MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE

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For this week’s double feature I have decided to go with the two low budget movies John Carpenter made as part of his deal with Alive Films in the late 80s. A little burnt on dealing with big studio films, these where modestly budgeted flicks which Carpenter wrote and directed himself and were financed by Alive. A disagreement over the budget of a third film ended the deal, but these two films have become cult classics. I have covered Prince Of Darkness here before, but do think it makes a really good fit with the other film in the Alive Films/ John Carpenter collaberation, They Live
… If you are interested in these titles, both films are currently available with gorgeous new prints and some fun extras from the awesome folks at Scream Factory.

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PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

Prince of Darkness is a strange movie written by Carpenter and combining religion and theoretical quantum physics. It sounds like a contradictory combination, but it works better then you might expect. It was the first of a multi-picture deal with Alive Films where Carpenter would make 3 or 4 low budget flicks. The second and last film was the cult classic They Live, as a disagreement over the third film’s budget ended the collaboration.

The story opens with the death of a priest who presided over a small inner city parish. Enter Donald Pleasence as another priest…who’s name is never given…who discovers that the deceased priest was part of a secret society within the church called The Brotherhood Of Sleep. And this sect have been protecting a dark secret that may challenge the very core of what we have come to believe both scientifically and religiously. A team of college students, led by Professor Birack (Victor Wong from Big Trouble In Little China) and including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), are brought to the parish to investigate a strange cylinder filled with a pulsating green liquid in a locked chamber in the basement, as well as, the scriptures that come with it. They discover that the liquid is a form of the Anti-Christ and it seeks release in order to bring it’s father, the Anti-God into our world. And as members of the team start to fall under it’s powerful thrall and they all become plagued by the same strange dreams, it’s terrifyingly obvious that the remaining team members are in a fight against an ancient evil that their science may not be able to contain.

Carpenter delivers a very odd but effectively creepy film. It’s has an atmosphere of dread from the start to the finish and presents a very chilling scenario that there may be things in existence that neither our religion or science may be able to handle. And as these are two things people most put their faith in, it is a disturbing concept. It also presents an interesting idea that Bible prophecies may have actually been warnings sent from the future as the dream effecting all our college science students appears to be exactly that. Carpenter also presents the possibility that certain Bible stories were put in place to cover more disturbing truths as the scientific knowledge to explain or understand the reality of it was not available. Basically we were told things in fable form because the science wasn’t there to properly explain it and we weren’t advanced enough to understand it. As someone who was born and raised Christian yet has always had an interest in science, I actually have had this thought myself occasionally and it was interesting to see the master filmmaker weave this theory into his plot. Carpenter also uses his low budget well and keeps the story, for the most part contained in the church. Again working with the fear of isolation as a horde of homicidal homeless people keep our besieged team members inside. Gary B. Kibbe provides the atmospheric cinematography and would collaborate with Carpenter on seven more projects and he gives Prince a very unsettling look yet, rich with color. This is a strange film that may not appeal to everyone, it took me a few years and repeat viewings before I fully appreciated it and it’s grown on me since I first saw it in 87 and wasn’t quite sold on it then.

The film has it’s flaws, some of the make-up FX are cheesy and some of the violent death scenes, especially those perpetrated by the army of homeless people surrounding the church, lead by Alice Cooper, seem a little out of place in a film that starts out working in subtlety. But since it does switch gears and become more of a traditional horror film in it’s second half, as the possessed students try to kill or possess the others who are fighting against their former friends to stay alive, so in the overall scheme they work fine. Some may not have patience for some of the science heavy dialog, but I though Carpenter’s script does a good job of giving scientific explanations for some of the more supernatural elements of the religious scripture presented in his story. Regardless of your beliefs, Carpenter poses some interesting questions and the film is really creepy throughout. And adding to the effectiveness is one of Carpenter’s spookiest scores to date composed with frequent collaborator Alan Howarth.

Overall, Prince Of Darkness is perhaps Carpenter’s oddest and most daring film, in some respects, but yet another that wasn’t all that well accepted at first and now has gained a following over the years and rightfully so. This flick may not be for everyone and it’s mix of science and religion may not work for some, but I think it’s an interesting and thoroughly creepy movie that not only presents some well executed traditional horror elements, but poses some interesting questions and theories about what we believe in as well. Also stars another Big Trouble In Little China, Dennis Dun in a fun role as a skeptical student.

3 canisters of gooey pulsating dormant evil!

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THEY LIVE (1988)

John Carpenter wrote and directed his second and last feature in the ill-fated Alive Films deal. This flick was a fun alien invasion, Sci-Fi/Action flick based on the short story Eight O’Clock In The Morning by Ray Nelson. Carpenter also mixed in some deft messages about class warfare and how the rich and powerful manipulate the government and media to reduce the rest of us to little more then slaves…a message even more relevant today then it was in 1988, with big corporations running our media and, to be honest, our government…but I digress…

The story focuses on unemployed construction worker John Nada (Roddy Piper) who through a series of events comes across a pair of special sunglasses that let him see the world for what it truly is, an alien run society where humans who collaborate and cooperate are made rich and powerful and those who don’t are coerced by subliminal messages placed in all the media to basically follow orders and do what they are told. If you’re not one of the haves, you’re little more than a have-not slave. Nada has nothing else to lose so, he decides to join a growing underground rebellion and fight back, taking reluctant friend Frank (Keith David) and accidental hostage Holly (Meg Foster) along for the ride. But the aliens are everywhere and so are the traitorous humans that have sold out and John Nada and Co. have some pretty big odds to overcome if they are to find and eliminate the beings’ hypnotic signal and wake the world up from it’s alien induced slumber.

