Sunday, January 27, 2013

Movies I Love That Everybody Else Hates: Dawn of the Mummy (1981) review


Brenda King (Lisa), Barry Sattels (Bill), George Peck (Rick), John Salvo (Gary)

Directed by Frank Agrama

The Short Version: Egyptian filmmaker Agrama's last directorial effort isn't as bad as many make out, and miles away better than a horde of zombie junk made around the same time and after. The plot is the typical desecration of an Egyptian tomb unleashing a revenge from beyond the sarcophagus; only this revenge is of the flesh-eating variety. Backed by an awesome soundtrack from Shuki Levy (who'd later find great success with the POWER RANGERS shows), this US-Egypt co-production (with some Italian assist behind the scenes) is one of the horror genres most curious, if frequently lambasted pictures.

A group of fashion models and photographers are on a shoot in Egypt where they run across some gold robbers and a newly opened tomb. Deciding to take their pictures inside the ancient burial place, they ultimately unleash the curse of Sefi-Ra-Mon and his undead, flesh-eating minions.

The zombie genre was riding a gut-munching high thanks to George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE (1979). Those two films ushered in a shambling horde of viscera slinging intestine chompers for a few years till Romero, Stuart Gordon and Dan O'Bannon took the dead back from the Europeans in 1985.

DAWN OF THE MUMMY stood out from the splat pack in that it mixed the zombie and mummy movies to create a unique hybrid. It's also the goriest mummy movie thus far, beating out the gruesomeness of Carlos Aured's THE MUMMY'S REVENGE (1973) aka VENGEANCE OF THE MUMMY, starring Paul Naschy as the bandage-wrapped avenger.

Another area Agrama's movie is different is that these zombie flesh-eaters move at a quicker pace than your typical walking dead. They're not sprint runners packing heat and bladed implements like Lenzi's quasi-zombies of NIGHTMARE CITY (1980), but they definitely have pep in their step.

While this film seems to have its fair share of negatives (I'll get to those shortly), one of the pictures major positive would have to be the 20 minute chow-down at the end. It's a near non-stop assault on the cast and a small village full of extras. The mummy and his minions lay siege to our fashion models at an oasis, a few other nearby victims, then it's on to a wedding procession where a groom and his guests all get an unexpected surprise upon finding his wife as the main course at a gore-drenched smorgasbord. 

Immediately thereafter, these eager zombies reach out and touch someone, choke them, bite them and eat them. Maurizio Trani's (ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST) splattery effects are given the opportunity to shine via a multitude of dismembered limbs, brain-eating, flesh-munching and gouged eyeballs. Meanwhile, our main mummy Sefi-Ra-Mon stands by and watches the carnage till his army of dead heads inexplicably disappear and it's just him and the last few dynamite tossing survivors.

According to the director, the towering 6'9" performer found to play the main mummy was terribly problematic and difficult to work. Even so, it's arguably the best, and scariest looking mummy ever to grace the silver screen (with the first appearance of the revivified mummy being a particularly notable boo moment). This mummy is a literal giant of a man, wearing extraordinarily creepy make up unlike any previous interpretation. There's this wet, burnt, somewhat rotted look to his face. The mummy also possesses an unusual ability -- he burns the flesh of anybody he touches. This is never explained, but presumably it derives from the photo shoot lights which seem to cause the mummy's wrappings to burn with an acidic effect.

Continuing with this movies positive attributes, there's a superb sequence where we see Sefi-Ra-Mon's "army of the dead" rise up from the desert sand as the sun rises. It's one of the best moments in the entire film. It easily trounces a similarly eerie moment from Jess Franco's execrable OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES (1982).  The location shooting, which took place almost entirely in Egypt and Cairo add a layer of authenticity missing from similar low budget fare.

The other area where DAWN OF THE MUMMY excels is in its soundtrack by Shuki Levy. Yes, the award winning composer responsible for numerous cartoon theme songs and one half of the brains behind the MIGHTY MORPHIN' POWER RANGERS (an Americanized, re-edited version of several Japanese Sentai imports) got a massive career boost after composing cues for an Egyptian cannibal mummy-zombie movie. Sometimes sounding like zombie disco music, the score is always active, often kinetic, and frequently throbbing with strong horror stingers. It's a shame it's never been released on CD. Now with the pluses out of the way, it's time to turn attention towards the negatives.

