Friday, May 31, 2013

Cinematic Dregs: For Your Height Only

(1981) Directed by Eddie Nicart; Written by Cora Caballes; Starring: Weng Weng, Yehlen Catral, Carmi Martin; Available on DVD.

Rating: ***

“You're such a tiny little guy, though. Very petite, like a potato.” – Irma (Beth Sandoval)

I confess that I’ve always harbored a hidden agenda with my Cinematic Dregs feature.  As I’ve plumbed the depths of the most maligned films, the crème de la crap if you will, I’ve been on an ongoing quest for a most elusive piece of cinema.  Like Diogenes searching for the last honest man, I’ve cast my lantern on cinema’s worst, endeavoring to find the perfect bad film; one that’s undeniably terrible, but oddly entertaining.  My search might be at an end with the latest result of my pursuit, For Your Height Only (aka: For Y’ur Height Only).  This dwarfsploitation flick from the Philippines hits a sweet spot between incompetence and genius.  I can’t believe anyone thought this was a good idea to bring to the big screen, but I’m thankful they gave it the green light… I think. 

For Your Height Only is a shameless James Bond rip-off, down to the derivative theme music, but with one important twist.  The movie’s ace in the hole is its diminutive star, 2-foot, 9- inch Weng Weng, as Agent 00.  Despite his obvious shortcomings (sorry, I know that was bad), he effortlessly dispatches dozens of foes with his signature move, attacking them in the crotch.  When he’s not displaying his martial arts prowess, he takes on multiple bad guys (who conveniently take turns attacking) with his specially designed gun and lethal flying hat.  His devastation of the local crime syndicate leads to an eventual showdown with its shadowy leader Mr. Giant (Can you guess his secret?).  Agent 00’s fighting skills are matched only by his penchant for enjoying life.  He certainly knows how to boogie down on the dance floor, and he’s handy with the ladies, although I haven’t paused to contemplate the logistics of his sexual escapades. 

The cheap production values just add to For Your Height Only’s charm. One of the movie’s dubious assets is its unintentional costume design, with a festival of polyester on display that resembles a daytime fireworks show.  The horribly dubbed crime lords spout dialogue that would have seemed clichéd in a 1940s gangster film, throwing about lines peppered with “dirty rat,” and “dame.”  At one point, a gun-wielding thug threatens Ageng 00 with “lead poisoning.”  The urge to provide one’s own Mystery Science Theater-style quips, alongside the film, is irresistible.  If ever a DVD could have benefited from a Joe Bob Briggs commentary, this is it.

The phrase “critic proof” was probably invented to describe For Your Height Only.  I wouldn’t deign to describe it as a well-made film, but it scratched a certain itch.  It’s hard not to admire such misguided filmmaking.  While it’s a foregone conclusion that this movie will never end up on Sight & Sound’s Critics’ Top 250 Films list, I’d venture that there are few titles on that list that would leave an impression as indelible.  If you demand a higher caliber of schlock, this is the one for you.  I can’t say that I respect myself for liking For Your Height Only as much as I did, but I’m okay with it.  This film definitely belongs among my growing list of dumb movies that I like anyway.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Revenge of Frankenstein

(1958) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Jimmy Sangster; Additional dialogue by: Hurford Jones and George Baxt (Uncredited); Starring: Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Oscar Quitak and Michael Gwynn; Available on DVD.

Rating: *** ½

First things first: Many thanks to Pierre Fournier and Frankensteinia for hosting the week-long Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon.  As indicated by the blogathon title, today marks what would have been Mr. Cushing’s 100th birthday.  He was the consummate professional, always putting forth his best effort, even if the material didn’t deserve it.   Cushing brought a level of wit and sophistication to whatever he was dealt with, turning a film that was otherwise unwatchable into a movie worthy of your time and coin.     Thankfully, today’s review covers a film that’s more than deserving of his prodigious talents.