They Live may not be Carpenter’s strongest work, but it is still a fan favorite and a lot of fun. The film moves fast and there is a lot of suspenseful action including a now classic fistfight between “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and The Thing’s Keith David and the gunfight finale inside a cable TV office building. As usual Carpenter gives the film a nice look on a low budget with Gary B. Kibbe once again filling former Carpenter DOP Dean Cundey’s shoes nicely with some beautiful camerawork. The political messages are a little heavy-handed, but there is enough action and aliens to even it out and the film has some really nice SPFX for a very modestly budgeted film especially those that portray the real world as seen through the signal blocking glasses. The film has some clunky dialog and it could have used some more time within the workings of the rebellion to get us a bit more endeared to the freedom fighters before they clash with the invaders, but the focus is on Nada and Frank and it is they who are left with the task of taking the bizarre invaders down. The film also has some very uniquely designed extraterrestrials to act as our villains and the make-up FX work well. It is both one of Carpenter’s lighter films and yet, ironically, one of his most politically and socially critical. As, despite the dire message, the film also has a very satirical sense of humor as well and that helps us past some of it’s flaws as it doesn’t take itself too seriously that we don’t have a good time watching Piper run out of bubblegum and kick ass.

And as for our leading man, Piper does OK here. Carpenter hired him because he felt he had a look of someone who has lived a hard life and that works in the case of down on his luck Nada. Piper isn’t the best actor, but he holds his on especially during the action scenes and only stumbles a little in some of the more dialog heavy moments. Kurt Russell would have been prefect, but Piper works better than expected. Keith David is good as always. He makes Frank a likable and honorable man, but one who we believe doesn’t take any crap from anyone. Foster is a little stiff as Holly, but since she plays a woman thrust into a very surreal situation, it almost fits the part. There are also some solid small roles from frequent Carpenter collaborators like Peter Jason as the rebellion leader Gilbert and George ‘Buck’ Flower as a homeless man who discovers the benefit of playing nice with the ruling alien elite. Carpenter and associate Alan Howarth again deliver a memorable score to support the film.

They Live is now considered a cult classic and I certainly agree. While it may have some familiar elements and common themes, it still comes across as a unique little movie and one with an important message that still resonates almost three decades later. And despite it’s message being a large part of the film’s plot, Carpenter wraps it with a fun, Action/ Sci-Fi coating to make it easily digestible. Piper may not have been the strongest actor to cast in the lead, but he does carry the flick and it’s fun to watch him have a good time with the part even if he stumbles a bit in the film’s more serious moments. Not Carpenter’s best flick, but still very enjoyable and once again another film that has found it’s audience years later. Again John Carpenter proves he is a director who is well ahead of his time.

3 men all out of bubblegum!

they live rating

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING DEMONS (2014)

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 JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING DEMONS (2014)

I’ll admit despite my love of the Asian cinema, I am not a fan of Stephen Chow’s movies. I find his comedy bits to be heavy-handed and annoying far more then funny, his Looney Tunes inspired slapstick scenes wear out their welcome quickly and the tone of his films is all over the place. He’s got imagination and the film’s are colorful, I’ll give him that, but, overall I find his humor tedious and grating. That and he loves to overdo it with cheesy CGI. And his latest tale adapted from a Chinese classic is no different, though I think I liked it better then what films of his I have seen.

The story is of monk and wannabe demon fighter Tang Sanzang (Wen Zhang) who would rather turn the demons back to good then destroy them. Tang must not only contend with a massive and murderous pig demon but, the amorous attentions of female demon fighter Miss Duan (the gorgeous Shu Qi) whose love for Tang goes against his wish to attain enlightenment with Buddha. To reach his goals his master advises him to seek out the imprisoned Monkey King (Huang Bo), the greatest of all the demons and convince him to reform and help subdue the pig demon. But, with the interference of Duan and three other eccentric demon hunters, can Tang subdue The Monkey King or will he fall victim to the powerful trickster’s deceptive schemes and release the demon back into the world?

Ancient China set fantasy tale in itself could have been a lot of fun with it’s premise of a straight-laced monk being pursued by a fiery vixen of a demon hunter while facing some of the most powerful supernatural creatures in Chinese folklore but, once again Chow, this time with co-director Derek Kok, fills his movie with some really broad and unfunny comedy bits that go on far too long as do his cartoonish slapstick set-ups. The man has the sense of humor of a 12 year old. And it’s a shame because, the film has a fun story and some really nice visuals, not to mention, Wen Zhang and Shu Qui have a nice chemistry together, and could have been far more entertaining with a little restraint. But, going overboard is Chow’s style and he seems to love to waste running time with really lame comedy routines like the endless prattle between a young couple who are only going to become victims in a few minutes anyway and the opening scene with a fish demon that is over 15 minutes long. It’s just tedious and annoying since it’s not funny to begin with. Thankfully Chow seems to settle down in the last act when Tang reaches the cave where the Monkey King is imprisoned and we get a showdown between demons and demon hunters with Tang’s quest for enlightenment put to the test. I did enjoy the last bit somewhat and it reminded me of some of the far better Chinese film fanatsies that I love though, sillier and not as memorable. The FX are a bit stronger so, the CGI wasn’t as obnoxious as it could have been.

