Thursday, February 23, 2012

Toys ARE for Children - This Movie is Not

Toys Are Not For Children (1972)
Director: Stanley H. Brassloff.
Seen @: The Colony, Raleigh 
Presented by Cinema Overdrive
Rating: 6.5/10 

This review is a little later than I intended, but how could I let a weird gem like just pass by without sharing the love?

Just in time to celebrate the Valentine's day season (okay, a little late), here's a creepy little sexploitation feature about a woman permanently stuck in childhood who longs for the love of her father. You're probably wondering how far such a film would be willing to go with this idea. I suggest you find out for yourself. In fact, I'd go so far as to recommend this as a date movie. If your relationship survives intact, you'll know you've found a keeper. I'm not sure whether to thank the folks at Cinema Overdrive for digging up this sick little treasure or just try to forget the more, er, uncomfortable parts of the experience. I'm inclined towards the former.

Stan Brassloff didn't just appear out of the blue to unleash this one on the world - he's credited as directing one other sexploitation film, which he also wrote, (Two Girls for a Madman), and penning another (Any Body, Any Way). Toys Are Not for Children does appear to have ended his career though, for what it's worth. I can't say I'm familiar with either of his previous films, or really care to be, judging from what I've read. But in Toys... his ambition seems to have stretched a little higher, as may be evidenced by the last names of the main couple: Godard and Belmond. This ain't no Breathless, but it is pretty skillfully assembled, and actually pretty clever about how it handles the more lurid parts of its story. Not to worry though, however hard it tries, it's still way more grindhouse than arthouse.

The story opens with a scene of its protagonist, Jamie (the aforementioned Godard), getting, er, friendly with a large soldier doll in bed. Enter Mom, a walking avatar of sexual repression and regression, who scolds Jamie for being nasty. Nasty? You haven't seen shit yet, Mom. And as our opening scene ends, we get a title sequence with an original song. I love the fact that so many movies from the 70's and 80's with such seemingly low budgets always found the means to come up with a original song.

Fade to a wedding - yes, Jamie is getting married to a guy who works with her at the toy shop! What becomes clear shortly afterward is just how clearly messed up this girl is. Poor Jamie, I'm sure a Freudian psychologist would have a field day with her. Her problems seem to stem from her childhood, particularly the day when her father left her mother in favor of the company of innumerable whores. Jamie has never gotten over the loss of her father, and now finds her husband a poor substitute. The only thing that comes close to replacing him are the toys he sends her for her birthday... and we already know how much she likes those. Surprisingly, Jamie actually becomes significantly less repressed as this movie continues, but not in the most positive way.

As her own husband becomes increasingly alienated, Jamie sets out on a quest to find her father, with the help of an aging prostitute who lives in the city. I don't want to spoil too much, because it's more fun to wonder just where this movie is heading, and how far it will go. That said, for such a taboo subject, there's actually surprisingly little explicit content in this flick. Many of the key sequences are handled through flashbacks, cutting to pivotal scenes of Jamie's childhood. So most of the time, rather than seeing Jamie self-sabotage, we're seeing the reason she's doing it. The editing keeps the movie interesting, and jumps forward and backward in time throughout the film, giving us insight that might otherwise be absent.

Toys Are Not for Children would not be half as creepy as it is without the performance of Marcia Forbes as Jamie. She plays the role with a weird sort of wide-eyed naivete that's unsettling enough when she's just a repressed housewife, but gets even worse when she becomes a hooker. She's emotionally a child, and since Forbes plays this so strongly in the beginning, it's hard to let it go later on when stuff gets wrong.

This isn't the kind of movie you recommend to someone, but I stand by my statement that it'd be a great date night litmus test. Watch (and enjoy) at your own risk.

6.5 / 10 = It doesn't get a whole lot more unsettling than this.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Nevermore Flashback: Rubber (2010)

Nevermore 2012 begins tomorrow - but in the meantime, here's a review from last year. 

