Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Deadly Eyes (1982)

After a very dry, but stern, lecture from the amiable Professor Louis Spencer (Cec Linder), high school (?) teacher Paul (Sam Groom) plays dumb (it’s actually more like he’s simply disingenuously oblivious) to the amorous advances of student Trudy (Lisa Langlois).  Off to a good start.  Meanwhile, Department of Health worker Kelly (Sara Botsford) condemns tons of corn contaminated with steroids (she doesn’t need to test it to know there’s ‘roids in there) and sets it all on fire at night (maybe because she hasn’t been to a bonfire in years and wants to relive some of her youth?).  What does this all have to do with mutant rats?  Well, the rodents were living in the corn (surely they realized this gravy train wouldn’t last forever) and now they have to move on and find different accommodations.  And food.

I have never read James Herbert’s The Rats, the novel on which Robert Clouse’s Deadly Eyes (aka Night Eyes) is ostensibly based, though it has been on my list of things to do for some time.  Truth be told, I have never read any of James Herbert’s work, but from what little I know of him, I imagine his style and approach to horror is similar to that of Guy N. Smith, an author whom I have read.  As I was watching this film, I was put in mind of Smith, and I believe that his pulpy, exploitive approach (and I can only assume Herbert’s by extension, because these are the sort of tenuous connections that partially ameliorate my existential angst, and, to be fair, exploitation in pop culture has been around about as long as pop culture, so…) is what informs much of its appeal.  In a Smith novel, there is a bland protagonist.  Said protagonist has at least one child (almost invariably one child) who will be placed in harm’s way.  The protagonist has marital troubles.  The protagonist is seduced by another woman and, at least in Smith’s world, succumbs.  There’s some torrid sex (with the temptress or not, but usually with).  There are graphic scenes of violence wherein background characters are ripped to shreds by whatever beastie is the antagonist.  This extends to the idea that absolutely no character, young or old, man or woman, is safe (one of the more interesting aspects of things like this).  The protagonist does something mildly heroic to defeat whatever malevolence he confronts.  Life returns to some semblance of normality, though it’s still pretty bleak, all things considered.  All of these elements are represented in Deadly Eyes, if not specifically, then at least in as much as they can be in a mainstream horror film.  Let’s take them one at a time.

Paul is dispassionate.  He’s as go-along-to-get-along as a person can be.  The main excitement in his life is deciphering the instructions on a Hungry Man frozen dinner.  He is an Everyman to the nth degree, and rather than allow us to empathize with his workaday life, his monotonous existence simply bores (Paul, all you have to do is look at the photo on the box to determine which compartment on a frozen dinner tray houses the dessert).  Paul has a son, Tim (Lee-Max Walton), who is just as uninteresting as his old man, but Paul needs a direct reason to get involved in what’s going on in his city, so Tim is present in the story. Plus, children in peril equal instant dramatic tension.  Paul has an ex-wife whom we never see, but we’re told that all she does is harangue Paul with ex-wife things.  Trudy is hot for teacher, and she handles these feelings with the subtlety of a compound fracture.  She fantasizes about banging him, because she thinks that older men are all that, and dumb teenaged boys (like her current beau Matt [Joseph Kelly]) are immature (mentally and physically [read: boys just want to party and have sex, a theory which makes little sense since Trudy just wants to party and have sex but with an older guy]).  In fact, she goes so far as showing up at Paul’s apartment and hanging out in his bedroom in nothing but her skivvies (while clueless Timmy sits in the parlor praying to the church of the cathode ray).  She even makes a show of bending over to pick up her jeans for both Paul and the audience (in classic Eighties fashion, they’re brown).  Paul is tepidly exasperated by all this.  Yet, it’s the taboo angle of this subplot that generates interest (prurient or other, but mostly prurient), even if it’s not developed or paid off all that well (not that they had to have sex, but that it’s all so blindingly superficial, something for which we can’t really hold an exploitative horror film accountable).  Kelly is the other temptress (if one can be tempted away from an ex-wife), but at least she is age appropriate to Paul.  I was a little surprised at how salacious their sex scene is (nipple sucking is involved, something I can’t think of happening all that often in mainstream cinema, even on the low budget end, but I admit I’m pretty naïve sometimes).  Just about every character we meet in the film is gnawed on by the rats, and there is blood galore.  Early on in the film, a toddler is killed (offscreen), so we know that everyone (including dull, wee Timmy) is on the menu for the rat feast.  Paul has a swift, entirely not-thought-all-the-way-through brainstorm on how to defeat the rats, which anyone with half a brain would realize likely wouldn’t be as thorough as Paul thinks it will be.  Finally, you get the bludgeoningly (I’m just making up words now) obvious “shock” ending; perhaps the only facet that strays (just a little) from the work of Smith and company, but this is a horror film from the early Eighties, so fair play.  Thus concludes this study in parallelism.  

