The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009)

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Sometimes the universe is benevolent. Sometimes there appears to be a force at work that intuits the single thing you need in order to restore your equilibrium and good humor. I don’t try to understand it. Anyway, last night I was unhappy for no reason in particular. I hadn’t seen a horror movie in a few days, but I wanted something a bit more whimsical than usual, and that would still satisfy my need for a blast of darkness. I found what I was looking for with The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu, a glorious nerdgasm of Lovecraftiana seasoned with humor, serviceable effects, and an agreeable cast.

Jeff (Kyle Davis) and Charlie (Devin McGinn, who also wrote the script) are childhood friends who’ve grown into a couple of bored cubicle drones, withering away their days writing ad copy for a schlocky products company whose corporate mascot is named Squirrely Squirrel. One day, the guys are visited by an old professor (from Miskatonic U), who informs Jeff that he’s the last of H.P. Lovecraft’s bloodline, and that his help is needed to prevent the return of ol’ Cthulhu himself. Jeff is tasked with protecting an evil relic, and thus foiling the efforts of Cthulhu’s slimy minions, led by the sinister Starspawn (Ethan Wilde), a tentacled terror in the master’s service. And it’s funny, see, ’cause neither Jeff or Charlie are even remotely heroic. But when you have to save the Earth, you do what’s necessary, in this case, getting advice from a nerd acquaintance (Barak Hardley), who still lives in his Grandma’s basement, and then enlisting the help of a legendary sea captain (Gregg Lawrence). Oh, the cards are definitely stacked against this bunch, but the guys man-up like a couple of dipshit Hardy Boys.

The Last Lovecraft (which is not animated despite the cover art) is a blast and built for speed without sacrificing brains for blood. Guts and gore erupt with Raimi-like frequency while the chaotic spirit of foolhardy adventure courses throughout. It would definitely be an entertaining lark to spring on your own Lovecraft posse—unless they’re the  type who are going to frown and correct every line that isn’t 100 percent accurate with the source material. Oy vey. Get over yourself, nerds!

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Savage Island (2005)

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Here’s a drinking game you can play as the credits roll. Down a shot of whiskey whenever the name “Lando” appears. Between the efforts of writer/director/stunt driver/pianist/editor Jeffrey Lando and his brother (?) Peter, you’ll be shitfaced by the time the movie starts, and then again at the end. It will probably help.

Unlikeable yuppie pricks Steven (Steven Man) and Julia (Kristina Copeland), along with their squawling infant, take a trip to a remote island in British Columbia to visit Julia’s parents. After Julia’s idiot brother Peter (Brendan Beiser) runs over a child belonging to a family of grubby squatters, the yuppie pricks find themselves besieged by vengeful hillbillies (let’s just call them that) who demand their squawling infant as recompense. It goes downhill from there.

While the writing in Savage Island is nothing less than terrible, I have to drop a few props on Jeffrey Lando for his consistency of vision. He finishes what he starts, a third-rate, low-budget riff on Deliverance and Straw Dogs. The Savages (the appropriately named island hillbillies) are nicely fleshed out, and I appreciate that Pa (Winston Rekert) and Ma (Lindsay Jameson) look like Merle Haggard and Sarah Palin, respectively. For that matter, the yokel clan is far more interesting—and sympathetic— than their whiny bourgeois captives.

Bonus: The part of Julia’s stubborn father Keith is played by Don Davis, who was memorable in Twin Peaks as Major Briggs, the father of rebellious teen Bobby, one of Laura Palmer’s many swains.

Attack The Block (2011)

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Even my girlfriend watched this and enjoyed it—and to say that she dislikes horror movies is like saying the Koch brothers aren’t too fond of organized labor. (I was trying to think of some really zippy metaphor to reel you in. This is the best I could do. Sorry.) Barbara (that’s her name) looked up Attack The Block on Rotten Tomatoes and was impressed that it received a “90 percent fresh” rating. But I really hooked her when I told her the movie reminded me of Misfits, an insanely original BBC superhero (sort of) series we’re currently addicted to.

