The Legend of Bloody Jack (2007)

If the cover blurb, “Based on the the terrifying true events behind America’s scariest campfire story,” is accurate, then I must confess that I’m really out of the loop on my lumberjack legends.

Is there really a ghost story about an ax-wielding hayseed who practices black magic? I must have missed that one. If the campfire tale is anything like this low-wattage lump of shit, I’m glad I did.

A pair of quickly dispatched investigators summon the spirit of the swinging sorcerer. Two days later, a van bearing seven soon-to-be-butchered mannequins from Abercrombie & Fitch arrives for one of those idyllic camping trips that never seems to materialize.

Whether it’s the abysmal acting, the seemingly random and feckless decision-making of the characters, or an irritatingly banter-filled screenplay that sounds like it was written by a miserably untalented college freshman, there’s plenty of blame to be shared for this stink bomb—but since it was written and directed by Todd Portugal, the lion’s share should be reserved for him.

The questions accumulate as the action (I guess you could call it “action”) slowly unravels like a third-generation Santa sweater. Why are the doomed 35-year-old kids who are trapped at the cabin in the woods waving flashlights around? The entire film takes place in bright sunlight.

How come when Tom (Josh Evans) disappears, his supposed “best friend” Nick (Craig Bonacorsi) won’t go look for him because “it’s too dangerous,” but later he decides that they should go in search of Deputy Vince (Jeremy Flynn), whom they saw drive away in a truck about 15 minutes before?

Why is Lisa (Jessica Szabo) so blasé after seeing her boyfriend George hacked into jerky? Why? Why? Why?

On the positive side of the street, the gore is plentiful (though amateurish), and there are three nude scenes by the 30-minute mark. That’s about it.

There’s also a nitwitted “surprise” ending that feels like it was hurriedly tacked on after Todd Portugal looked at his footage and smelled dead fish.

And what the hell is up with the title? Unless I was really asleep at the switch, I didn’t hear a single mention of anyone called Jack, bloody or otherwise, during the interminable 84-minute running time.

Spiderhole (2010)

Four reasonably attractive English art students decide that paying rent is for suckers, so they take up residence in a creepy, boarded up old mansion. Sure, squatting seems glamorous, but there are always unforeseen obstacles.

For example, no running water or electricity. Mysterious sounds in the night. And let’s not forget about the downstairs tenant, a deranged surgeon who periodically gasses his new guests, straps them to an operating table, and removes their body parts—while the latter scream, curse, and plead.

It’s a well-dressed effort by writer/director Daniel Simpson (the setting is suitably bleak and dreary), but Spiderhole is neither gory or excruciating enough to be torture porn, and it’s too damn slow to be a haunted-house hack ’em up.

Simpson valiantly tries to tie several gossamer-thin plot points together, but fails, as if finally throwing up his hands and admitting, “To hell with the story, let’s get back to cutting up the kids.”

He haphazardly chooses to reintroduce a minor subplot about a girl who’s been missing for 10 years (who cares?!) at the very end of the film, but by then the viewer has forgotten all about this earlier allusion that  amounts to nothing, anyway.

The same pointless nihilism that (to me, anyway) makes Hostel and all those Saw movies so uninteresting is at work here. Simply binding a victim and hurting them while they struggle and cry (and maybe even escape a time or two), is skull-crushingly dull, unless there’s a reasonable explanation for doing so.

Otherwise, you have, what exactly? Shrieking? Not scary, but very annoying, to be sure. Call me old fashioned, but I want to know why the victims are screaming and what they did to deserve it.

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011)

This is going to date me, but I still think the coolest paranormal investigator of all time is Carl Kolchak.

For quick thinking, wit, and chutzpah, you’re not going to do any better than Darren McGavin. Give me a wisecracking cynic with no superpowers over brooding bores from beyond like John Constantine and Dylan Dog, any ol’ time. (Note: I’m referring to the cinematic characters. No knock on the graphic novel originals, whom I’m certain are fine fellows, indeed.)

It’s a wide-open field: I can’t point to a successful paranormal investigation franchise at the moment. X-Files had a good run. And you can’t go wrong with Ghostbusters. But I seriously doubt that Brandon Routh’s watery portrayal of Dylan Dog will inspire a sequel, much less the devotion afforded a true genre icon like, say, Scooby Doo, who is an actual dog.

Dylan Dog is a mildly superpowered human who serves as kind of a paranormal peacekeeper between vampires, zombies, werewolves and other assorted boogiemen. That is, until his beloved wife is murdered by vampires, which inspires an episode of vigilante justice.

