Thursday, July 8, 2010

One A Week Reviews #34: Creature of Darkness

A title reviewed for Exploitation Retrospect. The bastards made me suffer this so you don't have to!


It's one thing to be a paint-by-numbers Creature-Feature for the Syfy Network, but what does it say about you to make those films look like they should be in the AFI top 100?

Well, CREATURE OF DARKNESS is just such a movie. From the beginning's bad CGI, like something out of an early 2000s flight simulator, to a later background composite less convincing than the kind of primitive 1970's Chromakey Sid and Marty Kroft would have used, right out of the gate this has the feeling of “why bother?”

A multi-culti group of twentysomethings go on a retreat to land right by a USAF bombing range to ride their ATVs and help now-puffy and thirtysomething “star” Devon Sawa deal with his nightmares. Of course, these bad dreams relate to that location at that particular time of year and bad juju that happened to his Uncle there, who warned him NEVER to go to THAT location at THAT particular time of year.

No, you're right. That doesn't make a lick of sense. Sawa here is joined by Sanoe (who the hell) Lake and Matthew Lawrence (If Lawrence brothers were Baldwins, he skips Stephen and Billy and goes right to Daniel levels of fame) and together the star-wattage is, sadly, neutral. I'm not sure of the point of a C-grade, no, make that Z-grade Sci-Fi film that presents you with special effects and breasts you can't see because the film is timed too dark.

When the girls aren't sunbathing in the shade, characters are driving their ATVs into magical sinkholes that appear when convenient to the plot. The stupidest character not only shoots his gun and hits one of the vehicle's gas tanks, but he then throws a flaming log that winds up setting off the flowing gas and blowing the bike to kingdom come. Seriously? Stupid.

About the only thing the the film has going for it is the alien when he's presented as a practical effec. With the bad CGI animation he comes off like a intentional homage to Ray Harryhausen. Mostly shown in closeup of his grimacing mouth, the critter is a cross between a mantis, a grey, and Alice Krige's Borg Queen, then dressed up like the JEEPERS CREEPERS monster. Thanks to plot exposition by Sawa's story of his uncle's convenient brush with this monster, we find out it's a spine-flinging “Catcher” collecting for what we can only assume is his outer-space zoo. His desire for unique and unblemished specimens makes this young knock-off United Colors of Bennetton crowd especially attractive to him in the one flash of intelligence the script shows.

Needless to say there's a predictable body-count and some action broken up by long periods of chat without any sense of urgency. There are choices made that make absolutely NO logical sense and plot holes created with no rhyme or reason in the story. There was at least an opportunity to showcase the “unique specimens” concept and explore just WHY the government didn't interfere with something that left gored bodies on their land. If these points do ever get explored, may they at least be by a movie with more going for it than this one.

To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, “this is NOT a movie to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” 

One A Week Review #33: Murder on Flight 502

I'm proud to announce that, along with, I'll be writing some reviews for Exploitation Retrospect as well (my first for them was Art of Love). This is the first of my regular pieces for them, a compendium of everything right about the works of the one and only Mr. Aaron Spelling. Enjoy!


Made-for-TV movies often straddle the fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime. Be they “ripped from the headlines” or a“disease of the week,” when at their best you get B and C-list has-beens, currentlies, and never-weres trooping through plot-heavy, punchy, just-darn-entertaining throwaway movies. They're potboilers, TV's “beach novels.” My favorites are often the most sensational and trashy ones. MURDER ON FLIGHT 502 is great because it seems to want to be a “disaster movie,” but is instead an exemplary disaster.
This is a 1975 Aaron Spelling production and it is truly the low-rent “prestige” presentation one would hope for out of the most-beloved scholck-meister in TV history. It wears its inspirations proudly. Namely: AIRPORT, SKYJACKED, THE VIPS, and AIRPORT 75.

The sublime here is the cast, and it's worth taking the time to share who's who. The actors and their characters, such as they are, remain the main reason to check this out. Robert Stack is playing his AIRPLANE character at an earlier stage in his career. Polly Bergen chews through scenery like there really is scotch in all those cocktails her character knocks back as she verbally spars with Fernando Lamas. Hugh O'Brien is a police detective, which is not exactly an acting stretch from his time as TV's Wyatt Earp. Walter Pidgeon and Molly Picon (a star of Yiddish theater playing the most stunning stereotype I've possibly ever seen of a lonely European Jewish Grandmother) have a subplot straight from the Love Boat. Farrah Fawcett-Majors (before the hairstyle that made her famous) is the Stewardess on her last flight because she's “tired of being liberated” and ready to marry and settle down. Sonny Bono essentially plays himself in a storyline where he's resented by Dane Clark and Laraine Day, a couple of B-grade movie actors long past they're prime that I'll defy you to recognize.