It's worth noting that every version I have seen of DAWN OF THE MUMMY have all been very dark during the night time sequences; all but one -- the television airings from the mid 80s. There's one particular (and possibly day for night) attack scene at the end on one of the girls where it's almost impossible to see the gore. On the television version (which played uncut amazingly enough), this scene is much brighter (as are a few other spots that are dark in other versions). There are stills of this scene that are clearly occurring during the daytime that give you a good visual of the action.

This makes the Anchor Bay UK DVD release from 2002 all the more disappointing. It's quite possibly the single worst release from Anchor Bay I've ever seen. It looks like they didn't even try and just slapped the picture onto the disc. The menus are good and there's an informative commentary with the director, but the print is pretty sad considering the work AB has done on their many Euro zombie and cannibal releases. There are some moments that make me wonder if this was even taken from a film print at all.

Most reviewers seem to have a dislike for DAWN OF THE MUMMY; at least up till the final 20 minutes when the guts really hit the fan. It's regularly labeled as dull, slow and badly acted. While there's some bloody shenanigans occurring here and there till the finale, the pace does sometimes deaden, but I've never found it boring. The shock of seeing such a gory movie on regular television made its mark on my psyche and it's been something of a favorite ever since.

The acting is serviceable, at least from some of the performers. The bulk of the cast seems to enjoy shouting their lines, screaming wildly, or overacting like their life depended on it. The ham sandwiches in the cast do draw attention to themselves and are good for some unintended hilarity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the over-anxious performance of George Peck.

Peck plays Rick, the gold-hungry blonde haired American tomb raider along with his two Egyptian helpers. Peck grossly overacts; constantly laughing, eyes bugging out of his head, and just carries on like he's having an orgasm in nearly every scene. There's maybe two quiet, or subdued scenes with him, and I am not entirely convinced they didn't tranquilize him for those moments. His performance is really quite something to behold. If ever an actors interpretation could give you a headache, it's this one.

The actor that does the best job here is Barry Sattels. He's really good as the other "villain" of the piece. He's the leader of this band of photographers and models who pushes his crew to get the best shots possible. He does manage to redeem himself, albeit too late at the end. He had probably the longest career of the rest of the cast. I happened to see him in some erotic movie on Cinemax in the late 90s.

Agrama's movie is also terribly sloppy in places, rife with continuity errors. The narrative is never ruptured, but certain events and altercations raise lots of questions and instill general bewilderment from those paying attention.

During the opening 3000 BC sequence, Sefi-Ra-Mon is buried in his tomb with seven guards who are commanded to "rise and kill" as per the curse should the tomb be desecrated. When the tomb is uncovered, there's no remains lying around of any of the seven men we saw at the beginning. However, we do see them rising from the desert during the aforementioned 'Dawn' sequence. It's never explained just how in the hell they moved from the sacred burial site to the desert nor how they've remained in remarkable shape considering they were never mummified.

Before the mummy, or any of his living dead servants come back to life, there are a handful of killings. A few people end up with their faces badly mutilated and a decapitated head is found in the desert when one of the women rolls down a dune and bumps into it. Who exactly killed these people? No explanation here, either, but presumably it's some form of the curse that has been unleashed with the opening of the tomb. 

The zombies make their arrival approximately at the 45 minute mark, yet they never go fully into human buffet mode till the last 20 minutes. We see them skulking about most of the time. One of them does rip a chunk of a girls throat out just before she's pulled underground. It's worth mentioning there's some great shots of arms reaching up out of the ground to grab victims legs. Aside from that, they're mostly on the sidelines till the big finish.

Bill is overtaken with joy by the fact that his photo shoot will be inside a tomb with a real mummy. Yet when the mummy actually comes to life, no one seems to say anything, or even notice that he's no longer in his sarcophagus. They just continue working, seemingly oblivious to the fact the mummy is gone.

Even with its faults, DAWN OF THE MUMMY is competently made B grade trash. Made for around $500,000 and shot almost entirely in Egypt and Cairo (the opening credits involved a few days shooting in New York), it's even more bizarre in that director Agrama was a former doctor and an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock working on some of the fabled filmmakers productions such as THE BIRDS (1963). Agrama also directed the obscure, but infamous giant ape picture, QUEEN KONG in 1976.

