Wednesday, October 19, 2016

31 (2016) review


Sherri Moon Zombie (Charly), Jeff Daniel Phillips (Roscoe Pepper), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Panda Thomas), Meg Foster (Venus Virgo), Kevin Jackson (Levon Wally), Malcolm McDowell (Father Napoleon Horatio Silas Murder), Jane Carr (Sister Serpent), Judy Geeson (Sister Dragon), Richard Brake (Doom Head), Pancho Moler (Sick Head), David Ury (Schizo Head), Lew Temple (Psycho Head), Torsten Voges (Death Head), E.G. Daily (Sex Head), Michael "Red Bone" Alcott (Fat Randy), Esperanza America (Snoopy), Andrea Dora (Trixie), Tracey Walter (Lucky Leo), Ginger Lynn Allen (Cherry Bomb), Daniel Roebuck (Pastor Victor)

Directed by Rob Zombie

The Short Version: Rob Zombie's newest hillbilly freakshow finds an homogeneous group of Texas carnies captured by, of all things, European aristocrats doused in powder who force them to play a Halloween all-nighter called 31. The game requires they be chased by psychopathic clowns with chainsaws, axes and knives. If they survive 12 hours, they can go free. Viewers only have to survive 103 minutes of this garbage. Partially funded by his fans, the result is as hazardous as deep fried Twinkies but tastes nowhere near as good. Excruciating to watch, Rob Zombie's plotless nightmare is an endurance test of horrible storytelling and more atrocious dialog than you can squeeze into a clown car.

On Halloween night, a van-load of carnival workers are captured by a posse of insane clowns. They are taken to an abandoned factory where three British aristocrats gather once a year to play '31', a psychotic death game where participants are given 12 hours to survive the night while selected gladiatorial clowns hunt them down for sport.

Step right up for the lamest show on Earth. Rob Zombie's ultimate clown opus falls well short of its greasepaint-fueled aspirations. With just 1.5 million to play with, a grand, Big Top nightmare is unattainable; settling for five soulless, interchangeable characters being stalked inside an abandoned factory by a bunch of Europeans in the Southern United States(???). There's only one sequence that resembles a carnival motif; the rest of the time it's the same bland color palette of all your finer post-apocalyptic cheapies shot in and around rusted-out factories.

If the setting couldn't get any less enticing, Zombie is yet again clownin' around with his script; fillin' it full o' expletives, rousingly bad dialog, interminably juvenile sex talk, and the most unfunny jokes imaginable. Zombie has said in interviews he makes his characters real.... in what universe is this? Extremely mean-spirited, nasty and foul, the director fails once more to capitalize on his cruelty--it being undone by mercilessly over-the-top characters and the elementary school level dialog he gives them to speak.

Regarding the script, this is one of the most pointless of recent memory. There's absolutely zero redeeming qualities. Populated by a plethora of underwritten characters, the film is left with nothing but its blood and gore to sell itself... yet Zombie finds a way to make sadism boring. The kills are the Zombie standard--just stab a dozen or more times; or sever something after delivering the director's four-letter favorite. The goriest sequence (it involves a chainsaw) is a carbon copy of the same death from the underrated THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006); only in that film you can actually see what's happening. Speaking of what you can't see.....

Haters of shaky cam, prepare for photography that looks like the DP had his camera strapped to his back during a bar fight. The camera is constantly moving--zigzagging, turned to the side, or this awkward, jagged, zoom-in and zoom-out. You can't even appreciate Wayne Toth's FX because the cameraman thinks you can see it all better while he does jumping jacks. The action scenes fare the worst since you can't make out what the hell is happening.

There's one particularly good scene--a dinner scene--that riffs on a similar one from THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975). Elsewhere, Zombie incorporates this eerie musical marionette display that recalls TOURIST TRAP (1978). Other nods are in the music; you'll hear a distinctly familiar cue of unsettling dissonance from SUSPIRIA (1977) and another from THE FOG (1980).

What little creativity of 31 begins and ends with its title--the significance being the last day in October. Set on October 31st, 1976, Zombie's fascination with the holiday never translates to the film's atmosphere. We hear 'Happy Halloween' several times but not once does the movie capture that autumnal flavor. The first 30 minutes defaults to Zombie's usual remake of Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) before mutating into SALO (1975) meets THE RUNNING MAN (1987) by way of HOSTEL (2005).

