Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bad fantasy/horror in an anthology format

Satan's Storybook (2007)
Starring: Ray Robert, Lesile Deutsch, Ginger Lynn Allen, and Michael Daevid ("Satan's Queen"/framing segment), Steven K. Arthur and Leesa Roland ("Demon of Death" segment), Gary Brandner, Michael Rider, Francis Paul and Irwin Waterman ("Death Among Clowns" segment)
Director: Michael Rider
Rating: Two Stars

"Satan's Storybook" is a low-budget anthology film with costuming that would look great at a Halloween party but which is at the bottom end of what should be considered passable for a professional film production. The flat look of a film obviously shot on video makes it look even cheaper.

I broke this review down according to the segments of the film, assigning each one its own rating. The Two Stars I ultimately ended up assigning it is an average of those individual ratings.

Aside from its low budget and near-universally weak acting which is made to appear worse than it actually is by atrocious dialogue, the film hurt most by the sloppy and loose editing. Every time there's a cut or a change in camera angle, we get at least a second of dead air, so even during what should be heated exchanges between characters we get an overly stagey sense of performance as everyone seems to be politely waiting for the other actor to finish their line before delivering his. The actors and the film in general would have come off much better if there had been a talented editor involved in the production.

Like most anthology films, it consists of a framing tale that surrounds and links short stories. Here, the framing sequence involves the kidnapping of Satan's Bride (Leslie Deutsch) by her sister who has been raised to kill her (Ginger Lynn Allen). While Satan's minions tracks his bride and her kidnappers, he orders his court jester (Daevid) to tell him tales of evil on Earth to get his mind off the situation.

The framing story is a fantasy-oriented section of the film, with better-than-average swordplay for this level of filmmaking but the too-cheap costuming and the awful editing undermines the good parts. Ray Robert does a good job as Satan, but he's also undermined by a lack of technical ability on the part of the filmmakers, as his voice is distorted to give it a spooky, demon-like quality that makes it almost impossible to understand what he's saying. The framing story rates a 4/10 Stars. It's the best part of the film, which isn't saying much. And even though it's the best part, it still ended with me saying to myself, "Is that it? Did someone forget to end this movie?"

The first story told by the jester is "Demon of Death", a tale of a serial killer who picks his victims at random from a phone book (Steven K. Arthur), but whose luck runs out when he targets a young woman who is studying witchcraft (Leesa Roland).

"Demon of Death" had plenty of potential, but it evaporates under the harshness of bad writing (not just the dialogue but also the timing of events in the tale, such as the revelation that the killer's "Book of Death" is just a phone book), subpar acting by everyone appearing, and the aforementioned bad editing. It's also padded with about five mintues of useless scenes involving the police and badly staged news reports. It rates a 2/10 Stars.

The jester's second tale is "Death Among Clowns". Here, a washed-up, drunken circus clown (Gary Brandner) commits suicide after being fired by the owner of the sideshow attracion he's spent his adult life performing at (Paul), but tries to put up a fight when Mickey La Mort, the manifestation of Death who collects the spirits of clowns (Rider), appears.

Moreso than the other parts of this film, the bad editing makes "Death Among Clowns" feel stagey and causes the actors to come off worse than they actually are. The pauses between lines due to changes in angles during a scene drains all energy from interactions. Of course, the truly awful dialogue being delivered doesn't help matters, but the editing is really what kills things here. Oh yeah... and then there's the problem the story just sort of peeters out. It's as if writers Arthur and Rider had put themselves in a corner and then said to themselves, "Let's just put a "boo" scare here and call it good." This one earns a rating of 2/10 Stars.

Two of the actors appearing in this segment have not appeared in any other films, but I want to call their performances out nonetheless.

First, there's Gary Brandner, the novelist who wrote the novels from which some of the werewolf films in "The Howling" series are based, as well as the script for "Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf". He plays Charlie the Clown, and he does it with a very bad Christopher Walken impersonation.

Second, there's Francis Paul, who plays the sideshow attraction owner who's sick of giving Charlie slack. Paul gives the most energetic and natural performance of anyone in the film. With better lines and decent editing, he might have earned "Death Among Clowns" another star. I think it's a shame he didn't do any more movies, because I think he could have been excellent if supported by competent filmmakers.

