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Friday, April 30, 2010

This Town Is Serious About Population Control

Jeremy Sisto stars in "Population 436" (2006) an old-fashioned mystery/thriller that draws at least part of its inspiration from Shiley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery." Sisto plays Steve Kady, a census worker who professionally visits the charming village of Rockwell Falls for what he thinks will be just a few days.

The residents welcome Kady warmly as a new friend, but it strikes him as odd that the town's population has remained at exactly 436 for over a century. His suspicions are further aroused when he learns that every resident who tries to leave dies "accidentally," and that anyone who wants to leave is considered a victim of "The Fever," a mysterious illness that causes people to go at least temporarily insane.

The treatment for "The Fever" -- practiced by the apparently unlicensed town doctor, who inherited his job from his father and grandfather -- is at first shock treatment and later, in more persistent cases, lobotomy. Kady becomes determined to rescue Amanda, a young girl currently in the doctor's "care," and of course also falls for a local woman (Charlotte Sullivan).

You can probably see where this is going, but the story and dialogue are well written, and made plausible by a perfect cast. The elements borrowed from Jackson's famous 1948 New Yorker story play only a small (but important) part in the plot, and the other twists are plausible enough to arouse our concern for the likable characters. Director Michelle McClaren has crafted an involving little film with a substantial story that will hold your interest -- and that doesn't compromise in the end.

(Of course, it never occurred to the writers that having at least SOME gay people in town would help avoid unexpected population growth. Just sayin'.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

MORE FAMILY HORROR: The Children (2008)

My partner and I have this little private custom. If we’re eating in a restaurant and nearby children begin screaming, making messes and misbehaving, one of us says to the other, “Have I thanked you lately for not wanting to have children?” I could see getting married if that becomes possible, but I guarantee you children will never be part of the equation for us.

That attitude was reinforced when I recently saw this 2008 British film. It's a very strange and violent little flick about two yuppie couples with way too many children between them -- most of them quite young -- who gather to spend the Christmas holidays together at a large house.

The first sign that this is a bad idea is that the youngest kid comes down with a flulike virus which quickly spreads to all of the other kids. Symptoms: first the child begins puking all over the place, then he or she becomes sadistic -- which quickly escalates into homicidal. The adults and the one teenager are apparently unaffected by the illness, but they have more than enough trouble to occupy them as they struggle to cope -- and ultimately survive.

Not having been able to master birth control despite their obvious socioeconomic advantages, the adults of course find handling violence and murder too tall an order. Teenager Casey (Hannah Tointon) is the first and for awhile the only person who realizes what's happening, but the adults -- as they so often do in horror films -- mistrust and even suspect her. With the grown ups too busy trying to deny what their tykes are doing, blame it on the other couple's kids, etc., the violence just continues to escalate unopposed, and the police, though called after the first "accident," never manage to show up.

The cast is good, and director Tom Shankland presents the whole story in a disarmingly matter-of-fact matter. The violence is gory and shocking. It's a scary movie with the look and feel of a highly realistic indie drama.

I'd recommend it, though I don't know that "enjoyed" accurately captures how I felt about it. It's a powerful film.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


(A luckless messenger gets caught in the web of Spider Baby).

Jack Hill’s rarely-seen 1964 cult film Spider Baby is one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen, despite all the impressively weird films released in the several decades since its creation and long-delayed release. The film takes its name from the shocking opening scene in which a girl’s game of “spider” costs a messenger an ear, among other things. But the violence (actually pretty tame by today’s standards) takes a back seat to the strange dynamics of a twisted little family living in an isolated house.

Its central character is Bruno, a chauffer – played with affecting pathos by Lon Chaney Jr. – who cares for three demented young adults after the death of their father. The Merrye family suffers from a strange disease that causes mental and emotional growth to cease at age 10, and then to regress through childhood and on to an animalistic, violent state. “The children” are already having occasional outbursts of violence, and there are a couple of older relatives in the last monstrous stages secretly locked away in the basement. Bruno covers up what damage the children do, including the murder, and keeps them in seclusion in the dilapidated family home – until greedy relatives and a lawyer (complete with secretary) show up wanting to claim the estate and put “the children” away. The relatives’ big mistake: they insist on staying the night.