Indeed, the two share a strategic reliance on anonymously industrial council-block housing for scenery, as well as a charismatic cast of scruffy young tearaways to inhabit it. Here, a gang of not-too-scary teen hoodlums led by Moses (John Boyega), encounter a strange critter while out patrolling their neighborhood. (Patrolling means mugging young women and setting off fireworks, mainly.) The gang corners the beast (“looks a monkey mated with a fish”) and kick it to death. Fantasizing about selling the specimen to the highest bidder, the kids pay a visit to dope dealer Ron (Nick Frost, who runs off with every scene he’s in) to smoke and unwind. Unbeknownst to our “heroes,” a whole battalion of bigger, meaner, and hungrier aliens are en route to find out what happened to their advance party.

The ensemble cast, led by Boyega, and ably supported by Frost, Jody Whittaker, and Alex Esmail, is fantastic. It doesn’t matter if they’re brawling, fleeing, or getting stoned—these kids are as resilient, resourceful, and honor-bound as any John Wayne posse. Writer-director Joe Cornish (part of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Brit Pack) acquits himself quite well. His dialogue is fast and funny, the pace is breakneck, and the aliens—agile wolfish anthropoids with no eyes and glowing teeth—are brilliantly realized. Attack The Block effortlessly balances a monster movie premise with deft action-film finesse and Western movie heroics. I will watch it again. And so will Barbara (probably).

Swamp Devil (2008)

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My beef with this craposaurus is pretty basic. When you have a title like Swamp Devil, you’d better deliver something at least on a par with Swamp Thing, a movie that was made 26 freakin’ years before this one. In other words, I want to see a sodden, drippy, slime-covered mess of a monster—and not something that looks like one of those wacky inflatable arm-flailing tube men you see at used car lots. It’s that simple.

Bruce Dern is in this, for some reason, as a former lawman-turned-fugitive and Cindy Sampson (who was quite good in The Shrine—scream queen in the making?) plays his daughter. There’s a barely-there plot about a murderer who haunts the swamps after he was killed by a vigilante mob. Trust me, you won’t care. Nicholas Wright (a poor man’s Robert Carradine) plays the human face of the “Swamp Devil,” a carelessly CGI’d stalk of celery that’s nearly as menacing as the Little Green Sprout. I’m really trying to come up with some justification for sitting through Swamp Devil, but I’m drawing a blank. I suppose Dern is more than adequate in his role, but really, he has the look of a man hoping he won’t miss the last bus out of town—and that his paycheck doesn’t bounce out the window.

Speaking of Dern, I seem to recall him on The Tonight Show many years ago talking to Johnny Carson about the worst film he’d ever made. Dern recounted his experiences as a young actor on the set of The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (1971), a grimy, low-budget shocker co-starring Casey Kasem that was part of the now-extinct “Guy With An Extra Head” movement of the early 70s. (It consisted of two movies: this one and the slightly more famous The Thing With Two Heads, starring Rosie Grier and Ray Milland—recommended!) Anyway, Dern says after the shooting wrapped, he went to get his final check from the slippery producer—and the office, set, and trailers were all gone. Not a trace of them. Perhaps the next time he’s asked that question, Bruce could share a story about Swamp Devil. I, for one, would love to hear it.

The Shrine (2010)

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Imagine my surprise and color me impressed: this gritty Canadian feature kind of rocks. You keep thinking you know “what kind” of movie you’re watching, and then suddenly you don’t. The Shrine manages the difficult trick of being able to switch gears without wrecking the engine.

It starts out as a warning to tourists against touring Eastern Europe without letting others know your whereabouts—because the worst will happen. Guaranteed. In this case, an American backpacker disappears in a small Polish town, which motivates a trio of journalists to investigate the enigmatic community, where such occurances are all too common. I might add that this is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of a journalist. Anyone still fortunate enough to work for a newspaper or magazine at this time is most decidedly not curious about anything—unless it’s figuring out how to hold onto a job that will soon be farmed out to interns.

Then comes the first shift, and now you’re watching one of those creepy Iron Curtain faux snuff films, and you consider getting up to water the plants. But then Sam Raimi arrives and everything goes all Evil Dead. To conclude the festivities, we get a metaphysical mud-wrestling match, straight out of The Exorcist.