The cast all overact but, that is to be expected with such an overindulgent filmmaker at the helm. As stated Zhang and Qi work well together. Zhang makes a decent and noble hero though, it is the beautiful Shu Qi who shows a real gift for comedy despite that most of the bits fall flat or fail to be very funny. Too bad she didn’t have better material. The rest of the characters are all cartoonish and eccentric and the actors who portray them are suitably over the top and it works within the context of the type of film Chow is making.

I gave the movie a try and at least it didn’t give me a headache like Kung Fu Hustle. If you like Chow’s overindulgent style or find his juvenile sense of humor funny, then you should love this. For me it was just too silly… and not in a good way… and typical Chow with slapstick comedy bits that go on far too long or stop the story cold. There was some entertainment in the last act that didn’t get on my nerves and it was fun seeing Shu Qi show some comic gifts despite the weak bits she’s given to do. So, I’ll cut this film a bit of slack but, at this point, I don’t think I’ll be becoming a Stephen Chow fan anytime soon.

2 and 1/2 sexy demon fighters.

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: DEVIL’S DUE (2014)

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DEVIL’S DUE (2014)

I like the found footage sub-genre. It just works for me. And I will admit there are a lot of bad ones out there but, when they work, they can be very spooky or entertaining. As these flicks go, Devil’s Due isn’t bad, there are some genuinely spooky bits, a few good scares and quite a few scenes that were very funny though I’m not certain if it was intentional or not. But, entertainment is entertainment and I was reasonably entertained by this found footage horror.

The story finds newlyweds Zach (Zach Gilford) and Samantha (Allison Miller) McCall on a honeymoon in the Dominican Republic with Zach documenting everything because, Allison’s parents are gone and they never did, leaving his new wife with nothing to remember them by. After Sam gets shaken up at a very spooky palm reading, a jovial cab driver picks them up and promises to take them somewhere fun. He takes them to what appears to be a rave in a cave (good name for a band) and soon they both pass out. The camera is left on in Sam’s bag and catches what appears to be some kind of ritual or ceremony being performed with Sam at it’s center. They awake in their hotel the next morning with no memory of it and leave for home. But, soon after they arrive home, Sam finds she is pregnant and with this unexpected pregnancy comes some weird occurrences, strange figures watching the house and some very odd and aggressive behavior from Sam. The further her pregnancy goes, the weirder things get. Zach begins to investigate and when he reviews his footage, he finds that there might be something demonic going on… and it might be going on inside his wife.

Written by Lindsay Devlin and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (who directed one of the most effective segments, 10/31/98, in the anthology film V/H/S), this found footage horror is a fairly entertaining little movie. It doesn’t always succeed and some of the bits that might have been meant to be creepy are actually laugh-out-loud funny… such as the parking lot scene or the three teens encountering Sam in the woods… but, this could just be the directors having a little fun with the familiar trappings of a story like this and ultimately, I’ll take unintentional or intentional laughs over boredom any day. The filmmakers cleverly overcome the “why are they still filming” by utilizing Zach’s action cam for some scenes. It’s a small camera that clips onto his clothes that he bought for their honeymoon activities (not the bedroom kind, relax!) and he wears it to document his ‘investigation’ so when the unholy water breaks, it continues to document the horror. They also have the mysterious figures who are watching Sam, infultrate the house and set up hidden cameras to keep an eye on the couple and we get footage from these as well. And thus, when things really start to go all Rosemary’s Baby, we get a good view and the last act does work and even with a few cheesy moments, it provides some chills and scares and is pretty effective even though we have seen the ‘woman carrying a demon seed’ scenario many times before. The film does have some very spooky sequences. There are plot holes too, such as why the mysterious figures never encounter the McCalls’ dog when they enter the house to install the cameras but, they do when they re-enter the house at the finale. We clearly see the couple’s activities while the mystery men are in the house and the dog is not with them. But, I’ll cut the filmmakers some slack as they did avoid the over-abundant use of jump scares that a lot of today’s horror likes to rely on and did try to give the film some genuine frights and do succeed on creating some creepy atmosphere. Not a perfect film but, certainly not a bad one either.

The two leads, Gilford and Miller make a cute and likable couple. Miller especially can evoke some sympathy or come across creepy when the script calls for it. And there are various supporting players who portray family members or individuals who we should be wary of and they all do a good job of coming across as fairly real, especially those playing relatives. And the dog was awesome even if his character seemed to disappear when convenient.

So, overall, I liked Devil’s Due. It’s not great but, the filmmakers show potential and they did entertain whether it was intentional or not. I laughed at a few things that might have been intended to be disturbing but, could have been the filmmakers having some fun, and when the final act kicked into gear, it delivers some spooky goods and a few good scares. Once the credits rolled, I found myself having been entertained and that’s what counts. So, if you like found footage or horror in general, give The Devil’s Due it’s due. And even better, it’s got some good music in it, too. Not sure I have ever heard Elvis played during a satanically themed movie before but… sorry King, it kinda works.

3 hidden surveillance cameras.

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WARNING: the trailer, in my opinion, is very spoiler-ish and reveals some of  the best bits of the film.

 

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: STEPHEN KING’S IT (1990)

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STEPHEN KING’S IT (1990)

Based on Stephen King’s book, this TV mini-series was first aired back in November of 1990 and it’s taken me quite a long time but, I have finally caught up with it. To be clear, I haven’t read the book so, I am viewing the movie as a movie and not comparing it to the original source material for which I am not familiar.

