Giant From The Unknown (1958)

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He’s husky, but I wouldn’t call him a giant.

It’s pretty obvious truth in advertising laws don’t apply to monster movies made in the 1950s. Former boxer Buddy Baer (uncle of Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro, Max Baer, Jr) stands about 6-7, and tips the scales at a solid 250, as the titular creature. Impressive measurements, but well short of beanstalk status.

Still, when he dons his conquistador clothes after waking up from a 500-year nap, the local citizens of a California mountain town wet their collective knickers.

Enter leading man geologist Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), Professor Cleveland (Morris Ankrum), and Janet (Sally Fraser), the prof’s sassy daughter, who are soon on the case, at first searching for fossil evidence of a rogue band of Spanish soldiers that kicked around the vicinity centuries before, led by a large inarticulate fellow called Vargas.

After about 35 minutes of zero action—other than Wayne and Janet’s awkward flirting—the trio deduces that Vargas (Baer), has shaken off the effects of suspended animation after being struck by lightning, and has slaughtered a bunch of nearby livestock (woke up hungry, I guess), sending area rubes into a panic.

The movie is over in 80 minutes, leading to thoughts that the whole thing might have been a diet-inspired hallucination. Highlights include Vargas throwing small rocks at his pursuers, a midnight make-out sash with Wayne and Janet, and doomed secondary characters named Charlie Brown and Injun Joe who fall victim to the massive Spaniard’s rampage.

Giant From The Unknown is an actual relic, a funny ol’ fly in amber from Tuesday afternoon matinees on Channel 12, when harried housewives had a moment to drain a fast pitcher of martinis before returning to domestic servitude.

Note to Joel: It’s also a prime candidate for Season 12 of Mystery Science Theater. Just sayin’.

 

 

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The Bye Bye Man (2017)

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Oh bloody hell, it’s another one of those infernal boogeymen that insists on crashing the party whenever some poor slob mentions their moniker. This incarnation is so sensitive that he’ll turn your life to sewage if you so much as think it.

Elliott (Doug Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and John (Lucien Laviscount) are a trio of uninteresting Wisconsin college students who forgo the dorm experience in favor of renting a dilapidated old brick mansion that they restore to former grandeur in nothing flat. At the inaugural housewarming beer blast, a little girl finds an old coin in an upstairs bedroom, an impromptu seance occurs, and the next thing you know, Elliott yodels the name of the titular evil spirit, bringing ruination to one and all.

The Bye Bye Man has a few things going for it: Robert Kurtzman’s makeup effects are ghastly good, and name actors Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Ann Moss stop by for a cup of coffee. Sadly, a few touches of professional acting and groovy gore only serve to make the rest of the movie look rather anemic.

Director Stacy Title can’t summon any genuine frights out of Jonathan Penner’s screenplay (based on a story by Robert Damon Schneck), a hodgepodge of convoluted plot points and cookie-cutter cliches that amount to little more than a bargain-brand Candyman. Adequate genre entertainment, but just barely.

Editor’s Note: A game that requires participants to drink bourbon whenever the phrase “Don’t think it/don’t say it” appears, would help to pass the time.

 

You’re Next (2011)

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Except for one small detail, You’re Next is a satisfying plunge into dark domestic waters, shaping up as a nail-biting cross between Straw Dogs and Strangers. Aussie starlet Sharni Vinson is dynamite as a resourceful guest defending a dinner party at an isolated manor house against a trio of murderous invaders. The tension level continually hovers near the ceiling and the pace is relentless.

When Crispian (AJ Bowen) brings new girlfriend Erin (Vinson) to the family estate to meet the rest of his affluent clan, all heck breaks loose, as assorted neighbors and dinner guests find themselves perforated by crossbow bolts and chopped into corpse kindling, with the grisly tableaux usually accompanied by the bloody message, “You’re next!”

As luck would have it, plucky Erin grew up in a survivalist camp and has the skills to fight back against a team of assassins hidden behind creepy animal masks. There’s nifty gallows humor and gritty kills, and the cast includes genre veteran Barbara Crampton as the family matriarch.

My question for director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett is this: Is art director Nathan Truesdell color blind, or did you sign off on the brown blood? During a few key scenes, stabbing victims look more like sloppy sundae eaters, with faces and clothes soaked in a distinctly caramel-colored goo. It’s a noticeable distraction in an otherwise exciting flick.

The wheel is not reinvented, but You’re Next packs more than enough thrills to keep a body riveted, even if it is covered in chocolate syrup.

 

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

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Where do I begin? Probably where most people do—the ending. The finale of Sleepaway Camp is crazier than Andy Dick on bath salts, and accounts for about 90 percent of the mystique that surrounds this camp-killer relic. There is also fun to be had watching an amazing time capsule of hideous ’80s hair and clothes. One kid wears an Asia (the band) T-shirt!

Though not a particularly gory movie, the kills are inventive, and writer-director Robert Hiltzig (a film student at the time) somehow sustains enough tension with his amateur freak-show cast to carry us through to the aforementioned ending. Which, in case I didn’t make myself clear, is the stuff of afternoons whiled away on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Introverted Angela (Felissa Rose) and her boisterous cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) are shipped off to Camp Arawak, a substandard bucolic retreat for horny teens. (Much of the discomfort encountered in Sleepaway Camp comes from virtually all the campers behaving like hormonal nitwits, which wouldn’t be so bad, except that most of actors look like they’re 12, tops. Ewww.)

Since she’s the quiet type, Angela naturally gets picked on by her bitchy bunkmates, but does successfully attract the attention of Paul (Christopher Collett), a nice boy, whom she soon finds in a compromising lip-lock with her chief tormentor, Judy (Karen Fields, who, in her own bored, flirty way, is the film’s real monster). A series of deadly “accidents” ensue, as one camper drowns and another gets stung to death by bees.

