Sunday, December 31, 2017

Favorites and Not Favorites for 2017

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

This has been a good year for the lower budget genre films. Surprisingly, more serious films caught my attention, when I’m usually attracted to more humorous horror. As always, I will republish the rules I have about such lists as these first:

I have an issue with “Best of” and “Worst of” year-end lists for the following reasons: most are chosen from either those that play in theaters. For me, I like to watch the DIY ones, for these tend to have more heart.  My list consists of films that I saw and reviewed in 2017, not necessarily ones that were released in that year.

As for Best and Worst, I never liked those terms; art is just way too subjective, which is why I called them Favorites and Not Favorites. That being said, even the “Not” ones have redeeming qualities, and the fact that they don’t touch me means nothing. I’ve hated films that have won tons of awards, and liked some that other find abhorrent, so don’t take anything I say, good or bad, as the law. It’s just opinion, and I welcome you to agree or disagree. It’s all good.

These two lists are alphabetical, rather than ranked (another thing I don’t believe in).


The Acid Sorcerer
Written, produced, directed and edited by Dakota Bailey
With Dakota Bailey’s third feature, he’s found a niche of reality that can scare the viewer, but not because of the supernatural but more because of a vision of life. Americans are capable of doing just about anything, even if it’s against their own self-interest and Bailey’s focus is on that to the extreme, at what most would probably consider the lower rungs of the social contract ladder, with drug dealers, prostitutes, hired killers, serial killers, and essentially the kind of people that fascinate when reading about on the paper or seeing on the big (or small) screen, but not necessarily someone whom you would want to share breathing space. Mostly filmed in black and white, there is no real past tense, there is only whatever is happening in the moment, and the people act accordingly and usually impulsively. Bailey touches that instinctual, repulsed side of the average viewer: you don’t need to learn, just intuitively know. There is also an unexpected, philosophical touch to the film, as it acknowledges its own inner darkness, as well as those as the characters. It’s a chilling and nihilistic view of a nearly claustrophobic group of people whose lives are revolving around the seven deadlies. Despite (or perhaps because of) the despicableness of those who infest the film, the viewer kinda wants to know what happens to them. This does for Denver, what Taxi Driver (1976) did for New York City: it focuses on the seedy, the dirty and the back alleys, where the denizens of the story would likely live.
Original full review HERE

Badass Monster Killer
Written and directed by Darin Wood
This picture is from a director who comes up with a fine mashup that is both head scratching WTF? and laugh-out-loud Say What? The basic premise revolves around a hyper-cool brother who is a police officer for the Department of Supernatural Security named Jimmy Chevelle (Jawara Duncan). Did I mention this takes place in Camarotown? Anyway, along the way he meets women who fall for him and become sort of an army. Most reviews claim this is based on the Blaxploitation style of Shaft [1971]; early on, we even see the Loveshaft Hotel in the background. More likely it’s a reference to H.P. Lovecraft, as this takes place in his mythos with references to Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones. But I would posit that it’s closer to Dolemite [1975] than Shaft. Chevelle’s subject of investigation is a sect that wants to bring back said Great Old Ones via weed that makes you susceptible to them. Heading this group of miscreants is Reverend Dellamorte (Ryan Cicak), a goateed white guy with a thick southern accent. The dialog is hysterical, and occasionally repetitious, in a running gag form, “Diabolical,” for example, may be in every other sentence. Duncan is really good at spitting out strings of script in an amusing way, making it not feel repetitive as much as humorous. There is a lot of good writing. Another incorrect comparison, in my opinion, is to the film Sin City [2005], since nearly all of Badass is shot in green screen (other than two solid sets), with all the buildings and other objects leaning towards the center. Sin City was like a comic book, while this is more cartoonish. Both films take place in a world that couldn’t exist in real life, but SC went for more realism; BMK isn’t interested in any form of reality, it’s nearly surrealistic. Which brings me to the monsters. Each one looks fake as can be, with cheesy digi-art or rubber limbs when they interact with the actors. They also look silly, but in this context, they are fun to watch, like bad stop-motion. In this completely produced and processed world, I thought the monsters were smile-worthy rather than cringe-. Duncan is perfect in the role, able to handle both the smolder and the sass (and afro) to just the right tone for the film. A chunk of the action takes place in a strip joint, and even beyond that there is dancing, lots and lots of go-go style dancing. You see a street? There are women dancing in the shot. I have no idea of H.P. Lovecraft had a sense of humor, but if he did, he would have gotten a hoot outta this, especially the battle of good vs. evil at the conclusion.
Original full review HERE