Book based horror tells the story of 7 childhood friends in the small Maine town of Derry, where, at this time, there have been a rash of murders and disappearances of small children including the little brother of one of the group. And soon after, the group themselves become terrorized by something evil in the form of a horrifying clown who calls himself Pennywise (Tim Curry). The creature preys on their fears and weaknesses until the seven friend’s finally gather the courage to enter the abandoned sewer plant where they believe this creature lives and after a terrifying confrontation, appear to have defeated it. But, they make a promise that if “It” ever returns they would come together and fight the creature once more… But, after 30 years their worst nightmares come true and children start to disappear or are found murdered again in Derry and the call is raised for the “Loser’s Club” to rejoin and keep their promise. But, the horrors of what happened in 1960 are hard to overcome and worse yet, the mysterious and sinister Pennywise knows they are coming and is more than ready. Can the group defeat their own fears and reunite to put this fiend to rest once and for all… or will they all finally fall victim to the monstrous clown… or whatever it is that has haunted this town for generations?

TV movie directed by John Carpenter alumni Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III, the original Fright Night II), who also adapted King’s book with Lawrence D. Cohen, is a well made and entertaining film though a bit long-winded when watched all at once instead of broken up into two parts as when it was originally aired. The film starts off in 1990 as we are first treated to the murder of a poor child by the fleetingly glimpsed Pennywise and then slowly over the course of the first 90 minutes we are introduced to the main characters both as children and adults and then shown the horrifying events that take place in 1960 that lead up to the being’s temporary defeat and the pact made to return if need be. The narrative is a little choppy but, it smoothes out after about 3/4 of an hour and since King likes to add extensive detail and backgroud to his many characters, it’s easy to see why the filmmakers weren’t 100% successful in relaying that to screen even with 3 hours to work with. The narrative is much smoother in it’s second half as it builds to the reunion of friends and then it’s climactic confrontation. Even with the uneven narrative in the first act, the film is effective and creepy fun, especially when Curry is onscreen as Pennywise. He really nails the whole scary clown thing and seems to be having a blast as the sinister villain. It’s in the final battle when sadly It let’s us down as the film turns into another movie altogether once the creature, in it’s true form, is revealed. Not only does the climax become a routine monster movie complete with a generic creature, but, it robs us of what we have been wanting to see all along, Pennywise getting what’s coming to him. The creature in true form is basically a monstrous spider and while I liked the charming stop-motion animation from Terminator FX man Gene Warren Jr. and his Fantasy II Film Effects, it simply doesn’t resonate and is devoid of what made the film work for the last 2 and 1/2 hours, Curry’s creepy clown. Overall, I think Wallace did a good job and he certainly learned from Carpenter as evidence by his camera angles and Richard Leiterman’s Dean Cundey-esque cinematography but, the film’s cheesy monster movie (and I love cheesy monster movies) ending doesn’t give his film the horrifying and powerful climax the story needs. Whether it was the script or the book itself that disappoints… though friends assure me the book does not… we need this to end with an intense bang and not a whimper. And despite all it gets right, the film does end on a whimper and that is really sad because otherwise, this was a very engaging and fun horror flick with talented people involved on all fronts from behind the camera to a fine cast.

And as for the cast, Wallace get’s good work out of them all, but, obviously Curry takes the creepy ball and runs with it and makes this his show. Pennywise is a true cinema villain with Curry under the grease paint and it’s sad he is replaced by Boris the spider at the climax. The rest of the cast both young and adult actors are good. We have… Richard Thomas as adult Bill Denbrough with Johathan Brandis as young Bill, Annette O’Toole as adult Beverly Marsh with Ginger Snaps‘ Emily Perkins as young Beverly, John Ritter as adult Ben Hanscom and Brandon Crane as young Ben, Harry Anderson as adult Richie Tozier and Buffy’s Seth Green as young Richie, Fade To Black’s Dennis Christopher as adult Eddie Kaspbrak and Adam Faraizi as young Eddie, Tim Reid as adult Mike Hanlon and Marlon Taylor as young Mike with last, but not least, Richard Mazur as adult Stanley Uris with Ben Heller as young Stan. They all do a good job giving some personality to their characters, both in young and adult incarnations and are an endearing bunch. A solid cast who perform their roles well though, all upstaged by Curry and, as he is to haunt their nightmares, rightfully so!

So, I will say I enjoyed It and am now curious to read the book. The ending did let me down, although it was the type of ending I would have enjoyed if it were attached to a low budget monster movie and not the finale that we were building three hours up to. Overall, I would still recommend it as a creepy good time and one of the better TV made movies around, it’s just a shame that it falls short of classic status due to a final act which doesn’t live up to the rest of the film’s promise.

3 creepy clowns.

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2007)

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THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2007)

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a very hard, but, not impossible, to find faux documentary that uses police confiscated VHS tapes and interviews with various witnesses such as FBI, law enforcement, family and friends to tell the gruesome and disturbing story of the Water Street Butcher (Ben Messmer), a still at-large serial killer who terrorized New York state and the surrounding area for over 10 years. The killer not only confounded law enforcement authorities while murdering numerous innocents but, also framed a former police officer for his crimes and forced a young woman (Stacy Chbosky) to be his slave and participate in his heinous acts for over a decade. Between the various interviews, we are shown clips of the killer’s homemade tapes documenting his increasingly cruel and sadistic acts from stalking his victims to their abductions to their grisly murders. According to this mock documentary, the true identity of this individual has never been discovered and he is still out there somewhere…