The Shrine works because it subverts our point of view so deftly that we don’t even realize that we should probably pick a side in this apocalyptic death match. Not only that, but it succeeds in the way that (earlier reviewed film) Spiderhole failed—it provides us with a valid reason for scenes of squirm-inducing cruelty. I swear, if you know that someone is being savaged as part of the plot, and not simply because we like the sound of screaming, it goes down a lot easier. And now, a hearty round of applause for writer-director Jon Knautz, who did a superb job of juggling themes, tones, and terror. So tell us Jon: What’s next?

Dying Breed (2008)

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Another entry in the “isolated cannibal clan” genre, Dying Breed is way better than the earlier-reviewed Hillside Cannibals (but then, so is an average episode of Three’s Company), thanks in no small part to its being set in the deep, vibrant woodlands of Tasmania.

Zoologist Nina (Mirrah Foulkes) plunges into the harsh and unforgiving forests of Western Tasmania seeking evidence of the presumed-extinct Tasmanian tiger—the same mysterious beast that her zoologist sister Ruth was chasing several years earlier, before the latter turned up disfigured and drowned. (Dunno Nina, think I’d leave this one alone.)

Along with her boyfriend Matt (Aussie Leigh Whannell, who also wrote Insidious and a couple Saw movies), his obnoxious buddy Jack, and Jack’s cupcake, Rebecca, Nina wanders hither and yon before stumbling upon the rustic and remote township of Sarah, populated by the descendants of Alexander Pearce (aka, “The Pieman”), an escaped convict who eluded the police in that area nearly 200 years earlier. Pearce was later captured and hanged under a cloud of suspicion that he had resorted to chowing down on his chums while hunkered in the bush. Needless to say, the party soon finds itself firmly ensconced in the soup. (Or they end up in quite a pickle, your choice, but I like soup a little better.)

Instead of intrepid ineptitude (again, see Hillside Cannibals), Dying Breed is a grim, well-executed “don’t-go-in-the-woods” fable, directed, plotted, paced, and acted with unwavering efficiency. The Tasmanian locale carries the same palpable sense of dread and foreboding as the back country of Pennsylvania in Deliverance (a movie that’s referenced here), and the local color is even more bloodthirsty. Warning: There are some highly unpleasant implications vis-a-vis “women as breeding stock” here, which may not play in your particular domestic Peoria.

Alligator X (2010)

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Ain’t no way to sugarcoat this shit pill: Alligator X (a.k.a. Xtinction: Predator X) sucks rope, and the fact that I made it all the way through is a modern-day miracle. The giant prehistoric gator brought back to life by tepid mad scientist Charles LaBlanc (Mark Sheppard) generally appears as an underwater animation, so we’re left with the questionable dramatic talents of the actors as the primary means of propelling the plot. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Sheriff Tim (Lochlyn Munro, a poor man’s David Arquette), Laura LeCrois (Elena Lyons), and Froggy (Paul Wall) are about as realistic and well drawn as the titular critter.

Some swell establishing footage of the Louisiana swamps is thoroughly wasted as the principal characters alternately run from, and after, a “pleasaur” resurrected by Dr. LeBlanc. Why he wants a monstrous gator for a pet is anyone’s guess,  but it sure comes in handy for eating people that piss him off, such as Pappy LeCrois (Phillip Beard), who owns a swamp tour business on property that LeBlanc covets—for some reason. More room for his lizard and its theoretical offspring to romp and frolic, I guess. Pappy’s daughter Laura watches in horror as LeBlanc’s redneck accomplices ring the dinner bell and toss her pops into the juicy jaws of fate. Meanwhile, Sheriff Tim is trapped (for a really long time) on a pylon out in the bayou, after the gator chomps up the boat driven by Pappy’s Cajun employee Froggy, who somehow doesn’t get eaten and returns later in the movie as a bad guy. Oh yeah, the sheriff has an idiot brother named Henry (Caleb Michaelson) who serves as his bumbling deputy, and later bleeds to death after getting shot by a swamp rat. There are some other characters too. They all die, mostly.

All you need to know about the craft and intelligence at work in Alligator X can be summed up by the final scene, in which Laura and Sheriff Tim casually tease and flirt with each other—less than 24 hours after she saw her daddy get chewed into chum, and about 20 minutes after the sheriff discovers the corpse of his younger brother. Oh well, at least there’s a happy ending. I for one, was overjoyed to finally see it.