Saturday, October 29, 2016

Hex (1980)

Director: Kuei Chih-hung

Notable Cast: Tanny Tien Ni, Wang Jung, Chen Szu-chia

As a martial arts cinema fan, I’ve mostly dedicated my time to digging into many of the films from the Shaw Brothers catalog, but martial arts epics are not the only films that the iconic studio made. They also dabbled in a handful of other genres including exploitation, thrillers, and horror. For the most part, I’ve always stuck with the martial arts films, but with the recent release of Hex on Blu Ray via 88 Films in the UK I decided it was high time that I dig much further into what these Shaw Brothers horror films have to offer. Hex is one of those films that feels like a tale of two movies. The first half is one film and the second half another. Occasionally this style can work, or at least be entertaining in certain cases, but for Hex it just feels disjointed and uneven. The film is fun, while not nearly bat shit insane as some of the other Hong Kong horror films of the era, but it’s hardly a film that uses its better aspects in ways to maximize the narrative. Even fans of Shaw Brothers horror may find it slightly disappointing.

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) / Moonshine Mountain (1964)


Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Notable Cast: William Kerwin, Connie Mason, Jeffrey Allen, Ben Moore, Gary Bakeman, Shelby Livingston, Jerome Eden, Stanley Dyrector, Linda Cochran, Yvonne Gilbert, Michael Korb, Vincent Santo

Going into this latest – and very expansive – box set about Herschell Gordon Lewis’ filmography, there was only one film I had seen of his previously and that is Two Thousand Maniacs!. It’s easily considered one of his best and it even warranted a remake in the form of 2001 Maniacs in 2005. On my second watch of the film I found that I enjoyed it a lot more than I initially did and that the exploitative horror film really does deserve the love as a simple and effective little flick. This is due to the fact that the film runs at a fairly effective (and fun) pacing, rarely holding up the movement of its narrative for much more than the next kill sequence or plot progression. It delivers on the kills, giving some uniquely “backwoods” kinds of sequences that intrigue in their creative spirit, but also unsettle the audience with the amount of ‘fun’ the villains of the film are having while our protagonists writhe and beg against the horrific things that happen. The film also pegs in a great little twist into the finale that adds a rather smart bend to the straight forward approach that it used for the rest of the film and sets itself aside.

However, Two Thousand Maniacs! is not perfect and the one major piece that it lacks is a truly effective pair of protagonists for the audience to connect to. Both Connie Mason and William Kerwin can work as relatable leads (see Blood Feast), but the film is more concerned with building up the plot and kill sequences that it generally leaves them as bland characters. It’s not until the second half that it really starts to give them the feel of real characters and by then it’s a bit too late. Otherwise, outside of some silly performances and cheap editing, Two Thousand Maniacs! is a massively entertaining and energetic film worthy of a lot of the praise it has been given. If the rest of this box set can match the manic tone of this, it will be a blast to work through. 


Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Notable Cast: Charles Glore, Gordon Oas-Heim, Jeffrey Allen, Bonnie Hinson, Carmen Sotir, Ben Moore, J.G. Patterson Jr., Stanley Dyrector

For the fourth film in this Feast box set, Moonshine Mountain is a change of pace from the other three films. Instead of a blood soaked horror flick or an exploitation drama, this one is a backwoods dramedy about a country singer who goes out to the rural country to find inspiration for some new material. The resulting film then struggles to find its footing for the first half as a musical/fish out of water flick and sort of falls into being a moonshine powered action thriller with crooked cops and back road justice in the second half. Neither part is all that interesting in the end, unfortunately.