The thing that really hinders this horror flick is that the script by director John Erick Dowdle and producer Drew Dowdle never gives the interview subjects the least bit of realism in what they say. None of the people being interviewed ever sound like real people relating real information or experiences and their emoting, if any, never seems sincere. The so-called law enforcement officials and forensic experts interviewed, especially, do not sound like professionals and never achieve the sense of being real people. They sound exactly like what they are, unknown actors reciting dialogue for a movie. Messmer’s masked killer is also far too theatrical and over the top to be scary. Despite the disturbing acts we watch him commit, he seems to be channeling Nicholson’s Joker and it really hinders the credibility that we are watching actual footage of an actual killer. Again, never is there the illusion that this man is anything but an actor in a movie. The witnesses also never seem like real people, the killer’s landlord in particular never seems all that disturbed that all this all went on in her house. There are some sequences that are supposed to be creepy but, just come across as silly such as a scene involving two girl scouts who knock on the killer’s door selling cookies. Really? How could you even write this scene and think it could be taken seriously? Or, worse, was it incredibly intrusive comic relief? That and a scene where an ex-FBI profiler (a hammy Ron Harper) turned teacher, uses infamous serial killer Ted Bundy like Hannibal Lecter to gain insight. The scene is equally silly and shatters any illusion this is real. And did we need to watch the balloon fetish scenes more then once? And maybe it’s me but, having the killer remain such a mystery, let’s the Dowdle Brothers off the hook at employing any true cleverness in giving their killer a character with actual motives… none of which we learn beyond law enforcement conjecture.

On a technical level, I have some personal gripes that I won’t hold against the film but, as someone with videography and digital editing software experience, I had two problems here that annoyed me. One, I had, and still have, an old VHS camcorder and the quality is definitely not as bad as the film portrays… which leads me to my second point… I felt the ‘bad video’ filter used on the killer’s footage was obvious and overdone. There was a pattern to it that, to me, was easily detectable and thus distracting. But these points are personal from technical experience and I won’t apply them to how I overall rate this film.

So what did the film get right? By the nature of what is portrayed here, the killer’s footage is brutal, sadistic and therefor, very disturbing. There is some atmosphere here, even though we never get the sense that this is anything more then a movie with a gimmick, we still are treated to some very horrifying imagery. Director Dowdle has a graphic imagination and the combination of brutality and the killer’s theatrical tendency to dress his slave and himself in disturbing costumes and masks does give us the chills. It’s too bad the film itself around these images wasn’t as equally effective. The side story of abducted ‘slave’ Cheryl Dempsey (Stacy Chbosky) that gets some focus in the last act, also works well and we are not only chilled at the effect her stay with her ‘master’ has had on her but, the actress does evoke sympathy in her performance. The scenes where she is forced to kill are equally sad as we see the hesitation in the actress’ body language and can sense her own horror. Too bad the rest of the cast couldn’t emote like her.

Which brings me to the cast. Except for Chbosky the cast are all fairly bland or just bad. Messmer’s killer overacts as stated earlier, as does Ron Harper’s ex-FBI/criminology  teacher. None of the rest of the cast of unknowns ever give us the impression we are watching real law enforcement officials or real friends and family or people who have suffered any actual emotional loss. The lack of conviction in most of the performances really hinders the film’s effectiveness in trying to convince us this is a real documentary about real events. It’s only a movie and we never forget that. No better reminder then the actor (Chip Goodwin) playing the son of accused ex-cop James Foley (Bill Bookston), he is awful to the point of laughable and it’s jarring to what little atmosphere the film had tried to maintain up to this point. Not to mention, the sub-plot of Foley being framed for the crimes doesn’t really add much or go anywhere anyway and Goodwin’s dialog is pretty awful in itself.

Overall, this film which MGM gave a small release and then buried with no plans to have it see the light of day, may or may not be worth finding if you are even interested in looking. It has some sadistic moments which do chill but, overall fails to ever pull off the illusion that we are watching anything but, yet another brutal and blood-soaked movie about yet another serial killer. The music by Keefus Ciancia is simple but, does add a bit of atmosphere to the proceedings at least, which helps. I won’t outright recommend you track this down, unless you are a completest when it comes to serial killer flicks or found footage or horror in general. Happy hunting?

2 and 1/2 vhs tapes.

poughkeepsie tapes rating

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REVIEW: HER (2013)

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HER (2013)

Finally caught up with this interesting, involving and slightly whimsical Spike Jonze flick and found it a very enjoyable, offbeat and heartfelt movie. The story takes place in a not too distant future and focuses on Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who writes letters for others for a living and has just suffered a heartbreaking separation from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore, in his loneliness, buys a computer operating system with an artificial intelligence made to learn and adapt to their owner’s wants and needs. Theodore chooses a female voice and the OS chooses the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). But, the more time Theodore spends with Samantha, the more their relationship grows and the more Theodore thinks she’s all he needs and starts to fall in love with her. And Samantha feels likewise but, as Samantha grows and evolves and begins to experience new emotions and desires, will Theodore be all she needs?