If you've seen his previous examples of Hillbilly Horror, you already know what to expect. 31 could easily be a quasi-sequel to his Firefly flicks. Even Zombie's HALLOWEEN abortions resemble REJECTS close cousins. After trying to display some diversity with the wearisome witch tale, LORDS OF SALEM (2012), the director regresses, returning to the safe-haven of his carnival oasis.

Malcolm McDowell, seemingly inspired by the GANDHI (1982) and SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) actor, Ben Kingsley's forays into trash cinema, is enjoying(?) a similar trajectory. To compare the two, Kingsley has only done a single Uwe Boll trainwreck, while McDowell has managed to star in, thus far, three of Rob Zombie's pratfall horrors. McDowell made a horrible Sam Loomis in the two HALLOWEEN do-overs; and evokes nothing as the powder-headed lord of some pompous order of devil-worshipers in 31. This isn't McDowell's fault, but Zombie's for writing such a worthless character for him to play and giving him nothing of substance to say.

Sheri Moon Zombie is once more a headliner in her husband's movie.... and, unlike her star turn in the sleep-inducing LORDS OF SALEM (2012), she doesn't feel like this movie's lead. She's in nearly every scene but you never "see" her. She, like most everybody else, has a personality equatable to the rusted metal of the film's primary setting. The pinnacle of her performance is dry-jacking Tracey Walters (CONAN THE DESTROYER [1984]), playing a caricature of a hick gas station attendant. Mrs. Zombie gets a lot of flack for her acting, but in this case, she's given nothing memorable to do nor anything to say worth remembering.

Richard Brake keeps his foot on the accelerator as Doom Head, the film's one character of substance.... but unfortunately, he gets drunk on the retarded dialog and Zombie excess, eventually crashing into a wall, becoming yet another casualty of this fruitless exercise. If Brake looks familiar, he was the doomed ambulance attendant in HALLOWEEN 2 (2009). If you recall, he spends a few minutes looking into the camera and inexplicably spouts 'FUCK' a couple dozen times after the driver rams into a cow crossing the road. As Doom Head, Brake's murderous jester is reminiscent of Bill Moseley's Otis from Zombie's previous freakshows but with shorter hair.

The other clowns are, for all their variance, as bland as everything else. Bearing names like Sick Head (a Spanish Nazi midget); Psycho Head (wielding a chainsaw that says 'Dick Head' on it); Schizo Head (the other half of the redneck chainsaw tag-team); Sex Head (a creepy, Harley Quinn type); Death Head (a German weirdo wearin' a tutu); some others are mentioned--blessed with such creative monikers as Bash Head and Rage Head--but never seen.

Meg Foster, having played a boring witch in LORDS OF SALEM, returns to Zombie Land for a much bigger role, but no less staying power. As Venus Virgo--the owner of the traveling carnival--Foster is no more distinguishable than anybody else in the cast. She's a tough character but Zombie does nothing to allow her to stand out. Cut like Linda Hamilton in TERMINATOR 2 (1991) but looking like Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932), Foster does get to appear in the film's sole tense send-off. Foster is a fine actress. It's embarrassing watching her deliver Zombie's infantile dialog since so much of it is poisoned by unnecessary dollops of vaginal or phallic jargon.

Do you remember WELCOME BACK, KOTTER (1975-1979)? The former Sweathog, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, sums up 31 best with the line, "all I see is a bunch of nothin'". Lawrence was Washington on the cult TV show, but is nearly unrecognizable playing a Jamaican carny. He does fine playing his role, only again, he's given very little to do or say of any importance. It's not possible to root for, or care about, people who are written as stick figures.

Unable to secure financing from the usual methods, Zombie went the crowdfunding route. What's interesting about this is that Mr. Zombie claims he's making a political statement with his movie--about the 'Haves and the Have Nots'. The absurdity of this is that, while taking his successful career as a musician into consideration, his net worth of 40 million dollars eclipses the average income of the people he's begging money from. Granted, the amount of money from fans was only a portion of an already minuscule budget.