Bonehill Road
Written, directed and edited by Todd Sheets
For this film, Todd Sheets takes an interesting approach, asking us to question which is worse, the big bad trio of wolves outside the door, or the human monster inside with the knife and sadistic attitude. That is the predicament in which Todd has placed his main characters. Emily (Eli DeGeer) and her teenage daughter Eden (Anna Rojas-Plumberg) are on the run from one human monster, an abusive husband (Aaron Brazier). When their car is toast, in part due to the hairy threesome, they wind up in a house with serial killer Coen (Douglas Epps) and his hostages, Tina (Millie Milan), Lucy (Dilynn Fawn Harvey), and Suzy (an extended cameo by Linnea Quigley). Between our furry friends outside and the less hairy one inside, there is a lot of damage that happens to everyone involved, leading to tons of carnage and gore. Luckily, both of those are Sheets’ specialities. Also at the heart of the whole visual is that all of the effects and wolfie-poos are practical SFX rather than digital. Sheets tends to show the carnage in extreme close-up. Most of the acting is quite powerful. As the two leads, Plumberg and especially DeGeer hold their own as strong women who are put in extraordinary circumstances. The rest of the film looks great, with sharp editing and visuals. There is nothing really fancy here, no “artistic flares,” which suits me just fine. A meat and ‘taters creature feature is just what the witch doctor ordered.
Original full review HERE

Child Eater
Directed by Erlingur Thoroddsen
The seemingly mandatory prologue at the start, taking place 25 years before the main story, is a bit more unsettling than most, and better for it; but it does set you up to know that you are not about to see the average slasher or murderous spirit. The legend in the small town of Widow’s Peak (filmed in, Catskill, NY) is that there was a crazy man, Robert Bowery (Jason Martin) who had macular degeneration and ate people’s eyes because he believed it would keep him from going blind, but he was especially attracted to those of youngsters because “the fresher the better”. Now it is quarter of a century later since the last attack. The heroine of the story is Helen (Cait Bliss), who is in the mid-20s. She’s forced to babysit by her police chief dad for a widower who has recently bought the old man’s house for himself and pre-teen son. The thing that is most important is simply that this really is a creepy-ass film. The pace is great and the plot not completely predictable. The actual image is pretty dark, though the cinematography by John Wakayama Carey is spot on so you can see everything you’re supposed to view. But the film is also dark in a more esoteric way in that, hey, it’s a story about someone/something that eats children’s eyes and then kills them, and also eats their bodies (as well as adults). Bowery’s make-up is really well done, by Fiona Tyson, who should be commended, as well. The gore shows up in small amounts but frequently, and always looks damn good. This film could have been corny and clichéd, based on tropes that have been around for decades, but Thoroddsen manages to take a relatively fresh approach. That makes this enjoyable to watch, and its mood and motif may help make that chill go up and down your spine. You won’t be able to – err – take your eyes off it.
Original full review HERE

The Ladies of the House
Directed by John Stewart Wildman
In this story, three bros go to a strip club to celebrate a birthday. After the performance one of them pressures the other two to follow her home, where she shares a house with three other dancers. His intention is to pay her for sex as a present. Of course, things go awry, and when the other women come home, that’s when the second act begins and the picture kicks up into a much higher gear. These are certainly not women you want to trifle with, that is for certain, as the guys learn, one by one, becoming prisoners. This tragic start leads to a revenge-fuelled carnage. It comes down to the three bros against three of the women While angry, they are more cunning than reactionary. They have obviously dealt with men in such a fashion before, as they have a calm routine way of… dismantling. One of the things I like about the film is that while it’s technically not a horror film, relying more on terror and suspense, it certainly does not shy away from a bit of violence and gristle here and there (well done by Oddtopsy SFX, led by indie effects maven Marcus Koch); when it does, because it is not the main focus, it comes out as a bit more shocking and welcomed, without wearing out its welcome. The four female leads are spot on, with just the right amount of sexiness and cold-hearted determination. They are to be feared, but without losing their humanity. Yet through the carnage and chopping and caging and slicing and hacking, somehow, on more than one level, this remains… a love story?! This shows some solid directing. The lighting, the angles, and the gore, all look and feel glorious. This is hardly what one would necessarily call a date movie, depending of course on whom you are relating, but for the genre fan, it was an entertaining.
Original full review HERE

Long Night in a Dead City
Directed and edited by Richard Griffin
This is a strange, ethereal and episodic story of Daniel (Aidan Laliberte), who awakens in an alley on New Year’s Eve, beaten and bruised. He begins a quest to find his brother Charlie (Anthony Gaudette), which brings him into contact with various characters in an ugly side of a city full of back streets, litter, snow and steam. The shadow side of Voltaire’s Candide, Daniel wanders into others’ lives, and vice versa, with something quite off about all of it. Mannequins, a possible serial killer, and a sultry bartender (Anna Rizzo) who knows his name in a tavern where everyone is photo-still, is just the start of some of those who will make this dead city night interesting, albeit bizarre. In some scenarios, Daniel is the protagonist, in others he is an observer, as sort of a solo Greek Chorus in a modern day tragedy. In all, though, there is an either explicit or implicit invitation, spoken or not, for him to join, and to stay in that moment, in that place. A mysterious woman, Holly (Sarah Reed), takes the place of both companion and Dante-esque guide. Many of Griffin’s films deal with heaven, hell, and other variations of what happens next, and this continues to take a different view of that aspect of life and death, which makes for a further interesting vision that one may not expect, keeping the viewer’s interest. Even if you have an idea of where the storyline is going, the ride there is still going to be from a perspective you probably would not have thought of, giving new blood to a not-so-new concept. There is definitely a feeling of surrealism, but not to the point where it’s so obliquely opaque in the events that it loses direction. Chalk yet another one on the plus side for Griffin. Also worth checking out are his other two films of the year that were squeezed out by space here, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Strapped for Danger.
Original full review HERE