After that, he becomes a private eye, restricting his investigations to cheating spouses and insurance fraud. But it’s a small world and Dylan’s demonic past catches up with him, and, to paraphrase Al Pacino, they drag him back in.

The plot, a search for an artifact that will resurrect the demon Belial, is half-baked at best; as a McGuffin it’s pretty weak tea. And former Superman washout Brandon Routh is badly miscast (as an actor). The whole hard-boiled gumshoe guise never fits, the guy is just too bland and featureless.

Seriously, after a while, I thought I was watching Grand Theft Auto—or a Macy’s commercial. Sam Worthington tries hard to pick up the slack as Dylan’s deceased sidekick/comedy relief Marcus, but he ain’t got the chops. Lots of opportunities for gruesome black humor, and most of them are squandered.

It’s the bit players who deliver the best performances. Peter Stormare is pitch-perfect as crime boss/werewolf Gabriel. It makes my heart burst into song when a proper actor can make a smallish part blossom, and Stormare is up to the task.

Taye Diggs is charismatic and devious as a vampire trying to move his way up the crime-family ranks, and Anita Briem is reasonably convincing as the frosty ass-kicking chick with questionable ethics.

Sadly, they can’t compensate for the void that is Brandon Routh in the title role. How bad is he? Let’s put it this way: he makes Keanu Reeves look like DeNiro. Good news for Keanu, I suppose, but not for anyone in search of a memorable movie.

Scarecrows (1988)

Hmmm. I saw this one more than 20 years ago and I seem to remember it being a better movie.

Memories can play such cruel tricks…

Actually, it’s not half bad, but since it was made in the 1980s, you’ll have to overlook goofy haircuts.

Five military trained crooks make off with 3.5 million bucks from Camp Pendleton’s payroll department. The movie opens with the bad guys being flown to Mexico by a pilot and his daughter who are held at gunpoint.

No honor among thieves with this bunch, as one of the robbers, turncoat Bert (B.J. Turner), grabs the loot and bails out, landing in a creepy deserted cornfield.

Deserted by everyone, that is, except for the titular murderous scarecrows, who come to life and bag their limit.

Only the vaguest of reasons are given to explain why the scarecrows rise up and go on a killing spree, so if you’re a stickler for motivation, this won’t be your cup of grue. Suffice to say, the previous tenants of the family farm were into something devilish.

You might notice, too, that Bert’s dialogue seems to come out of nowhere, since we hear it while his lips clearly aren’t moving. Is he thinking out loud or is he a practicing ventriloquist?

Whatever the case, it’s distracting.

Also, the rest of the characters, in their quest to avoid being gutted and nailed to a pole, engage in some monumentally stupid behavior, which tends to suggest that their prowess as paramilitary bandits was more like a momentary stroke of luck.

To give writer-director William Wesley some credit, the cornfield setting is reasonably spooky and the scarecrows themselves are a pretty nasty bunch. Sadly, Scarecrows isn’t the action-packed fright fest that I remember, either.

Must have seen it during my drinking days—which should come to an end sooner or later.

Hillside Cannibals (2006)

The synopsis for Hillside Cannibals describes it as being about some dude named Sawney Bean, a cannibal killer who’s been feasting on victims for 400 years. He lives with his flesh-eating inbred clan in some caves on a hillside (hence the title) in the California desert.

My question is: Where the hell did all this back story come from? There is no evidence of 400-year-old killers found anywhere in the movie. Unless I saw a severely truncated version (which I doubt, because the film is heavily padded; every third shot is of the same pile of skulls and bones on the ground), then director Leigh Scott and writer Steve Bevilacqua are full of crap.

Hell, the cannibals don’t even talk! They just grunt, gurgle, and gesticulate a lot. Perhaps a jaunty song should play during the opening credits (like in The Beverly Hillbillies) that explains the premise. It would have helped.

Nutshell: Five campers, for no reason in particular, go out into the desert for an evening of drinking, reefing, and screwing. A clan of Road Warrior extras, who apparently got their costumes at Goodwill, show up for a bloody buffet.

Final Girl Linda (Heather Conforto), spends the rest of the movie alternately trying to get help, rescue her boyfriend, and elude capture. That’s about it, really.

