and the horror is in short supply as well--with the exception of the final 15-20 minutes. As the film is building to its conclusion, we finally get some of the Charles Band Magic that we loved so much. If the rest of the film had been this focused and driven, this could have been a classic that lived up to the promise of the preview.

In fairness, as disappointed as I was in this film, it was a great improvement over "The Killer Eye"; it is as the sequel to "Gingerdead Man" was to the film it followed. I also appreciate the fact that more effort seems to have been put into the sets than in other recent offerings, such as "Gingerdead Man 3" and "Evil Bong 3D". Finally, the use of computer-generated special effects is more artfully applied here than in films with budgets ten times what Band and his crew work with... the computer generated gore splatter in one instance was very well done. However, those improvements just wasn't quite enough to make it a worthwhile picture.

That said... if you're a fan of Charles Band and Full Moon, the final bits of the film might be worth watching for. And even before it gets good, you can always enjoy the pretty young girls in very little clothing.

And you can silently weep at what could have been, especially in the light of this killer preview:

Monday, September 26, 2011

'Gingerdead Man 3' travels back in time and quality

Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver (2011)
Starring: John Carl Buechler, Paris Wagner, Travis Walck, Kimberly Pfeffer, Kent Fuher, Muffy Bolden, Steve-Michael McLure, Laura Kachergus, Brendan Lamb, Tiffany Danielle, and Steffinnie Phrommany
Directors: William Butler and Sylvia St. Croix
Producers: Charles Band, William Butler, and John Acalo
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

The most evil cookie to ever plague the world, the Gingerdead Man (voiced by Buechler) escapes confined in a research lab and time travels back to 1976 where he proceeds to murder the skaters and employees at a roller rink.

I had high hopes for this one, which is perhaps why I was so disappointed with it. I thought after the very entertaining "Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust" that Band & Co. were hitting a Gingerdead Man stride. Well, if they were, they stumbled with this one, delivering a film that is far below the quality found in "Gingerdead Man 2" and even a little worse than the original "Gingerdead Man" film.

Like the second film in the series, "Saturday Night Cleaver" offers up an endless stream of references to other movies. While the second film in the series was an excersize in Full Moon/Charles Band self-mockery, this installment pokes fun at a range of films and popular genres from the 1970s with "Carrie", "Porky's", and "Silence of the Lambs" being the most obvious ones, but there are literally over a dozen more references to other movies, pop culture figures, and general 1970s America. Trying to catch all the references makes the film more fun to watch than it might otherwise be. And a good number of them are actually quite funny... with the "Silence of the Lambs" riff that opens the film being the best of them and my favorite sequence in the entire film.

By the way, the references here actually all make sense in context of the story and grow organically either out of a gag or character interactions. Even when not at his best, Charles Band and the creatives he works with produce better spoof-heavy comedies than the cinematic weapons of mass-destruction Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Yet, somehow, they continue to have access to funding at ten times the level than Band. There is no justice in the movie business....

As has been the case in most Band productions for the past decade, the special effects range from weak to awful, with a massacre-by-nail gun and a death-by-acid sequences being perhaps the most embarrassing parts of the film. They goes on for too long and both put the bad CGI too prominently on display. In the acid scene, the gags also fall flat and are then crushed by the bad CGI. (A small clip from the scene I talk about above is featured in the preview; if that was all they'd included CGI-wise and otherwise have scraped together the time and money for practical gore effects, it would have been a far stronger sequence.)

A similar ongoing issue with Band struggling to meet the standards his films set in the 1980s and 1990s is the animation of the Gingerdead Man. While the killer cookie is better executed and animated than he was in "Gingerdead Man 2", the illusion of him actually being a living creature is broken by the fact that the puppetry is so low budget that he has to only be seen peeking around corners so the puppeteer can be out of view of the camera. It also doesn't help that the CGI clip of him running across the floor is the same bit of animation of him from the waste down used over and over in slightly different environments. In fact, every time I saw those legs again, I couldn't help but wonder if I was looking at a cropped and re-skinned version of that digital baby that kept showing up in "Ally McBeal" back in the day.

As for the acting, it ranges from community theater-like delivery to pretty good. Paris Wagner and Kent Fuher (as two generations of "roller skater prodigies") are particularly good in their parts, but John Carl Buechler almost manages to rise to the level of Gary Busey in the original film.

Sadly, though, the bad once again overwhelms the good in a modern Full Moon production. "Gingerdead Man 3" is better than many bigger budgeted spoofs and satires out there, but it's not a great effort, and it pales in comparison to many of Band's classic productions.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A ghost story that feels both padded and rushed

Vengeance of Dead (aka "Sleepwalker") (2001)
Starring: Michael Galvin, Mark Vollmers, and Susan Karsnick
Director: Don Adams and Harry James Picardi
Producers: Don Adams, Harry James Picardi, Charles Band, and
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When college student Eric (Galvin) comes to spend the summer with his grandfather (Vollmers), he becomes the unwitting tool of vengeance for a pair of restless spirits.

"Vengeance of the Dead" was not the best choice for my return to regular (I hope) postings here at the Charles Band Collection, as it's not a typical Band film and it dates from the years when his output was at its weakest. But, it was on the top of the stack, so I went with it.