One of the creepiest (and funniest) scenes is dinner. The guests are appalled by the family’s “vegetarian” diet – which looks like clumps of weeds – and Bruno confides that, because of their illness, it’s dangerous for “the children” to be allowed to develop a taste for meat. Then he explains why the bald “boy,” Ralph, is allowed to partake of the one edible course – rabbit: “he’s allowed to eat what he catches.”

The cast is uniformly wonderful. Sid Haig, at the beginning of his long career as a horror actor, plays Ralph with an unnerving mixture of wide-eyed innocence and sudden bursts of savagery. The two girls, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner) are all breathy naivete and debutante manners one minute, then cold-blooded killers the next. It’s a testament to how good they all are that you identify with them despite their weirdness and violent outbursts. Your sympathies remain with them rather than the haughty Aunt Emily (Carroll Ohmart), a supreme bitch who is openly rude to them, and her oblivious crew (Quinn Redeker, Karl Schanzer, and Mary Mitchell) even after things get…well, nasty.

The center of the film is Chaney, who gives one of the best performances of his career. His loyalty to his charges and their late father is quite touching, and he even becomes tearful in one particularly moving scene when he realizes what he has to do.

The black and white photography by Al Taylor is eerie and quite beautiful, particularly in one sequence in the cobweb-shrouded cellar.

Some interesting bits of trivia: the film was actually shot in 1964, but its release was held up for four years because the producers went bankrupt. It’s been shown under various other titles, including “Cannibal Orgy” and “The Liver Eaters.” It also contains some amusing bloopers – such as a cameraman reflected in a rolled-up car window in the scene where Aunt Emily & Company arrive.

On the whole, though, it’s a fascinating 81 minutes – creepy, lurid, darkly funny, and at times surprisingly touching.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


There are two things in the above shot from Gog that should make it especially interesting to gay men. One is the magnificent male posterior right in the center of the photo, the other is the actress on the right who apparently has a bulge where a lady should not, perhaps enlarged from gazing at said posterior. I guess RuPaul's tucking police weren't called in on this one.

I really should have researched the names of the performers involved, but I was so excited I just had to get it up on here immediately. Um, I didn't mean that the way it sounded!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mexican Fright Memories

Hunky Abel Salazar makes eyes at a hypnotized victim in The Brainiac

Does anyone remember the low-budget Mexican horror films from the 50s and 60s? Robot Versus The Aztec Mummy, The Braniac, The Bloody Vampire... and several films pitting professional wrestlers like the silver-masked Santo against vampires and other monsters. They were dubbed and released as kiddie matinee movies in Amercia by a guy named K. Gordon Murray out of Coral Gables, Florida. They're very campy now, but as a kid I actually got caught up in them and found some of them pretty scary. The one that got to me the most was The Brainiac, which I actually found recently as a DVD for $5.99.

Actually, director Chano Rueta's The Brainiac (1963) even now remains one of the weridest horror films ever. I originally saw it in the theater at about age eight.

The Braniac stars the suave Abel Salazar as Baron Vitelius d'Estera, a nobleman who is burned alive for witchcraft by the Inquisition in the first scene. He ridicules and curses his executioners, smirking as the flames consume him.

Three hundred years later the Baron returns to avenge himself on the descendants of his killers. His soul is brought back to earth by a comet (the most ludicrous effect in film history) and the astronomers who spot it are among his intended victims. The handsome Baron can put people in a trance using a light from his eyes that for some odd reason blinks on and off. This keeps them still while he transforms into a big-headed furry monster, creeps behind them, and sucks out their brains with a forked rubber tongue. He doesn't have to go hungry while in human form, either; he snacks on brains from a silver cup even while entertaining unsuspecting guests at cocktail parties.

Mexican brain foood in The Brainiac

Though unintended laughs abound, for deliberate comic relief we have a couple of chuckle-headed detectives who earnestly deliver lines like, "A maniac with a lot of knowledge is a threat." The special effects are among the chintziest you’ll ever see, but the music is eerie and Salazar’s face and body language exude a cool charismatic menace that shines through the terrible dubbing.

The film is 77 minutes of pure delirium. Former acidheads should take note that it may cause flashbacks.

The other Mexican fright flick that still sticks with me is The Bloody Vampire, released the same year. I may even have seen them as a double feature. I found the torture of a servant in this film so disturbing that it even haunted my dreams (partly because it was performed by a really buff, sweaty shirtless guy).

