Mountain Monsters (2012)

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It’s not a movie, but if you’re lucky enough to have Channel 201, Destination America, you must watch this incredible show.

Apparently the hills of West Virginia are teeming with all manner of cryptozoological fauna, including the Moth Man, the Grass Man, wolf men, dog men, devil dogs, wampus beasts, and every distant relative of Bigfoot known to mankind.

So who you gonna call? John “Trapper” Tice and his AIMS (Appalachian Investigators of Mysterious Sightings) team, that’s who!

Trapper and his boys like nothing more than an excuse to go crashing through the woods at night in search of legendary beasts spotted by their hillbilly brethren.

Besides Trapper, there’s Jeff, who’s in charge of research. In other words, he has a laptop and knows how to use it. Willy and Wild Bill build all sorts of outlandish traps, pits, and snares, in hopes of capturing a heretofore unknown specimen. They’ve never succeeded, but by god, it ain’t for lack of trying!

Huckleberry (Woooot! Team Huckleberry!) is a hunter and tracker with a ready supply of guns, ammo, and thermal-imaging gear. (“Wait! There’s something there! *pause* Now it’s gone!”)

And then there’s Buck, the fat-guy comic relief, who once locked eyes with the Moth Man himself—and fell over hypnotized! On camera! At least once per episode, Buck will gaze in wonder at sketchy video evidence of their mythical quarry (usually a misshapen shadow or tree branch that moved) and exclaim, “That thing’s huge!”

Needless to say, AIMS has never brought home any appreciable evidence of wolf men, aliens, blue devils, or thunderbirds. But I sleep safely at night knowing that these fearless investigators… are really, really far away across the country and unlikely to mistake me for the Beast of Bray Road or the bloodsucking Devil Dog of Logan County and fill my hide with buckshot.

Mountain Monsters is a hoot and it’s must-see TV. It’s also been renewed for a second season!

 

The Bay (2012)

The director of one of my favorite non-horror movies (Diner) hangs out his genre shingle in the found-footage eco-thriller The Bay.

Yep, Oscar-winning writer-director Barry Levinson, best-known for marquee attractions like Good Morning Vietnam, The Natural, and Rain Man, takes the no-name, low-budget road this time around, but still manages to scare the bejeebers out of me with a seemingly plausible environmental disaster scenario set in a small Chesapeake Bay community.

The story unfolds via video edited together from various sources, chiefly confiscated footage seized by government agents—after the fact. Former news station intern Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) is interviewed on camera about a harrowing incident that has left her traumatized and paranoid.

The year is 2009 and the picturesque town of Claridge, Maryland is preparing for a festive Fourth of July weekend. (Considering the number of horrible things that happen to small towns during annual tourist-trap wingdings, I say we outlaw all community celebrations—forever!)

The assembled footage reveals that the polluted waters of the Chesapeake Bay are infested with parasites, now whimsically grown to the size of collies from steroids in the chicken manure dumped in the water from unscrupulous neighboring factory farms.

The nasty little critters infect the local water supply and cause the citizenry to boil over in gross, awful boils and blisters before the monstrous isopods grow to full size and chew themselves free of their human hosts.

The lion’s share of the blame for this catastrophic turn of events goes to Mayor Stockman (Frank Deal), a crooked, money grubbing shitheel who willfully ignores environmental regulations and dooms his community. Needless to say, he will not be getting my vote come re-election time.

If you’ve seen The Blair Witch Project you’ll be fairly familiar with the dramatic structure. The stitched-together scenes evolve from mundane and curious bits of exposition to choppy, nightmarish fragments, that show an all-American town overrun by fast-moving alien predators.

Fans of Discovery Channel fair like The Monsters Inside Me will no doubt be charmed and delighted as the hideous parasites soon have the run of the place requiring the feds to step in and hush up the whole affair.

It’s no masterpiece, but Levinson and writer Michael Wallach definitely succeed in creating an intense, effective piece of enviro-horror that doesn’t waste any time, thanks to a minimum of preachiness and pretense with “the message.” Recommended.