Rubber flat-out tells you it’s going to be weird in the first scene. Sounds great. I’ll gladly watch a movie where a tire gains sentience and rolls around blowing things up with its mind. But do I need to be told it's weird? After the opening monologue, the film takes things a step further along the meta axis and introduces an in-film audience - a whining, bickering, permanently unsatisfied bunch of people who proceed to suffer constant abuse at the hands of a police sheriff who takes the role of ad-hoc director. If it wasn't clear before, this cemented my initial suspicion that director Quentin Dupieux doesn't have much faith in his viewers. If you can get past these initial hurdles, things settle down and get more interesting.

As we hear in the opening monologue, there’s “no reason” for the plot, other than that a movie needs a plot. Really, when you think about it, is the plot of Rubber that much weirder than say… most other Hollywood blockbusters? Robert is a tire that wakes up and becomes sentient, and in the opening scenes (which are really well done) we see him figuring out how to stand up, roll around, and make things explode. Throughout all of this, we're shown scenes of the audience commenting relentlessly on Robert. As we get to know the audience more, the more annoying they get, and eventually it's clear that they're a bunch of insufferable dunces. Films that break the fourth-wall don’t always work for me, particularly when they start to criticize the viewer (e.g. Funny Games). Thankfully, by making this fake audience so stupid, you can confidently place yourself in a higher caliber of film-goer. This is a bullet that's just narrowly dodged though.

As the film continues, the plot gets more and more self-referential, until eventually it's toying with the idea of how a movie should or shouldn't progress. I unconsciously expected the events to build  to a climax, but that's one thing we're denied. A let-down? Maybe, but it fits with the rest of the film. I can't complain without sounding like one of the in-film audience members, which is exactly what I think Dupieux intended.

If this was a little less pretentious (especially toward the end) I would have enjoyed it more. Still, the core idea is entertaining, the visuals are polished, the music is good, and it’s fun when it’s not so preoccupied with its message. Dupieux has turned out a very slick first feature, and it'll be interesting to see where he goes it from here, especially with the ambition he's shown in Rubber.

7/10 = Good, despite being somewhat pretentious.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Nevermore Flashback: El Monstro Del Mar (2010)

Nevermore 2012 is just a couple days away, so I've decided to post some old reviews of films that I saw there last year. Stay tuned for reviews and info from this year's fest later on in February!

El Monstro Del Mar might not completely value style over substance, but there’s a lot of style here and sometimes it’s so thick that it obscures the rest of the film. Initially trying to invoke memories of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the film quickly moves on to generic exploitation references that feel like Tarantino at his worst. Just when it starts to get its own footing, it breaks into a full-fledged horror sequence that's most reminiscent of the tentacled monsters in The Deadly Spawn. There are just so many different things going on here that it’s hard to get a sense for what this movie is trying to do other than seem cool by association. (And why is the title in Spanish? This is an Aussie flick. I never quite figured that one out - please enlighten me if you know the answer.)

If you’re looking to just kick back and enjoy a cocktail of trash, then this film does delivers. In the beginning, we’re introduced to three murderous girls who kill for apparently no reason other than that it’s a cheap thrill. They end up crashing at a small seaside town where a prudish old man and his granddaughter live, seduce the granddaughter into a drug and alcohol fueled festival of debauchery, and eventually manage to wake an ancient monster that lives underneath the sea. The ending is worth talking about, because it boasts one of the most insane monster-attacks I've seen in a while. After waking the kraken, the girls and grandpa get trapped in a small shack and have to fend off a ton of bloodthirsty razor-toothed tentacles. This scene is done mostly with a mixture of practical and green-screen effects, and against all odds, it works! It's really too bad that this scene isn't sufficiently built up to within the bulk of the film. But by god, once it gets going, it's a lot of fun.

