Archive for October, 2015

Them! (1954)

Director: Gordon Douglas

Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

I love it whenever the older movies can surprise and shock the hell out of me. When I had first heard of “Them!” several years ago, I remember regarding it with interest, but the stigma of the 1950’s monster genre led me to believe it would just be another thinly-plotted sci-fi flick with fake-looking creature effects. In actuality, that rule only applies to 1950’s giant creature features made AFTER “Them!” One of the very first movies centered around a monster created as the result of nuclear testing, and THE first giant bug movie, “Them!” is as influential as it is scary.

Out in the desert of New Mexico, state trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and his partner discover a young girl of no older than six years wandering by herself, having suffered some sort of shock. Her steps are retraced to a mobile home owned by an FBI agent (the girl’s father), which has been torn open from the outside, sugar cubes scattered all over the floor. The family is missing but, while their home has been trashed, it hasn’t been robbed. The only clue is an animal print of unknown origin, as well as a strange noise that sounds akin to a car that is badly in need of a tune-up. The girl sits up, her face filled with fear. She knows what that sound is. The next stop in the investigation is a general store, whose owner is found dead. His store is left in shambles, similar to what the mobile home looked like, with several containers of sugar opened and strewn across the floor. Once again, the officers hear that high-pitched noise. Ben leaves to see about the girl, while his partner sticks around just long enough to be attacked and killed (off-screen).

FBI Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) arrives in town, along with Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon). The father/daughter pair are both myrmecologists (i.e. scientists who specialize in ants), and they have a theory that, if proven true, could spell trouble for humanity. First, Dr. Medford uses a small glass of formic acid as a smell test, to see if the girl will react to it. She does, shouting “Them!” over and over in terror. Before revealing his theory, Dr. Medford requests to see the site where the mobile home was destroyed. It is there that Pat sees a giant-sized ant! The police shoot the gi-ant’s antennae first (on instruction from Dr. Medford), and then riddle the oversized insect’s body with bullets until it is dead. Dr. Medford then reveals his theory: He believes that the gi-ants are the byproduct of nuclear testing in the area.

Together, the team locates and destroys a gi-ant colony, only to discover the horror that two queen ants have hatched and escaped to establish colonies elsewhere. Racing to contain the problem and to try not to send the public into a mass panic, they follow several leads, including one which locates one of the queens on board a freighter. That queen and any potential offspring are eliminated by the intentional sinking of the boat. The second queen’s new home inside of a system of storm drains is determined when it is found to correspond to the last known location of a father and his two sons. The father’s body is found, but the two boys can be heard, still alive inside the storm drains. Ben goes in to help, killing a few gi-ants with a flamethrower, and manages to rescue both boys before another gi-ant sneaks from behind and kills him. As Ben dies, Agent Graham arrives with the cavalry, and they destroy the queen and her nest. It is unknown whether or not all of the gi-ants have been found and destroyed, nor whether the Atomic Age will bring forth other similar threats in the future.

Implausible as it sounds for nuclear radiation to cause abnormal growth in insects, the final cautionary words prove that “Them!” has a powerful message to get across, and one that is just as relevant to the current generation as it was for people seeing it back in the early 1950’s. I can’t imagine how scary this must have been for audiences back then. What I can imagine is how much more recent, popular monster movies owe this one. The scene where Pat first sees that gi-ant reminds me of the scene where Chief Brody first sees the shark in “Jaws”. You’re gonna need a bigger can of bug spray! Also, watching our heroes make their way through the first ant colony and then destroying everything with flamethrowers looks like something right out of “Alien” or “Aliens.” The gi-ants themselves look amazing, and I’m glad that we are held off from seeing them until we’re a third of the way through. Like with “Jaws,” the idea of the monster makes the build-up that much more exciting. “Them!” is a first-rate sci-fi/horror film, one that should not be ignored just because of its age or lack of color photography.


Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss

Forty years have done nothing to dull this monster’s teeth. From the first few notes of the now infamous theme composed by John Williams to the climactic struggle between man and shark, “Jaws” is just as gripping an experience now as it was back in the day. So popular was it in 1975 that, together with “Star Wars” two years later, it set the standard for how film studios approached the summer movie season. But its recognition as the inventor of the modern blockbuster would mean nothing without its enduring ability to entertain. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, there’s just too much good stuff going on in “Jaws” for it to lose any of its charm.

The peaceful community on the fictional New England island of Amity, where everyone is on a first-name basis and no murders have ever been committed, is about to be shaken to its core by a merciless force of nature. In one of the scariest opening scenes in cinematic history, a young girl goes out for a night swim, her drunken date passed out on the beach. Suddenly, she feels something tugging at her from underneath. We of course know it’s a shark, but it’s the IDEA of both the shark and what it’s doing to this poor girl that terrifies us. What little is left of her washes ashore and is found by Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and his deputy.