The big beefcake torture scene in The Bloody Vampire

Seeing it again now, despite its glaring flaws – more bad dubbing, an inane and way too talky English “script,” the ludicrous effect of a big rubber bat on a string bouncing in front of the camera – I still found many parts of it chilling. It has atmosphere galore, spooky sets, nerve-wracking music and sound effects, and an actor in the title role whose imposing physical presence and menacing charisma are not lost in the inept translation.

Charles Agosti plays Count Frankenhausen, a vampire who terrorizes his servants, holds his ailing but feisty wife prisoner in their palatial house, and causes a series of young girls from the nearby village to go missing. Like Salazar, he’s handsome – he resembles a younger Burt Reynolds, in fact – but he’s cruel, and sports a mouthful of very big sharp fangs when his bloodlust is aroused. He has a way with a whip, and hypnotic eyes that light up while an eerie electronic “hypno theme” plays in the background. The film contains memorable shots of him running down a corridor towards the camera, fangs exposed and cloak billowing behind him, that would be copied about a decade later in the more well-known Count Yorga movies. At one point he also goes off into a completely irrelevant five-minute monologue extolling the virtues of coffee, but he delivers in the frequent scary parts.

His wife Eugenia (Erna Martha Bauman) holds him at bay with a spear when he enters her room, and relies heavily for support on loyal servants Anna (Begona Palcios) and Lazaro (Enrique Lucero). The Count has his own enforcers and procurers, however; chief among them the icy and somewhat butch Frau Hildegarde (played to the hilt by the haughty Bertha Moss). But the Count doesn’t know that servant girl Anna, on whom he has romantic and sanguinary designs, is a spy in his household. She’s the daughter of this story’s Van Helsing, vampire researcher Dr. Valsama Cagliostro (Antonio Raxel). Unfortunately, a lot of the film’s dialogue among the good guys is pseudoscientific tech babble about a miraculous curative plant extract called "Vampirina," which sounds more like it should be dog food for "Zoltan, Hound Of Dracula." The dubbing is as dumb as the translation.

The most effective scene in the movie is the first, a sequence showing an uncannily soundless horse-drawn carriage driven by a Grim Reaper-like figure in slow motion over a foggy country road where a lynching has just taken place. Nothing that follows quite matches the atmosphere of that sequence, but the tension in the Frankenhausen home is palpable, and the violence shockingly gory for its time – close-ups of nasty neck wounds are accompanied by startling electronic sound effects, unprecedented in movies at the time. The torture of servant Lazaro, gleefully overseen by the Frau, is also surprisingly gruesome.

If you can forgive its flaws, this Miguel Morayta flick can really make your flesh crawl. It’s melodramatic and pretty silly on some levels, but it can scare you if you let it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Lassie" On Acid -- FIDO, A Suburban Zombie Movie

Director Andrew Currie's "Fido" (2006) can only be described as "A Boy And His Zombie" movie -- a "Lassie" episode on acid, only instead of a collie, we have a zombie. Billy Connolly brilliantly plays the title role without a word, mostly just using facial expressions and the occasional grunt to convey a great deal about his surprisingly sympathetic character.

The film is set in a fictitious world in which the zombie/human war that began in "Night Of The Living Dead" was won by the humans, and many zombies have been enslaved through the use of an electronic collar that turns off their hunger for human flesh. The time period has been shifted from the late sixties to the late fifties or very early sixties, a better era for playing out the film's ideas, and the look of the period is a big part of the running gag.

People live in towns safely fenced off from the "wild zones" where undomesticated zombies roam free; these areas are where you might end up if you can't afford a funeral (in which the head is buried in a separate casket). Unfortunately, the corporation that makes the collars, ZomCom, has used the situation to take over society, though most of the population is afraid to even talk about it.

Though there is violence and gore in "Fido," most of it is played for laughs, and you can't really call the film a "horror" movie. It's a black comedy/social satire that lampoons the conformity of suburban middle class life. "Fido" lives with a family that purchases him in order to fit in -- formerly the only family on the block without even one zombie. Timmy, the son (K'Sun Ray) and Helen, the wife (Carrie Anne Moss) bond with Fido, but complications arise when his collar malfunctions and they have to conceal the consequences. And yes, the name Timmy is a reference to "Lassie," and the scene in which the film openly refers to that is one of the funniest moments in "Fido."

I don't want to spoil the movie, so I won't say any more.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH: Annette Funicello meets The Gill Man?