Writer/director Spike Jonze delivers a rarity, an intriguing and very original romantic-comedy, a sub-genre that is one of the least adventurous genres and one that rarely steps outside the stale formula. He presents the idea of a computerized operating system that becomes such a perfect fit for it’s owner that it creates an emotional attachment, becoming a friend and a lover. Especially poignant, as it does so at a time where Theodore is wounded and afraid to connect with others of flesh and blood including his cute best friend Amy (Amy Adams) who has also recently gotten a divorce. Of course Jonze is making a comment on the increasing reliability on personal computers and cellphones, which almost seem to be a more important part of our lives then our friends and loved ones. We seem to spend more time communicating with and through our computerized devices and less and less actual time socially interacting with those around us. Why commit to the emotional investment of talking to someone face to face when we can text or E-mail and be done with it. Jonze gives his cautionary tale of loving our gadgets too much a very subtle and sly sense of humor and filmed his romance in the city of Shanghai to give it that futuristic look. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema accents Jonze’s colorful but slightly sterile future and there is a very effecting score by the band Arcade Fire that really embellishes the atmosphere and mood set by Jonze’s deft direction and clever story.

The cast is wonderful with Phoenix creating a very strong character in his Theodore, a man with his own intimacy issues who is wounded by the collapse of his marriage and afraid to start looking again and thus finding the perfect mate for his current emotional condition in the artificial intelligence that grows to suit his every need, Samantha. As the voice of Samantha, Scarlett Johansson gives a wonderful performance as an intelligence that is learning new emotions and experiences and who falls in love with the man who teaches them to her. She has only her voice to convey her feelings and does a simply amazing job of portraying the wonder of discovering new emotions and the joy of love for the first time. She and Phoenix make this work. If either of their performances were off, the film would simply have not come together and so well. We also get another strong performance by Amy Adams as the nerdy Amy, Theodore’s best friend and a person he cares for more then he wants to admit. The actress has become quite the chameleon. Rooney Mara is fine as the estranged wife who still haunts Theodore in his thoughts and has a really nice scene with Phoenix as they hesitate when the moment to finally sign the divorce papers comes. A very effecting and real sequence as they both must face the fact that it is indeed over. There are also some eccentric supporting performances by Chris Pratt as the quirky receptionist at Theodore’s job, Olivia Wilde as a pretty blind date that Theodore wasn’t quite ready for and Portia Doubleday as Isabella, a beautiful young woman who wants to act as the surrogate for the bodiless Samantha. A very eclectic and strong cast that really make Jonze’s vision work very well.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed this film very much. It’s a heartfelt romantic comedy as it is an original one. It is also a cautionary tale about becoming too close to our computerized gadgets and letting our flesh and blood relationships fall to the side. It is well directed, intelligently written and has some wonderful and understated performances by all the cast. A very unique indie film and a real treat. Highly recommended! Also features vocal cameos by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.

MonsterZero NJ extra trivia: Pretty actress Portia Doubleday who plays the surrogate Isabella is the daughter of actor Frank Doubleday who played the creepy Romero in John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York!

3 and 1/2 Scarlett’s.

her rating

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WEEKEND BOX OFFICE ESTIMATES MAY 23-25

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Complete estimates are in and “X” marks the top spot!

1. “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” $90.7 Million

2. “Godzilla (2014)” $31.4 Million

3. “Blended” $14.2

4. “Neighbors” $13.9 Million

5. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” $7.8 Million

6. “Million Dollar Arm” $7 Million

7. “The Other Woman”  $3.7 Million

8. “Rio 2” $2.5 Million

9. “Chef” $2.3 Million

10. “Heaven Is For Real” $1.95 Million

 

source: box office mojo

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: X-MEN and X2: X-MEN UNITED

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With X-Men: Days Of Future Past having just opened, I thought it would be fun to look back at the first two flicks that started this comic book-based film series, one that is still ongoing…

 

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X-MEN  (2000)

I never read the X-Men comics though, I am familiar with some of the characters but, as far as the mythos, I take the films for what they are and rate them as movies and not in comparison with the story-lines from the comics.

The first film opens with a scene set in a concentration camp during WWII of a young boy who shows extraordinary power when separated from his mother. Decades later it is revealed that beings with special abilities of all kinds, dubbed mutants, have evolved among us and some government officials, especially a Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), are proposing to make mutant registration a law. Fighting against this form of discrimination are two factions. One, Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) a powerful telepath who wants nothing but, peace between human and mutant alike, and the other, Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), also known as Magneto, a man who has the power to manipulate metal and feels that humans are inferiors who are meant to be ruled and dominated, not trusted. Magneto was the boy we saw in the opening scene and his experience in a concentration camp is what paints his refusal to trust humans ever again. Magneto and his fellow mutants Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Toad (Ray Park) and the massive Sabertooth (Tyler Mane) have hatched a plan to turn a group of world leaders into mutants themselves at a crucial summit at Ellis Island. Xavier and his own team of mutants, Storm (Halle Berry), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) have been trying to stop Magneto and his plans of conquest and with the arrival of the rebellious and quick-tempered mystery man Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the power absorbing Rogue (Anna Paquin), the odds may have shifted… but, in who’s favor?… as one of these new recruits may be crucial to Lehnsherr’s success.

Director Bryan Singer not only creates a fun superhero flick from David Hayter’s screenplay but, adds some very nice dramatic intensity and emotional resonance along with the underlying themes about tolerance and respecting each other for who we are. He gives the film a more down-to-earth look and setting, choosing to present a more grounded approach as how such a story might transpire if it occurred in the modern world and not a more comic book-style fantasy world. And it works very well integrating some fantastic characters into a real world setting and makes these characters very human and identifiable despite their unique powers. Singer takes his material very seriously and let’s it’s moments of unobtrusive humor come from the witty dialog and script and the talent of his cast to deliver those lines and moments. And it’s blend of intensity and subtle wit is what really makes this work so well. Add to it a very fitting score from Michael Kamen and some crisp cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and you have a superhero flick that ranks among the best.