At first, Brody is given the accurate report that the cause of death was a shark attack, but the medical examiner later goes back on his statement due to pressure from the Mayor, who found out that Brody was planning to close the beach. July 4th is approaching, and it’s one of the most lucrative days of the year. If word gets out of a shark attack, the Mayor reasons, tourists will simply head for other beaches. So, he hypothesizes a boat accident, with which the coroner agrees and Brody goes along with it. Unfortunately, this little white lie results in a second shark attack which claims the life of a small boy. The grieving mother puts up a $3,000 reward for anyone who catches the shark, resulting in every amateur fisherman in the area racing out to grab their prize. The more experienced bounty hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) also offers up his services, but demands the more hefty sum of $10,000. The Mayor agrees only to “take it under advisement.”

Also arriving on the scene is oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), called in personally by Chief Brody. Hooper’s first order of business is to view the remains of the shark’s first victim. Hooper recognizes instantly that “this was no boat accident!” He’s also skeptical about the tiger shark that’s just been hauled in, noting that the mouth, while large enough to fit one’s head inside, isn’t large enough to have inflicted the damage done to the teenage girl. He’d like to do an autopsy on the shark to be certain, but the Mayor balks at that idea. Hooper and Brody, after many glasses of wine, go out to the dock and cut the shark open anyway. It may be a shark, but it’s definitely not THE shark. Still drunk, they go out on Hooper’s high-tech boat to see what they can find. The come across the wreckage of a boat belonging to a fisherman named Ben Gardner. Conducting some deep sea investigating, Hooper discovers a shark tooth the size of a shot glass embedded in the side of the boat. The sight of Ben Gardner’s mangled remains causes him to drop it. Without proof of the tooth, the Mayor is unimpressed with their findings, and plans for Amity’s Fourth of July festivities go on as scheduled.

The Fourth of July rolls around, but word has already spread of the island’s recent shark activity. Suddenly, no one feels much like swimming. Some eventually go in under duress, with Brody’s oldest son, Michael, relegated to the pond for his own safety. Turns out that was the wrong move. While two kids are out pulling a prank with the aid of a cardboard fin, the real shark shows up and devours some poor schmuck while Michael looks on in horror, needing to be hospitalized due to the shock he receives. Fed up, Brody insists that the Mayor hire Quint to kill the shark.

For the entire second hour of the film, its just three men on a boat chasing a shark. Oh, but what a second hour it is! All three men, based on prior experiences, have different opinions about the water. Chief Brody alludes to a fear of drowning being the reason why he’s afraid to go swimming, make his being the Chief of Police for a community that is surrounded by water on all sides somewhat ironic. Hooper has no such problems entering the water, and has been fascinated by sharks in particular since a childhood incident that saw a shark attack and destroy the small boat that he’d been in. Hooper and Quint each have their share of scars from various forms of sea life, but it’s Quint whose scars are more than skin deep. He has good reason for wanting to capture/kill this shark without aid from the Coast Guard. He was on board the U.S.S. Indianapolis when it was sunk by the Japanese near the end of World War II. For days, he and the other members of his crew waited in shark-infested waters for help to arrive. By the time it did, Quint was one of only 316 survivors out of 1,100. In real life, it was closer to 900, but forget the historical inaccuracies because Quint’s sharing of his sad story, more than any of the scenes of shark attacks, is my favorite scene in “Jaws.” It’s also a reminder of what a great actor Robert Shaw was.

Another discrepancy that occurs within the script is the fate of Hooper, different from that of the novel of the same name. Richard Dreyfuss is simply too good to wind up as shark food. I love watching Hooper Quint’s personalities clash. Quint’s got that working class hero mentality going for him, and he scoffs at this rich kid with his fancy equipment. Hooper is prideful and brilliant, and not afraid to remind you of both. He’s also slow to admit when he’s wrong, and enjoys having it pointed out to him even less. But, there’s a mutual respect between the two of them, and that shines brightest when they bond over their scars and when Hooper learns that the shark has eaten Quint. In the end, the hero’s journey in “Jaws” is Brody’s, and it’s he who must be the one to overcome his aquatic phobias and slay the beast. Roy Scheider is great, but is only the third best in the cast after Shaw and Dreyfuss, a fact that would rear its ugly head when the latter two did not return for “Jaws 2.”