Murder Made Easy
Directed by David Palamaro
I found the whole film production reads like a play. It’s heavy in dialogue, mostly takes place in a single room, and the pacing of the whole thing could easily be mounted on a stage. This feels very Frank Capra-esk in the way the words are spoken in a quick and light patter. This murder mystery has been compared to the game Clue, but I definitely believe that it’s more the source material of the dining room murder mystery that they have in common rather than the end piece. This is a very dark comedy. Like most murder mysteries there are a lot of characters most foul, and even more important, there is double-crosses upon double-crosses. In the story, Joan Chandler’s (Jessica Graham) husband has been dead for a year. Not happy with the way he was treated by his friends, she and mutual pal Michael (Christopher Soren Kelly) decide to take matters into their own hands, and make things right by… well, the title is more than just a hint. The cast is really tight, like they’ve been doing this particular piece for a while. Solid professionalism. While there are some standout performances, there is not a weak moment in the acting, from opening scene to close. That being said, it feels like the camera loves Graham and either keeps gravitating to, or lingering on her. Luckily, Graham can handle it, as she says so much with a snide smile, a frown, or a subtle shift in mood. Kelly is the yin to her yang, a ball of kinetic energy to her nuances. They spin around each other like a double helix, boosting each other’s characters. Of course, little is as it seems. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors, as there should be in this kind of story, and I recommend giving yourself enough time to watch it twice. In case I haven’t made it clear, this is a strong and solid piece of work. The writing is crisp and sharp as a razor, which never takes the easy way out.
Original full review HERE

Written, produced and directed by Chad Ferrin
Three college jock-types are roaming around the big bad city and get lost. Not a good thing, especially in the neighborhood in which they’ve landed. This area of Los Angeles is not color-oriented, but it is certainly greenback poor, with homelessness and frustration-fueled anger; that’s a volatile mix in an indie screen world. As the dudes drive around trying to find their way, they make obnoxious comments about the homeless they see. Then, they run over something and get a flat. And that is where the story really takes off, as they are confronted by a mob of homeless men (and one woman) who don’t take kindly to strangers in their neighborhood. It quickly escalates, and before you know it, one of the trio, Marshall, is running down the street nekkid in fear for his life, with a band of bums out to even the social score a little bit. The patriarchal and dictatorial leader of the mob is Wilko (Robert Miano) who exudes anger, hate and racism beautifully. He is a narcissist who blames others for his own actions. One could argue that he is a product of having nothing left but ego, but I could also see that it could be part of what brought him to that level in the first place. Quick to adapt, Marshall does what he needs to survive, as he becomes the focus of a distorted version of The Warriors, without the fancy costumes and catchy dialogue. He has no choice but to come on out and play as he is hunted down by the urban version of the backwoods mob. It becomes a question of how does one win against a group that has nothing to lose. The added social commentary is as Marshall becomes more and more identified by strangers as a homeless person, wearing their clothes and being African-American, demonizes him as “Other.” The ending is effective, albeit predictable, considering the zeitgeist of the film’s tone and story direction. It’s a worthy viewing.
Original full review HERE

Pig Pen
Directed by Jason Koch          
Recently, there have been a series of gritty, realistic stories that are there to disturb more than distress; we’ve seen it before in films like Suburbia (1984), Scorsese‘s Mean Streets (1973), or even The Day of the Locust (1975). The difference is that of late, realism has faded away into the static camera of torture cinema which is less about story than effects; realism is just the opposite, even with its level of gruesomeness. I didn’t really have any expectation about this film, so its level of initial low-key grittiness took me by surprise. Here, Zack’s (Lucas Koch) world is one of dysfunction. The tall and lanky13-year-old stoic skater, whose school nickname is Pig Pen, lives in a home where nothing gets cleaned and supper consists of cold cereal mixed with water. His mother is zoned out on booze and pills, and her new, abusive “entrepreneur” boyfriend pimps her out and sells drugs. Insisting that Zack bring in some money, suggesting by doing what the guys on the corner do for cash, the boy is thrown to the streets, where we watch as he learns to survive amid desperation, stealing and violence. As a nice move, Koch edits in flashback scenes throughout that lead up to the present, as we see how life has spiraled out of control step by step. Of course, the past catches up in an explosion. This film doesn’t pull any punches. It gives a realistic feel of the dangers of living on the street, including gangs and perverts. But Zack isn’t like other boys his age. His moral compass has already been turned up this side of Sunday, and he isn’t beyond thievery even before the boyfriend. Like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Straw Dogs (1971), Zack will fight for his life no matter what it takes. This is an intense film right from the start, and it just keeps building right until the very end. Its sheer level of everyday kind of violence means the story begets the violence rather than the other way around, as in most films of this type. It really is a horribly beautiful film. The editing, the lighting, the camerawork is all spot on. If you’re in for a good story with some excellent writing and acting to back it up, tension that is palpable in a building crescendo, and some way-above standard physical effects, this will be a good direction to go.
Original full review HERE


