Directed by Michael Dougherty
Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, and Zachary Shields
Starring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Krista Stadler, and Emjay Anthony
THIS REVIEW GIVES AWAY THE ENDING OF THE FILM
Families can be a pain, especially when everyone gets together solely from a sense of obligation. What should be a time of joyful reunion becomes an endurance test, as everybody picks at each other’s emotional scabs. Good times. The consolation is that every now and then it can be the basis for a really good satire like the Christmas horror film Krampus. You’ve seen the heartwarming dysfunctional-family Christmas comedies. Everyone hates each other and yells, but at the end the “True Spirit of Christmas” prevails and harmony is restored. Even the most bitter or transgressive holiday film follows this pattern. Krampus does as well, but in a way that undermines the genre’s theme of hope and reconciliation.
Directed by Don Barton and Arnold Stevens
Written by Don Barton, Arnold Stevens, Ron Kivett, and Lee O. Larew
Starring Marshall Grauer, Wade Popwell, and Gerald Cruse
When I sat down to watch Zaat, I wondered why I’d done this to myself. Entering October I’d only written a dozen of the reviews I’d need for Hubrisween, and even though these are generally shorter than my normal reviews that left 14 to write in under a month. Then, to top it off I’d be ending with a movie that had been painful even with the wise cracks from MST3K over the top of it!
Maybe it’s the fatigue talking, or perhaps a side-effect of having watched Up From the Depths the day before, but I didn’t find the experience unbearable. I’m not saying it’s a good movie, but it has enough genuine effort and quirky charm in it to be a nearly pleasant distraction. The restoration for the new bluray release makes the colors vivid, which greatly improves the experience of watching it. With the dingy veneer removed, it’s somewhat less cheap and depressing.
The faults are glaring in this one. For starters, the movie begins with a bizarrely pompous speech on the virtues of quite a lot of fish. But the narration doesn’t stop with the fish footage. As we follow the ichthyophilic Dr. Leopold into his shabby beachfront lab, he continues to narrate his thoughts — most of which center on standard mad science rhetoric about showing them all. I may have blinked and missed it, but I don’t think that he ever speaks aloud. Maybe in a flashback to his eviction from mainstream science.
The acting is largely passible to competent, especially among the characters who we see the most of. There are a few truly awful actors, but fortunately they only have a line or two. What’s truly bizarre is that two of the main characters are members of the Inter-Nations Phenomena Investigation Team, or INPIT, an organization that apparently sends romantically involved pairs to do basic police work when bumpkin sheriffs are failing to match wits with mad scientists bent on human annihilation. They have action suits.
Much of Zaat is concerned with the sheriff, the INPIT agents, and a marine biologist running around trying to figure out why walking catfish are attacking people. We never see evidence of these attacks, but there is a shot of catfish crowding up next to a road. For all we know, they spend the rest of the movie waiting for traffic to let up so they can cross. It’s a little strange then that it takes our heroes over half the movie to notice the tall, bipedal fish that’s killing people. When they finally check out Leopold’s lab and see the murders laid out as part of his Spinning Wheel of Revenge plan they’ve gotta feel pretty dumb.
As stupid and often dull as this movie is, I kind of love it for its commitment to mad science. Years previously, Dr. Leopold saw the potential of mixing the compounds Za and At to cause radical mutation, but the people in charge of the government research station wouldn’t allow him to pursue his dream of turning people into fish. So he quits and waits for his chance, buying the facility when the government finally abandons it, and continuing his work with stolen tanks of leftover ZaAt. He works revenge into his scheme to raise an army of fish, writes it all down on a giant circle, and keeps his time-table down to the month! This, despite mechanical failure botching his initial attempt to create a mate and receiving injuries once INPIT figures out what he’s up to.