Steven Spielberg was a virtual unknown when he took the director’s chair for “Jaws,” but today is one of the most highly respected directors of all-time. It all began with this B-movie plot which drew upon the monster movies of the 1950’s. In addition to changing the way Hollywood filmmaking is approached, “Jaws” also helped inspire the shark culture, which has grown to include many “Jaws” knock-offs and even the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” The “Jaws” franchise never came anywhere near the 19th film we were promised by “Back to the Future Part II,” nor should we have been cursed with the three mediocre sequels we got. But whatever damage those worthless films have done, how much time and money was wasted in making them, they don’t erase the power that “Jaws” had and continues to have. We’re still nervous about dipping our toes in the water.

Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)

Director: Mario Bava

Starring: Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Volonté, Laura Betti, Leopold Trieste, Isa Miranda, Chris Avram, Anna Maria Rosati, Brigitte Skay

Among what questions remain after my second ever viewing of Mario Bava’s “Twitch of the Death Nerve,” one to which I can find no definitive answer is what I’m supposed to call this movie. Even my own copy of the film seems to suffer from some sort of multiple identity disorder, giving me three distinct titles for the DVD box cover, the opening title card, and the original theatrical trailer. Though there are several others, the two most widely used are “Bay of Blood” and “Twitch of the Death Nerve.” I went with the latter because that was the name I knew the film by when I first looked it up years ago, and because it sounds incredible when you say it out loud. I also call into question the benefit of an over-complicated plot for a movie that clocks in at less than 90 minutes, possibly due to the fact that I’m so well-versed in the “Friday the 13th” series. Speaking of which, we might not even have “Friday the 13th” if it weren’t for “Twitch of the Death Nerve.”

The film begins with the murder by hanging of the Countess Federica (Isa Miranda) in her home by husband Filippo Donati (Giovanni Nuvoletti). You would think the film had blown its wad far too quickly by revealing the identity of the murderer almost immediately, but then Donati himself is stabbed to death moments later by an unseen third party. Afterwards, his body is dumped into the bay and the Countess’s death is made to resemble a suicide. This opens up the floodgates as interested parties vie for ownership of the bay. Frank Ventura conspired with his mistress Laura (Anna Maria Rosati) to convince Donati to murder the Countess, but they hadn’t counted on Donati going missing.

Donati’s daughter Renata (Claudine Auger) and husband, Albert (Luigi Pistilli), also enter the fray. They consult with Paolo Fassati (Leopold Trieste) and his wife, Anna (Laura Betti), the latter of which tells them the Countess’s death was no suicide.  During this conversation, Renata also learns she has a half-brother named Simon, whose boat is found to contain the grisly remains of Renata’s father. The action moves to Ventura’s house, which becomes host to a series of brutal crimes. First, Ventura attempts to kill Renata, who stabs him to death in self-defense. Unfortunately, Paolo has seen everything and is in the process of calling the police, but Albert strangles him to death with the phone cord. In an effort to be thorough, Renata decapitates Anna with an axe, ensuring no witnesses.

By the time Laura gets there, Ventura is long since dead and she is met by an angry Simon, instead. He has learned of Laura and Ventura’s role in his mother (the Countess)’s death and, feeling used, chokes the life out her. Earlier, it was Simon who had been responsible for the deaths of four partying teenagers, one of whom had accidentally discovered Donati’s body while swimming. Now, after finishing off Laura, it was to be Simon’s turn, impaled by Albert, who later must also fend off a still-living Ventura. The movie concludes quite literally with a bang. The victorious Renata and Albert, satisfied that the bay property will be theirs, are shot and killed by their two children, who naively think that Mom and Dad are pretty good at “playing dead.”

That’s quite a lot to assimilate in 84 minutes! Roughly half of the characters you’ll meet in this movie are scheming, greedy murdering bastards. The ones with which the audience might be able to sympathize are all bumped off not long after we’ve met them. Minimal character development and quick death are staples of the slasher genre, some blueprints of which lie here. The first two “Friday the 13th” films are the biggest beneficiary. “Part 2” in particular directly steals two of the murder sequences: the billhook/machete to the face, and the double murder via spear of the two teens engaged in a sexual encounter. For fans of “Friday the 13th Part 2” who liked its double spearing scene but hated the way it was censored by the MPAA: This is the way you were always meant to see that particular murder! The way that Laura’s strangulation is shot is very “Friday the 13th.” Incidentally, the total body count in “Twitch of the Death Nerve” is thirteen.

Unless you’re extremely well-versed in the Italian cinema of the period, then the only cast member whom you are likely to recognize is Claudine Auger, famous for her Bond Girl role as Domino in “Thunderball.” The main attraction here is, of course, the murder sequences, aided tremendously by Carlo Rambaldi’s impressive special makeup effects. The scene where teenager Bobby opens a door only to have a billhook embedded deep into his skull is the most effective, actually taking me by surprise. The story itself can be a snoozer when the brutality is taking a snack break, and the ending can either be seen as funny or as a letdown… depending on your perspective. “Twitch of the Death Nerve” should be of interest to anyone curious enough to see the familiar slasher elements in one of their earliest forms. Just know that we were still a few years away from working out the kinks.