In the end though, the enjoyable bits aren't quite worth the slog. This is by no means a long film, but after about half an hour, it feels like it’s stalling until the end. The music is good, there are some unexpectedly surreal sequences, and plenty of little entertaining bits, but the film never breaks off and establishes its own tone. Although pretty light-hearted (in the sick sort of way the best trash films are), it never seems too tongue-in-cheek, which I appreciated. I really think the filmmakers were trying to give genuine homage to some of their favorite films. I just would have liked to see a little more of their personal style shine through.

5/10 = Hit and miss, with a few great scenes.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Nevermore Flashback: Black Death (2010)

Nevermore 2012 is just days away, so I've decided to post some old reviews of films that I saw there last year. Stay tuned for reviews and info from this year's fest later on in February!

Christopher Smith's last film, Triangle, took what I thought would be just another typical time-travel/time-loop idea but added a little bit of horror and spun it in such a way that kept it fresh. I was really looking forward to seeing what he'd do in Black Death with a completely different setting. This film takes place in an apocalyptic plague-ridden medieval England where the dead line the streets. The plague is viewed by some as the judgment of God upon the sinful, by others as the work of Satan, and by a heretical few as proof that neither exist. A devout young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is sent to investigate after news of a lone village that remains strangely free from disease reaches the church. He's accompanied Ulrich (played by veteran swordsman Sean Bean), a local bishop's aide whose ruthless morality rivals that of the most vicious inquisitor. Rumors of witchcraft and necromancy in the village run wild, and whether the their pagan practices are the cause of their immunity is the mystery that drives most of the action.

As you might expect from a film set in the dark ages, this is a very dark movie - not just visually, but thematically. Smith does a great job evoking how the ignorance of the age made superstition as real as fact to the characters. While the answers to the mysterious immunity seem obvious at first (the plague simply hasn't reached the pagan town, they have a special genetic trait, etc.), the true picture becomes more uncertain as we're shown an increasing amount of seemingly supernatural events. Since magic is so common in fantasy stories set in medieval or pseudo-medieval worlds, the realism of the film is always in flux, and this makes for a really thought-provoking film.

These metaphysical mindgames are balanced with strong character drama and development. Osmund is a little too naive to like in the beginning, but as he's exposed to more of the world, his struggle with his faith provides some more depth. These struggles reach a climax due to the actions of the manipulative pagan leader Langiva (Carice Van Houten), who tries to persuade him that his church has deceived him all along. Bean has played a version of his grizzled swordman character a lot, and you can tell that he likes it. Here he's particularly ruthless, adding a bloody counterpoint to the Osmund's pacifism.

Smith’s medieval world is a nihilistic place with a mood as black as the plague, and it fits extremely well with the dreary landscapes, dirty city streets, and inevitable conflict. It's a perfect setting for a film that delves into deep metaphysical issues that are punctuated by some truly bloody action.

8/10 = Recommended

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Nevermore Flashback: Mold! (2009)

With Nevermore 2012 now a week and a half away, I've decided to post some reviews of films that I saw there last year. These include a mix of low-budget features, revivals, and short films as well as some films which have since gotten wider releases. These reviews were originally posted on my (now defunct) personal blog. Stay tuned for reviews and info from this year's fest later on in February. In the meantime, enjoy!

I watch low-budget independent films like I watch minor league sports. Never mind that I don't watch sports - I like the analogy. What I mean is that I don’t go in expecting everything to be perfectly refined or completely polished, and that's okay. The unpredictability adds an extra layer of excitement. While there's a vast sea of crap out there, there's also some hidden talent waiting to be found. Every once in a while when things really succeed, it’s just that much cooler. Mold! is the first feature-length film from Neil Meschino, and it's another piece of evidence that low-budget splatter can be way more fun than anything a slickly produced feature has to offer.

Mold! works within the tried-and-true (and cost-effective) scenario of locking a group of people in a building and introducing an unseen menace to prey on them. Here, the setting is a government-run laboratory, the players are a mix of scientists and politicians, and the monster is a new strain of fast-growing, ultra-lethal, weapons-grade green mold. If there's one thing I've learned from working with real science, it's that anything experimental eventually breaks. Not that theoretical work doesn't break, but I'm safe from explosions or infection if my code crashes. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the deadly mold's containment system. When it breaks and infects the privates of a visiting congressman, you know that things are only going to go from bad to worse. Thankfully for the world (but not so much for those in the lab), there's a security system in place that locks down the building, and as the survivors meet their increasingly gruesome demises one by one, they've got to struggle with the idea that they may not make it out in the end.