Films like this are the filmic equivalents of “beach reads,” and on that level, they typically work fairly well.  I found myself enjoying much of Deadly Eyes, though whether this is because of my interest in pulp horror or not is a bit muddy in my head.  I don’t think that you need to like books like Night of the Crabs in order to like this film.  The film ticks all the boxes it needs to tick for exploitation/horror fare, and though it and books like it are close in method, they are far enough apart to intrigue in slightly different ways (while still fulfilling the same fantasies).  I also thought the special effects were effective, even knowing that the rats in long shots are small dogs in large rat costumes, and the puppets for the closeups were repulsive enough to please my gorehound side.  The big issue with the film (and unfortunately it’s big enough to drag the experience down, the same of which can be said of novels of this ilk) is that it’s poorly structured.  We get a little exposition, a little melodrama (none of which is handled here with anything approaching the appropriate level of emotion), and a little exploitation (sex or violence or both).  Anything that may have been intriguing to develop (including and especially the characters’ relationships) remains unmolded.  After much build up, the Trudy subplot is forgotten about for longer than it should have been, and then is dispatched out of hand simply to set up one of the big, chaotic set pieces of the climax (which also feels more obligatory than anything else in the sense that teens in horror films need to be punished for being teens).  So, while I like this film, and I do see myself revisiting it, I can’t say it reaches pantheon levels of low budget horror.  Unless you’re a fan of dogs in rat costumes.

MVT:  The rat attacks work well.  They’re nasty enough and revolting enough and bloody enough, and that’s really all they need to be.

Make or Break:  The attack on the child was somewhat shocking (and rather deftly handled), and it lets us know the high stakes of the film’s threat.

Score:  6.5/10

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Thunder of Gigantic Serpent (1988)

I’m just going to be plain about this.  I’m not a fan of snakes.  I realize that there are people out there (maybe even one or two reading this) who love them.  I realize that, like most animals, they don’t have it innately in for humans.  I realize that my fears of them are massively unfounded and irrational.  But that’s the point.  Many times, fear is irrational.  It’s a ping deep in the darkest parts of the human mind that puts you on edge.  It’s the idea that there may be some nefarious lurker in the basement with you, over there in the part with no lights, just waiting to spring on you as you pass by.  Fear is the unknown.  Fear is ignorance.  Having said that, I still don’t think that, even if I knew everything under the sun there is to know about snakes, I would trust them in the slightest.  This goes back to my deep-rooted distrust of most things in this world.  Call me a pessimist, but I prefer the term pragmatist.  For instance, I love dogs, but I wouldn’t trust a strange one as far as I could throw it (and what with my bad back and all…).  This, of course, cuts me off from certain life experiences, but you know what?  I think I’m good with that (a mindset some folks just can’t seem to wrap their heads around).  Would I have the same phobia about snakes if I had a pet snake like Mozler (where this name came from is anyone’s guess, and my spelling is going solely from the way it sounded in the film) in Godfrey Ho’s Thunder of Gigantic Serpent (aka Daai Se Wong aka Terror Serpent)?  Possibly, but I’d still take Lassie over this any day.

Thunder cracks on the soundtrack, and snakes pour out of a mountainside.  Why?  Because.  Tense villain Solomon practices his beer can target practice and declares his great need to own a formula that makes plants (and soon animals, natch) huge so he can dominate the world food market.  Scientists in league with the military (who, if my eyes deceive me, have the Harley Davidson logo on their berets) kick off something called Thunder Project when their base is set upon by Solomon’s henchmen.  Young Ting Ting plays with her beloved and obedient Mozler, stumbles upon the formula, and – Voila! - next thing you know, Mozler is Kong-sized (or in this case, I suppose it would be more appropriate to say Manda-sized).  Oh, and Ted Fast (Pierre Kirby) is inexplicably on the case, too.