Creepshow (1982)

Director: George Romero

Starring: Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Fritz Weaver, Leslie Nielsen, Carrie Nye, E.G. Marshall, Vivica Lindfors

When I said that “Cujo” should have been filmed as a short story, this is what I had in mind, that it should have been part of an anthology film like “Creepshow.” Telling five stories of revenge and just desserts, “Creepshow” plays upon basic human fears to give its outlandish stories a very real, blood-curdling sense of dread. Aside from the frame story which involves the boy (played by Stephen King’s son) who gets caught reading the horror comic by his father (Tom Atkins), “Creepshow” is divided into five chapters of Romero/King collaborative efforts, all done as a fitting tribute to the old EC horror comics.

The first tale is “Father’s Day,” starring Carrie Nye, Viveca Lindfors, and Ed Harris (in one of his earliest film roles). This is the story of the Grantham family, rich, spoiled, and just plain mean-spirited. Other than the fact that this is Father’s Day, today is special for the Granthams for a much more sinister reason. Seven years ago, the most inhuman monster among them (Nathan Grantham), was murdered by his daughter Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors) because she could no longer stand to look after this man who put her down and treated her like the help at every turn, and who almost certainly had killed his daughter’s lover to ensure that she would not leave his side. Unexpectedly, during Bedelia’s routine of meditating in front of her father’s grave, his reanimated corpse rises up to strangle her, and goes on to kill the rest of the family. He just wanted his Father’s Day cake! Although this segment is generally well-made, the fact that there are no characters to feel sympathy for (aside perhaps from Ed Harris’s ill-fated Hank) makes it difficult to work up any enthusiasm when the mayhem begins. Am I supposed to be glad that this monster of a man got his revenge? At least the soundtrack is good.

The second story is “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” starring the one and only Stephen King as the title character. One night, Jordy witnesses a meteor falling to Earth. Being the typical slack-jawed yokel, Jordy must investigate at once! First thing he does, sure enough, is touch the darn thing. Realizing it to be rather hot, he douses it with cold water. While he’s doing this, Jordy is already picturing in his mind a scenario which has him presenting the meteor to the local university for some quick cash. He’d do well to ask for more money than he’s pondering but, for an idiot, Jordy has quite an active imagination. However, to his dismay, pouring water on the meteor has split it into two pieces. Now you’ve gone and done it, Jordy! He picks up the two meteor halves, the second of which gets some of its blue slime on his hands. While watching some pro wrestling on the TV (and, yes, that is current WWE owner Vince McMahon’s voice as the announcer), Jordy notices what looks like plant life growing from his hand. Before long, it spreads all over his body, the house and the yard. Eventually, when the plant life has completely covered Jordy’s body and distorted his voice, he decides that he can’t go on anymore and takes his own life with a shotgun. Whether you like this chapter or not depends entirely on your opinion of Stephen King’s performance. You may find him far too over-the-top for your taste. I, on the other hand, love Jordy Verrill for the cartoon character George Romero intended him to be. Indeed, King apparently was playing the role seriously until Romero told him to play it as if he were portraying Wile E. Coyote.

The third story (and my personal favorite) is “Something to Tide You Over,” starring Leslie Nielsen, Ted Danson, and Gaylen Ross (who worked with Romero previously in 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead”). As Richard Vickers, Leslie Nielsen is deliciously evil. Richard is a wealthy son of a gun. He’s got a mansion overlooking the beach, and a security system that screams paranoia. Richard’s paranoia is topped only by his jealous rage when he learns of his wife Becky (Gaylen Ross)’s affair with Harry Wentworth (Ted Danson). Richard’s solution to the problem is as elaborate as it is insane: He decides to bury the lovers up to their necks in sand and allow them both to drown when the tide comes in… but not before leaving Harry with a TV and a VCR so that he can watch as Becky’s fate draws nearer. Richard returns later to retrieve the TV, and is a little shaken when Harry’s body cannot be found. Surely, the tide must’ve carried him off. Well, of course it didn’t, and don’t call him “Shirley.” In fact, Richard is soon confronted by the zombies of Becky and Harry, and he is soon buried up to his neck, his fate sealed, just as theirs were. For Nielsen’s turn as the villainous Richard alone I love, love, LOVE this portion of the movie.