Let’s meet the staff! Counselor Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo) is an Italian body builder who ambles about in horrifying shorty shorts; the cook (Owen Hughes) is a brazen sexual predator, and Mel, the cigar-smoking, hopelessly middle-aged camp director (Mike Kellin, who’s been in about a zillion movies since 1950) is a man increasingly worried about the camp’s financial bottom line, once the corpses start piling up. However, he’s not so worried that he can’t find time to make indecent proposals to Meg (Katherine Kamhi), a counselor that apparently craves the attention of old homely men in knee socks.

My suspicion here is that Hiltzig, a novice filmmaker, caught some Ed Wood juju in a jar. Somehow, through a combination of luck, desperation, and naive audacity, he made a cheap, traumatic slasher flick that people still talk about. The ending, anyway.

Sleepaway Camp inspired a bunch of sequels, but I can’t speak to their quality.

Animal (2014)

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No, it’s not the Rob Schneider movie. That would be too depraved even for me.

Welcome to another episode of We’re A Bunch of Dipshits Who Went Camping. Two couples and their gay friend go for a hike, get lost in the woods, and are pursued through the pines by some kind of super-powerful apex predator. The creature itself is the best part of Animal, and frankly, it deserves a better movie than this tedious time waster.

The beast is close to human size, really fast, agile, and powerful. It appears to be equal parts rodent, reptile, and canine, and must have been fasting recently, because this thing is first in line at the human flesh buffet, barely slowing down to nosh on one victim before another lands in his lap. Put him on a plate son, you’ll enjoy him more.

Predictably, things bog down when the campers discover a fairly majestic log cabin to hide in, one that already has a trio of trapped hikers, including former Kevin Smith co-star Joey Lauren Adams. That’s when these idiots turn on each other and reveal long-simmering secrets that have no bearing on the action whatsoever, but do fill a tidy bit of time.

Animal is not awful, but when you introduce a badass creature that piques the curiosity, we want to know a little backstory, like, what the hell is it and where’d it come from? This information is not forthcoming, but while we’re twiddling our thumbs in the cabin, we do find out that the studly Jeff (Parker Young), who has long since had his head removed, may have once had a hookup with Sean (Paul Iacano), much to the chagrin of Mandy (Elizabeth Gillies), the hot Final Girl.

Come on, people! Priorities!

Dark Ride (2006)

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If you’ve seen the Tobe Hooper flick Funhouse (1981), then there’s no particular reason to sit through this inferior facsimile. Yes, The Sopranos Jamie-Lynn Sigler is onboard, as is Patrick Renna from The Sandlot. Neither possesses sufficient dramatic gravitas to make the slightest bit of difference on the quality scale. On the plus side, Dark Ride is adequately paced and there’s a decent amount of bloodletting, including a memorable axe-chop that neatly cleaves a security guard in twain.

Six very old-looking college kids (including Sigler and Renna), on their way to New Orleans, stop off to visit a boardwalk amusement park where a pair of adorable moppets were hacked to smithereens a few decades earlier. Meanwhile, the maniac who committed the killings decides there’s no time like the present to escape from the loony bin, and seek sanctuary in the bowels of the very same carnival ride that the “kids” intend to explore. What are the odds, right?

Other than some brief nudity and the aforementioned head-splitter, director/cowriter Craig Singer doesn’t bring anything especially compelling to the table, including an identity plot twist that I had pegged accurately the moment it appeared. Dark Ride doesn’t suck, exactly, but if you give it a pass there’s no harm done.

Afterthought: This is exactly the sort of “meh” film that presents me with a challenging dilemma, as to whether or not I should even bother reviewing it. But at the end of the day (I never use this phrase!), if I can save even one of you from a case of overly high expectations in the Netflix horror queue, then my life has meaning.

Rampage (1987)

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By request from Friends of the Blog, Jayne and Chris, I dug up this William Friedkin oddity and took it for a spin. Though it plays out like a Movie of the Week or an episode of a gritty police procedural/courtroom drama, Rampage is nonetheless darkly fascinating, and certainly qualifies as a “Horrific Flick.”

Meet smiling killer Charlie Reece (Alex McArthur, a poor man’s David Cassidy), the handsome, simmering maniac next door, who shares a dumpy house with his traumatized mom (Grace Zabriskie, from Twin Peaks and elsewhere). Charlie’s complicated madness springs from the notion that his blood has somehow been poisoned so he needs the blood and organs of other people to ensure his survival. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

After the troubled lad racks up a decent body count, it’s up to blow-dried prosecutor Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn) to prove that Charlie was sufficiently in control of his faculties to premeditate his “rampage,” while defense attorney Albert Morse (Nicholas Campbell) angles for an insanity plea. Obviously, someone who would kill five people (plus a few cops during an escape attempt), drink their blood, and remove their spleens, must be a lunatic. Oh, and he’s a closet Nazi, to boot. Should he get life in prison, be exiled to a funny farm, or earn the death penalty?

The legal and ethical debate over Charlie’s mental health threatens to capsize the action, but writer-director Friedkin (The Exorcist, To Live and Die in L.A., and Sorcerer) keeps the kid in the picture, occasionally jumping us inside Charlie’s warped mind so we can revel in his ritualized bloodlust.

As it so happens, Rampage is based on a true story (surprise, surprise!) set in Stockton, California. Charlie Reece is the face of ordinary, homegrown evil; he doesn’t wear a mask or rise from the grave every 15 minutes. He’s just that weird kid from down the street. Gosh, I never thought he was capable of violence, officer.

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