Before I Die (aka Wake Before I Die)           
Directed by the Jason Freeman and Todd Freeman (aka the Brothers Freeman)
Pastor Dan (Robert McKeehan) and his cheery wife Cindy (Audrey Walker), their sullen young teenage daughter and pre-teen son move to a small town in Oregon to take over a church. Soon after they get there they are put in charge of troublesome teenage Sally (Nouel Riel) to keep her away from her stereotypically cinematic greasy headed and leather jacketed boyfriend, Mark (Joshua St. James). A pattern then starts to emerge here, as sure enough there is some kind of local killing cult. Still, there is some issue with getting some momentum in the story. Cinemagraphically it certainly looks good, but the writing is plodding and could use some serious editing and honing down. For example, one character warns Dan, “Strange people dream strange dreams, Pastor. Even about others…Some people are prone to believe such things here because this is a place where such things can be true.” At the very least the script needs a good Thesaurus. Nearly half way through, it’s hard to tell there’s anything really wrong, except for the minor-key sountrack. There is a murder scene that happens with some beautiful editing overlapping the killing and the events after, which in itself would make a great short, but as a whole it drags the film down, and could have been shown in just a few minutes. The third acts picks up the pace quite a bit, and the ending is a bit of an anticlimax, but the film has a decent 20 minutes in it towards the end. Still, despite the editing and lighting, it goes on too long. Much of the acting is also a bit dicey and wooden here and there, especially the unengaging lead who seems to mostly sleepwalk through his role relying more on a wholesome look, with an occasional brow roll or eye squint to show emotion. Part of the problem is that the cult doesn’t really have a focus, other than being a group of non-Believers (and they – shock! – dress in black, wear frilly party masks, and drink alcohol), bringing us to the realization that this picture is a Christian-pointed release with a literal Amen at the end. That alone might drive off some off (and bring others into the film’s…err…flock), but that is not what got under my skin; rather it was the poor writing and monotonic acting from an unexcited/unexciting lead. All in all, the film is a solid meh.
Original full review HERE

Conspiracy Theory [aka Lake on Fire]
Directed and edited by Jake Myers
The biggest complaint about the recent Paranormal Activity film series (starting in 2007) is not that it’s in the found footage genre, but rather that it takes way too long for anything of interest to happen. It’s annoying and pointless, and fills out a film to full length when it could have been a very comfortable 20-minute short (or even less). We meet the film crew to a “reality” cable show on the Mystery Channel called “Alien Engineers,” which posits that many of our modern structures, such as Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead are constructs that use technology given to humans by the “grays.” Leading this five-some is its host, the heavily orange-skinned spray-tanned Bjorn Eriksson (Ben Kobold), along with the rest being his crew, including the loony Britney Big Time (Jennifer Mills). They go to the locations mentioned above, and act like jerks. To begin though, they do nail the whole guerilla filmmaking down pretty well, as Bjorn interviews scientists and “man on the street” types, and manages to put words in everyone’s mouths, claiming that they were the ones that said it. This is both goofy and enjoyable to watch, as the non-actors squirm, or are often bemused by it all. There is a fine mixture of real people mixed with fictional characters, playing with story’s credibility in a fun way. Sadly, the film ultimately fails overall for one basic and nearly constant reason: there is way too much filler with nothing to add to the story; for example, extended scenes of drinking in a hotel bathroom or on the street. It seems like a large part of the film is mostly home movies, almost like they wanted to go to Nevada on a trip, and figured if they made some kind of story about it, they could write off the expenses. While they seem to be having fun, it doesn’t really transfer the audience (okay, to me). I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist (or ET) to figure out the end. There is a kind of conspiracy going on, but whether it’s alien or human is left up to the viewer. The last 20 minutes or so are…okay, with about 10 interesting minutes here and there, but by far the best parts of this film are the interviews. Can we please have a moratorium on found footage now?
Original full review HERE

Lake Eerie
Directed by Chris Majors
The name of this film is brilliant. The location is a huge house just off the lake. In this story, it was recently bought through a repossession auction by Kate (Meredith Majors, the director’s spouse and film writer), who has moved in to forget the recent death of her farmer husband. Having been abandoned since 1969 when its previous dashing anthropologist owner, Harrison (director Chris Majors), mysteriously disappeared, it gives the widow a way to start over through painting (and a large amount of prescription pills). Soon after she moves in post- Labor Day, most people in the area have already left. That is, except for the nice lady who lives a few doors down, Eliza (Betsy Baker, aka the demonically laughing Linda in The Evil Dead). I quickly got the heebie-jeebies about her, just from the constant use of her calling Kate “Dear.” Sadly, this “tell” is endemic of the film writing, which makes questionable moves throughout. Later we meet Eliza’s niece, Autumn (Danish actress Annemijn Nieuwkoop; aka Anne Leigh Cooper), who is obsessed with Harrison (director Chris Majors), the archeologist who used to own the joint. There are some definite issues with the story, which is quite lackadaisical in its approach. I mean, if you need to grab a kitchen knife two nights in a row (your first two nights) – once because of a big dude in the kitchen and another after a nekkid woman (Victoria Johnstone) rises from the lake and goes into your house – and then you go upstairs and fall asleep after taking pills, rather than getting leaving the house – even after a kinder spirit tells you to get out…twice – then it’s hard to feel some any empathy for that character. The story tries the “Is it real or in her head?” motif, which always is a fun twist. Actually, what Kate needs is acting lessons as she is so wooden. Majors cannot carry a film on her own as she looks like she is wincing when trying to emote. But she’s not the only one, to be fair: most of the cast seems to be either in a daze or over the top. There are few surprises in the story, including the conclusion, but for me the biggest problem is in the text editing. There are long stretches where nothing really important to the story happens. And yet, a nagging question is, will there be a sequel called The Eerie Canal?
Original full review HERE