Story #4 is “The Crate,” starring Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau. Holbrook plays Henry Northup, a very timid creature whose every waking moment is controlled by his nagging wife, Wilma. Adrienne Barbeau is really effective in portraying Wilma as an annoying wife and that party guest who just embarrasses the hell out of everyone, so much so that you wish you could kill her yourself. Henry imagines a few scenarios in which he indeed does just that, only to have her snap him out of his daydreaming spell. Henry’s pal Dexter (Fritz Weaver) gives him a real chance to be rid of this woman when Dexter and the janitor at the university discover an old wooden crate that’s been hidden away underneath the basement staircase since 1834. That, and the nails, chains and padlock don’t seem to indicate to anyone that whatever’s inside was probably meant to stay there. A monster pulls the janitor in and eats him, leaving the man’s blood all over the laboratory. The monster also eats a grad student before Dexter flees to seek Henry’s help. Seeing a golden opportunity, Henry drugs Dexter, calls Wilma over to the university, and feeds her to the monster before disposing of it and the box it came in. Unfortunately, as the closing seconds indicate, Henry’s job may not have been as thorough as he believed, as the monster (very much alive) breaks out of its box. A pretty decent effort, especially on the part of Hal Holbrook. “The Crate” is, however, nowhere near as much fun as the chapters before and after it.

The fifth and final segment presented for our amusement is “They’re Creeping Up On You!” This one stars E.G. Marshall as Upson Pratt, a ruthless business tycoon with an insect phobia. At first, he merely encounters one or two cockroaches, and disposes of them easily with bug spray, his shoe, or his garbage disposal. But, eventually, the roaches begin to invade in greater numbers, appearing in the lights in his ceiling, on the mattress of his bed, coming through the kitchen sink and, most disturbing of all, hiding in his bran flakes! He demands that White (David Early) come instantly to fix his bug problem, but eventually even that becomes impossible when the building suffers a blackout, White is stuck in an elevator, and Pratt is left to struggle with the multiplying number of cockroaches in his high-tech, colorless and (apparently not so) germ-free apartment. The segment concludes with a large group of cockroaches emerging from the dead body of Upson Pratt. Probably the only genuinely creepy segment of the movie, this one gets high marks from me for both that aspect and for E.G. Marshall’s performance.

“Creepshow” was released in theaters in the fall of 1982, when I would have been about seven months old. Being able to count the 2007 double-feature “Grindhouse” as one of my greatest theatrical experiences, and already being impressed by this movie on DVD, I can safely say that I would have enjoyed seeing “Creepshow” at the theater had I been of age. The acting is caricature-based, not character-based. These are not meant to resemble actual human beings, but comic book panels made flesh and blood. The morality tales they serve are the only thing that’s real, and that’s the way that “Creepshow” should be.

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971)

Director: Seth Holt

Starring: Andrew Keir, Valerie Leon, James Villiers, Hugh Burden, George Coulouris

Seems like you can’t talk about the final resting place of an ancient ruler/deity without the subject of a curse being brought up. Any time someone unearths another of these long-forgotten shrines, if even the slightest of incidents should befall the discoverers of the tomb, there must be a curse involved! Similarly, certain films over the years have been branded with a “curse,” the most infamous being the one attached to “Poltergeist.” Less talked about but perhaps more sinister (if one actually believes in this sort of thing) is the one which followed the production of “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb,” thus giving the film more of an eerie quality than it would have already created for itself.

A British archaeological team led by Julian Fuchs (Andrew Keir) locate and open the ancient Egyptian tomb of Princess Tera. To their surprise and bewilderment, her corpse is perfectly preserved in all its beauty, save for a missing right hand, severed by her killers those many centuries ago. In London, occurring at precisely the same time is the birth of Fuchs’ daughter, Margaret. Her mother does not survive and, only for an instant, Margaret herself appears to die as well. Years later, the adult Margaret (Valerie Leon), who exactly resembles Princess Tera, experiences disturbing nightmares. All the while, her obsessed father has created a shrine to Princess Tera in his basement, complete with the actual sarcophagus itself. Periodically, Margaret’s dreams will cause her to sleepwalk down to the basement where the body of her sinister duplicate lies.

One of the original expedition’s members, Corbeck (James Villiers), wants to ensure the resurrection of Princess Tera, and Margaret (whose mind is struggling against the Princess’s will) seems willing to help bring her forth. The other members of the expedition team are tracked down and murdered one by one, the tokens they each took from Tera’s tomb relocated to the shrine in Fuchs’ basement. Even Margaret’s boyfriend Tod becomes an unfortunate victim. With everything in place, Margaret and Corbeck begin the ritual to restore Princess Tera. At the last possible moment, Fuchs comes to his senses and helps his daughter stop the ritual, killing Corbeck but resulting in his own death at the hands of a very much alive Tera. The two identical women become locked in a struggle, which ends with Margaret stabbing Tera and the entire house collapsing in on itself. Later, at the hospital, it is revealed that only one person survived. Whether she is Tera or Margaret is unclear, because every part of her body (except for her eyes) is covered in bandages… not unlike a mummy.