The Revenge of Frankenstein picks up where The Curseof Frankenstein left off, with the disgraced Baron Frankenstein escorted to the guillotine to meet his fate.  Since this is a sequel, and the filmmakers couldn’t very well kill off their title character, Frankenstein arranges his escape in the nick of time.  Flash forward three years, and Frankenstein has established a new identity in the German town of Carlsbruck as…wait for it…Dr. Stein (wink, wink).  True to the film’s title, he quickly proves the old adage that success is the best revenge by one-upping the town’s doctors.  Before long, he’s built up a successful medical practice, but Carlsbruck’s medical counsel aren’t very thrilled by the fact that he’s snatched up half of their business in the process.  As if to reinforce his seemingly unimpeachable moral character, Dr. Stein runs a poor hospital for the town’s less fortunate denizens.  Lest we should believe he’s suddenly turned over a new leaf (this is a Frankenstein flick, after all), we quickly learn that his motives are far from altruistic.  Dr. Stein finds the raw materials for continuing his experiments among his impoverished patients, who serve as a convenient source for fresh body parts.

One of the hallmarks of Hammer’s Frankenstein films is that it’s the doctor, not his creation that takes center stage.  There’s never a moment of doubt that Peter Cushing is the star, as the unscrupulous, unrepentant Dr. Franken—er, Dr. Stein.  He adheres to his own code, unhindered by societal laws or taboos.  It’s a testament to Cushing’s skill as a performer that we continue to root for him, despite his reprehensible behavior.  He’s convinced he has finally created the perfect being, and will stop at nothing to see that his plans come to fruition.

Compared side by side with The Curse of Frankenstein, the characterizations don’t hold up as favorably.  Francis Matthews as Stein’s protégé Dr. Hans Kleve doesn’t quite provide the moral/ethical counterbalance that Robert Urquhart provided in the first film.  Hans is too blinded by the idealistic rationalizations of Frankenstein’s experiments to contemplate the societal implications.  Eunice Gayson’s character, Margaret Conrad doesn’t have much to do but look pretty and display sympathy for Frankenstein’s latest creation.  Of the supporting performances, Oscar Quitak is a standout as Frankenstein’s loyal hunchbacked assistant Karl.  For his complicity in saving the doctor from the guillotine, he’s repaid with the promise of a new body.  There’s a sadness about Quitak, and by extension Michael Gwynn (who portrays Karl’s new body), that makes us understand that nothing good can come out of Karl’s association with Frankenstein.

After Philip Leakey’s terrific, corpse-like makeup for Christopher Lee’s monster in The Curse of Frankenstein, the appearance of Frankenstein’s latest creation is decidedly underwhelming.  Although there are a few noteworthy Hammer gore moments,* this film seems somewhat subdued compared to its predecessor.  I would hesitate to call the doctor’s latest creation a monster, in the typical sense.  Instead, the horror resides in Karl’s predicament, as he discovers that occupying a new, “perfect” body isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  In the film’s most unsettling moment, Karl encounters his original, preserved body and disposes of it in an incinerator. His life in the new body takes a tragic turn after a scuffle with a sadistic janitor results in brain damage, and he starts reverting to the condition of his previous body.

* Fun fact:  According to The Hammer Story’s authors Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, sheep’s brain was used for the transplant scenes.  The filmmakers had to scramble for another when the original was left out for a day, and became maggoty. 

The Revenge of Frankenstein hits many of the right notes, but doesn’t quite live up to the original Hammer film.  In spite of reuniting the original’s director Terence Fisher with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, the results are uneven.  In addition to the lack of a real monster, the film suffers from a slow middle.  The hokey ending will probably stretch your suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, but ultimately proves that you can’t keep a bad man down.  Even though The Revenge of Frankenstein falls short in a few areas, there’s still much to like about this follow-up, with nice visuals, creepy atmosphere, and Peter Cushing’s galvanizing performance.  Overall it’s a solid entry in the Hammer Frankenstein franchise, which deserves to be grouped together with Cushing’s more noteworthy efforts.