Pig Hunt (2008)

Now this is more like it! Plenty of weird shit as far as the eye can see.

Writers Zack Anderson and Robert Mailer Anderson and director James Isaac are obviously genre geeks—observant viewers will spot references to Alien, Road Warrior, even Apocalypse Now—who understand exactly what elements will best play in Peoria.

Blood sure, but even more, carnage. There’s enough carnage in Pig Hunt to fill Carnagie Hall. Yeah, I know.

Rugged leading man John (Travis Aaron Wade), his super-hot girlfriend Brooks (Tina Huang), and John’s three dopey bro buds drive out to the California equivalent of Appalachia, to go hunting for wild pigs on property owned by John’s uncle, who perished under mysterious circumstances.

But since the movie is named Pig Hunt, probably not all that mysterious. Look, just play along!

The gang goes through all the familiar check points (or plot points, if you prefer): They stop at a backwoods general store for directions—this one run by blues harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, who gives them dire warnings—and encounter a hostile clan of indiginous rurals, a rattlesnake, and a van containing a muscular black gentlemen with a hippie-chick entourage, part of a nearby weed-growing commune.

Somewhere in here, we discover that John grew up around these parts, and that he’s actually a skilled hunter and woodsman, unlike his three hopelessly doomed friends.

Some hillbilly acquaintances of John come a-visiting, and they all decide to go hunting for “the Ripper”, a legendary 3,000 pound killer hog that most likely wasted John’s uncle—and the train goes off the rails, big time.

This sounds like it has all the makings of Troma Team farce, but somehow Pig Hunt avoids broad comedic pitfalls, and plays it somewhat straight.

The Andersons actually have the guts to develop the characters beyond stereotype to the point that I actually felt sorry for John’s friend Quincy (Trevor Bullock), a gentle chef who accompanies his more macho comrades. He and his beloved dog Wolfgang come to a bad end that they really didn’t deserve (though, to be fair, Quincy has no more business being outside the urban landscape than Ned Beatty does).

Collateral damage, as it turns out.

What the filmmakers demonstrate most effectively in Pig Hunt is that it’s the various human tribes (duh!) that wreak the most havoc, and that in order to survive, you have to become the biggest monster of all.

Hell, the giant pig is almost an afterthought until the one-hour point in the film. Bonus: The music is by Primus bassist Les Claypool, who also doubles as Preacher, one of the bloodthirsty hillbillies.

I love that shit.

Grizzly Park (2008)

No sense beating around the bush: Grizzly Park flat-out sucks. But it’s a scrappy sort of crappy, that you can almost, sort of, grudgingly admire.

Writer/director Tom Skull is obviously a rank amateur; I’ve seen children’s birthday party videos that were more professionally shot and edited. The acting, from top to bottom, is godawful. Plot points are gathered and randomly discarded without a second thought (e.g., why bother to give a character a gun if it’s never used?).

To give credit where it’s due, the gore effects, when they finally appear, aren’t too shabby. Oh, and they use a real bear.

Eight young adults (who seem to range in age from 18-35) are assigned community service for various offenses and because they’re all grotesque examples of humanity. Vain, selfish, shallow, stupid, greedy, bigoted, you name it—there’s nary a deadly sin left unaccounted for in this bunch.

These hateful dipshits are assigned to no-nonsense disciplinarian Ranger Bob (Glenn Morshower), who guides them deep into the wilderness of Grizzly Park, where they must pick up litter and (more importantly) serve as a snack tray for the wild critters of the forest.

There’s also an escaped maniac running around, but he’s so quickly dispatched by the ravenous bear that you wonder why Skull bothered to introduce him in the first place. Just another tossed plot point.

The tone of Grizzly Park careens from horny adolescent “humor” (it’s not in the least bit funny) to vague, weak-ass moralizing, to guts and gore—and you won’t care one little bit.

Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Autobiographical side bar: I am old, old, old. I am not Li’l Sharky, Teen Sharky, or even Adult Contemporary Sharky. I’m Ol’ Sharky, an ancient relic from a cooler and weirder world. I carried Agamemnon’s sword; argued with Aristotle; and dogged Cleopatra like she was made of bacon. I shit the pyramids and danced with dinosaurs. I used to carpool to work with Gilgamesh, and even he called me “Gramps.” So when I tell you that I don’t go to the movies much anymore, you’ll begin to understand why. It’s too risky. I can’t be away from my climate-controlled condo for lengthy periods or my aorta will explode. I tried once, and the Visigoths that run the multiplex refused to let me pitch my oxygen tent in the theater. Bastards. All bastards.

Even so, I found myself in the vicinity of a theater with time to kill yesterday, so I purchased a ticket for the moving pictures and saw Cabin in the Woods. I’m very glad that I did. Joss Whedon is getting justifiably blown by critic and fanboy alike for hitting a box-office home run with The Avengers, but that’s no reason to overlook this marvelous muffin basket of a monster movie that he produced, co-wrote, and (second unit) directed. Sadly, the specifics of the story arc prevent a detailed critique, but let’s just say that this is a horror movie on a grand “meta” scale that dwarfs Wes Craven’s Scream series.

What Whedon does with Cabin in the Woods is place the late 20th century horror movie, and more specifically the subcategory known as Hack and Stack (a.k.a. Doomed Teenage Campers), into a miraculous context, one that weds the most dreadful aspects of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick. Whedon has created a horror movie mythos that dares to explain why its characters make such monumentally bad decisions, and why it’s imperative that the fools suffer before meeting their (mostly determined) gruesome fate. It’s a groovy concept, but really, just this once.

I don’t anticipate a rash of imitators, because this looks to be a genre only big enough for one. And Cabin in the Woods is it. At the same time, I can understand why some horror fans didn’t care for it. To them I would say, don’t think of this movie as an attempt to subvert the genre in a contrived or overly clever way—it’s more of an elegant novelty, an intricate lark that stands as a singular testament to outside-the-box thinking. In other words, Whedon’s laughing with us, and not at us.

Vampire Bats (2005)

It’s always a treat to see the lovely Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) in front of the camera, even if it’s in a throwaway rabid critter movie like Vampire Bats.

She’s such a beguiling screen presence (and I love her so much) that she could bring grace, good humor and glamour to anything, including a car insurance commercial.

Sorry Flo, your days are numbered.

Lawless stars as Maddy Rierdon, a plucky animal behavior specialist who teaches at Tate University, a campus nestled comfortably somewhere in Louisiana bayou country.

A bunch of forgettable students (can we please invent some new collegiate stereotypes? I’m bored with these!) stir up the local bat population by blasting shitty techno music at weekend swamper parties.

The helpful Maddy informs the authorities that the bats have mutated into double-fanged killers by feeding on insects that have hatched near a contaminated sewage treatment plant. (Like we give a shit, perfesser!)

We the audience are treated to several scenes of bats wreaking havoc at parties (biting, flying, chewing, sucking, etc). For some reason, Brett Butler (the actress, not the ball player) and late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson have teensy parts, and Timothy Bottoms plays a mayor that looks like George W. Bush.

I shall now damn Vampire Bats with faint praise: It’s not boring or incompetently filmed. That said, there’s not much to recommend it either, other than Ms. Lawless.

Whether or not that’s sufficient to sustain your attention during the 90-minute running time is a question you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

Seems to me there was a fair amount of interchat about this slick remake of a revered 1973 made-for-television movie—and most of it wasn’t flattering. “Not Del Toro enough,” was the general consensus. “Horror by numbers.”

Guillermo del Toro, director and writer (he co-wrote and produced this one) of such treasured titles as The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy flicks, certainly carries a weighty pedigree.

But I don’t agree with conventional wisdom.

To me, Are You Afraid of the Dark is textbook Del Toro: a lonely, uprooted child moves into a creepy, dangerous environment and must confront an evil presence.

Any of that ring a bell?

The child in this case is Sally (Bailee Madison), a petulant and defensive kid who’s being shuffled off to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pierce) and his girlfriend Kim (the cute-as-a-button Katie Holmes), while they fix up a sprawling baronial country estate in Rhode Island.