His production and distribution company, Harmony Gold, was founded in 1983 and has been responsible for bringing the ROBOTECH animated series to these shores. A number of kung fu movies were also distributed to television bearing the Harmony Gold name. As of October of last year, Agrama has found himself involved in a tax fraud scandal surrounding the business dealings of Italian TV mogul and former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Information has been sketchy about whether or not DAWN OF THE MUMMY played theatrically in the US. On the DVD commentary, Agrama says his film didn't play in American theaters. However, in the July 1982 issue of Famous Monsters magazine (#185), the film is described in detail and discussed as coming soon to theaters.

The first time I ever saw it, was in 1985 on local station WNRW TV-45 during a 3am showing. It was a shock to see this kind of movie on TV and it definitely spooked me on a few occasions; particularly the unexpected moment where the mummy springs to life. Figuring there just had to be gory business cut out of it, I eventually bought a used VHS tape and discovered it was the same version, but much darker. Sadly, the TV airings mentioned further up on this review have so far been the best looking version of this much maligned movie I have ever seen.

There are a number of admitted fans of this movie, but overall, DAWN OF THE MUMMY is deemed a dud by most viewers. Although the last 20 minutes are often universally in favor from all that have seen it, it's generally at the bottom of fans zombie movies lists, if there at all.Whether mostly from nostalgia, or a combination of the things it does right, Frank Agrama's most well known movie will always have a positive place in my movie collection.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay UK DVD.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Last Stand (2013) review


Arnold Schwarzenegger (Ray Owens), Eduardo Noriega (Gabriel Cortez), Forest Whitaker (John Bannister), Peter Stormare (Burrell), Jaime Alexander (Sarah), Rodrigo Santoro (Frank Martinez), Luiz Guzman (Mike), Johnny Knoxville (Dinkum), Zach Gilford (Jerry), Genesis Rodriguez (Ellen Richards), Christiana Leucas (Christy), Harry Dean Stanton (farmer)

Directed by Kim Ji-woon

The Short Version: This formulaic, yet quick-quipped, fast paced 70s style action-western throwback from South Korean director Kim Ji-woon was supposed to be the big return to the big screen for Arnold Schwarzenegger in a lead role after a ten year gap. Unfortunately, THE LAST STAND may prove to be just that for the aging action superstar amidst a drastically poor domestic debut. Still, it moves along at a fair clip almost as fast as the 200mph Corvette ZR-1 featured in the flick. With a fair number of gun battles, hundreds of bullets, splatters of graphic gore, frenetic car chases and lovable, if underdeveloped characters, THE LAST STAND is the 'Guy Movie' to beat of 2013 so far.

While being transported to another location, Gabriel Cortez, a dangerously crafty drug lord, manages to escape custody with the help of his gang. Using a modified Corvette, Cortez -- who is also an ace race car driver -- makes a speedy escape for the Mexican border, but must pass through the small Arizona town of Summerton to get there. However, the former Narcotics Tactical Ops officer, the aging sheriff Owens, has no intentions of allowing Cortez or his men to use his Southwestern town as a gateway across the US border.

Asia has long shared a love affair with the American western which was later transmogrified with the advent of the Italian variants. Chinese kung fu films are essentially Asian examples of the archetypal western conventions that also adopted an Italian flavor melded with their own Asian ingredients. Some of these include Pan Lei's DOWNHILL THEY RIDE (1966), Korean director Shin Sang Ok's THE BANDITS (1971), Chang Tseng Chai's THE FUGITIVE (1972), the international co-production THE STRANGER & THE GUNFIGHTER (1974), Thailand's TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER (2000), and most recently, THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (2008) from Kim Ji-woon.

The director of such cult favorites as A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003), the above mentioned THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (2008) and I SAW THE DEVIL (2010) crosses the border to take the reigns of his first US production. Kim Ji-woon's earlier, epically spicy ode to the oater was a nitro paced, grand scaled Eastern Western. The South Korean helmer now makes a bonafide modern day sagebrush saga on American soil. It's quite an auspicious, if somewhat modest debut. 

It's also something of a modest endeavor for its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Far more smaller scale than the usual Arnie movie, this curiously works in the films favor. At 65 years of age, Arnold delivers what is arguably his most personable, possibly best acting performance of his career. His character of Ray Owens is a very wise man, a former Narcotics officer now a sheriff of a small, dusty Arizona town coming to grips with his mortality.