The first of two Crowdfunding campaigns began in July of 2014 with the re-launch in February of 2015. Eventually, Bow + Arrow Entertainment picked up the tab co-financing with another company called Protagonist Pictures. It's telling that regular citizens were needed to punch up the movie if studios didn't have enough faith to fully finance what is ostensibly a shoe-string budget. But hey, all the better to capture that 70s vibe... one thing Rob Zombie does do well; he can at least be counted on to capture the right look and atmosphere.

Originally, distribution of 31 was to be handled by indie company Alchemy, but financial problems caused the picture to be sold off to another indie outfit, Saban Films. Strangely, instead of a limited release, the film received a limited-limited release... in 400 theaters for one night only, on September 1st, 2016; or, you could see it on iTunes. The film is set for another limited run on October 20th... for one night, and one showing, only.

Writing a Rob Zombie review is as redundant as the film's themselves; and like his previous efforts, the director does manage some fleeting moments that shows a really good filmmaker just itching to wipe off the clown makeup and find himself. Sadly, it appears as long as Zombie is writing his movies, they're as doomed as the characters in 31... and the viewers watching it. 

Running time: 01:43:10.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Best of Tales From the Darkside Season 2

Season one was successful enough that TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE could haunt viewers for another year. Much of the same filmmakers returned as did the atmosphere and resemblance in the types of stories. It being a syndicated show, the producers and filmmakers were able to have much greater freedom than they would have had a major network. Season two brought another set of 24 episodes, produced simultaneously at two different production houses on the East and West Coast. At the time, Laurel Entertainment had a very ambitious slate, using DARKSIDE as a springboard to launch their stable of filmmakers into feature films. Few of their proposed theatrical features came to fruition--they failed to resurrect Dr. Phibes for a third time, while CREEPSHOW 2 crept onto theater screens in 1987. Regardless, season two was another success, with a little more polish than its debut season.


Parlour Floor Front (originally aired October 20th, 1985)

"If I am responsible for this thing... let me be cursed. If another is responsible for this thing... let THEM be cursed."

Linda and her husband Doug have recently bought an old apartment house with a beautiful parlor room. Spending a ton of money to remodel the entire building, they've managed to peaceably evict the remaining tenants save for one named Mars Gillis, the kindly janitor who has lived there before they purchased the building. Occupying the best room in the house, Mars doesn't wish to move. The couple can't force him out due to rent control laws. Linda wants Mars gone and devises a despicable scheme to get rid of him. A practicing voodoo priest, Linda's actions have grave consequences.

The second, and best, of Richard Friedman's DARKSIDE tales is an effective voodoo story with an ending reminiscent of the folktale 'The Golden Arm'--substituting a ring for the gold-plated limb. The scenario likewise recalls the absolutely terrifying closer in Mario Bava's classic triple threat, THE THREE FACES OF FEAR (BLACK SABBATH in the US) from 1963. Ernest Dickerson (having been with the series since season 1), later to become a director in his own right, was the DP.

Tragically, Adolph Caesar would die from a heart attack on the set of the Disney feature, TOUGH GUYS (1986) on March 6th, 1986--roughly five months after this episode debuted. He was only 52 years old. One of his two daughters, Tiffani Caesar, plays a young lady (she was only 15 at the time) who comes to Mars for a love spell. Adolph Ceasar's unique, gravely voice graced a number of 70s Drive-in and exploitation movie trailers including KARATE WARRIORS (1976) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

Halloween Candy (originally aired October 27th, 1985)

Grumpy Mr. Killup hates Halloween; and if there's one thing Mr. Killup hates more than Halloween it's trick r' treaters. After refusing his son's wishes to hand out candy, the old man is tormented the rest of the night by a nasty goblin creature doling out tricks and treats of its own.

It's a shame Tom Savini couldn't have directed a lot more DARKSIDE shows. He helmed three of them and this, his second, is another stellar example of the series. It's a particularly nasty segment that ends on a satisfyingly disturbing note. The scenes of roaches scurrying around in the house recall the fifth story in CREEPSHOW (1982). Savini was responsible for the Makeup FX, assisted by Ed French. Among the FX crew are Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero, future founders (along with Robert Kurtzman) of KNB EFX Group in 1988.