"Satan's Storybook" is a film that even lovers of the anthology format like myself would be better off not bothering with.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

'Luana': A movie as vapid as its title character

Luana (aka "Luana, the Girl Tarzan" and "Luana the Jungle Girl") (1968)
Starring: Glenn Saxson, Evi Marandi, Pietro Tordi, Al Thomas, and Mei Cheng
Director: Roberto Infascelli
Rating: One of Ten Stars

Isabella (Marandi) hires a burned-out jungle explorer (Saxson)--who is amusingly named George--to take into the remote jungle where her father's plane crashed 15 years earlier. Will they find any survivors? And just who is that mysterious, mostly-naked girl (Cheng) who keeps grinning at them from the underbrush? Could it be the title character?!

"Luana" is one of those films that sounds like it can't possibly go wrong, at least if you're a fan of Tarzan movies and babes in scant clothing. The Russ Manning-illustrated comic strip makes the film look even more appealing, so Big Kudos to the marketeers who cooked up that promotion. Of course, the drawback to the strip is that it tells virtually the entire story of the movie. Yeah... that's how empty and devoid of any action or even activity this film is... it can be summarized in its entirety in a handful of four panel strips. The Manning strips even give away most of what passes for plot twists in the film.

Something else the Manning strip does, although this is only clear in retrospect, is provide a preview of the fact that Luana is the most passive action heroine to ever appear on screen (on in any media for that matter). She does little more than lurk in the bushes and grin stupidly at... well, just about anything. The most action we get from her is during a storm when smarter humans and animals take shelter, but she goes prancing around in the rain, somehow managing to avoid being struck the the falling branches that are injuring other people and animals alike. I'm sure there are movies out there with more passive title characters--hell, Bernie was a more active character in the sequel to "Weekend at Bernie's" and he was dead for the entire movie.

The passivity of Luana is made all the more irritating, because the rest of the film is empty of interesting content, except for underbaked cookie-cutter characters portrayed by actors who seem like they are rehearsing instead of actually performing with cameras rolling, jungle sets that at times make "Gilligan's Island" seem gritty, and plot twists so lame one has to wonder why they even bothered. And then there's the climactic encounter between the heroes and the bad guys--for which Luana once again just stands around and grins stupidly--during which someone falls into a mutant carnivorous plant and is slowly, slo-o-o-o-w-ly devoured. One wonders why he didn't just roll out, or why one of his allies didn't just reach in and pull him out. Heck, this might even have been a moment where Luana could have developed some personality and have stepped in and rescued him. It would have explained why the natives think she's a goddess.

Finally, there's the ending. The heroes leave the jungle waving to Luana who stands alone and watches them go. We, the viewers, can't see if she's grinning stupidly or not, but the jungle explorer blathers on about how Luana is happy in the jungle and it's best to leave her there. If she was so happy, why did she seek the explorers out? Why did she keep following them? Why did she stand and watch them leave, perhaps even sadly? Had the Italian/German cinematic geniuses behind this film bothered to read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels (or perhaps even one of the comic book adaptations of "Tarzan" or "The Return of Tarzan", of which several were available by the late 1960s, some even illustrated by the artist for the "Luana" strip, Russ Manning) they would have seen that Tarzan was given a choice between living in the jungle and living in civilization. That's one of the reasons the Tarzan story works. The ending to "Luana" is lame, and it makes characters we are supposed to feel positively toward come across like arrogant and collous assholes. What evidence does George of the Jungle have that Luana is happy in her isolation? And why could he not give her the opportunity to make an informed choice about how she wanted her life to be? The writers and directors manage to end their already bad movie on the most abysmal note possible. (Yes, I know the run-time probably wouldn't have allowed for us to see how things turned out for Luana, but it would have made a far better ended if the main characters had either chosen to stay and educate her, or if she had otherwise gone with them, with viewers having the understanding that she would be coming back to the jungle down the road.)

There are only two kinds of viewers this movie will appeal to, but I doubt it will even satisfy them.

The first are those who love everything that has even a slight whiff of classic Tarzan/jungle action movies to it. The film does has bizarre, spear-chucking tribesmen, a silly duel between the heroic explorer and one of the villains that involves stakes in the ground and scorpions, and it's got a "savage white man" (who in this case happens to be a savage Asian girl, but you know what I mean); if you are jonesing for a jungle fix and NOTHING else is available, maybe this movie will take the edge off.