A few things really shine in this film. The practical effects are great, and as the mold spreads, the deaths get more and more outrageous. The splatter is a lot of fun in this film, and helps it maintain momentum in what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward "oh no, we're trapped in a building" movie. While CGI is fine in a pinch and usually pretty cost-effective, but I'm glad it didn't end up being a crutch here. In the end, nothing provokes a visceral reaction like seeing someone spew a mouthful of green food-colored corn syrup and latex chunks across a room. Meschino (who was present at the screening) described how the lack of heat in the building where they filmed forced some actors to be covered in cold slime, often wearing nothing more than their drenched undergarments. Their discomfort can't have hurt their performances - if anything it gives their frustrated screaming an extra degree of credibility. There are a few aesthetic nods to low-budget gore films from the eighties that fit in nicely as well. The most prominent are the use of stock footage and a cheap synth-laden soundtrack. All of these things give the film a reckless sort of feel that works in its favor. I get the same feel from a lot of older low-budget horror (Basket Case and Street Trash are the first favorites that come to mind), where the constraints demanded creativity in order to achieve any degree of success.

That said, some aspects still feel amatuerish. The pacing drags from time to time, especially in between kills. These segments would normally be a great time to ramp up the suspense, but they're undercut by the fact that the dialogue frequently falters and the actors can't always pull off their material seriously. While the hamming can be entertaining, it grows a little thin. For the most part, these missteps can be overlooked in favor of the sheer fun that this film wants you to have.

As a whole, Mold! is an entertaining movie that accomplishes what it sets out to do: gross you out and make you laugh. It's willing to be outrageous in order to stand out from the crowd and doesn’t let a lack of money or resources get in its way. I recommend this one, and look forward to seeing where Meschino takes it from here. (Probably toward a sequel if the ending is to be believed.)

You can find out more about the film (or watch it online, for a fee) at Also worth noting is that Mold! won the audience award for best feature at Nevermore.

7/10 = A low-budget feature that's a step ahead of the pack.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Nevermore Flashback: Darkman (1990)

With Nevermore 2012 just weeks away, I've decided to post some reviews of films that I saw there last year. These will include a mix that range from low-budget features, revivals, and short films to some films which have since gotten wider releases. These reviews were originally posted on my personal blog (which no longer exists). I'll be posting reviews and info from this year's fest later on in February. In the meantime, enjoy!

Since the turn of the century it seems like we’ve been doomed to have only watered-down Sam Raimi features (with Drag Me to Hell as the arguable exception) - faint echoes of the dark slapstick-filled B-movies that he’s typically known for. Darkman is distilled Raimi from the early era though, and is a more pure superhero counterpart to his enjoyable but increasingly disappointing Spiderman trilogy.

Darkman (Liam Neeson) is Raimi’s own superhero creation, and is equal parts The Shadow and The Phantom of the Opera. He’s a former scientist who’s been disfigured after a bunch of gangsters dip his face in some acid and an explosion blows him through the roof of his lab. You see, his girlfriend works for a construction magnate who’s making some shady deals, and Darkman just happened to have some implicating evidence in his lab… Whatever - what’s really important is that this is a revenge story, and once he realizes that his pain receptors have been disconnected, he’s granted super strength via adrenaline rushes when he’s angry, and he’s able to make synthetic molds of other people’s faces to hide his own disfigurement, he starts taking the bad guys out one by one.

I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. This has all the humor and over-the-top action that you could want in a Raimi film. Take the fucking elephant!