In Fangoria #48 from October 1985, it is reported that Tyler Smith (GEEK MAGGOT BINGO monster maker) contributed a full-body goblin costume for this episode although he's not billed in the end credits.

The Devil's Advocate (originally aired November 10th, 1985)

"I been listenin' to you for a long time. You call yourself 'The Devil's Advocate'. Well you sound more like the Devil himself. I hope everybody stops listenin' to you, and I hope people start callin' in! And you have to just sit there, wherever you are, and rot till the end of time!!!" 

The abrasive talk radio host Luther Mandrake, The Devil's Advocate, is on air at midnight. Hated by many of his listeners, Mandrake is in rare form on this particular night. With each aggressive rant Mandrake begins to change; his physical form taking on the frustration and rage building up inside of him. It isn't long before Mandrake finds himself in his own private Hell.

George Romero penned this psycho-supernatural creeper directed by Michael Gornick (CREEPSHOW 2 [1987]). In it, comedian Jerry Stiller is a one-man-show as the overbearing Mandrake, a man who barks at his callers and belittles them with aplomb. Masterfully handled for the duration, Romero's piece recalls another devilish DJ from an old NIGHT GALLERY episode, 'The Flip Side of Satan' starring Arte Johnson. With their low budgets and short shooting schedules, TALES had a lot of episodes with limited sets and cast; this is one of the best examples of surpassing limited resources. The story and its twist has been done dozens of times, and Gornick's effort is a highlight of the form.

A New Lease On Life (originally aired January 26th, 1986)

"You take care of the St. George, and the St. George will take care of you."

Mr. Archie Fenton has just moved into the St. George apartment building. At just $200 a month, Mr. Fenton can't figure out why it's so cheap; at least not till after he meets his kooky landlord, Madam Angler. Fenton signed a lifetime lease, and with it, a bunch of bizarre rules he eventually breaks. Once his neighbor, Ms. Tanner disappears, Fenton begins to notice what it is about the St. George building that makes it special.

One of the most enjoyable of the blackly humorous TALES, it's also one of the most unconventional within the DARKSIDE universe. This episode operates within a world outside of anything remotely normal. For example, Fenton questions the bizarre things he sees (the building shaking; blood pouring from the walls when he tries to hang a picture; wine pouring from the faucet as opposed to water), but then he shrugs them off. If director John Strysik had played it entirely straight, it wouldn't have worked. A Lovecraftian take on 'St. George and the Dragon', Harvey Jacob's teleplay isn't keen on explanations so much as it is about incidentals. Madam Angler and her two stooges are a peculiar, motley trio bearing an unmentioned, and ornate, tattoo of a dragon; the same dragon adorns patches on their clothes and even a book of matches. A subplot dealing with an equally unstable neighbor, like everything else at the St. George, does little to get a rise out of Mr. Fenton--the cheapness of the rent is just too much to pay attention at the over-powering weirdness going on around him. The twist at the end (which you'll see coming very early on) isn't hard to digest.

Printer's Devil (originally aired February 6th, 1986)

Junior Harmon, a struggling writer, gets the chance at the success that has eluded him when an eccentric publisher named Alex Kellaway makes him an offer at stardom.... it only requires animal sacrifices for him to succeed.

Frequent Romero collaborator John Harrison both wrote the teleplay and directed this darkly humorous tale of soul-selling and devil-dealing. This scenario comes up a few times in this series; Harrison's go at the material is the quirkiest take of those. There's light humor dotting the episode, yet, unlike other entries with comedy (and there's lots of them), it never circumvents the eeriness prevalent throughout. The shocker twist at the end is a striking change of pace for the familiar material.

If Larry Manetti looks familiar to Drive-in fans that's because he was among the cast in the Filipino exploit-actioner SUDDEN DEATH (1977) starring Robert Conrad, Don Stroud and Felton Perry. Mainstreamers will know him best as Rick on MAGNUM PI (1980-1988). Charles Knapp is a delight as the jovially off-kilter fat man whose contracts bring great wealth and fame to those who sign, but the Devil is in the details.

The Last Car (originally aired February 23rd, 1986)

Stacey, a young lady traveling home the day before Thanksgiving, awaits the train in the dead of night. Once aboard, she finds the last car mostly empty save for three curious occupants.