Monday, May 20, 2013

May Quick Picks and Pans

Pontypool (2008) This frightening Canadian horror film takes an esoteric spin on the typical zombie invasion flick.  I don’t want to reveal too many details, but suffice it to say that the nature of the infection is original, depicting a pathogen that’s existential in origin.  Stephen McHattie plays burnt out, alcoholic broadcaster Grant Muzzy, who works for a talk radio station in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario.  Pontypool works around its low budget by taking the risky choice of keeping the action off-screen for two thirds of the film, leaving the outbreak, ensuing panic and carnage to our imaginations.  Director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess (who based the screenplay on his novel) chooses to focus on the three leads as they grapple with isolation while the world starts to crumble outside their cramped radio station.  McDonald relies on close-up reaction shots and frenzied voices of the radio station crew to convey the escalating violence. The film’s only misstep is the introduction of one character late in the film who exists solely to provide an explanation for what’s going on.  Thankfully, this isn’t a fatal error in an otherwise fascinating and disturbing film.  While the ratcheting tension and escalating paranoia in a tight space reminded me of John Carpenter’s The Thing, I can’t claim to have seen anything else quite like it. Highly recommended.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) One of the later, but not lesser Hammer flicks.  Writer/director Brian Clemens purposefully went on a tangent from the studio’s Dracula series, creating his own version of the vampire mythos.  Hammer was running out of steam by this point, but Clemens’ film proved that the venerable studio still had some life left, even without Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing.  Horst Janson stars as the titular hero and John Cater as his faithful sidekick, the hunchbacked Dr. Grost, who travel the countryside together, ridding the world of the vampire scourge.  Most of the action is rather tame, but still a lot of fun.  Caroline Munro adds some spice as Kronos’ latest flame, Carla.  Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter was filmed in 1972, but didn’t see release until 1974 as part of a double bill with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.  Although the box office wasn’t particularly kind to the film, it’s received a much-deserved second chance, thanks to home video.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

The Blood Beast Terror (aka: The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood) (1968) This Hammer look-a-like from Tigon Productions stars Peter Cushing as a police inspector investigating a rash of incidents involving bodies drained of blood.  Entomologist Carl Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) and his experiments with African moths seem to hold the key to the strange deaths.   Oddly enough, the concept of blood-sucking moths isn’t entirely unprecedented, but the human/moth hybrid makeup effects are laughable and the story is dull.  Mallinger’s “femme fatale” daughter Clare (played by Wanda Ventham) fails to ignite much in the way of excitement.  The Blood Beast Terror reminded me of a low-rent version of Hammer’s The Reptile, along with bits and pieces from other, better genre films from the same era.  Cushing’s presence can’t save this one, although I suppose there are worse ways to while away your time.

Rating: **.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Frogs (1972) It’s a nature-gone-amok tale with all the thrills and suspense of visiting the local herpetarium.  Ray Milland (in a career low, eclipsed only by The Thing with Two Heads) stars as wealthy, obstinate patriarch Jason Crockett.  When his Southern plantation becomes overrun by countless toads, um, I mean frogs (the producers obviously didn’t believe filmgoers could tell the difference), it’s up to nature photographer/naturalist Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott) to discover the cause.  Will he find out?  Will he save Crockett’s family from certain doom from the amphibious fiends?  Does anyone care?   Frogs reinforces its point like a bludgeon, with multiple shots of the “frogs” lording over their swampy domain, accompanied by various shots of fauna that wouldn’t be found in the Western hemisphere, such as Tokay geckos and monitor lizards.  I suppose the clips of vengeful wildlife were intended to elicit a sense of mystery, but the only thing they evoke is laughter, along with puzzlement.