Humans (with or without special abilities) with special friends and/or pets (who almost certainly have special abilities) have been around for, what seems like, eons.  In everything from Flipper to E.T. to Willard and back again, there is a commune forged between the innocence of youth and nature (films like Willard and Stanley and so forth are slight exceptions in regards to innocence [though their protagonists normally start off as rather ingenuous before heading down a dark path], but I think it means something that the main characters in films like those are typically adults, not children).  Kids have the ability in films like this to touch something that adults usually can’t, and I think it comes from their purity.  Filmic kids see the world differently, and have none of the jaded perspectives of folks like their parents, authority figures, and so on.  This point of view is what creates the rapport children have with the natural (and sometimes supernatural) world.  Their love for each other is unconditional, and they would go to the ends of the Earth for one another (yet it’s often the non-human character who winds up making the sacrifice for the human and not the other way around).  Ting Ting and Mozler get along like a house on fire (the snake even saves the girl from an actual one), and Mozler appears to have the brain capacity of, if not a college graduate, a fourth grader.  He understands what Ting Ting says and nods in agreement with her when she asks him questions.  This is before he grows.  Afterwards, they toss a ball back and forth to each other.  But, as I’ve been trying to intimate, I don’t think it’s that Mozler is special in and of himself, so much as it is Ting Ting who is able to bring this out in the serpent.  Had the snake been with another child, I don’t think he would have been nearly so exceptional (and if Ting Ting had a pet lepidopteran, she may have inadvertently created Mothra).

Knowing what little I do about Ho’s work, I was kind of surprised at how many special effects are on display in this film.  Mozler is usually depicted as a duo of hand puppets, one for his head and one for his tail, with his midsection conveniently hidden out of frame, though we do get a life sized prop of his giant head that Ting Ting rides around on for a bit.  I’m a sucker for miniature work and practical monster effects, even when they don’t quite stick the landing (I am, for example, perfectly fine with the marionette from The Giant Claw).  That is not to say that the effects are very good, but they are plentiful and kind of fun.
Ho was notorious for making Frankenstein films.  In other words, he (and frequent producing partner Joseph Lai) would buy the rights to one film, shoot some additional scenes (oftentimes with white actors to give them, I’m guessing, an international flavor) and then edit everything together in a patchwork fashion whose seams not only show but also threaten to burst open at the slightest touch.  This is why many of his films feel like two films smashed together (or three of four, for all I know); Because they were.  This also explains the schizophrenic, disjointed, nature of his films.  Scenes rarely lead one into another.  Characters (like our own Ted Fast) act as if they are in their own storyline which ties in only tangentially to the main storyline, popping up every so often to have a martial arts scuffle and then disappearing again from the film for a long stretch (or even the remainder of the runtime).  It’s an economy of filmmaking (one could even call it a dearth of economy of filmmaking) that leads to some very odd choices (and what I would argue is the primary reason for Ho’s fanbase).  Characters often have information there is no way they could possibly have just to keep the movie hopping along.  Sequences just happen for no motivated, structured reason.  There are long scenes of characters watching one another and then reporting back to their superiors rather than actually taking any sort of action or talking and saying nothing outside of some exposition and filler.  Still and all, I did find myself enjoying this film to an extremely minor degree, lumps and all.  If you’re familiar with what a Godfrey Ho film is like, you know precisely what you’re getting here.  If you’re not familiar with his oeuvre, this is as good a place to start as any.
MVT:  Giant Mozler is the tops for me.  I have always loved giant monsters, I always will, and Thunder of Gigantic Serpent shows their giant monster quite often (wires and all), so I got my fix.
Make or Break:  The Make is the first time you realize that Mozler is actually reacting to what Ting Ting is saying to him.  If you can go along with this, you can go along with everything else in the film.
Score:  6/10

Friday, January 22, 2016

Four Lions (2010)

Directed by: Chris Morris
Run time: 97 minutes

This movie is a biting satire of Islamic extremism and human stupidity. Written and directed by Chris Morris who has also written The Day Today,  Brass Eye, and episodes of Veep. The Day Today and The Brass Eye were satirical takes of the media with no care given to how badly they made fun of them or what subject matter they choose to satirize. The best example of this was the Drugs episode of Brass Eye, the show claimed there was an Eastern European drug called "Cake". "Cake" affects the Shatner's Bassoon region of the brain and slowed the users perception of time. It also was claimed to cause water retention in the neck. Now they asked David Amess, a Conservative member of parliament, to film a PSA about the evils of "Cake". He was so taken in by the joke that he asked the government if they knew what it was and had they banned it yet. This is the level of satire Chris Morris brings to his work.

