Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013)

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Will you think the less of me if I heap modest praise on Axe Giant? Hell, I don’t care. I’m obviously going soft in the head, but this movie never promises more than it can deliver. I am aware that the CGI effects are one notch above cable access and the acting ranges from horrible to hilariously hammy. Even so, director/cowriter Gary Jones has devised what amounts to an intriguingly twisted tall tale that’s awash in guts and gore.

Nutshell: Five snotty adolescent offenders are transported to the Middle of Nowhere Mountains (filmed on location in Ohio, Michigan and California) under the supervision of Sgt. Hoke (Tom Downey), a militaristic asshole who probably has an autographed picture of R. Lee Ermey next to his bed.

Hoke’s mission, to kick their criminal asses toward responsibility, is interrupted by the arrival of the legendary Paul Bunyan, who has an axe to grind (see what I did there?) with whomever has desecrated the final resting place of his beloved buddy, Babe the Blue Ox. The cast is soon whittled down to a paltry few, including Meeks (Joe Estevez, from the famous Estevez/Sheen clan) a mad mountain man who has a soft spot in his heart for the rampaging giant. Given such a juicy part, Estevez hams it up like a butcher with a prize pig and a shiny new cleaver.

The giant’s origin is explained by way of an 1894 backstory that stars old Grizzly Adams himself, Dan Haggerty (who has not aged well). Here, Bunyan turns out to be a massive man-child with  a ridiculously long lifespan and a talent for felling trees, and bears a slight resemblance to a Tolkien troll. The sympathetic brute even inspires a catchy Seeger-esque (Pete, not Bob) ballad that accompanies the credits, sung by Hick’ry Hawkins! You’ve got to admit, an effort was made.

It’s 90 minutes of jolly crapola, but Axe Giant is at least adequately paced, as the titular lumberjack stays pretty busy making bloody cordwood out of the supporting cast. It’s got a few laughs and even a brief nude scene. Folks, you could do a lot worse.

I do feel I must point out one recurring motif that left me befuddled. The giant is apparently stealthy! Have you ever heard of such a thing? He’s constantly sneaking up on his victims and getting the jump on them. You’d think the approach of a 20-foot dude would ring a few alarm bells, but these soon-to-be kindling campers are self-absorbed to the point of oblivion. Perhaps since he spent his life in the woods, Bunyan has learned to tread lightly?

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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!

And whatever you do, don’t lump these beardos in with the Duck Dynasty dopes. Not all gun-toting hicks are bad people.

Blood Runs Cold (2011)

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Based on the description, I thought this might be some annoyingly clever musical crossover, since its rather featureless lead character Winona (Hanna Oldenburg) is supposedly a successful pop singer. To my relief, she doesn’t sing a note. She’s far too busy trying to elude the zombie-cannibal-miner-hillbilly freak that’s intent on having her over for a snack (if you know what I mean).

Blood Runs Cold is filmed somewhere near Stockholm, pretending to be North Carolina—which also accounts for the mercurial accents on display. Winona (not a Judd) must four-wheel her way through several miles of frozen tundra to a remote house near her hometown that has been rented by her manager. (Note: If this guy was my manager, and he stuck me way-the-hell-out in some snowbound hick town without my entourage, he’d soon be nut-punched).

Winona (not a Judd) finds her crummy dump of a house, settles in and drives to a nearby tavern where she stumbles over her high school sweetheart Richard (Patrick Saxe) and his friends Carl (Andrea Wylander) and Liz (Elin Hugoson). She invites them all back to her crummy dump (lots of time spent driving around in Arctic conditions just adds to its zero-budget, WTF charm) where they fall prey to a multifaceted maniac (David Liljeblad—who also serves as producer and co-writer) with a penchant for pickax perforation. He falls a bit short of frightening, but I would have appreciated two minutes of backstory on where this colorful killer came from.

With Blood Runs Cold, director Sonny Laguna gives us a fascinatingly unadorned minimalist study in the field of hack-and-stack. Not one dime of this film’s budget was spent on set dressing, wardrobe, or the cast; it’s all earmarked for blood, guts, and decapitation. And if you ask me, that’s money well spent.

Jug Face (2013)

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“There’s some weird shit going on in the woods out there.”

I’m very impressed with Jug Face, an absorbing and shockingly original jolt of indie-horror from writer-director Chad Crawford Kinkle. I would almost venture to call it “magical realism” but that term fails to capture the profound depths of despair plumbed by teen protagonist Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) as she tries desperately to escape her awful fate as a sacrificial offering to a nameless creature that lives in a nearby pit and serves as a protector to a bunch of moonshine-brewing hillbillies.

Jug Face is indeed mighty grim stuff. Somewhere in the Appalachians, a degenerate community of yokels lives off the grid, dependent on sales of white lightning and dutifully tending the thing in the pit to maintain their squalid existence. Ada, who has an arranged marriage to a doughy village boy in her future, is in love with her sullen brother Jessaby (Daniel Manche) who knocks up the unlucky lass whilst they’re cavorting in the woods.

Meanwhile, the thing in the pit is unhappy and Dwai (Sean Bridgers), the village idiot savant/high priest can’t figure out what’s wrong. Normally, when the god is restless, Dwai is compelled to bake a jug that looks like one of the villagers, who is then sacrificed to the deity. So not only is Ada facing a loveless marriage while carrying her brother’s baby, but it appears she’s next on the pit parade.

The filth and blind ignorance in this hick settlement is so thick you’d need a weed whacker to get through it. And it’s the act of “committing a sin” in such a terrible, unforgiving environment that accounts for the real horror in Jug Face, more so than the angry Lovecraftian god in their midst. Poor Ada tries everything she can think of to avoid the pit, but the superstitious ties that bind (and strangle) these slack-jawed citizens are simply too strong.