As for the cast. Singer has a really good collection of actors to work with from veterans Stewart and McKellen who bring nobilty and strength to the roles of Xavier and Magneto respectively. Powerful men from two opposite views who are both friends and opponents at the same time, which creates a very intriguing dynamic on screen. Jackman, in my opinion, makes a great Wolverine, giving him a sort of super-powered Snake Plissken vibe that makes the character very cool and endearing. And despite his harsh exterior, Jackman gives him a soul that peeks through enough to give the character some dimensionality. Rounding out are Berry, Paquin, Janssen and Marsden all giving some nice personality to their heroes as Romijn-Stamos, Park and Tyler Mane create worthy adversaries giving weight to their villainous turns. A good cast having a good time with their characters and it helps make this film work all the more better.

I really enjoy this flick, it has a bit smaller scale then some of the superhero epics that have followed but, that works in it’s favor by introducing a few of the more popular characters and letting us get to know them before steadily expanding the universe in future installments. It has a solid cast, a lot of action and some well executed SPFX but, also some emotional depth and nice character development too. Thus making it solid popcorn entertainment with a more substantial center. Like having a fine meal and a delicious dessert at the same time.

3 and 1/2 X-Men.

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X2 ONE SHEET A • Art Machine Job#5263 • Version A •  02/28/03

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X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

With Magneto (Ian McKellen) behind plastic bars the humans feel safer until an attack on The President Of The U.S. by a teleporting mutant named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) provokes drastic measures allowing mutant hating Black Ops operative William Striker (Brian Cox) to receive permission to raid Prof. Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school. But, Striker’s plans run deeper and has a far more sinister goal in regards to the world’s mutants. With Xavier in Striker’s clutches, it’s now up to Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and the rest of the X-Men to stop Striker and rescue Xavier before he succeeds in wiping out all mutant kind but, to do so they may have to join forces with their greatest foes… Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos)… and it’s a good bet Magneto has his own agenda. Can they succeed with serpents in their own den?

Singer returned to the director’s chair for the sequel and working with a script by Michael (Trick R Treat) Dougherty, Dan Harris and David Hayter, from a story by Singer, Hayter and Zak Penn, ups the ante with more action, more mutants but, without sacrificing the depth and characterization he brought first time around. We not only get the dynamic of  foes having to work uneasily together against a common enemy but, we learn more about Logan/Wolverine’s past and watch as the human/mutant relationship is crumbled even further. Our heros not only fight to save themselves here but, their place in the world and how it views them. There is a lot at stake as they battle an enemy who seeks to see them destroyed but, will oddly employ mutant against mutant to get his goal accomplished. It makes for an interesting dynamic and furthers the X-Men cinematic universe without cluttering it up. We get some interesting new characters and get to know the familiar ones a little better. Sigel returns as cinematographer and John Ottman provides a suitable score to the action and drama.

The cast who return all fit into their roles nicely again with McKellen especially having a good time with his second go round as Magneto. We get to see a bit more of what makes them tick, as some try to come to terms with who they are and others who are comfortable with themselves, face change and adversity. We meet a few more mutants such as Cumming’s religious German mutant Nightcrawler and he makes for an interesting and eccentric character. We get teens Shawn Ashmore as Iceman, a kind hearted young man who takes a liking to Paquin’s Rogue and the rebellious Pyro played by Aaron Stanford. On the side of evil, Cox makes a strong villain with his slimy and hateful Striker and the villainous Lady Deathstrike is played with an ice cold exterior yet, a definite lethality by the beautiful Kelly Hu. And there are also some some fun mutant cameos peppered throughout. Again, Singer makes good use of a good cast. Even those with minimal screen time are used well in the screen time they have.

With his second X-Men flick Bryan Singer gives us both sequel and equal as we have a film that once again gives us a healthy dose of superhero action and a good story as well. It’s a fun movie that finds our heroes challenged by not only their villain but, some by the choices they have to make and a world that is ever increasingly hostile towards them. Another strong superhero treat from Bryan SInger and a nice step forward for this series that stumbled somewhat when Singer left and didn’t really regain it’s footing till the delightful First Class.

3 and 1/2 X-Men.

x-men rating

 

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REVIEW: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

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X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

I really liked X-Men: First Class, it was a great way to reboot a series that had stumbled a bit and put together a really solid cast in both familiar and new roles. I was actually a little disappointed when I heard Matthew Vaughn had passed on the next installment, but remained hopeful upon hearing original franchise director Bryan Singer would return to the director’s chair. But sadly all the fun and energy that Vaughn gave his retro entry and even the spark and intensity Singer gave his first two films is, for the most part, lacking in this overlong and somewhat tedious entry that takes until it’s final act to really get going and by then it’s too little too late.

The complicated Terminator-ish story takes place in a bleak and war-torn future where mutants and any human who may have the potential to give birth to a mutation, have been hunted down and almost completely destroyed by the ruling power and their army of robot Sentinels which detect the mutant gene and eliminate those with it. But there is a slight hope. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) have devised a plan to used Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) power to send Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back to his pre-adamantium body in 1973 to contact their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and try to get them to work together and stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the Sentinel’s inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and setting in motion events that will lead to the war that has ravaged the Earth and caused so many deaths. But at this point in history Xavier and Magneto are not allies and Mystique has gone rogue and Logan may only have hours to change the course of time before their time in the future is up… did you get all that?