The tone of this movie is set with the opening scene of the character Waj filming his martyr video with a small toy AK-47 and a camera with low battery life. Instead of recording his last message, he is busy arguing with the other members in terrorist cell on the best way to make the toy look like the real thing. This is one of many videos that Omar, leader of the cell, is trying to edit in some way that does not make their group look like a collection of morons. Like Faisal, who refuses to be filmed unless he is wearing a box over his head. Or Barry, a recent convert to Islam and thinks ingesting sim cards is a brilliant way to avoid authorities listening in or tracking them on their cell phones.

The cell's problems start when Omar and Waj go to Pakistan for terrorist training and direction as to what their target will be. Their training doesn't even start when Waj takes a real AK-47 and uses his cell phone to take a video of himself firing it. This pisses off the people running the camp and Omar and Waj will be sent back to England without the training or guidance. Ensuring that the situation is made worse, Omar spots a drone and gets the bright idea to shoot it out of the sky with a rocket launcher. This dumb idea is made worse by the fact Omar has never used that weapon and is holding it backwards. So instead of missing the drone he hit another near by training camp. Omar and Waj get the hell out of Pakistan and get back to England as quickly as humanly possible. Instead of cutting their losses the group just doubles down on the stupidity.

This movie does a great job of showing four flawed people who are all for killing themselves in the name of God. Collectively the four of them can't agree on why they are dying or where they should attack but they all ready to be welcomed into paradise. No one in this film is the cunning evil terrorist, the ultra innocent bystanders, or officer Amazing Slab Chunkhead. It is a movie universe full of people with absurd ideas with an absurd and satirical slant. It is dark, unapologetic, funny, and unafraid to call everyone an idiot. If you like what you have read so far go out and watch this movie. You will not be disappointed.

MVT: The Cast and the writing are the reason this movie is funny as it is.

Make or Break: This is filmed as cable news feature showing the lead up to an event. So a lot of the footage is from closed circuit tv, news footage, cell phone footage, and documentary like footage. It was jarring getting used to the way this movie is put together.

Score: 7.95 out of 10

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Last Match (1991)

Cliff (surly Oliver Tobias) is the super-terrific quarterback of some unnamed football team, and as Fabrizio DeAngelis’ (under the super-terrific nom de guerre Larry Ludman) The Last Match (aka L’ultima Meta) opens, he somehow manages to pull a super-terrific win against another unnamed team out of his ass (not that any of this is shown in any coherent fashion), all while super-terrific Coach Keith (the ever-enthusiastic Ernest Borgnine) cheers him on from the sidelines.  Shortly thereafter, and for absolutely no discernible reason, some anonymous guy slips drugs into the handbag of Cliff’s daughter Suzy (the super-terrifically cute Melissa Palmisano), who has been vacationing in the Dominican Republic with her super-terrifically overstimulated boyfriend George (Robert Floyd).  Suzy is taken to the not-so-super-terrific prison governed by Warden Yachin (Henry Silva), and after Cliff kind of/sort of runs into nothing but red tape, he decides that his only option is to bust his little girl out.  In his football uniform.

Sports films are typically about the triumph of the human spirit.  It is less important that the protagonist emerges victorious in whatever athletic field in which they are engaged than it is that he/she overcomes his/her inner demons and character flaws to become a stronger person in the process (Exhibit A: Rocky).  Audiences love to cheer on the underdog, because they identify with the archetype.  Everyone feels like they’re up against seemingly insurmountable odds at some point or another.  Not being a sports fan, you would think that sports films wouldn’t appeal to me, but the plain fact is that they do, and this is because of what I mentioned above.  The best in this genre play to a broad audience that transcend the sports aspects.  