(So, Bob, you told Lori that the waittress meant nothing to you... How'd that work out for you? Bob?)

This movie actually scared the hell out of me when I saw it in the neighborhood theater at a Saturday afternoon chiller matinee in the sixties. Of course, I was a little kid then. Now it seems pretty campy.

The plot? Well, these reptilian/humanoid monsters from the sea -- created by an underwater radioactive waste leak, of course -- rip into various bikini clad girls with their claws. There's a rock band, the Del Aires, that plays in a beach pavilion (one song is called "The Zombie Stomp"); a gang of menacing bikers: shirtless guys fighting in the sand: a hacked-off monster arm, still alive but surprisingly flammable; and a stereotypical maid named Eulabelle who does an even funnier Butterfly McQueen than Vicki Lawrence did, only not on purpose. The "scales" on the monsters pretty much make it look like the costumes are hanging in shreds. It doesn't sound like it makes any sense, you say. Who cares? The whole movie is pretty much just one unintentional guffaw after another.

You get an idea of how plausible the whole thing is when they reveal the one way the monsters can be killed: sodium makes them burst into flames. Hmmmm. These monsters came out of the sea, which is made of salt water, but that didn't hurt them -- well, without the sea, you can't have the beach party aspect: logic be damned!

In some ways it is pretty daring for its era. Though it did so in black and white, it was one of the earliest horror movies to graphically depict gore, and in one scene showed a guy's corpse with his face half torn off. Its pacing is pretty effective, it has some eerie night photography, and some trippy electronic music. But then you see those "monsters" and you've just gotta laugh. Some claim "Horror..." was tongue in cheek, intended as a "spoof" on monster movies, but I prefer to believe in the film's seemingly innocent funky charm.

Like "The Mole People," it was also made into a comic book using stills from the film with word balloons added. I sure wish my mom hadn't thrown those out! When the DVD version was first released awhile back, a reproduction of the comic came free with the disc while supplies lasted.

The DVD also includes "Curse Of The Living Corpse," another film directed by Del Tenney, which was released alongside "Horror" as a double feature in theaters.

"Corpse" was written by Tenney (he didn't write "Horror"), and is something of a whodunit. What's left of a wealthy family gathers when their patriarch dies, and a masked figure begins killing them off one by one. Their father wasn't crazy about his children, and the methods of murder all correspond to the curse he threatened them with if his will was not precisely followed. Is the killer a member of the household, or the old man come back from the dead? One of the suspects is a young Roy Scheider, who chews scenery amusingly as a relentlessly sarcastic drunk. "Carnival Of Souls" star Candace Hilligoss is in it too, though she was five months pregnant at the time.

Tenney writes a fairly credible story, and the masked killer scenes are pretty scary. "Corpse" is in every way a far better film than "Horror" -- but it's not anywhere near as much fun.

By the way, "Horror Of Party Beach" was featured on an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3,000" that is consistently cited as a fan favorite. I remember Tom Servo quipping when he first sees one of the monsters: "So, radiation has a sense of humor?" If you have one too, you'll probably love "The Horror Of Party Beach."

Running times: "Horror Of Party Beach," 78 minutes; "Curse Of The Living Corpse," 84 minutes. Both films were originally released in 1964. The DVD is available from Dark Sky Films.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

FEAR NO EVIL: What's Scarier Than A Feminine Guy?

I just revisited this 1981 release, the first film by a then very young Frank LaLoggia. Many people accuse this film of having a muddled plot, but I had no problem following it. I was raised Catholic, and it probably helps you if you have some knowledge of the theology referenced here; but having seen a bunch of other horror films that draw on Catholic myth and imagery should be more than enough to help you get it.

"Fear No Evil" has some teenagers as major characters, and it was publicized as a sort of male answer to "Carrie." But it actually has more in common with a demon child film like “The Omen.”

Two archangels (Jack Holland and Elizabeth Hoffman), incarnated on earth, kill a similarly incarnated demon, but one of them -- whose everyday identity is as a Catholic priest (Holland)-- is found guilty of murder and imprisoned. Seems the authorities didn’t understand that the victim wasn’t human. The supernatural conflict was also complicated because the killers were waiting for help from a third angel who was supposed to incarnate with them, but for some reason lagged behind.