This was the first of Band's collaborations with Wisconsin-based filmmakers Adams & Picardi, and like the other of their joint efforts I've watched so far ("Jigsaw", which I review here) has some great ideas at its foundation, but they aren't brought to their full potential because of a half-baked script that both feels padded and rushed.

The sense that the film is padded is illusion. There is actually very little fat on this body, but the territory is so familiar and the characters so thinly developed that you keep wanting the film to move onto the next predictable turn of events. It also doesn't help that most of the dialogue feels stilted and is being delivered by actors who might be okay in whatever community theaters they came out of, but who don't have a feel for screen acting.

However, the fact that the story provides far too few answers regarding the why of the haunting and the tragic events that brought it about, why the ghosts waited so long to seek revenge, and/or what awoke them. On one hand, Eric discovering an old spoon kicks the haunting in to high gear and locks the film's characters onto a path of doom and destruction, but he was targeted by the ghosts even before that. Unless I missed something, there's not even a hint as to why. (Well, there is a faint hint, but even that leaves the question as to why the ghosts waited.)

It's a shame that a little more time and effort wasn't spent on the script, because Adams & James manage to create several good scares and some genuinely creepy moments as the film unfolds. The little girl cheerfully riding a swing in mid-air and other ghostly manifestations, and the sequence of a perverted old man spying on his granddaughter taking a shower are all great moments that show this film could have been a lot better than the final product. While a bigger budget certainly would have helped--with the better actors and special effects that come with that--more polished dialogue and a more fleshed out story would have made an even bigger difference. You don't need a lot of money to do a good ghost movie, but you do need a solid script.

Despite glimmers of potential, "Vengeance of the Dead" is just another film that drives home the point that the first half of the 2000s were perhaps the lowest point in Charles Band's career as a producer.

(Here's a little trivia for you: The Sneaky Pete's Bar featured in this film is the main location for "Jigsaw". There's a small part of me that is interested in seeking out other Adams & Picardi films to see if there are other such cute internal cross-references. It's something to do when my stacks of unwatched DVDs gets much, much smaller.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Radu still doesn't get the girl in final 'Subspecies'

Subspecies 4: Bloodstorm (1998)
Starring: Denice Duff, Anders Hove, Floriela Grappini, Jonathon Morris, Mihai Dinvale, Ion Haiduc, and Ioana Abur
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Producers: Charles Band, Kirk Edward Hansen, and Vlad Paunescu
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Free of her master Radu (Hove), fledgeling vampire Michelle (Duff) enters the care of a doctor who claims he has discovered a method to reverse her undead condition. But Radu is not ready to let her go yet, and he launches an effort to retrieve her, with the reluctant help of Bucharest's most powerful vampire, Ash (Morris).

In the annals of unnecessary sequels, few are more unnecessary than "Subspecies 4". The 1993 third movie in the series provided a satisfying conclusion to the core story of the series--Michelle resisting Radu's attempts to turn her to evil--and the heroes driving off into the sunrise as Radu was burned to ashy oblivion was a nice period at the end.

But, Charles Band being Charles Band, a successful film WILL have a sequel no matter what, so four years later, Nicolaou was back in the director's chair at the helm of this film, which is an unnecessary sequel not just to the first three "Subspecies" films, but to the tangentially related "Vampire Journals", which was also written and directed by Nicolau. (Or maybe it's a prequel to "Vampire Journals"? With Full Moon's trademark disregard for continuity, I never can be 100 percent sure what they're intending....)

All that said, despite being a wholly unnecessary add-on to the other vampire films, it stands with the original "Subspecies" films and "Vampire Journals" as one of the most visually striking films to ever come from the Band direct-to-home-video assembly lines. Nicolaou really knew how to get the most out of the grand Romanian locations, especially at night. He also continues his flair for stretching his minimal budget to the point where he creates an end-product that looks better than films that cost ten times as much to make.

And while the film is not as good as "Subspecies 3"--the best film from Nicolau I've seen so far--it is an improvement on the overly slow "Vampire Journals".

As for the story, it's a tangle plots and counter-plots that rival the storylines envisioned by the creators of the 1990s roleplaying game "Vampire: The Masquerade" which these movies have always seemed like the perfect adaptation of. Radu plotting to conquer
Michelle, Ash plotting to destroy Radu, Dr. Niculescu's hidden agenda and dark secret... all of these intrigues swirl around Michelle who continues to resist the call of evil and dream of reclaiming her humanity. If you like the Anne Rice-style vampire genre and/or the 1990s White Wolf-style roleplaying games, you'll enjoy this movie.

You'll also enjoy the film if you liked Anders Hove performances in the previous "Subspecies" films. Hove's Radu is every bit as disgusting as he's always been, although he is also even more pathetic in this film that ever before, with his desire for Michelle now fully transformed from its initial need to possess into unrequited love. The rest of the cast do a good job as well, with Jonathon Morris actually being better as Ash in this film than he was in "Vampire Journals" and Ion Haiduc providing gallows-humor comic relief as a police detective turned bumbling vampire (making him the only returning character from the previous two films aside from Michelle and Radu).