In their desperate attempt to somehow link this turkey to The Hills Have Eyes, Scott and Bevilacqua neglect the other aspects of the film. First of all, three of the five campers are dead within 12 minutes of the opening. This leaves only two other characters to be killed for the duration of the movie, a problem Scott tries to fix by briefly introducing three more campers, who are on screen just long enough to prove annoying, before they become lunch.

We don’t know who they are, why they’ve chosen to stop in this location, or anything else. While the scene does up the body count, the inclusion of these off-brand characters was clearly an afterthought and accurately illustrates the haphazard level of craft and creativity at work.

Despite all the piss-poor examples of padding and subplots that go nowhere (e.g., what’s the sheriff’s relationship to this band of bizarros? Is he a cousin or something? We never find out.) there is abundant gore and some genuinely nightmarish imagery, including an ending that’s totally grim.

I thought it was a nice stylish touch that when a new chief of the tribe takes power, he has to remove the face of the fallen leader and wear it around. Disgusting, but sort of cool, I guess.

Hillside Cannibals isn’t a complete waste of time—but it comes awfully close.

Chillerama (2011)

We submit for your approval a quartet of farcical drive-in features rendered in the most tasteless fashion possible. The nearly charming monstrosity is a tribute not only to classic B-movie horror but also to schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma Team, who staunchly believe that there should be no limits on disgusting, juvenile entertainment.

The action takes place at a drive-in movie theater on its last night of operation. Theater owner Cecil Kaufman (Richard Riehle, whom you’ve seen in dozens of small parts over the years) is screening three lost horror movie classics, including Wadzilla, the story of a mutated sperm cell that grows to gigantic proportions and tries to mate with the Statue of Liberty.

The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, is a black-and-white flick starring Joel David Moore (Bones, Hatchet) as Hitler, who wants to create a monster of his very own (played by Kane Hodder).

I Was a Teenage Wearbear, a homoerotic beach-blanket bingo romp about a young man who transforms into a bloodthirsty bear (meaning large, hirsute gay man) under the power of the full moon.

Each section gets its own director: Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City), who also stars, does a fine job with Wadzilla, constantly wringing extra laughs out of a one-joke setup.

Adam Green’s (Hatchet, Frozen) Diary of Anne Frankenstein is the most ambitious of the vignettes, and the most artfully realized.

Tim Sullivan (2001 Maniacs, Driftwood) simply doesn’t have enough gas in the tank for I Was A Teenage Wearbear. It’s overly long and silly, though he gets props for a few catchy musical numbers and for casting the always watchable Lin Shaye as the Maria Ouspenskia gypsy woman.

Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2) has a barrel of fun as zombies run roughshod over the drive-in in the wraparound tale. And in the end, the fun should be enough to hold your interest.

But make no mistake, this is proudly low-brow cinema, and non-horror buffs probably won’t last to the credits.

YellowBrickRoad (2010)

This indie entry has such an unsettling premise and buildup, that I’m actually going to forgive the WTF ending. It wasn’t easy, but the first 75 minutes are skillfully constructed and hint at so much awful, otherworldly potential.

Filmmakers Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland effectively borrow the premise of The Blair Witch Project—research team goes into scary woods to investigate a local mystery—and successfully create a movie in which the viewer is constantly bombarded with possibilities and forced to invent scenarios that explain the increasingly bizarre circumstances.

A writer (Michael Laurino), his wife (Anessa Ramsey), and a handful of other science-y types go traipsing off into uncharted New Hampshire forest land to find out what happened to the entire population of the nearby town of Friar.

Seventy years previous, everyone inexplicably left Friar and followed a trail into the woods and were never seen alive again. The modern-day explorers find the coordinates of the trail and the expedition begins. What no one realizes until it’s far too late, is that it’s a doomed expedition leading only to—MADNESS!

It’s a subtle transformation that takes place in YellowBrickRoad; the further the characters travel on the trail, the more things break down. Tensions arise, their instruments cease to work, and worst of all, they are loudly serenaded with old-timey jazz music day and night, as if the entire forest is wired for sound.

After all this slow-baked agony, the ending is a rather pale payoff compared to what Mitton and Holland have put us through for most of the film, but credit must be given for the power of the journey itself, which at times resembles a low-budget take on Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God rather than the aforementioned Blair Witch.

And that’s good company. 

I Sell The Dead (2008)

Horror, more than most genres, has little need of name actors.

Did anyone know Jeffrey Combs before Reanimator? How about Bruce Campbell before Evil Dead? Were there any “bankable” stars in Romero’s Dead films?