Reminiscent of Winter’s Bone, another film about an isolated community with its own strict code of behavior, Jug Face is like an anthropological field trip—or a bad dream induced by a late-night order of pepperoni pizza. In either case, you’ll be very grateful to wake up safe and sound in your own bed.

Frontier(s) (2007)

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Parisian robbers on the run pick the absolute worst place in the universe to hide out. Frontier(s) writer-director Xavier Gens was obviously smitten with genre classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but I suspect there’s a sneaky tip of the beret to French New Wave provocateur Jean-Luc Godard, as well. See? I studied film.

A quartet of reasonably attractive thieves flees the political turmoil and violent protests in Paris for the anonymity of the French countryside in order to count their loot. Sidebar: What could people in Paris be upset about? You live in Paris! Have another creamy pastry and wash it down with some fine wine. Sheesh!

Unwilling accomplice Yasmine (Karina Testa) and her three coconspirators decide to hole up in a bed and breakfast/pig farm staffed by Cannibal Nazi Hillbillies (Canazibillies?) and are soon horrified to find themselves on the menu. The Canazibillies have little trouble subduing the brash bandits, but then old resentments boil over during the divvying of the spoils and the Master Racists are reduced to fighting amongst each other.

Even as Paris is awash in violence after the election of a right-wing candidate, Yasmine and her friends use the opportunity to commit robbery, preferring cold, hard cash to either side of a political demonstration. I believe it is their cynical lack of commitment to a cause that makes them suitable candidates for torture and a trip to the pantry. What happens when shameless opportunists meet fanatical sadists? Well, it ain’t pretty that’s for sure.

Even if the revolutionary subtext is stretched thin to the point of invisibility, Frontier(s) provides effective shocks to the system with frantic regularity as captor and captive alike meet a succession of grim fates. Perhaps Gens is pointing out that the fruit born of violence, whether calculated or chaotic, is equally bitter and deadly. Don’t worry, this won’t be on the test.

Crowsnest (2012)

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Another found-footage cautionary tale about the dangers of a rural partytime weekend with your buds. Seriously! It sounds like a good idea on paper, especially, as in this case, if the hot-girl-to-dude ratio is 3:2. But just look at what can happen! And if you must roister in the wilderness, for the love of gawd, don’t videotape every moment along the way. To be fair, this doomed crew has a better excuse to shoot endless footage of their misadventures than most (documenting evidence of a crime), but it’s become apparent to me that one look through the cursed viewfinder is enough to cook your goose.

A quintet of assholes (really, is it too much to ask that our protagonists have at least one or two attributes that aren’t thoroughly annoying?) pile into their four-wheel drive for a roadtrip to a remote cabin. Needless to say, they never arrive, because the dudes brilliantly decide to take a detour to the middle of nowhere (Canada? Upstate New York? Can’t remember. It ain’t important.) so they can buy a bunch of half-priced beer. Seems like a solid plan until they find themselves pursued by a pack of cannibals in a Winnebago. Yep. Hungry, hungry hillbillies.

The camera gets passed around from one victim to the next, followed by the inevitable chaotic, shaky handheld footage as the unfortunates get chased through the tall timber by mostly unseen predators looking to restock their larders. After all, winter’s coming.

Crowsnest contains some genuinely grueling scenes of savagery, and the gradual decay of trust and friendship amongst the assholes is effectively documented. It’s a fairly slow journey into terror, but once you’re there the blood and guts come pouring down in buckets. Writer John Sheppard and director Brenton Spencer aren’t reinventing the wheel here; they’re just reemphasizing a lesson we know all too well. A carload of attractive jerks doesn’t stand a chance out there.

Hatchet II (2010)

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There’s no need to fret if you haven’t seen the first installment in writer-director Adam Green’s Hatchet opus. The burgeoning schlockmeister is generous enough to replay the origin of the “Bayou Butcher” Victor Crowley, a monstrous swamp-dwelling child cursed by his own mother who dies while giving birth. (Hey Ma, this is what happens when you opt for home delivery—and your home is in a goddamn swamp!) The deformed kid is raised by his father, dies (I guess), accidentally killed by a blow from papa’s axe, and now it’s his alarmingly corporeal ghost that runs amok in the Louisiana bayou, artfully dismembering intruders. Was all of this backstory really necessary?

Marybeth (Danielle Harris) is the lone survivor from the first Hatchet movie, and for some reason, she wants to return to the swamp to retrieve the mutilated corpses of her family members that got chopped into kindling last time around. Really? That’s the best motivation she can come up with? Enlisting the aid of voodoo charlatan Reverend Zombie (the reliably nefarious Tony Todd) she puts a greasy white-trash posse together to salvage the remains and hopefully dispatch Crowley (Kane Hodder) into the afterlife on a more permanent basis.

Adam Green is a filmmaker of limited abilities and funds, so he wisely concentrates on the gruesome details in Hatchet II. A hunter gets his jaw torn off leaving his tongue lolling ludicrously. Another victim is bifurcated and while still alive, gets rudely yanked out of his skin by the spinal column. This is why we we’re here. There’s no story, no character development, no life lessons; just plenty of splatter. Crowley, a fairly rote creation, is a Southern-fried Jason Vorhees sans mask, dressed for an audition on Hee-Haw. Is he a vengeful ghost? Is he an unkillable thing? Don’t worry about it. Just savor the carnage. Green sends sufficient cannon fodder to foolishly confront the beast and the body count is more than respectable, while old pro Tony Todd chews the scenery with relish. Reason enough, I say.

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