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: Dead or Alive Trilogy (Takashi Miike)

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Dead or Alive Trilogy
Directed by Takashi Miike
Daiei Corporation / Toei Video / Arrow Video / MVD Visual
290 total minutes (not counting extras), 2017

The basic premise of these three films reviewed below in this collection is certainly not new. Duos, trios or even more playing similar character with different names and backstories has been done by the likes of the Marx Bros, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, and even the like of Tracy and Hepburn. Here, we have scowly Riki Takeuchi and sunny Show Aikawa (well, the second two, anyway) as the team, but they play off each other well. Then add in director of the bizarre, Takashi Miike, and this can only lead to violence and a wicked-cool sense of WTF. There are two films on the first disc, and one on the second, along with the extras spread across both, described at the end of this review after the review of the third film, but before the trailers.

Dead or Alive [aka Deddo oa araibu: Hanzaisha]
105 minutes, 1999
I think it would be safe to say, in a grand scheme, Japan is known for its period Samurai and gangster / Yakuza films (“Hanzaisha” translates as “criminal”), though often, if you look at them, they follow similar themes (such as Star Wars and Westerns in the – err – West). Leave it to Director Miike to take the common and bring a whole new dimension to it.

From the infamous opening 6-minute montage of sex, drug, and bullets, you know that you are dealing with something you may not be expecting. Keep that in mind, because more than once you are going to be in that state of being. Definitely buckle yourself in.

Detective Jojima (Aikawa) is honest up until now, but he’s placed in a desperate situation. His on-the-take partner and friend, is another story. Meanwhile, a small-time ethnic Chinese gangster with his own small crew, Ryuichi (Takeuchi, seemingly channeling a future Little Steven in The Sopranos, including the squint and hair nearly a decade earlier than the paisan), is trying to take down the local Yakuza for his own profit.

But there are a lot of subplots about family members (on all sides), sexual politics, and especially about Chinese/Taiwanese-Japanese cultural views, which has been a sore spot on both sides of equation since Japan invaded China in the 1930s in an overall barbaric way.

Again, being a Miike film, there is a lot of be unexpected, but one can count on moments of nearly beautiful sequences of complete chaos, violence and brutality, and also some moments of extreme ickiness (as opposed to Ichi-ness… sorry, but that joke’s a – err – killer).

Sometimes the story gets a bit convoluted here and there, but I’m not sure if that’s Miike being Miike, or if this particular Western viewer isn’t syncing into the Eastern way of being. Whatever, Miike does not shy away from people being blown to bits, or even a self-arm detachment.

What is good about the WTF factor of this director’s is that it is not always easy to guess where things are going. There’s some that felt obvious – won’t give it away, but one instance I knew what was going to happen in a key event a few minutes before it occurred – much more of it is out of the blue. I dare you to predict the “wait…what?!” ending, for example.

Through the film there are more than one gangland style slaying that makes the montage in The Godfather where the Corleone family takes out the competition look like a Canadian backing into someone and saying, “Oops, sorry!”

From what I understand, Miike’s films only get more bloody and violent, and off the rails. Even his musical comedies, such as The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001; reviewed by me HERE),  are rife with death, destruction and some humor. I’ll give this for Miike, he’s consistently inconsistent for what direction it’s going to come from, or where it’s going to go.

With all of that, Miike films look spectacular, with sharp lighting and editing, and characters that will remain with you after the film is over. He can make the most brutal criminal sometimes seem pitiable, and the most honest man despicable, and then reverse that again.

There is a reason why Miike is revered among the film crowds, especially those who love the Asian gangster genre.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds [aka Deddo oa araibu: Tȏbȏsha]:
97 minutes, 2000
The second of this… well, they call it a trilogy but I don’t agree. As I stated in the prologue above, this film is not a sequel or prequel, but another go around with the same two lead actors, and no other connection but its director, Miike. So rather than a trilogy, let me phrase it this way: the second film of this collection is a bit more esoteric than the first, but I actually found it more enjoyable.

Perhaps this was edited for the Western market when it was released, because more than one review said that this is generally looked at as one of the lesser films because of its lack of violence. Wait, what? Nuh-uh. There is richness in this one of that flavor. This is, in my opinion, a more enjoyable film than the first.