Editor’s Note: If I was a petulant and defensive child I would have wet my pants at the prospect of living in this friggin’ castle. It even has ruins! Eeeeee!

Anyway, Sally soon becomes aware that the house is infested with mean little varmints that live in the basement who want her to “come and play with them.”

However, as the introductory flashback reveals, these are murderous wee folk—vicious furry anthropoids about the size of rats who carry blades, whisper dark threats, and snack on the teeth of children.

They also hate light. The story builds slowly (perhaps too slowly, for some), as Alex believes his daughter has gone bonkers, while the more sympathetic Kim finds Sally’s tale has the ring of truth.

And then their construction foreman turns up sliced to ribbons, to really complicate things.

While it’s true that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark moves at a leisurely pace, I really didn’t mind, because newbie director Troy Nixey obviously stuck pretty close to Guillermo del Toro’s script (co-written with Matthew Robbins), so the mood and tension are deftly elevated, as our heroine Sally descends, a centimeter at a time, deeper into the bowels of the awful house and its fiendish inhabitants.

The blood and guts are doled out sparingly, but that’s to be expected in a movie that’s more a grim fairy tale than a body count buffet. It’s also a very, very handsome film and unusually absorbing.

Recommended.

Shark Night (2011)

The budget for Shark Night was reportedly somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million. So where did the money go?

My guess is $24 million went to the 3D effects (which don’t magically appear on my TV—I even tried wearing an old pair of glasses, but all I got was a migraine) and the rest was divvied up between fake blood, a few hair metal songs, and (hopefully) a decent payday for one of the coolest character actors going, Donal Logue.

Judging by the results, Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg probably got a case of beer and a couple frozen pizzas. For cryin’ out loud, this even had a theatrical release and it’s only marginally better than something from the Asylum crew, who would have at least had the decency to throw in a little nudity.

The story (such as it is) concerns a group of reasonably attractive Tulane college students who decide to drop the books and have a wild weekend at Sara’s (Sara Paxton) McMansion on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain—a body of water that’s allegedly got enough salt in it to sustain gangs of roving ravenous sharks.

In case you’re interested, the prevailing theory is that the sharks arrived as the result of a particularly tempestuous hurricane season, but this notion is quickly discarded when local rednecks Dennis and Red (Chris Carmack and Joshua Leonard) confess to stocking the pond with 45 varieties of shark (out of a possible 350!) in order to shoot footage of idiots getting eaten for “a cable channel.”

Really? That’s the best we can do?

There’s gallons of blood, but not much gore in Shark Night, and the effects (which include sharks leaping balletically out of the water to chomp people in trees and boats) are ludicrous and lame enough to be for Crockasaurus Meets Robo Squid (Hey, I have a script!), on SyFy Channel.

The previously mentioned Donal Logue is always worth watching (especially in his late, lamented FX series Terriers), and he manages to sneak off with a couple of scenes as a metalhead sheriff, but the rest of the cast is unremarkable.

And the sharks? Those fish should go back to school.

Alligator X (2010)

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 mildly 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 bayou 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.

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.

The Reef (2010)

If you’re a fan of Shark Week like OldSharky, nothing gets your flippers in a fuddle like a little fresh blood in the water. And there’s plenty for everyone in the Aussie survival-fest, The Reef.

It’s a low-rent production with a lot of stock footage of sharks feeding, but there’s legit tension throughout.

A crew of reasonably attractive young sailors and their ladies fair set to sea in a beautiful pea-green sailboat. Boat hits rock and capsizes. Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) advises they gear up and swim for the nearest land.

Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) inexplicably stays behind on the capsized boat. The entire area is teeming with sharks that seem extraordinarily peckish.

Who lives? Who gets their ass chewed off?

Why anyone would enjoy a sailboat outing along the Great Barrier Reef (aka, Shark Central) is beyond comprehension. Again, I’d like to think that my innate cautious nature would spare me from vast amounts of horror-movie sorrow whilst traveling the world.

The Reef isn’t top-shelf entertainment. It’s more like the junk drawer of passing time.