It's refreshing when you come across a DARKSIDE show that is pure horror with nary a funny moment in sight. The gloomy entries are outnumbered by the darkly comical ones--possibly one way of getting around having to tone it down even with the freedom provided by the program's syndication model. 'The Last Car', as predictable as it is, unsettles the viewer from the first frame to the last.

It's a shame John Strysik didn't go on to a bigger career as a director; he was one of the most consistent in his TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE episodes. Michael McDowell wrote a healthy amount of DARKSIDE's best, including this funereal story that has been well represented elsewhere, particularly the original TWILIGHT ZONE (1959-1964). This is the third example of Strysik's work in this 4-part 'Best Of' series.

Strange Love (originally aired May 11th, 1986)

"My name is Edmund Alcott. I was born in the same year as your country... 1776. My wife and I are vampires. Creatures of the night. Forever undead!"

Doctor Carrol is brought to the home of Edmund Alcott to see to his wife, Marie's, injured leg. Unknown to him, his late-night clients are vampires. Enslaved by his captors, Marie takes a liking to more than the doctor's blood.

Erotic thrillers exploded in the 1990s after the success of such films as FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) and BASIC INSTINCT (1992). Outside of BODY HEAT (1981) and BODY DOUBLE (1984), the sub-genre wasn't prolific in the 1980s. This edition of TALES is an example of small screen erotica but with vampires. Theodore Gershuny's fourth of five directed episodes is terribly anachronistic--the setting is supposed to be 1935 yet the decor looks 1980s--but is bolstered by some savvy lighting and Edithe Swensen's sexy script. Unlike the usually downbeat erotic template it's following, things only go badly for one character.

An early role for Marcia Cross, the stunningly beautiful actress later found fame in MELROSE PLACE (1992-1997) and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (2004-2012). In 1989, she played Rebecca Howe's sister, a horror movie actress, in a great episode of CHEERS, 'Sisterly Love'. Likewise, this was an early role for Patrick Kilpatrick; especially in that he's playing the role of a victimized hero. Making his feature-film debut in THE TOXIC AVENGER (1984), he was perfect for the many bad guy roles he would undertake.

TALES of Missed Opportunities: There's Something About Mary....

The Trouble With Mary Jane (originally aired November 24th, 1985)

"I am not Mary Jane. I am Aisha Candisha, and I do not want any chicken soup! I want men's souls to eat!"

A husband and wife team of palm readers try to pass themselves off as exorcists to land $50,000... if only they can rid Mary Jane's body of Aisha Candisha, a man-eating, goat-footed, soul-stealing demon. Fumbling their way through the process, Jack and Nora Mills complicate matters when they summon an additional demon named Gads, a male demon who immediately butts horns with Aisha.

The first full-fledged comedy episode of season two benefits heavily from the casting of Tierney and Diller. Directed by T.J. Castronovo, it's a spoof of THE EXORCIST (1973); and the first of ten episodes written by Edithe Swensen. You'll get an occasional giggle here and there, but the scenario grows stale before its predictable finish. Tanya Fenmore (from Spielberg's segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE [1983]) is the possessed Mary Jane in an over the top performance worthy of a silent movie.

TALES of Missed Opportunities: Grin and Bear It

Ursa Minor (originally aired December 1st, 1985)

For her birthday, little Susie receives a stuffed Teddy Bear; but this isn't any ordinary stuffed animal. Containing an evil ursine spirit, strange things begin to occur around the house prompting Susie's mother to try and dispose of the toy.

Theodore Gershuny, the director of SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (1972), wrote and directed this mildly engaging segment. There's a bit more human drama than normal--Susie's dad is an alcoholic and her mother's struggles are close to paying off; only things are complicated by a stuffed animal harboring a malevolent force. Even with the eerie music and sound effects, it's difficult to make Teddy Ruxpin scary. The horror is ratcheted up for a ferocious finish when the bear goes on a mini-rampage. One of the more frightening finales in this series, only it's preceded by 20 minutes of tepidness.

With the sunrise, we close the coffin on our look back at season two. More dark delights are found in season three. "Until next time, try to enjoy the daylight!"

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