Despite its WTF-ity, the first one is quite a bit less straightforward story-wise, and at times is hard to follow. This one is a bit different, though present are overlapping themes. What’s weird to me is that even though I had less trouble following the story, it actually has even more WTF moments than the first, and more often.

Again dealing with Yakuza (Japanese) mobsters vs. Triad (ethnic Chinese) criminal syndicates, we are introduced two hit men who were given the same assignment by different gangs. Both end up in hot water, but it seems that they are both childhood buddies from an orphanage on a relatively remote Island off the Japanese coast. They meet again on the boat back to the hilly isle, where they wait for things to cool off a bit.

The sunnier of the two is Mizuki Okamoto (Show Aikawa), playing a much different role than the previous release. Rather than being a glum copper, here he is hopeful, with blond hair and bright yellow Hawaiian shirts. His purpose for being a hitman may surprise you. On the other hand, Shuichi Sawada (Riki Takeuchi), similarly to the previous, is mostly glum and snarly. He too holds a secret.

As they hole up on their home turf and have fun by lending a hand with the orphanage, the previous bungle is the catalyst for all out gang warfare, for which we see in an interesting counterpoint with the two hiders and their childhood crew.

Perhaps it’s something I’m (again) missing in the translation of Japanese culture, but our two anti-heroes are represented by dark and light birds, with the two leads (and occasionally others) often sprouting wings, or we see them in the modern world represented by the children they were back in the orphanage. This is a moving touch, even if I’m not sure if it is specific symbolism (such as Al Pacino playing the Louis Cyphre in 1987’s Angel Heart).

Even with the birds and children, the metaphors and WTF-icity, this is definitely an enjoyable story, and with no shortage of both blood or heart. Yeah, the ending is a head scratcher once again, though not as brash as the first one, and yet still will leave you wondering. It felt like a good time was spent.

Dead or Alive: Final [aka Dead or Alive 3]
89 minutes, 2002
Well, even 10 minutes in, this is by far the most “out there” of the trilogy, for shizzle. It takes place in the year 2346 (as opposed to 2525), and Yokohama is a wreck (though tinted camera lens, giving it a sickly view. Another way you can tell something is off is in an early scene when someone is making eggs, and the yolks are bright red.

This time, a still snarling and pompadoured Takeuchi plays Police Officer Takeshi Honda, who is Miike’s version of Harrison Ford, hunting down Rutger Hauer-lite war-time replicant” (aka robot) Ryō, a still-blond and in sunny yellow clothes Aikawa. The latter is shown as catching bullets in his hands and running in fast motion, in almost Keystone Kops mode. While this release is part comedy, y’know at some point they’re going to team up together to fight… Well, it’s still early.

Despite the humorous touches, there is still the strong Eastern/Western politics being played, as characters randomly speak English, Japanese and Cantonese (the language of Taiwan), responding to each other as if they were all speaking the same language. That’s a cool idea. Note that all but English is captioned.

There are other kinds of other politics as well, including a totalitarian government, and those gender-related as well, as we are introduced to the philosophical (albeit creepy) gay, dictatorial mayor Woo (Richard Chen), who spouts how gay love lasts longer than straight affection. Back in 2002, that was quite a step forward in Asian cinema, as far as I can tell, even if it’s a villainous character spouting such comments (baby steps, I guess).

Although this takes place in the future, it’s fun to see the relative anachronisms, such as news cameras being, well, camcorders, and microphones still having that fuzzy stuff at the end. And as much as it’s about technology and politics, it also abounds the body politic as we find out people aren’t who we (or they) think they are, and painful revelations and double-crosses abound in sometimes violent ways when you’re not expecting them.

Speaking of red yolk’d eggs, like all of the three releases, this one relies heavily on food, be it philosophical (how to eat it), abusing it (over-eating), or just the social aspect (eating together as a communal act). Also consistent is an ending where Miike pulls a WTF out of his – err – pants and takes us where we were not expecting to go. At all.

Of the three films, even with the garish lighting (which is used on occasion in all the films), this is possibly my fave one, just for the sheer audacity of it. There is a bit of trying to tie all the films together at some point, though I’m not quite sure what that is, but that’s fine.

Extras – Disc 1:
Being an Arrow Films release, you know there are going to be a mountain of extras. On the first disc, which holds the first two films, there is a 10-minute archive making-of featurette for DOA2: Birds, though the first is also represented as it consists of behind the scene shots and the occasional blooper. Next up is both the US and Japanese trailers for the first film, followed by the Japanese trailer for the second. Last is a full commentary for the first DOA by Miike biographer Tom Mes. He approaches the film from not just a bio way, but he also shows keen insights to the philosophy behind it and a strong sense of film theory criticism. The only negative is that his voice is really low and monotone, so I had to turn the volume way up to make out what he was saying. It was worth it, though.