The only title in my marathon this month produced by Hammer Films, “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb” is loosely based on the novel “The Jewel of Seven Stars” by Bram Stoker, he of “Dracula” fame. Just as the characters in the film are affected by their association with the tomb of Princess Tera, so too were some of those who signed on to make the movie. The part of Professor Fuchs was originally given to Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing, who left after only one day due to the death of his wife. Director Seth Holt, who had been in failing health, died five weeks into the six-week shoot, replaced by the uncredited Michael Carreras. Now, of course it’s all plain coincidence, but it makes for a good… albeit macabre and depressing… story.

Disturbing behind-the-scenes happenings aside, the story itself is pretty decent, although it loses a lot of steam in the final act where everything wraps up a bit too predictably. The main reason to watch “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb” is the devastatingly gorgeous Valerie Leon. My knowledge of the actress’s career is limited, but I am aware that this movie represented a rare starring role for her. It’s a shame she wasn’t called upon more often. Whether it’s her piercing blue eyes or the magnificent wardrobe changes, Ms. Leon is a sight to behold. Princess Tera can be my ruler any day of the week.

Frontier(s) (2007)

Director: Xavier Gens

Starring: Karina Testa, Samuel Le Bihan, Estelle Lefébure, Aurélien Wiik, David Saracino, Chems Dahmani, Maude Forget, Amélie Daure, Joël Lefrançois, Patrick Ligardes, Jean-Pierre Jorris

“Frontier(s)” is yet another one which I knew next to nothing about before seeing it for the first time. I only knew that it was part of the so-called New Wave of French Horror, of which I’m a huge fan. It doesn’t throw you into a dark pit of despair and bury you down there like “Martyrs” does, but “Frontier(s)” is still unflinching in its bloody brutality. Further illustrating the point is the fact that the film was branded with an NC-17 rating for its violent content.

As Paris erupts into a chaotic scene of mass riots following the election of an extreme right-wing president, five friends commit a robbery to procure the funds necessary to blow this popsicle stand. As we are introduced to them, the friends have split into two groups. Alex (Aurélien Wiik) and Yasmine (Karina Testa) take Yasmine’s brother Sami, who has been shot, to the hospital. Meanwhile, Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Dahmani) have the money, and drive up to an inn on the outskirts of town where they have sex with innkeepers Gilberte (Estelle Lefébure) and Klaudia (Amélie Daure).

Things do not go well at the hospital. Sami succumbs to his wounds, his dying wish that his pregnant sister rethink her desire to have an abortion. A member of the hospital staff tells a cop about Sami’s wounds, but Yasmine and Alex hightail it out of there before he can question them. Yasmine gets the address of the inn from Tom and Farid, who are attacked by Gilberte, Klaudia and Goetz (Samuel Le Bihan) shortly afterwards. Tom and Farid try to elude their assailants, but Goetz runs their car off a cliff. Alive but injured and scared, the two men take cover inside a mine shaft. Following a long, claustrophobic crawl through a cramped tunnel, Tom is recaptured, while Farid doubles back and tries to find somewhere else inside the mine to hide.

Yasmine and Alex, unaware of anything shady going on, finally arrive at the inn. Certain visual cues tell Yasmine that there’s something not quite right about this place or the people in it, but both are captured and chained up inside a pig pen before they can do much about it. Alex helps Yasmine to break her chains and attempt an escape which, when her absence is discovered, leads the family patriarch Von Geisler (Jean-Pierre Jorris) to make his presence felt, cutting Alex’s Achilles tendons as punishment. Farid finds Tom hanging by hooks inserted into his feet. Unsuccessful in rescuing his friend, Farid is himself hunted down and killed by Hans (Joël Lefrançois). Yasmine picked up on the road by Goetz and driven back, after which she witnesses Von Geisler shoot and kill Alex. Being a still-practicing Nazi, Von Geisler has a vision of a pure Master Race. He wishes for Yasmine to be “wed” to Karl (Patrick Ligardes), despite the fact that she has black hair and brown eyes.