Schwarzenegger played off his twilight years with his role in last years THE EXPENDABLES 2 and does the same thing here. His performance showcases a vulnerability and distinctly human quality all but exempt from any number of his semi-superheroic action picture roles of years past. It's really quite jarring to see him in such a humanistic light, and refreshing all at the same time. That's not to say Arnold doesn't do what Arnold does best, he's just the polar opposite of the sort of persona he popularized in the 1980s and into the 1990s. There's a balance here, though. The nuanced cast surrounding Schwarzenegger add a great deal of pathos, humor and villainy to this production. 

Jaime Alexander (Sarah)
The town of Summerton (which is basically an Arizona based version of Mayberry, NC) is populated by a gaggle of lovable denizens and characters who make up the films heart and soul. The exposition on some of these characters is almost as barren as the nearby desert. This threadbare characterization doesn't impede the audience coming to like these lovable people. 

The script does little to steer character trajectory from the realm of predictability, but it's so well written and put together, it's too much fun to pay all that much attention to it.

The film pays the bulk of its attention to the three main participants -- sheriff Ray Owens, FBI agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and the villainous Gabriel Cortez. Considering Kim's movie plays out just like a modern day western (much like the 1973 classic WALKING TALL and its many Vietnam Era clones), this triangular arc recalls the one from Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (1966); a character arc that likewise influenced a slew of Italian westerns with a Good, a Bad and an Ugly character making up its trifecta of principals.

Furthering the Italian western connection, there's even a nod (albeit comical) to Eastwood's emergence through a cloud of smoke from tossed dynamite during the climax of Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). Here, it's Luis Guzman's deputy character who emerges from the explosion raining down a flurry of lead onto the bad guys.

Additionally, like westerns and kung fu films, the men under the employ of Cortez all have those defining faces that, while we never get to know who they are, their features and their clothing give them their own signature look allowing them to stand out without having to be the focal point of any particular scene.

The plot of THE LAST STAND also draws inspiration from Howard Hawks' RIO BRAVO (1959) starring the undying representation of the American western, John Wayne. You could say this is Kim Ji-woon's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968); and like Leone's now classic picture, it, too was rejected by the movie-going public upon its debut.

Going back to the cast, Eduardo Noriega does fine with what he's given delivering a standard antagonist role, which is distinguished by the fact that not only is a cold-blooded drug runner, but he's also an accomplished race car driver. Personally, Peter Stormare (who plays Burrell, Cortez's chief subordinate) comes off as more psychotic than Noriega's interpretation as the main villain. Case in point being the suspenseful scene with Harry Dean Stanton. He has a fateful confrontation with Burrell upon the delivery of that classic western staple to "get off my land."

Johnny Knoxville is given top billing, but he's not in the movie all that much. But when he is, he adds greatly to the humorist qualities of the film. His character is gun nut, Dinkum. A cross between Barney Fife and his JACKASS persona, Dinkum has a barn full of weaponry that reinforces the long standing stereotype that 'the South and the Midwest love their guns'; and there's lots of guns in THE LAST STAND.

This unmistakable air of gun worship may put some off in light of current events in addition to oppressive political leanings demonizing the Second Amendment. In THE LAST STAND, everybody has a gun of some sort; even little old ladies! Not since Ruth Gordon in EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978) and its sequel ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980), has 'Guns and the Granny' been such a welcome addition to the proceedings, even if only briefly seen. 

Genesis Rodriguez (agent Richards)
Regarding the gun culture championed here, guns replace the flashy CGI special effects of bigger action movies, while the computer enhancements seen here mostly make up the splattery results of those guns.

The action scenes are tightly edited and put together, occasionally dotted with that signature Asian flair that stretches credibility in the most creative of ways. With the action maintaining a balance of gun battles and car chases, the coda kicks off with an MMA cum kung fu climax wherein Owens and Cortez duel atop a bridge connecting the borders of America and Mexico. This finale is also comical in that Cortez keeps upping the price tag he will offer to Owens if only he'll just let him pass.