Extras – Disc 2:
The first extra is a 43 minute 2016 featurette/interview called “Toshiki Kimura: Drifting with Miike”; Kimura is a producer and screenwriter of the films. It’s in Japanese, with English subtitles, as are all of the interviews on the disc. Here, Kimura discusses how he got into the film industry, his introduction into the “hard boiled” style, and how he started collaborating with Miike; some – but not many – clips are included. He talks about the philosophy of the films, and filmmaking in general; it’s a bit talky, but pretty interesting. Following is another 30-minute interview featurette from 2016 called “Riki Takeuchi: Deadly Outlaw Riki.” He explains he’s had lead roles in over 200 features, of his nearly 500 appearances, and he further talks about his career in general and on the films specifically, and also post-DOA, such as becoming a producer. He’s a personable speaker so the attention is there.

Of course, the 55 year-old Aikawa is represented – with red hair (or wig) – in the 23-minute “Show Aikawa: Cop, Killer, Replicant.” While a Miike interview makes a brief appearance, this is solidly Aikawa’s time, and he does shine. He also talks about his career, his roles in the DOA films and beyond, and his views on the Japanese gangster genre. One thing I would have liked to see more of is the discussion of Japan’s role in worldwide cinematic art writ large. Not a complaint, just a query. Then there is an 11-minute featurette “Making Of” for the final film; it’s a mostly humorous look at some of the action scenes, bloopers, and snarky title cards. It’s well worth the watch.

But it ain’t over yet: There’s the 11-minute group post-Final press conference interviews from 2002 with the two leads and director Miike, and then a weird animated trailer for Final that almost seems fan filmed, and then finally the official trailer

The last up is a really nice multi-page booklet included in the package with technical notes and a lengthy article about the trilogy. So, in all, there’s 290 minutes of film and 247 minutes of extras for a grand total of 522 minutes, or almost 9 hours in total. Wow.

Trilogy trailer:

Original trailers:

Friday, December 15, 2017

Reviews: The Zodiac Killer; Another Son of Sam

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

The Zodiac Killer
Directed by Tom Hanson
AGFA / Something Weird Video / MVD Visual
87 minutes, 1971 / 2017

This until-recently-lost film is kind of infamous in the true story crimes micro-budget genre. Director Tom Hanson did not set out to either warn, to give information to the public about a real-life serial killer who besot California in the mostly late 1960s into the very early 1970s, or to make a profit. His purpose was to either catch the Killer at the premiere if he showed up. Man, that’s ballsy!

While it didn’t work since the Zodiac Killer (ZK) was never found, it did leave us this wonderfully bizarre and cheesy film that strangely is actually more entertaining than the bio-pic Zodiac (2007), which was completed with a budget in the millions, and starred A-listers such as Jake Gyllenhaal. When this film was released, though, the killing was still going on, which gives a chilling aspect to it.

Hal Reed
We meet two characters in San Francisco, a mailman named Jerry (Hal Reed, d. 2010) and a balding ladies’ man, Grover (Bob Jones), who is a delivery truck driver. These two guys, as are most of the (non-victim) men portrayed, are macho misogynist morons who have a deep-seated hatred of women, often casually using terms like “dumb broad” and, of course, “bitch.” Sadly, dudes like these who have a fanatical distaste for women and yet seek some kind of need for their attention are still a dime a dozen (hey, one is even the president of the United States). At one point, one older guy comments that he likes women who are “plump, and juicy…and dumb,” and another shouts at a waitress ex-girlfriend (Norma Michaels), “I’m not in the habit of having my broads walk out on me.”

But the men in the story aren’t the only ones here that get a harsh brushstroke, as many of the women come across as man-hungry; usually the more attractive and least dressed, the higher the level of desperation. For example, a woman in a bikini practically drags a character into a random and spontaneous –off-camera – sex act. Another is how many women throw themselves after the obviously bewigged Grover, even though they act surprised and mean-girlish when the toup is blown.

Bob Jones
While the story is occasionally silly – and yet still entertaining – there is actually an interesting mixture of case file reality stirred with unsubstantiated (i.e., made up) killings. But the Zodiac, who is linked to about a dozen known killings, claimed in a letter to have 37 victims at one point. This gives quite the leeway for the story to imagine possibilities.

The identity of the ZK does not come as a surprise in this story, as even though masked, the body type is quite easy to spot. Fortunately, it’s not long before the film makes it clear, so it can get on with the action at hand, and there is a lot of it. The body count is quite high here, even if the caliber of acting is not. There is a lot of hand-wringing type behavior and a lot of angry shouting with face twisting. But that is part of what is enjoyable, too.

We find out before long that ZK is completely looney (here’s one part I assume that is supposed to anger the real Zodiac), believing that those he kills are enslaved to him in a nearly ritualistic, messiah complex way. This is clear in a monologue where he refers to himself as “The Supreme Zodiac.”

A nice touch, on a second viewing, is seeing some things I hadn’t noticed before, such as the link to one of the first killings, and especially of the red herrings, including the motivation for the second couple-killing, which I missed on the first run through. It’s just a few smart touches in a largely ham-fisted script. As filmmaking goes though, despite the heavy-handed story and acting, it is shot quite nicely, and there is a decent level of blood. A stabbing scene is especially effective for its budget and timeframe. This is taken from the last remaining full 35mm print left, which had been blown up from 16mm to show in theaters. What drove me most crazy though is that throughout, ZK never wears gloves and yet touches everything that would certainly be tested for prints. Funny thing is, this bothered me more than the lack of acting chops.