If anything, the actual sports in a sports film usually play like the fights in an action film or the finale of a horror film.  In the good ones, they are the delicious gravy on the meat of character development and thematic exploration.  In the bad ones, they are filler designed to distract you from the film’s innate shortcomings.  It’s kind of rare that we get a sports film where the athletes are on top and stay on top from beginning to end.  After all, where’s the excitement in that?  What’s the point if the protagonist(s) never have to rise above mighty hardships?  This, then, is the primary reason why The Last Match is a dud.  We’re told (but not until the film’s end) that Cliff’s team starts off poorly in every game, but they always manage to turn it around and win.  As previously hinted, the football games are edited in such a random manner (by Adriano Tagliavia, under the super-terrifically-on-the-nose pseudonym Adrian Cut; get it?), we never see Cliff’s team go through this supposed struggle, because we’re never one hundred percent certain what the hell is going on at all.  In fact, I would go so far as stating that the only shots that make any sense in these sequences are those of Coach Keith doing his coaching thing and those of the cheerleaders doing their cheerleading thing.  We have to take it as writ that Cliff’s team are all winners all the time, which is great if you bet on their games, but it doesn’t work for a film, even one that’s not strictly about football (despite the inordinate amount of time devoted to showing football games onscreen).

Football players are often likened to modern day gladiators; warriors who do battle on a field of honor (we’re talking theoretically here).  Consequently, they tend to be depicted in fictive works as large, scowling thugs (sometimes with a heart of gold, if the classic “Mean” Joe Green Coca-Cola commercial has taught us anything at all).  Nevertheless, this doesn’t really work on film, unless their purpose is as either henchmen or cannon fodder (and make no mistake, the majority of Cliff’s team are exactly that, though I don’t recall any of them getting so much as grazed by a bullet with one exception).  The sports film protagonist needs to have something with which viewers can connect, even if they’re not very nice people (Exhibit B: Raging Bull).  This is the secondary reason why The Last Match is a clunker.  Cliff, as essayed by Tobias, is one of the most miserable pricks I’ve seen as the protagonist in a film in quite a while.  He mildly tolerates everyone with whom he comes into contact.  He is aloof to the point of apathy, even when talking with his daughter, who we have to take it on faith that he loves since he goes through all this hassle to help her out (watch his non-reaction to the injury of one of his pals which is discovered, predictably, on the plane ride home, if the rest of the mountain of evidence in the film up to that point doesn’t convince you).  He is condescending, even to the people who are on his side (including, but not limited to, a perfectly wasted Martin Balsam).  When a character who previously gave Cliff shit (justifiably or not) suddenly pops up and says he wants to talk, Cliff instantly whoops the man’s ass (justifiably or not) rather than hear even one word he has to say.  While we certainly feel for Suzy to some extent or another, Cliff is nothing but a curmudgeon, the blunt, dull instrument this film uses to bang square pegs into round holes.

The film is also adamant in its depiction of the local populace.  The Dominicans in The Last Match HATE Americans (I don’t think any Dominican ever refers to any non-Dominican characters by their actual names; it’s always as “American”).  One of Suzy’s jailers states “nothing is denied you people in my country.”  Yachin basically tells Cliff point blank that he’s banging Cliff’s daughter and throwing it in his face simply because Cliff and Suzy are Americans.  Whether or not this enmity is warranted, the filmmakers waste even less time jumping to portray Dominicans as base creatures and their nation as a corrupt hellhole (though I don’t think it has to be Dominicans; I’m sure just about any non-white country/populace would suffice for the filmmakers).  Suzy is stripped and searched after her arrest, and we get reaction shots of the male guards ogling her like wolves eyeing up a lame deer.  Balsam’s character states, “Nobody of any importance ever comes to this godforsaken part of the world.”   A character wants Cliff and his pals to take his son out of the country with them, because he knows just how horrible it is living there.  We’ve definitely seen these sorts of attitudes before in genre films, but ordinarily they aren’t so pointed, so mean, as they are here.  

Finally, the film’s climax seems to miss its own point.  Even while we look forward to the assault on the prison, it doesn’t play out satisfyingly.  The only standout to the affair is that the good guys all wear their uniforms (which boggles the mind if they weren’t looking to be recognized and/or cause an international incident).  After all of the relentless dourness that comes before it, the film needed a win in this regard, but it’s as joyless as everything and everyone else in the film, and it robs it of what appeal it may have had.

MVT:  Borgnine gives it a lot of gusto, but he’s the one brightly over-ebullient spot in an otherwise moribund picture. 

Make or Break:  When Yachin receives his comeuppance, it’s anticlimactic in just about every respect.  Silva (and the audience) deserve better.

Score:  4.5/10