After Yasmine’s pregnancy is discovered, she is placed under the care of Eva (Maud Forget), who tells Yasmine of their similar backgrounds. Eva also was captured by the Von Geisler family, and is obedient to them for two reasons: 1) She has been promised that her parents would one day return for her. I suspect the family secretly killed them, but the film never says so. 2) Eva has produced several children while in captivity. Together with Hans, she visits with them and cares for them when she can. She loves them, despite their being rejected and tucked away out of sight down in the mine, and will never leave them. With regret, Eva informs Yasmine that her long, dark hair must be cut off, at Von Geisler’s insistence. After performing her duties, Eva leads Yasmine downstairs. At dinner, it becomes clear that the only visionary among the family of Nazi cannibals is the old man. The rest are power hungry, gun-toting fools. When Von Geisler announces Karl as his intended heir, Yasmine takes advantage of the ensuing squabbling by putting a knife to the old man’s throat. A jealous Hans shoots and kills Von Geisler, after which Karl shoots and kills Hans.

Their leader/father dead, the family no longer feels obligated to keep Yasmine alive. She escapes the gunfire and heads into the mine. A struggle with Goetz ends with Goetz being impaled on a table saw. Yasmine is cornered on an elevator by Karl but, just as he is about to shoot Yasmine, Karl’s head is blown off by Eva. Before Yasmine can escape, Gilberte and Klaudia show up with automatic weapons. Taking Karl’s shotgun, Yasmine returns fire, eventually hitting a gas tank. The resulting explosion kills Klaudia, but Gilberte continues her attack. Yasmine responds by going full-on Rick Grimes on the bitch, tearing a chunk of her throat out with her teeth! Soaked in the blood of Goetz, Karl and Gilberte, Yasmine leaves while Eva remains to care for her children. Driving down the road, Yasmine is met by a police roadblock, upon which she gets out of her car and surrenders.

Apart from the film’s socio-political elements, there’s something familiar about “Frontier(s).” The most obvious connection to be made is to Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” despite there being no chainsaws or human skin mask-wearing monsters present. Eva’s offspring and their current residence, although we don’t see much of them, are reminiscent of Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs.” There’s also perhaps just a little bit of Eli Roth’s “Hostel” sprinkled in for good measure. One of the things I love about France’s New Wave horror films are how the women do not exist in these movies for the sake of titillation. Whether their intentions are good are ill, there’s an intelligence and strength these characters display that makes their male counterparts seems like big dumb animals by comparison. Karina Testa’s Yasmine is a great example of this. Stripped of her natural beauty, what lies underneath is a strong woman who’s got to fight through a lot of mental torture to get out of this alive. Maud Forget is also great fun as Eva, whose motherly instincts allow her to hold on to a measure of her own sanity, even as she’s forced to do unspeakable things in service of the Von Geisler family.

“Frontier(s)” was originally scheduled as part of the annual “8 Films to Die For” festival in 2007 but, due to its harsh rating, was granted only a VERY limited theatrical run before being released to DVD. It’s definitely not date night material, lest you start an argument over who’s desensitized vs. who’s too squeamish. It’s also not likely to leave you lying down in the fetal position, like some other French horror films I know of. But if the current crop of bland American horror leaves a bad taste in your mouth, then the palette-cleansing “Frontier(s)” should spice things up a bit.

The Blob (1988)

Director: Chuck Russell

Starring: Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, Donovan Leitch, Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark, Joe Seneca

If there’s one decade of horror that has never completely clicked with me, it’s the 1950’s. I’ve never quite pinpointed the problem but, for whatever reason, the majority of the titles from that ten year period don’t do much for me. That’s not to say that none of them have ever piqued my interest, a fact I’ll be able to prove sooner than you might think. But 1958’s “The Blob” is among those that didn’t manage to excite me, despite the charismatic Steve McQueen (who was, and will always be awesome) as its lead. 1988’s “The Blob” got my attention because of the many familiar faces in the cast, the standout special effects (even if they are a bit dated by today’s standards), and the ways in which it tells the same story… but with a twist.

It’s all fun and games until a meteorite drops from the heavens. High school cheerleader Meg Penny (Shawnee Smith) and her football player boyfriend Paul Taylor (Donovan Leitch) are out on a date when they accidentally run over a homeless old man who has a curious-looking blob of slime attached to his hand. Brian Flagg (Kevin Dillon), rebellious and anti-authority, was witness to it all but is at first reluctant to accompany Meg and Paul as they take the old man to the hospital. Fed up with the uncaring hospital staff, Brian leaves the couple to deal with the old man’s paperwork. While they wait for the doctor, Paul gets up to find some refreshments. It is then that he notices something is very wrong with the old geezer. Hurriedly, he grabs the doctor. When the bed sheet is lifted, it reveals that the bottom half of the man’s body is missing, as though it has been eaten or melted away. Paul calls the police station for help, but the Blob descends from the ceiling to envelope him. Meg tries desperately to free Paul but is only able to pull his arm loose, and her momentum causes her to hit the back of her head against the wall and fall to the floor unconscious.