Another amusing thing is that even back then, there is the “Indie Rule of Cameos,” with a brief (probably one day of shooting) appearance by Doodles Weaver (who is credited as Doddles Weaver; d. 1983), as an unlikeable older man.

Towards the end, there is an attempt to “humanize” the ZK just a bit with his having issues about… well, I’m not going to say, but this is most likely another attempt to goad the real Killer. The inner monologue we hear towards the end is most likely meant to do the same.

As with many Blu-rays, there is a sea of extras, which I will unbox, out of sequence. First, there is a series of period-piece trailers that revolve around “Tabloid-Horror Trailers” (such as 1970’s Carnival of Blood, starring Burt Young). There is a 4-minute featurette called “Let’s Get This Guy: The Origin of The Zodiac Killer” (2017), which features interviews with director (and owner of a chain of pizza stores) Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick, who briefly discuss how the motivation for the film came about and its aftermath. This should not be confused with the upcoming “Making Of” documentary called Zodiac Man: The True Story of the Man Who Made a Movie to Catch a Killer, which is due out in 2018 (and will undoubtedly be included on a future release of this film – or vice versa).

Hanson and Nedwick, along with members of “the AGFA Team” show up again in the commentary track. Sadly, Jim Vraney could not be on here since the Something Weird Video (SWV) founder passed away in 2014. Two members of AGFA spend the first 10 interesting (pun not intended) minutes describing their attraction to the SWV brand, and how they partnered with the estate to work on this release. Then they are joined by Hanson and Nedwick (one character in an early part of the film is named for him) who describe working on the film. Despite Hanson’s bad memory, thanks to some careful questioning by the curators, many interesting facts come out about the making of the film. It’s worth the view.

Other extras are that both a Blu-ray and DVD version of, well, everything, in included, and that there is a very nice booklet containing production credits and a print interview with Hanson. The last extra is an entire second film called, Another Son of Sam, reviewed below.

Another Son of Sam
Written, produced, edited and directed by Dave Adams
67 minutes, 1977
I don’t tell people this very often, but I went to high school with the Son of Sam’s final victim, Stacy Moskowitz. I didn’t really know her other than passing her in the hall, as she was in an entirely different social scene than mine (i.e., she was “popular,” and I didn’t have a “group”). It was still a shock, though.

This was filmed just after the Son of Sam reign of terror (but pre-trial) in New York City, though it was shot around Charlotte, NC. If you ask me, despite the title cards listing some then-recent serial killers and their body counts before the opening credits, this tale of a murderer on the loose is not really connected in any way to the infamous .44 Caliber Killer, but rather its title is intended to be a good way to grab an audience, in the same way unconnected movies are given “sequel” names (e.g., House II: The Second Story [sic] in 1987). For the record, its shooting title was Hostages.
To be fair and more accurate, the basic premise is actually closer to Halloween (1978) than anything else, as a silent and deranged man, Harvey, escapes from an insane asylum and then goes on a killing spree. When he holes up in a college, the body count rises. There are a lot of his POV shots, peeking from behind bushes, attacking whoever comes across his path. When one is his psychologist, Dr. Daisy Ellis (Cynthia Stewart), her husband, copper Lt. Claude Setzer (Russ Dubuc) leads the entire police force out on the manhunt.

This is total psychotronic in that it’s a really cheesy film with terrible acting and a not-that-brilliant screenplay, but it is definitely an attention-keeper in its own bizarre way, if you’re into that kind of thing – which I am. There are a lot of meaningless and misleading – yet effective – jump scares.

One of the more intriguing aspects may actually be unintentional: it’s obvious that this print has been through hell over the years, with discoloration and other issues. Through the film, especially in early shots, there are a bunch of freeze frames; it could be that it was stylistic, but I’m guessing more likely the film was damaged so the images were eaten away but the soundtrack was okay. I’m hoping I’m wrong because it’s one of my favorite things about the film.

Some other interesting little bits about the film: (1) There’s some blood, but most of it is seen after the assaults; with one big exception, there’s very little actual violence seen; (2) most of the time we see Harvey, it’s pretty much the same shot of his face from above the mouth up, with shadowy lighting and his caterpillar eyebrows; (3) great period clothing on the cast; and (4) there is a scene filmed at the Treehouse Lounge nightclub (now called the Treehouse Whiskey and Fork) with Tampa Bay-based singer Johnny Charro doing his Elvis-meets-Humperdinck regional hit, “Never Said Goodbye” (which is also heard on a radio station in the film, and again with the end credits).

This is Adams’ only IMDB film credit, and relatively speaking, for the technology and the time period, it’s quite good, in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Sure, it drags a bit here and there, but mostly it’s good fun. If you’re reading this, odds are you understand what you’re getting when the word psychotronic is employed as a descriptor. All y’all enjoy!