While Schwarzenegger's newest, and first lead role in a decade has shown an inability to stand tall at the box office, there's hope it will find an audience overseas and hopefully on domestic video. At 65 years old, the actor seems well aware there's only so many more times he'll "be back" to the big screen.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

If I Am Your Mirror (2012) review


Larry Holden (The Soldier), Bill Pacer (The Old Man)

Directed by Garrett DeHart

The Short Version: This bleak short production contains more passion in its approximately 20 minute running time than many full length features. It's shot in an innovative style emulating a living, breathing oil painting brought to macabre life. It's inspired by Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and recalls a handful of likewise dark sources. Its success lies not just in how it was put together by a group of dedicated artists, but also in the ambiguity of its execution -- the bridge where madness and nightmares meet.

Sometime after the Civil War is over, a disturbed man rots away in prison awaiting his date with death at the end of a rope. His last hours are made up of nightmarish recollections of the battlefield, the death of his wife, and images of a sinister street preacher with a piercingly evil eye.

From the opening frames to the closing moments of this unsettlingly grim, rotoscopically animated horror short, the viewer is plummeted straight to hell in a riveting 20 minute cavalcade of disturbing imagery and cacophonic sounds of doom-laden resonance.

Garrett DeHart's thesis project is a fiercely passionate piece of horror filmmaking that recalls a fair number of ghoulish iconography -- everything from its 'Tell-Tale Heart' Poe inspiration to the macabre oil paintings of NIGHT GALLERY and on down to a Gothic ambiance by way of Tim Burton. There were also moments during this 20 minute nightmare where I was reminded of baroque art decor from various other films and even video games such as the 19th century set occult horror title, 'Nightmare Creatures'.

DeHart's passion project is made all the more exemplar in the fact that it was financed for $5,000 with some of the crew (including the late actor Larry Holden, who passed away February 13th, 2011 from cancer) performing their duties essentially out of devotion to the production. Furthering this sentiment, the makers have bypassed festivals, opting instead to pass the film along via online sources like youtube; this to drum up interest not just via public viewership, but for possible professional endeavors for the future. It's quite the gamble, and one that hopefully will pay off handsomely for those involved.

Garrett not only directed the film, but he also co-wrote it, edited it and performed the graphics animation; all of which spanned a two year time period. There's an undeniable air of professionalism in every aspect of this horror story from the acting, to its design and the striking, almost monochromatic visuals accentuated by splashes of bloody reds amidst an apocalyptic landscape. This polished sheen extends to the phenomenal photography, the sound design, the spooky score and effects work.

The late Larry Holden (whom you may remember from BATMAN BEGINS, INSOMNIA and MEMENTO) plays the tortured soul to the hilt in this expressive performance that, like much of the running time, contains little in the way of dialog. This is more 'sights and sounds' as opposed to dialog exchanges. The few lines uttered are done so with a doom-laden tone that drives the basic narrative. 

The opening minutes reveal The Soldier (he isn't given a name; yet another device driving home the dark dream-like quality) to be an unhinged, deeply disturbed man. The war has obviously damaged him in a way that could just as easily parallel the trauma of Vietnam or the battles fought by those in the Middle East. Aboard a train, a small boy points a toy gun at him to which he responds with a vicious smack to the childs head.

Upon disembarking the train car, The soldier is haunted by a sinister, one-eyed street preacher. It's as if this old man has the power of clairvoyance. We see images of a dead wife and a burning home. Did The Soldier murder his wife and burn his home to the ground as a result of the cataclysmic damage wrought by the battlefield? If so, does this baleful elder sense the disturbed nature of this ex-military man? We're not given clear answers, save for one -- that The Soldier kills The Old Man (played with a profound eeriness by Bill Pacer) resulting in his subsequent time in a dungeon, beaten by his captives, and left to reflect -- in the most disturbing imagery imaginable -- how he got there.

No one we see in this ash-stained wasteland are too far removed from the savagery of a scourge or beyond the criminality perpetuated by the unnamed Soldier. Only the wife bears any sign of angelic life; a life that's snuffed out visually from a few different perspectives courtesy of the twisted, fractured mind of The Soldier, her significant other. We're not sure if she's become a casualty of war, or that of her husband. Considering the tone of the picture, the latter seems the likely choice.

Brilliant in its conception, design and execution, IF I AM YOUR MIRROR shows just what ingenuity can do with extremely limited means and devout dedication to a project. This ingenuity lives within the darkly creative recesses of director Garrett DeHart, his crew and performers that successfully bring a canvas of ghastly imagery to vivid life.

You can watch IF I AM YOUR MIRROR by clicking HERE

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