Obviously, the film has a very complicated story that involves time travel which, always sets up it own set of difficulties, but considering that the film avoids being a mess, is more of a plus. The problem here is not the story details or the logistics of time travel and changing the course of history, but the deadpan tone with which the usually competent Singer directs this affair. Gone is the energy and fun of the first two X-Men films he directed and instead is a very by-the-numbers presentation of what should have been a fun and suspenseful tale. There are a few entertaining bits like Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) speedy and clever way of getting our heroes out of a jam, but the film really has no spark until it reaches it’s climactic act and then we get a bit more of the movie we wanted to see, but it takes over 90 minutes of mostly ho-hum sequences to get there…sequences that should have been very tense and exciting but aren’t. The pace is also slow for a superhero film even one with a plot of such dire importance as this. And maybe that’s it. Singer just seems to take this story just a little too seriously and we rarely get those little witty character moments that made the previous film’s so fun. The camaraderie between the characters just isn’t there. Maybe it’s Simon Kinberg’s script based on a story by Kinberg, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn that simply was too bleak and left out a lot of the fun. Either way X-Men:DOFP just really lacks something till the final scenes and, to be honest, wasn’t very involving till then. I was never bored, but was never fully drawn in. For the most part I was along for the ride, but never really interested in where it was going… and I should have been.

Again Singer works with a very large and familiar cast, but unlike his previous X-Men adventures, the cast here seem to be going through the motions from Stewart to Lawrence to Jackman to McKellen and most of his principles. There is no real passion or energy in their performances despite having all played their roles before save Dinklage. They all seem like they are just performing by the numbers with the only person really giving his role some pop is the young Peters with his smart aleck Quicksilver and sadly his screen-time is limited. Even the usually excellent Fassbender seems like he’d rather be somewhere else. There are plentiful mutant cameos, some familiar and some new, but few of them really resonate other then the amusement of seeing that familiar face or someone intriguing and new. And the new characters, aside from Quicksilver, are really given very little attention, certainly not enough to endear to us to them. Is it possible that these actors have tired of their roles?

It’s not all bad. It is tedious though I never actually got to the point of being bored. The film really did pick up in the last half hour for a pretty decent finale in Washington D.C. that interweaves with the battle raging in the future, though it certainly can’t hold a candle to the Washington D.C. set finale of the Captain America sequel The Winter Soldier and could have had a little more suspense and intensity. The FX are top notch and the scale of the film seems fairly large especially when the action finally starts. Newton Thomas Sigel is back doing the cinematography though, since the film is set in the 70s, I did miss the retro look of John Mathieson’s cinematography on First Class. And maybe that is what one of the problems is, that the film is set in the 70s, but never really felt like it… like, say American Hustle did. John Ottman returns to score from X2 and also did the film editing…busy man…and his score is adequate but a bit uninspired.

So, overall, X-Men: Days Of Future Past may not be an outright disappointment, but it is a letdown and certainly could have been much livelier considering the importance of what was transpiring. Maybe the whole back in time to fix the future thing has run it’s course, or maybe Singer’s time away from Xavier and company has dulled his passion for the material…or maybe it’s still too familiar to elicit a stronger passion. Either way, it’s not the worst X-Men movie, but far from the best. Also stars Nicholas Hoult as Beast/Hank McCoy.

2 and 1/2 X-Men.

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: DEAD AND BURIED (1981)

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DEAD AND BURIED (1981)

80s horror written by Alien scribes Ron Shusett and Dan O’Bannon seems to have developed a reputation and a cult following since it’s unremarkable release back in 1981…but, is that rep and following well deserved? In my opinion…not really.

The story finds a series of murders perpetrated against visitors in the small town of Potter’s Bluff and the efforts of Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) to solve them. The more Gillis investigates, the more bizarre a direction the evidence seems to lead him. Worse still, the more it starts to appear the locals he’s known all his life are not who or what they seem and the town’s kindly mortician (Jack Albertson) might be at the center of it. Will Dan be able to solve the case or will it be the death of him?

Flick has an atmosphere that is a bit unsettling throughout and a nice visual style but, that’s all Director Gary Sherman (Vice Squad, Poltergeist III) accomplishes as the directing is rather flat, creating no suspense for the proceedings and no impact to the gory kill sequences. All the victims are introduced moments before their deaths so they are just subjects for Stan Winston’s gore effects. Sherman also evokes very little in terms of performance from his cast and while the townspeople’s trance-like demeanor might be on purpose, that doesn’t explain everybody else. The dialog is terrible at times and the basic story of a strange little town where out-of-towners are offed with bloody regularity is nothing new, though, the climactic revelation is a bit spooky and different, I’ll give it that.

There is a good cast here which, aside from Farentino and Albertson, also includes Melody Anderson as Gillis’ wife, and familiar faces Lisa Blount (Prince Of Darkness), Barry Corbin (WarGames) and Robert Englund (Do I need to tell you where you’ve seen him?) but, like I said, they aren’t utilized to maximum effect and it’s a shame. With it’s premise and the direction the story leads, there could have been a really good movie here had the film been in hands that had a better idea of what to do with it.

An odd little movie that doesn’t quite accomplish much else then being moody, atmospheric and weird though, Buried is still off the beaten path from the run-of-the-mill slasher flicks that were popular at the time. By today’s standards Dead And Buried is quite dated, being tame and slow moving but, for horror fans it’s definitely worth a curiosity viewing, just don’t expect the hidden classic some make it out to be.

2 and 1/2 hypodermic needles.

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WARNING: Trailer is graphic and contains spoilers if you haven’t seen this flick…

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