You also have the second rung of subplots: Ralph Bellamy getting stalked by Theordore Bikel for real and imagined slights. Danny Bonaduce, traveling unsupervised, leaves behind a smoke bomb (ah, the golden age of travel) and gets barely a slap on the wrist for it. Brooke Adams, all teeth and sparkle, walks-on as what seems to be the only stewardess for the rest of the plane and George Maharis wanders around lost as the man back at Mission Control. This is the greatest Fantasy Island cast never assembled.

There's a murder on board, though no one dies until the hour mark. With subplots about two different maybe-murders from the past and some good old fashioned money laundering, there's enough chat to pad out the story while obscuring the fact that hardly anything happens. Two different people are being blamed for deaths from the past. Someone may be a thief and someone else an imposter identified in the most mind-boggling way possible. The clumsiest “set-up-in-the-first-five-minutes plot point” ever slides right by as you're numbed into submission by this assemblage of storylines that don't seem to go anywhere. It's all too, too much as it piles on, but this is a fondue of some top-shelf cheese.

I personally tend to fly commuter cattle-car airlines, so the vast first-class cabin that's the main set is the furthest thing imaginable from today's reality. Since the action cuts between various areas of the plane and airport security on the ground, you never get any sense of the claustrophobia such a locked-room whodunnit requires. We never see any other passengers or sections of the plane, only our Murder She Wrote cum Hotel selection of “characters.” Airlines must not have been very concerned about maximizing every square inch of space like they do today. Nowadays the stuff that happens in this movie would get that plane grounded so fast the oxygen masks would drop.

The production values are low, the fabrics are eye-searing, and the dialogue is atrocious. Bono's character at one point actually says “the beat goes on.” His agent is briefly introduced at the beginning so he can deliver possibly the greatest line in TV movie history: “When you're on top you can rape whistler's mother in Macy's window at high noon and get away with it.” Seriously.

All that aside, this is a heckuva lot more entertaining than FLIGHTPLAN. It's good fun in that classic trash-TV-movie sense. A very low-rent, multi-storyline homage to the style of Arthur Hailey, MURDER ON FLIGHT 502 is also a reminder of what made Aaron Spelling such a beloved TV presence. This collects all of his hallmark touches... except for sex and Heather Locklear.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

One A Week Reviews #32: Pay Phone

PAY PHONE is Brandon Ford's third novel and an impressive achievement. Set in New York City in January 1998, it's somewhat "timeless," as the imagery and events may easily conjure up for you the grimy, dangerous concrete streets of Times Square at it's 1970s and early 80s sleaziest.

The novel features two isolated characters at it's core. Jake, a monster hiding in plain sight who uses a pay phone to entice his victims, and Chelsea, a vulnerable and optimistic young woman who gets ensnared by him without even realizing the door she's opened by answering a random ringing phone. Tight and tidy, this is spare storytelling. A 2 day timeline is pared to the essentials and the pacing is compulsive. Like evesdropping on an interesting stranger who's "in extremis" in real life, you simply HAVE to follow and find out what happens, even when you dread to look.

Ford draws each character in the small assortment of players as humanely recognizable. Their idiosyncrasies and oddly unifying loneliness make the surprises of backstory and the explosions of cleanly, smoothly-detailed violence as shocking as the nasty surprises of real life. His descriptions of violent acts define "chilling." They're images that stay vivid in the mind's eye. I can't remember the last novel that actually made me gasp out loud -- and more than once, at that -- much less one that actually had me feeling powerless to intercede on a fictitious someone's behalf.

Ford's previous novels CRYSTAL BAY and SPLATTERED BEAUTY demonstrated his eye for detail, which continues to engage here. Those novels and this one also brim with his vivid and memorable supporting characters who add layers of dimension and terrific red herrings. Ford generously engages us with all his characters, good and evil. His skill grows with every outing and you want to start following him now, as PAY PHONE is a surprisingly moving novel staking out his way forward. It's horrors lie in our mundane reality and that's more than good writing. The inevitability of events in PAY PHONE make it almost downright dangerous.