Perhaps I’m just not all that familiar with the idea of a country, hillbilly drama comedy with action and suspense pieces, but Moonshine Mountain was a struggle for me to latch onto as a film. None of the characters, outside of a few fun smaller secondary roles, seemed at all that interesting and the stuttering narrative doesn’t quite seem to know where it’s going either resulting in a film that occasionally overstays its welcome. The film is made with a decent enough amount of energy, plugging in plenty of songs and just enough of Lewis’ horror pieces in the final act (that seemingly come out of nowhere honestly) to keep things just off beat enough, but Moonshine Mountain is not even close to being one of the better films in this set. There are certainly a sect of fans out there that will enjoy this for being a time capsule of the drive in era, but I highly doubt I will ever find myself digging into this one again.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Initiation, The (1984)

Director: Larry Stewart
Notable Cast: Daphne Zuniga, Vera Miles, Clu Gulager, James Read, Marilyn Kagan, Robert Dowdell, Patti Heider, Frances Peterson, Hunter Tylo, Paula Knowles, Trey Stroud, Peter Malof, Christopher Bradley, Joy Jones, Mary Davis Duncan

Like many of the slashers in the 80s, The Initiation desperately tried to set itself apart from the rest of the pack by using gimmicks and marketing ploys to its benefit. With the title, posters, and slogans, The Initiation plays up the idea of college sorority pledges and uses a lot of cult like symbolism to sell its slasher as something more than just a hack n’ bleed college kid slaughter. The plot does center around new pledges to a sorority, but it’s hardly a film that the marketing (looking back at least) makes it seem like. No, The Initiation is more or less your standard slasher that introduces a variety of topics to give it a unique spin on its competition in 1984 and the resulting film is scattered and often unfocused. For every idiotic piece though, there is a bit of style or thoughtful tidbit that balances it out. However, despite some decent efforts at being a memorable little horror film, The Initiation just comes off as uneven more than anything else. Occasionally charming, worthy of some of the cult status it has achieved over time, but hardly one of the genre’s best.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Director: Mike Flanagan
Notable Cast: Annalise Basso, Ellizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Doug Jones, Kate Siegel, Sam Anderson, Lin Shaye

I disliked the original Ouija enough that I refused to even write a review for it. It was critically panned across the board (I made a funny!), but that didn’t stop the film from garnering some serious box office cash and getting a sequel green lit. Normally, I wouldn’t have given this sequel the time of day based on my opinion of the first one, but when Mike Flanagan’s name was attached to it the film leaped to the top of my list to see. Flanagan is one of the iconic directorial voices in modern horror, thanks to films like Absentia and Oculus, and his inclusion in this sequel made it one of the big question marks for the year. Strike that question mark out of the equation though because Ouija: Origin of Evil is not only superior to its predecessor, but it’s one of the more stylish horror films of the year. It’s a film that embraces its limited, mainstream structures and delivers enough Halloween scares to pull in audiences this October with pizzazz.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Blood Feast (1963) / Scum of the Earth! (1963)

Directed: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Notable Cast: William Kerwin, Mal Arnold, Connie Mason, Lyn Bolton, Scott H. Hall

As a film that essentially kicked off the entire "splatter film" movement for horror films and cult cinema, Blood Feast is definitely ahead of the curve. It uses its crisp color schemes and bright red blood drenched death sequences to surprising effect to pop right off of the screen. It's ambitious for its budget, made with a strong sense of heart, and it occasionally goes artsy enough to sell itself as a piece of cinema that isn't completely in on its own gimmick. This last piece includes the infamous tongue sequence that is preceded by a longer set of soundless takes to set up the tension. The film is a tight one as it spends very little time really building up many of the characters and instead focuses on moving the plot along in a speedy and efficient manner. In many ways, the structure and tone of scenes would seem to be heavily pulled from the styles and structures of classic Universal Monster films, although Blood Feast only sparks some semblance to The Mummy at times with its actual plotting and modernizes things beyond that. The film, in the end, was much more effective than I expected going into it.

Truthfully, the acting can be horrendously hit or miss and the narrative flow is staggered a bit too much from a director that was finding his voice. The editing can be a bit off-putting and the conveniences the plot takes to keep up the pacing can be occasionally eye rolling so keep that in mind when going into the film. However, the 'out of the box' thinking of its spin on the murder mystery and genuine intent for the film cannot be overlooked. Blood Feast is a film with rough edges, but when it works it's a splendidly campy good time with just enough thoughtfulness that shines through to make it resonate. Not to mention, the version available on this latest Arrow Video release is a pretty stunning new restoration that brings out some of the best elements that the film has to offer visually. 

Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis (as Lewis H. Gordon)
Notable Cast: William Kerwin, Allison Louise Downe, Lawrence J. Aberwood, Sandra Sinclair, Mal Arnold, Craig Maudslay, Jr.

Released the same year as the fun and quirky Blood Feast, Scum of the Earth! is a film that struggles to find the one key component to sell its story: the tension. Instead of a splatter film that Herschell Gordon Lewis was known for later in his career, Scum is a film that features a weighty and dramatic tale of a young woman coerced into a pornography ring and the various characters involved with her nightmarish decent. While the story seems simple enough and one that might be featured on television now in a show like Law & Order: SVU, Scum goes to take the exploitative elements of its concept and give it a sad and dramatic undertone. Think of it as a film that aims for the Jack Hill approach to exploitative filming, but Lewis is not nearly as talented as a director or writer to pull it off.

This leads to the overall approach and tone that can be a bit scattered. For a film that’s dependent on the audience to connect with the characters and the gray areas that they exist in, the acting and the editing can undermine a lot of the flow and tension needed to build in the film. There are moments, William Kerwin as the camera man Harmon shines here in the film and gets many of the key pivots of the script right, but overall it falters in being nearly as interesting or as effective as it potentially could have. When compared to Blood Feast, Scum does showcase the diversity of Lewis as an exploitative film maker in his earlier career, but this film lacks the budget and tight execution needed to elevate its concept to the next level. It’s ambitious and respectable there, but it’s hardly as good as it could have potentially been.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, October 21, 2016

Dark Water (2002)

Director: Hideo Nakata
Notable Cast: Hitomi Kuroki, Rio Kanno, Mirei Oguchi, Asami Mizukawa, Fumiyo Kohinata, Yu Tokui, Isao Yatsu, Shigemitsu Ogi

Ghost stories have always played a large part of the Japanese cinematic world and the boom of the J-Horror craze in the late 90s and early 00s was only one of the more recent examples of its popularity. A big part of the explosive rise of the genre was director Hideo Nakata and his Ring films which launched an endless tide of modern Japanese ghost stories and some mixed Hollywood remakes alike. However, one of the best J-Horror films to come out of this wave was Nakata’s return to the genre, Dark Water. The weird need for American audiences to be ‘scared’ by horror films means that Dark Water is a film that gets massively overlooked due to its more dramatic narrative and slower pacing, even if it was remade just a couple of years after its release by Hollywood. This ghost story not meant to be as unnerving as Ring or as dreadfully suffocating as Ju-On, but it’s a film that really works a magical system of layering symbolic pieces into a more traditional Japanese ghost story. Dark Water may not have a ton of jump scares a lot of unique gimmicks to its name, but it’s easily one of the most emotionally effective and thoughtful horror films to arrive in the last 20 years – which is why this latest Arrow Video release is a grand reminder of a film that too many horror fans are missing out on.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

Director: David Hartman
Notable Cast: Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Dawn Cody, Angus Scrimm, Kathy Lester, Daniel Roebuck, Solly Duran, Daniel Schweiger, Gloria Lynne Henry

At this point, I feel like I’ve lost all sense of time when it came to Phantasm V. It was almost like living in the nightmare logic of the film series as the fifth entry had been rumored for what seemed to be eternity with promises and whispers on the wind that it was coming. Truthfully, I had resigned myself that this film would remain as rumors and never come to light. Even when the first trailer dropped a little while ago, I was almost hesitant to get my hopes up until I saw the film for myself. Now that Phantasm V is released, under the title Phantasm: Ravager, I’m kind of glad I never really got my expectations up for it. While this horror film series has almost always been a part my favorite ones, this fifth entry is…well, it’s kind of shitty. As a longtime fan, this latest picture feels more or less along the lines of a fan film versus one that officially sits as part of the Phantasm canon and it’s horrendously low budget and messy narrative hurts it exponentially as a film that could sit on its own. For those long time fans, there are some bits and pieces in the film that will make them smile, but the rest of it just feels like a mess and it can’t even use the series’ nightmare logic to overcome its issues.