The second kind are "men" like Gary Glitter and Roman Polanski... the sort of men who who like hanging around girl's schools in dirty rain coats and who subscribe to the theory "if it's more than a handful, it's too big." They will have a great time watching the diminutive Mei Cheng swing on vines and frolic in the rain wearing nothing but a small loin cloth and her long hair. They will watch enraptured as they discover that Cheng's hair is NOT has carefully glued down as Brooke Shields' hair was in "The Blue Lagoon". The film will undoubtedly seem to fly by, as they eagerly look for glimpses of Cheng's breasts (or even better)... and there is a single, very brief shot where their hopes are rewarded. (Of course, they might not be able to fully enjoy the picture, since the point is made that Luana is at least 18 years old when this story takes place.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Heroes vs Head Hunters (and bad dancers)

Colossus and the Headhunters
(aka "Maciste vs. the Headhunters") (1964)
Starring: Kirk Morris, Laura Brown, Frank Leroy, Alfredo Zammi, and Demeter Bentic
Director: Guido Malatesta
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Wandering hero Maciste (Morris) leads his people from their volcano-ravaged homeland to another island where they find themselves in the middle of a civil war. Maciste takes up the battle of the kindhearted and babe-alicious Queen Amoa (Brown) against the evil pretender to her throne (Bentic) and his headhunting mercenaries, all in the interest of peace and finding a new home of this people.

"Colossus and the Headhunters" is a low-budget fantasy film that is several different shades of bad. The cheapness wafts from every frame, the acting is horrendous (both on the part of the original actors and the voice actors who did the English-language dub), and the script drags on and on, turning even what should be exciting battle- and chase-scenes into excrutiating tests of the viewers patience.

The one well-done thing is the costume designs of the three different cultures featured in the film--Machiste's people, the kingdom dealing with the cival war, and the headhunters. Each culture has a distinct look to it, and some level of thought and care went into their visual creation. (Although even this isn't perfect. Were their two civilizations on Machiste's original home island, because the people he leads to safety are your garden variety, Sword & Sandel, psuedo-Greek/Mediterreanian in costuming and armaments... yet most of the people we see fleeing from earthquakes and falling boulders as the island is consumed by the volcanic eruptions are fur-clad, sharpened-stick and stone-axe weilding cavemen! That's because this movie was so cheaply made that there was no money for the special effects shots required to portray an exploding volcano, so the director grabbed footage from an earlier third-rate fantasy film he'd made, 1962's "Fire Monsters Against the Son of Hercules." (You can follow this link to read all about that movie misfire at Cinema Steve.)

There is one reason to see this movie, one VERY good reason. It features one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes ever put on film. Run the movie while you're reading a book or cleaning, but start paying attention when the villian is forcing Queen Amoa to marry him... and watch in awe-struck disbelief (and through eventual tears of laughter) as the handmaiden throws off her cloak and performs a wedding dance like none you've ever seen. That dance alone earns this film a full Star!

A severely edited version of "Colossus and the Headhunters" might be great addition to a Bad Movie Night, but, despite hilarious bits like the wedding dance, there are too many drawn out, boring sections to make it worth while.

(It's interesting to me that, despite the American title, there is no character in the film named "Colossus". What was the aversion to using the name Maciste in titles when these films were imported? Would "Colossus" reallly attract that many more viewers than "Maciste"? I suspect "Headhunters" was a bigger draw, and youd get the same audience if it had been called "Big Gay Al and the Headhunters" or "PeeWee and the Headhunters".)

Fun Fact: Maciste is sort-of the all-purpose Italian go-to epic hero. He is featured in tales of swashbuckling, freedom-fighting, and just plain old fashioned monster-bashing mayhem set in all historical ages, cultures, and places. For all I know, he even shows up in sci-fi stories and movies. (And if he doesn't, get on that Italy!)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Conrad Brooks tries to out Ed-Wood Ed Wood (and fails miserably)

Gypsy Vampire: The Final Bloodlust (2009)
Starring: Bruce "Porkchop" Lindsay, Mark Byrne, Matt Burns, Gail Maureen Hanson, Donna Burns, John Durham, Judi Durham, and Conrad Brooks
Director: Conrad Brooks
Rating: Zero of Ten Stars

A writer named Raider (Byrne) comes to visit a mortuary for... well, for some reason. Here, Count Lugo (Lindsay), a vampire posing as a mortician and moonlighting as a zombie master, turns him into a vampire so he can lure Dr. Cabasa (Durham) to the mortuary, so he can make him revive a dead woman to be his bride. But when Lugo's chief zombie (Burns) falls in love with Cabasa's lovely assistant (Hanson), he leads a zombie revolt and hijacks the Satanic ritual so he can marry her instead. I think.