There's nothing fantastical here, but this novel harbors a monster, the one who may be next door. You won't be able to stop reading. I can't recommend it highly enough.
In the end, using a phone connection between villain and victim is even more timely and ominous now in our cell-phone and internet age of virtual interactions... I look forward to the next novel.

One A Week Reviews #31: Shinjuku Incident

 A very pleasant surprise of a crime thriller reviewed for - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.



Action superstar Jackie Chan leads this tour de force as Nick Steelhead, a Chinese laborer who comes to Japan hoping for a better life. Unable to find honest work and bullied into the shadows with his fellow Chinese illegal immigrants, he soon finds himself ascending as the boss of a black market mob. After providing a deadly service to a powerful Yakuza crime boss, Steelhead's rise to mafia power spirals rapidly out of control as he's given reign over the dangerous and lucrative Shinjuku district. Get set to root for the underdog as Jackie Chan battles Asia's most ruthless underworld gangs in this action-packed crime drama.


I wonder what some of the more conservative American fans of Jackie Chan will think about this story of an illegal immigrant making "good" through a life of crime. Shinjuku Incident starts out like a docu-drama on the plight of the Chinese sneaking into Japan and making new lives for themselves outside of society. Humble immigrant Jackie Chan comes looking for the girl from back home and scrapes by in his new country through theft and scab labor, learning the tricks of living off the grid. From cleaning sewers and picking garbage to slowly creating his own gang of gypsy-like scammers, the story moves episodically as he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. This is as much in the spirit of Charles Dickens and Horatio Alger as it is Scarface and The Public Enemy.

Gorgeous to look at, from an opening shipwreck (marred by obviously forced perspective in the CGI) through the gold-lit city streets of Tokyo, the cinematography matches the expansive sweep of the story. It's a full two hours that you feel without it ever dragging. There's an attempt at romantic subplot as Chan gets embroiled with the girl from back home and a hostess with a heart of gold. It's blandness offers a nice counterpoint to some jaw-dropping explosions of violence. Most of it happens in broad daylight with plenty of witnesses in seemingly instantaneous bursts. It's effective staging, giving realistic impact to each killing as the Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese gangs escalate their turf wars and racial tensions.

Chan, usually a warm presence, plays it serious and tends to come off as wan and exhausted. Whether fighting (though this film is light on the Martial Arts he's famous for), reminiscing about life back home, and even in a sex scene, his usual mischievous sparkle is set aside for this look at the downtrodden. The fact that he doesn't even smile until he embarks on bold, organized crime betrays this to be a crime thriller first and socially-conscious drama a distant second. That the film can be all that and convey the sense that the actions in the story affect the entire society at large better than almost any film I've seen is a testament to Shinjuku Incident being a fine surprise.

Shinjuku Incident
is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with both English and Chinese 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, English for Chinese Version and French. Special features include select scene commentary with Jackie Chan and Say Hello to the Bad Guy: Up Close With Jackie Chan, a ten minute making-of featurette. Additionally there are trailers for Unthinkable, Harry Brown, The Square, A Prophet (Un Propehte), The Karate Kid and Chloe.


The story of the rise of a Chinese Crime Lord from humble beginnings through the ranks of the Japanese Yakuza, Shinjuku Incident gives Jackie Chan a chance to stretch his acting muscles in a serious social drama punctuated with big blasts of explosive violence. It's an expansive, handsome crime picture that rewards the investment of time and not to be missed.


One A Week Reviews #30: Wolf Moon

This would be a recommend if it were just a little tighter and you could make out ANY of the action in the movie. An "audiobook" review for



Amy, a small-town girl, meets and falls in love with Dan, a mysterious drifter. Amy learns that Dan possesses a family curse and the unimaginable horror that was passed on to him by his father, Bender. Dan and Amy's love is put to the test when town locals unite in the ultimate showdown with Bender to eliminate the terror he has brought to their town.

The hot, arid planes of the American Southwest are the setting for the slightly Tex-Mex flavored Wolf Moon (much like the recent and execrable desert-set Neowolf ). I'm not sure what makes Werewolves the equivalent of evil Prairie Dogs.

Maria Conchita Alonzo and Chris Mulkey headline here, while Sid Haig, Lin Shaye, and Billy Drago provide their own special brands of B-Movie goodness. All seasoned professionals, they elevate a film so dark in places you can't tell who's who or how they're eviscerating one another. Alonzo plays a feminine, tank-topped Sheriff perfect for her Nevada town populated by teens dumb enough to take rides with strangers. That is until it's beset by a duo of Werewolves who need a family therapist.