Meanwhile, the Antichrist incarnates as a strange, somewhat feminine boy named Andrew (Stefan Angrim from "Land Of The Giants"). He destroys the lives of his mortal parents, paralyzing his mother and driving his father to drink. He sacrifices a dog, preparing himself to bring on Armageddon. Ultimately he performs a demonic ceremony on a spooky island where criminals are buried, causing the corpses to rise. (So the movie also owes something to “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”). But the third angel is now incarnated as a teenage girl (Kathleen Rowe McAllen), and there ensues a climactic struggle between the forces of good and evil. McAllen and Hoffman's angelic characters join forces against Andrew in a special effects light show battle.

The film has a strong visual style thanks to director of photography Frederic Goodrich, and makes good use of music by such then-current groups as The Boomtown Rats,. The Ramones, and The Sex Pistols. The actor's performances are compellingly tortured. I found the film fascinating, if not exactly scary.

It even has a powerfully homoerotic shower scene between a taunted Andrew and an early-John-Travolta-like bully (Daniel Eden). Naked in the shower, Andrew grabs the bully and passionately kisses him for a long time; he can’t break free. Ultimately, the bully commits suicide after Andrew magickally causes him to grow female breasts. (Isn’t that the irony of homophobia – the supposedly straight guy feels there’s nothing worse a man can be than like a woman, betraying an attitude toward women that’s not exactly loving).

It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's a consciously ambitious and quite different low-budget horror film.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


This film was released in 1973, the year I graduated high school, but I didn't learn of its existence till Roger Ebert mentioned it on a "Guilty Pleasures" edition of Siskel and Ebert many years later. I made a point of tracking it down then, and found it to be every bit the hoot he'd said it was.

Neil Agar (William Smith) of State Department Security is sent to a small town called Peckham to investigate the death of Dr. Grabowski, a prominent scientist conducting government-sponsored research at Brandt University. Grabowski died of a coronary during sexual intercourse at a local motel. The problem is, he's not the only one. 8 local men die the same way within 3 days, 2 of them other scientists at Brandt. Among the others are a 21 year old boy, a cop, and a cannery worker, all apparently healthy with no history of heart trouble.

The jokes that start going around are exactly the kind you'd think. One of Grabowski's colleagues says, "I'd sure like to meet the girl he was with -- just think about it, boys: coming and going at the same time!" At a town meeting held to discuss the "epidemic," Dr. Murger from Brandt (Wright King) suggests it may be a virulent new venereal disease, with sexual abstinence as a possible solution. The crowd scorns him and he is murdered shortly thereafter. But later we see the following exchange between a local couple in their bedroom: the man looks at his wife and says, "abstinence isn't going to be anything new around here," and she retorts, "If I thought it would kill you, I'd do it."

The killers are a cult of "Bee Girls," local women who have mutated into creatures with black compound eyes who are compelled to mate frantically over and over, though the mutation has made them sterile. Except for their weird eyes, which they hide behind shades, these are voluptuous babes who have no problem seducing the leering, panting local men, who keep thinking with their nether regions even though their peers are dropping like flies. Their bitter, frustrated wives are also easy to recruit for the growing Bee Girl brigade; the transformation involves being exposed to radiation, covered with white goo and then live bees, and then peeled-- and welcomed in a soft-core lesbian orgy.

The prime suspect as the Bee Girl leader is Doctor Susan Harris (Anitra Ford), an entomology professor at Brandt. It's up to Agar and college librarian Julie Zorn (Victoria Vetri) to figure out exactly what's happening and how to stop it. (BTW, another suspect is a gay man, and it's handled inoffensivley -- and not made into one of the film's many jokes.)

The movie is about as funny as the jokes quoted above, with lots of nudge-nudge-wink-wink dialogue and some very silly special effects (the scenes from the mating bee girl's compound-eyes viewpoint are amusingly ludicrous). The 70s outfits and hairdos will provoke some chuckles too. There are lots of exposed female breasts and butts, some full frontal female nudity, and a number of very brief soft-core sex scenes. (It was rated R). But it all has a giggly "isn't-this-naughty" innocence about it that defuses the eroticism. You'll have some laughs, but in the literal sense.

It's light, cheesy 70s science fiction -- not at all plausible, but fun. Directed by Denis Sanders, it runs 85 minutes. It is available as a DVD (amusingly, one recently released disc bears the totally inaccurate title "Graveyard Tramps.")