Conrad Brooks, the writer/director/producer of "Gypsy Vampire" was a bit-player in a slew of movies during the 1950s and 1960s. He had retired from acting until the combination of a book by Michael Medved and Harry Medved, along with the Tim Burton comedy "Ed Wood" revived interest in Brooks' friend and third-rate filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. Brooks has claim to fame of having appeared in every movie that Wood directed, and for the past twenty years, he's been a fixture on the convention circuit, cashing in the rest of his 15 minutes of fame.

Brooks has often spoken of his affection for Edward D. Wood, Jr.--and he does so at length in a 1990 interview/mini-documentary titled "On the Trail of Ed Wood", the DVD release of which also contains "Gypsy Vampire: The Final Bloodlust".

Thanks to the Medved Brothers and Burton's movie, Edward D. Wood, Jr. is often labeled as "the worst filmmaker ever" by reviewers and critics who can't be bothered to actually watch his movies (or, at best, they label "Plan 9 From Outer Space" as "the worst movie ever"). Uwe Boll is starting to become the "new Ed Wood" for such lazy commentators, but the label of "worst filmmaker" is equally false when applied to either gentleman. Anyone who has devoted any real time at all to trawling through random films at the bottom of the cinematic barrel knows for a fact that Wood Boll are nowhere near the worst directors, and none of their films come even close to being the worst that is out there.

Conrad Brooks, for example, has made a far more awful movie than either Wood or Boll have ever been brazen enough to inflict upon the public. With random posterization of some scenes and others being in black-and-white for no discernable reason; costumes and make-up effects as awful as the actors wearing them; a nonsensical storyline; camera-work barely suitable for YouTube video than a film; and editing so bad a it would earn any beginning film student a failing grade, even if he or she was sleeping with the professor, there is nothing in this film that is at all competently made.

I'm not sure what Brooks was trying to achieve with this movie. Perhaps just to have a good time with a bunch of young actors. Perhaps he was trying to emulate his old friend Ed Wood and make a movie that out-Ed-Wooded Ed Wood. If it was the latter, Brooks certainly managed to make an awful movie, but he failed to capture that intangible, poetic quality that Ed Wood managed to bring to the messy pictures he created.

Watching this movie, I found myself wondering if Brooks ever paid attention to movies while he was watching them. Such niceties as varying between close-ups and two-shots, the ocassional zoom and reverse angle shots are all simple cinematic elements that anyone should be able to see the value in after just watching one or two movies. But not, apparently, Conrad Brooks. This movie is so incompetently and amateurishly made that watching it through to the end is a test of stamina, and it deserves the dubious honor of being at the very bottom of the scale.

(If you have a "bad filmmaker" that you have a warm spot for in your heart, you should bring up this movie the next time you see someone tossing out that "worst filmmaker" or "worst movie" label. If the critic casting aspersions hasn't seen "Gypsy Vampire: The Final Bloodlust", they are in on position to judge what is and isn't "the worst movie ever."

The cleverest thing about the film is that it was shot in a pair of famous "haunted Halloween houses,"--Creekside Manor in Maryland, and Darkwood Manor in Virginia. A few years back, I did security of one such Halloween haunted house, and I often thought its various sets would work well if one were to film a low-budget horror picture on them. It's nice to see that great minds think alike. Of course, Brooks also used many of the actors who perform in the Darkwood Manor spook-maze in his flick, which wasn't such a good idea. I've no doubt they're perfectly capable of spooking people in dark hallways, but virtually none of them understood how to act in front of a camera. It really is a toss-up between who was more incompetent, director Brooks or almost any member of his cast you could mention. (The exception are Brooks, who with more than half a century's experience should probably do better than he does, but he looks like Boris Karloff next to the people he shares scenes with, and Donna Burns, who showed enough presence that I think she could have done far better if she had been delivering better lines in scenes that had been properly edited.)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

'Insaniac' needs some medication

Insaniac (2002)
Starring: Robin Garrels, Chris Grega, and John Specht
Director: John Specht
A woman (Garrels) under goes hypnosis in order to remember something that happened at some point to somebody.

This is film that's loaded with more pointless dialogue and drawn-out, padded scenes than you can shake a Screenwriting 101 syllabus at. And then there's the distressing lack of coherence in the story. Yes, it's a story of a deranged woman (who is played by the only halfway decent actor in the flick, Robin Garrels), but I wish the filmmakers had spent more time creating an interesting film instead of giving us an accurate portrayal of mental illness, which, in reality is like this movie--dull.

The one thing that might make this film worth checking out is that there are some interesting visuals sprinkled here and there throughout the film. However, they are ultimately too few to save this badly done mess from being anything but an awful waste of time. It's a very generous One Star that I'm giving it.