8/10 = Definitely worth your time

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nevermore Flashback: Rare Exports (2010)

With Nevermore 2012 just weeks away, I've decided to post some reviews of films that I saw there last year. These will include a mix that range from low-budget features and short films to some films which have since gotten wider releases. These reviews were originally posted on my personal blog (which no longer exists). I'll be posting reviews and info from this year's fest later on in February. In the meantime, enjoy!

There's something inherently sinister about Santa Claus - that mystical arbiter who watches children throughout the year, keeping track of good deeds and bad, and eventually meting out rewards and punishment at the end of the year. Okay, maybe not so much punishment, at least in the majority of the western world. Although Santa isn't quite so jolly everywhere, as anyone familiar with Krampus knows. Evil Santas are scattered throughout horror films, but none I've seen could so far could stand up against the mythological demon-Santa of Rare Exports. I more-or-less knew the premise of this movie going into it, but I was still blown away by how much fun it was.

Young Pietari is a Finnish boy who’s not looking forward to Christmas this year. He’s somehow managed to get his hands on all sorts of sinister-looking grimoires that show the original Santa (who resembles a demon more than a jolly fat man) doing things like ripping children apart and boiling them alive. Not that Pietari’d have to worry if he hadn’t been especially naughty this year… Meanwhile, up on a mountaintop overlooking the village, some English archaeologists are digging up what they believe is the corpse of Jolly Old St. Nick. This corpse still has a pulse though. When all hell starts to break loose and bloodthirsty elves begin to kidnap all the children in the village, Pietari has to man up and figure out a way to get himself back on the nice list before there are no more days left on the advent calendar.

Rare Exports is as clever as it is fun. I thought I more or less knew the direction it was heading early on, but it continually surprised me with multiple twists and a villain on a much larger scale than I expected. You have to love a movie where the characters haul away souvenir Santa-parts and talk about the magic of Christmas while massive explosions go off in the background. In a slightly less prudish world, this would be a great kids’ movie. (Although be prepared for a little bit of Santa-dong.) The violence isn’t excessive, but it isn’t toned down when it is present. The film relies more on suspense that’s built up bit by bit as the countdown to Christmas eve draws closer and Saint Nick awakens.

This is one of the most clever horror movies I’ve seen in a while, and it maintains the difficult balance of being dark but at the same time light-hearted. Even though Christmas is several months gone, I'd watch this at any point in the year.

8.5/10 = Definitely worth seeing

Friday, February 3, 2012

Nevermore Flashback: Dark Souls (2010)

With Nevermore 2012 just weeks away, I've decided to post some reviews of films that I saw there last year. These will include a mix that range from low-budget features and short films to some films which have since gotten wider releases. These reviews were originally posted on my personal blog (which no longer exists). I'll be posting reviews and info from this year's fest later on in February. In the meantime, enjoy!

Dark Souls (Mørke Sjeler) hails from Norway and is an intermittently effective zombie/slasher mash-up. Its zombification is an ultra-slow-acting illness, and the film occasionally uses this to flirt with some interesting ideas. Despite the fact that there are some definite high points, in the end it more or less boils down to a rehash of a lot of what you’ve seen before.

I knew it was going to be a good weekend at Nevermore when I walk straight from work into a scene where a dude in an orange jumpsuit bores a hole in a jogger’s head with a drill. Things start to get weird when the girl appears back at her home after the police have pronounced her dead. She must spend a lot of time sitting silently in her room and looking listlessly at her computer monitor, because her dad takes a pretty long time to realize that she’s not her usual self. She’s near catatonic, and her skin has turned all black and splotchy. The doctors aren’t sure what to do, especially when she starts vomiting up tarry black goo, but for some reason her father thinks he can take better care of her and brings her home. Is this the start of a zombie outbreak? Sort of. There's a quiet, almost sad span of the film where we're given a chance to empathize with the girl's father as he slowly comes to terms with the fact that his daughter's illness may be terminal. Or even worse - interminable. From here, things take somewhat of an unexpected turn - rather than having a full-out panic-stricken zombie apocalypse scenario, news of similar attacks slowly begins to surface, and the girl’s father starts investigating the situation on his own. This isn’t a naturally occurring virus, obviously, so the question is: why is it happening, and who is in charge?