For the most part, being able to remember hastily written dialogue, and the ability to render it without stuttering, is sufficient.

There are certainly examples, and I Sell The Dead is one, of a few familiar faces with dependable skills elevating modest material to agreeable heights.

Here, Ron Perelman (who is as reliable as they come) is Father Duffy, a 19th century clergyman tasked with taking the final confession of convicted grave robber Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan, Lord of the Rings, Lost) who awaits a morning appointment with the guillotine.

Both actors are given sufficient room to ham and ramble, and they make the most of it. I Sell The Dead is highly reminiscent of Jacques Tournier’s grimly fiendish Comedy of Terrors (1963), which cast Vincent Price and Peter Lorre as a pair of inept undertakers. This is broad-stroke black comedy; subtlety need not apply.

The tale unfolds as Blake recounts how he got into the occasionally profitable profession of grave robbery, mentored by his old pal Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden).

At first, the two find themselves under the thumb of Dr. Quint (Angus Scrimm, aka The Tall Man, from Phantasm) a physician with a seemingly inexhaustible need for cadavers—the fresher the better.

Imagine everyone’s shock and surprise when their latest unearthed specimen turns out to be quite undead!

You can’t go wrong with I Sell The Dead. It’s the very definition of a ripping yarn, where the action is plentiful and over the top, and the principal players really have a ball.

The Hazing (2004)

Today’s lesson: Don’t judge a movie by its blurb. I read the words “fraternity” and “sorority” and my interest began to wane.

Glad I toughed it out. The Hazing is a first-rate, low-budg, sloppy kiss tribute to (surprise, surprise) Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead.

Nutshell: Two gals and three dudes pledging to brother-sister houses must complete a Halloween scavenger hunt and bring all their items to Hack House, a local mansion of the haunted variety.

Note: Bruce Campbell’s picture makes an appearance as one of the items the pledges must roundup on the scavenger hunt, for Pete’s sake.

Another needful thing is a potent grimoire of dark magic that’s in the possession of mysterious Professor Kapps (Brad Dourif). They grab the book, a demon is summoned, and so begins a night of Raimi-esque chaos, confusion, and high-voltage hack and stack.

And Brad Dourif kills (literally!) as the mad professor, providing a sturdy dramatic foundation for his less polished costars.

I was thoroughly entertained by The Hazing, mostly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Delia (Nectar Rose), shouts, “I wasn’t planning to stay out all night killing my friends!” when an evil spirit possesses her fellow pledges.

Fortunately, the goofy tone doesn’t diminish the horror action. It’s got a pedal-to-the-metal pace, decent body count, naked interludes, and scaredy-cat nerd Tim (Perry Shen), ends up a hero of sorts.

Tim proudly takes a moment of screen time to tell his fellow cast members why he isn’t a stereotype geek. “I don’t work with computers, I don’t like video games, and I’m not a virgin,” he insists.  “I lost my cherry when I was 15!”

The Hazing is very much in keeping with this statement. It’s not what you think it is. It’s way better.

Deadwater (2008)

Deadwater is not a very good film, but the presence of grizzled vet Lance Henricksen helps a bit.

Kudos to director Roel Reiné, who took the time and energy to dress it up as a contemporary naval action thriller (not that there are abundant thrills to be had in this yawner) and include scenes of “advanced interrogation techniques.”

Abu Ghraib is mentioned a few times. That’s about as timely as it gets, though.

Somewhere at sea near Iran or Iraq (forgot which), a U.S. crew operating a recommissioned WW II vessel is slaughtered under mysterious circumstances, due mainly to the poor lighting and spastic camera work.

Old salt Col. John Willets (Henricksen) and his crack team of nobodies are sent to investigate. Lo and behold, one of the few survivors of the haunted holocaust is the colonel’s son, Colin Willets (played by Australian side-of-beef Gary Stretch, whose acting chops and resemblance to Henricksen are equally nonexistent).

So what the hell happened?

There are approximately 863,111 movies in which a team of well-armed investigators boards a derelict ship or facility to find out what became of the previous occupants. This isn’t nearly as good as say, Ghost Ship, one of the better efforts in that genre.

The threat remains mostly unseen (malevolent energy or something. Zzzzzzz.) and 95 percent of the movie consists of Henricksen and company moving stealthily through corridors and making ludicrous military hand gestures at each other.

Save this one for Low Expectations Sunday. BTW, if you’re looking for it in Netflix, you’ll find it under the title Black Ops. My advice? Don’t look too hard.