Said dumb teen Amy (Ginny Weirick) falls for Dan (Chris Diveccio and his abs, which should get separate billing (seriously, you'll feel disgusting and go do sit-ups after watching this)) in a vaguely Twilight, semi-Near Dark, and far too-montaged romance thankfully buoyed by the supporting players' appearances. While that happens, Dan's Werewolf  daddy is on his way to make Dan "choose." You've seen this story before, and better-lit at that. Again, this movie is so underlit most scenes are barely discernable. Your faithful reviewer calls "Shenanigans" on this after actually having to turn the brightness up on the TV.

The film seems to have at least five false starts while it gets the film rolling with disparate plotlines. It almost starts to feel like it'll sprawl like one of Stephen King's more bloated novels. When it finally settles around a Romeo and Juliet core, it's a bit of a disappointment. I'd rather see Alonzo and Mulkey play "star-crossed lovers" than the younger characters. In fact, his concerned parent and her beset Sheriff seem a nice flip as the roles would usually be reversed. Shaye's quick appearance also breathes surprising life in the film and reminds why she's always a welcome presence. The pacing is certainly off when you're more than 20 minutes in and are yet to have any idea why you should care about a character getting beaten.  If you can make it through that and what is possibly the most annoying romantic montage you'll ever see 10 minutes later, you'll enjoy this competent-enough trek through frequently-trod desert. This is kind of a highbrow take on a SyFy Creature Feature potboiler with both a sunburned spin and a severe case of Night Blindness.

Wolf Moon
is presented in Widescreen format and in English 5.1 Dolby Digital and Subtitles in English and Spanish. Along with a commentary track with actor Max Ryan and Co-Writer/Director Dana Mennie, trailers for To Paris, With Love, Neowolf, SixgunSmall Town Saturday Night, Circle of Pain, and Daybreakers are included.

Overlong by a good 40 minutes and with enough false starts they should've gone and aimed more for "Cable TV Mini-Series" status, Wolf Moon offers an A-list cast of B-movie stars in a not-often-enough-used Nevada setting to make for a trip through VERY well-trod Werewolf-flick grounds. As a movie, it's so dark it makes for a decent audiobook, but it's an ok enough take on the genre if you like monster movies, but a long slog if you don't, We'll split that difference with a grade of...

MOVIE: C+ (with a solid F for visibility)

Monday, July 5, 2010

One A Week Reviews #29: Salvage

The fine, fine folks at Revolver entertainment sent me a unassuming envelope with the DVD for Salvage in it. I must remember how many wonderfully ominous gifts can come in plain brown wrappers...

A leafy British cul-de-sac on Christmas Eve seems a quiet, peaceful place at first glance. Milk deliveries still go on here and there's a paper boy. One who's visit to the woods shows that not everything is kosher in this little hamlet.

Jodie gets dropped off for a holiday visit with her estranged mother Beth, but it goes south between them pretty quickly. Beth can't do much about it though before she finds herself surrounded by a SWAT team and blood-spattered neighbors. Under house arrest without any explanations, Beth and her man-friend are trapped on one side of the street and Jodie on the other. It's amazing how a few dozen armed men outside can make a house seem less like a home and more like a prison, eh?

Right off the bat, the questions start. What got into the neighbor the SWAT team had to shoot? What's in the large shipping container washed up on shore right by their leafy, nondescript neighborhood? Why is there a trail of homicides from there to here, and who left the bloody sledgehammer in the upstairs hallway? Most of all, how will Beth ever get across the street?

Only 75 taught, dramatic minutes Salvage quickly escalates from a simple no-good morning to a genuinely scary nail-biter. The bodies stack up as fast as the questions do, and the realistic suburban setting makes the spattered blood all the more disturbing. One scene I won't spoil, where something is found in the kitchen, was equal parts nauseating and genuinely disturbing. Writer/director Lawrence Gough delivers here as do leads Neve McIntosh and Shaun Dooley. They keep a sense of naturalism in their character's reactions to very extreme situations. They make just going in the backyard seem heart-stoppingly courageous.

I think Salvage will polarize audiences. If you let it engage you, it's a short, nasty thriller that moves so fast you'll feel assaulted. That's a good thing in this case. The first time I noticed a breather was at the 50 minute mark and I swear I thought it was about the 20... and then it goes into some serious "WTF/made-me-jump" territory.  Salvage held me gripped and breathless. I'm not going to give away more or the plot or twists, because I really do think it's worth a watch. I highly recommended.