Rating: **.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Monday, May 13, 2013

John Dies at the End

(2012) Written and Directed by Don Coscarelli; Based on the novel by David Wong; Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown and Glynn Turman; 
Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ***

“Do the bees know that they make the honey for you, or do they work tirelessly because they think it is their own choice?” – Roger North (Doug Jones)

If a movie had ever been custom-tailored for the cult movie crowd, John Dies at the End would be it.  Too esoteric and unconventional for the multiplex set, it was never destined for mass acceptance.  Judging by the ubiquitous banner ads that appeared on various movie websites over the past several months, John Dies at the End was aimed squarely at audiences that would flock to the film, based solely on its geek credentials.  Starting with a pay-per-view release that prefaced its theatrical release, the film didn’t exactly set the world on fire, with its tepid reviews and poor box office showing.  But Don Coscarelli has a built-in audience, myself included, who find his movies a welcome respite from the usual big-budget, story-by-committee dreck that the Hollywood blockbuster factory normally turns out.

Combining elements of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with The Stuff, John Dies at the End concerns a mysterious, addictive substance, known as Soy Sauce, which heightens senses and opens doors to parallel worlds.  Its effects on users is permanent, leaving them with the ability to perceive what has remained shrouded from the rest of the world.  Writer/director Coscarelli explored similar themes in his Phantasm series, which frequently blurred the line between reality and fantasy.

Coscarelli’s script, based on David Wong’s (aka: Cracked contributor Jason Pargin) hallucinatory novel of the same name, seems underdeveloped, with weak lead characterizations and a lack of focus.  The protagonists, millennial slackers Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) make Bill and Ted seem nuanced by comparison. Williamson and Mayes do the best they can with their underwritten characters.  Neither character possesses a distinct personality; both appear more or less interchangeable.  They simply drift from one predicament to another, manipulated by the whims of the otherworldly Soy Sauce.  The clever dialogue, peppered throughout the film, is clearly the script’s greatest asset.

Another high point is the excellent character actor work.  Glynn Turman stands out in a small but memorable role as the no-nonsense Detective Lawrence Appleton, who’s determined to eradicate the Soy Sauce and its detrimental effects.  Paul Giamatti (who shared executive producer credits with Coscarelli’s father Dac and Daniel Carey) is also noteworthy, as skeptical feature reporter Arnie.  And be sure to watch for a nice little cameo by Coscarelli regular Angus Scrimm as Father Shellnut.

After watching John Dies at the End, I was left with the impression that Coscarelli either didn’t go far enough or should have shown a little more restraint.  I tend to favor the second assertion.  The film suffers in comparison to Coscarelli’s previous feature, Bubba Ho-Tep, which successfully walked the  line between outlandish and poignant.  Even with its wild conspiracy theories and absurd premise, Bubba Ho-Tep managed to keep everything together, thanks to a clarity of vision and adhering to its own set of rules.  The rules, if they exist in John Dies at the End, do not seem to apply.  Random stuff happens frequently, and nothing seems connected.  Because of the film’s dissociative, sporadic nature, it’s more about the parts than the whole.  There are some undeniably fun bits trapped within this jumbled mess.  It’s hard not to laugh when David eschews his cellphone, in favor of a bratwurst, to speak to his recently deceased friend John.  While the climax is a little ho-hum, I have to give the film points for the final scene, and the ironic payoff. 

Misgivings aside, it’s virtually impossible for me to dislike John Dies at the End. Coscarelli shot for the stars, even if he barely made it out of the clouds.  He made a sincere effort to show us something that hadn’t been seen, throwing as much weird shit at the screen as possible and seeing what stuck.  Yes, the film is wildly inconsistent, but that describes Coscarelli’s filmography.  His overall body of work, while rough around the edges, frequently delivers more than we get from lesser directors with bigger budgets.  Even if the final results are a trifle underwhelming, it’s a crazy enough ride, well worth your time.  Unlike its main characters, however, don’t expect John Dies at the End to change your life.