The overall atmosphere is the best thing about the film - it’s dark, grimy, and features bursts of intense violence amplified by the grinding soundtrack. But there’s nothing new here for anyone who’s followed European horror for the last decade or so, and unfortunately there are also more than a few missteps. These include several "why doesn't he..." moments where the characters don’t think to do simple things like turn on the lights when they hear something crawling down a dark hallway, or drill the main bad guy in the head when he’s just sitting there looking at them. We're not deprived of answers to the mysteries here, but ambiguity might have been a better option in retrospect. There’s a botched attempt at exposition toward the end in the form of a bum that literally just wanders out of a bush and starts talking. Why?

I can see this eventually working its way over to the US as a DVD release [Note: I haven't heard anything about this since last year...], and it wouldn’t be a terrible rental if you’re looking for another foreign zombie film that’s marginally different from the rest of them.

5.5/10 = Worth a look if it ever makes it to video

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Revisiting The Shining Theatrically

I'm not sure how many times I've seen The Shining, but it was one of my favorite horror movies during high school (a time in my life when I was on a serious Kubrick kick). It's also a film that I haven't seen in quite a while, partially due to the fact that it became so familiar that I wanted to give it some space. Having the chance to see it theatrically was too good to pass up though. Retrofantasma's second show of the year was a double-feature of both Kubrick's classic and The Lost Boys, which was also a big hit with my high school D&D group (pardon me if my nerdiness is showing...). Apparently lots of other Triangle-dwellers remembered these films fondly too - the show sold out and played to a completely packed house.

I won't bother recounting the story of The Shining, as I think it's known by more or less everyone by now (and if not, don't read this). I do want to talk about how this particular viewing affected me. It's a testament to its effectiveness that a film that I know so well can still manage to unsettle me this much. Not much about horror movies usually scares me anymore, but one thing that works without fail is the sense that there's something deep, powerful, malicious and irrational working against the characters. The Shining is a perfect example of that. In addition, the complete isolation of the family, the fact that we're deprived of an onscreen antagonist, and the sheer futility in fighting so huge an evil force all add up to make me incredibly uneasy when I watch this film. I tend to grasp for something tangible in a horror story - understanding the bad guy is the first step to defeating it, or at least comprehending its motives. Here we're given almost nothing in the way of exposition. There's a violent backstory set in the Overlook that we're told of again and again, but there's never a single mention of the forces that sparked it. I don't care for the "it's all in their heads" explanation for this film. Every time I watch it I get the impression that there's something massive and vicious lurking in the hotel that's deliberately toying with Jack and using him for its own purposes.

Backing the story up are more subtle technical details - most notably the deliberately impossible geometry of the hotel, fast cuts to disturbing images that are never entirely explained, and the constant use of long shots with vanishing points, giving the sense that we're falling toward a terminus located in hell. Something I always tend to notice more in theatrical screenings is the use of sound, and here the blend of experimental choral recordings and ominous classical music is tuned precisely so that it evokes something otherworldly and primal.

I noticed that in the final act of the film I had a minor case of the shakes. This is usually an indication that a horror film is doing something well. In addition to the reaction that it's able to provoke from me, it's a beautifully constructed film. The Shining has been picked apart many times over, and if you look hard enough, you'll be bound to find some flaws. One of the film's most infamous critics is Stephen King himself, who felt that Kubrick weakened the story by stripping it of many of its supernatural aspects. I haven't read King's novel, so I can't make comparisons, but it's never struck me as being precisely a character-driven story or lacking in the supernatural. At the end of the day, I'm willing to overlook (ha ha) any minor flaws in this film in favor of the gut-level effect that it has on me. I don't often rate things with a perfect score, but the staying power of this film makes it a classic in my mind. This is one I suspect will be as powerful and interesting the next time I see it - however far in the future that might be.

10 / 10 = Classic