When she comes to, Meg cannot convince anyone that her version of events is what has actually transpired. Who would believe, without any visual evidence, that at least two people have been murdered by a giant red Jell-O mold? All that Sheriff Geller (Jeffrey DeMunn) is sure of is that a good kid is dead and, somehow, the more disreputable Brian Flagg must have been responsible. But he can’t prove it and, after interrogating his suspect, chooses to let Brian go. Outside the station, Meg intercepts Brian with the rather naive intention of bailing him out via credit card (“They don’t take plastic!”). When they stop for food at a diner, even Brian won’t believe her story about the Blob… that is, until it comes up through the kitchen sink and attacks. Brian and Meg survive by hiding out inside the freezer. Fran (Candy Clark), the diner’s owner, is not so lucky. Trying to call Sheriff Geller, who was supposed to meet her for a date, Fran is trapped inside a phone booth by the Blob. It has already killed Sheriff Geller, and it envelops her next.

Returning to the meteorite’s crash site, Meg and Brian are met by a military group led by scientist Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca). The soldiers force Meg and Brian at gunpoint into a van waiting to take them back to town, where they are to join the rest of the population under quarantine. On the drive back, Brian jimmies open the door and escapes, but Meg stays behind. Back in town, Meg learns that her little brother Kevin is missing and has likely sneaked off to see a horror movie at the theater, against their mother’s wishes. The Blob gets there just before Meg does, killing most of the staff and several audience members, but Meg is able to rescue Kevin and his friend Eddie. Meanwhile, Brian walks in on Dr. Meddows talking about how the meteorite didn’t actually originate in outer space, but is in fact a man-made satellite, and the Blob is a product of Cold War biological warfare that is working far more efficiently than previously anticipated. Brian is noticed and, not wanting him to reveal to the townspeople what he’s just learned, the soldiers give chase.

Speaking of giving chase, Meg, Kevin and Eddie escape down into the sewers with the Blob not far behind them. Eddie is unfortunately lost, but Meg is able to get Kevin to safety before herself being rescued at the last minute by Brian on his motorcycle. But their path to freedom is blocked when Dr. Meddows orders the sewers sealed off and a truck driven over the manhole just to make doubly sure he can contain the Blob. Guess they didn’t count on the scared member of their team down there carrying a bazooka. Brian grabs the weapon and uses it to blow up the truck and re-establish the way out. Meddows, furious, insists that Brian is “infected” and that he must be put down. Before Meddows can do this, he is killed by the Blob. Meddows’ team uses all the firepower at their disposal to try and tame the gelatinous beast… but they only piss it off. The soldiers and some of the townspeople are killed, with the rest taking shelter inside the town hall. The Blob growing in size with each person that it eats, it is now large enough to cover half of the building.

Remembering the Blob’s reluctance to follow them inside the freezer back at the diner, Meg grabs a fire extinguisher, and others follow suit. As before, the Blob shows an aversion to the cold, but it’s not quite enough, and the fire extinguishers only carry so much CO2. Not a problem, because Brian has commandeered the snow maker truck from the local garage and is ready to make a giant snow cone out of the abomination terrorizing his town. The Blob gets angry, flipping the truck over, but a quick-thinking Meg grabs an explosive charge off a dying soldier, attaches it to the truck’s liquid nitrogen tanks, and she and Brian get clear just in time for the charge to go off. The frozen remains of the Blob are then quickly hauled off to the town ice house where it can remain inert.

I hadn’t actually planned for my viewing of “The Blob” to fall on the same night as an episode of “The Walking Dead,” but I’m glad that it worked out that way. Featuring Jeffrey DeMunn (a.k.a. Dale) and co-written by Frank Darabont (developer and original show-runner of “The Walking Dead”), “The Blob” succeeds as a remake because of its differences from, not its similarities to, the original. The title monster this time can kill its victims by several methods in which the 1958 monster could not. The best one for me is the scene with the two teenagers sitting in a parked car, getting drunk and making out. The Blob first invades the body of the girl, hollows her out and then springs out and attacks the unsuspecting boy. The most ludicrous (but still fun) is the scene where the Blob pulls the diner’s handyman down the kitchen sink.

Familiar faces are a definite plus. In addition to DeMunn, fans of the “Saw” franchise will delight in seeing a young Shawnee Smith as a strong female lead. Actor Paul McCrane, as Deputy Briggs, is always great at playing that guy you love to hate. Die-hard fans of the original may very well be turned off by the level of gore, but should at least appreciate the twist whereby the extra-terrestrial invader of the 50’s is now something the government cooked up. I say give it a chance. After all… there’s always room for Jell-O.