Leopold’s the very model of a successful mad scientist! I think there are two major things working in his favor. The first is that he turns himself into an unstoppable monster before making his presence known. Heck, the sheriff knew about Leopold’s purchase of the research facility but never mentioned it because he hadn’t seen the doctor in years. The other factor in his success, I believe, is that he works alone, with no assistant to rebel or accidentally break things. So whatever else, the film shows how a classic scientific villain can achieve lofty, world-destroying goals.
That’s all I have to say about Zaat.
Directed by Ki-duk Kim
Written by Ki-duk Kim and Yun-sung Seo
Starring Yeong-il Oh, Jeong-im Nam, and Sun-jae Lee
Reportedly, Yongary was nearly a lost film. The original copies destroyed, the only remaining version is the American TV cut — edited, dubbed, and cropped. While there are films we can all wish had survived instead, I’m grateful that we have anything left of this Korean monster flick. Otherwise I’d never have believed my friend Tim that there was a giant monster movie where the monster is defeated by making it itch until it bleeds out from the ass.
I generally try to avoid spoilers, but if you’re anything like me you’ll want to see it now, because there’s knowing this ending and then there’s witnessing it. Seriously, I nearly cried. The little guy suffered so damn much, and just the night before they did him in he was happy and dancing.
I mean, sure, Yongary devastated Seoul and was well on his way to consuming all of the oil in South Korea, but is that any reason to make him die by itching? Missiles would be both understandable and acceptable. Freezing is another humane option. Perhaps digging a very large hole.
What makes it truly horrifying is that the film’s requisite annoying youth (here named Icho) begs them to stop torturing Yongary. This is met with the Grim Adult Face and something lame about having to kill him in the most hideous way they could concoct. Then they go home and presumably put chili powder in the fish tank.
When Yongary is wrecking things, it’s a pretty decent movie. The suit is nicely realized and avoids looking like a Godzilla rip-off by a comfortable few inches. Despite some effect flubs, such as a clearly visible gas pipe for Yongary’s flame breath, it’s some enjoyable model wrecking. There are some awful matte shots trying to combine crowds with shots of Yongary, but they’re mercifully few.
Plot-wise it’s a bit thin. There’s some business that doesn’t go anywhere with sub-orbital surveillance, and the movie can’t get enough of Icho’s flashlight of science. (It possibly ties in because the beam makes people itch, but that’s pretty thin.) Other than that, there’s not much to it, I’m afraid. Still, it’s got that ending, and that’s something priceless.
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Joseph Losey and Leslie Norman
Starring Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, and Leo McKern
Two years before The Blob creeped and leaped and glid and slid across the screen, Hammer Films surfaced their own crawling mass of goop in X the Unknown. After the success of The Quatermass Xperiment, they wanted another Quatermass movie. Creator Nigel Kneale was not ready to allow the Alan Quatermass to be used for a story he hadn’t written, so the good doctor got renamed to Adam Royston and production went forward.
That wasn’t the only change required. Original director, Joseph Losey, had been banished from Hollywood as a result of McCarthy’s Red Witchhunt. Purportedly, star Dean Jagger refused to work with him. Whether that’s the truth or Losey simply backed out, Leslie Norman was brought in to replace him. Considering all of these changes, the movie turned out amazingly well.
Here’s the premise, which is about on par for the standards of mid-century science fiction: The first life forms on the Earth were beings of energy. They also fed on energy, so as the surface cooled they moved deeper inside the planet. Every 50 years, as the Earth experiences greater gravitational stresses (?), a few of these creatures manage to crack the surface and escape. They didn’t used to stay long, as there wasn’t anything for them to eat, but now all of the radioactive materials on the surface are allowing one to stay… and to grow!
Like most movie science, it’s not very convincing. The solution that Dr. Royston arrives at is even less so. All of that is just excuses for things to happen on the screen, and what happens on the screen is pretty cool. The energy creature is essentially a mass of radioactive mud. This allows it to go anywhere it needs to, and it means we’re treated to a lot of shots of it oozing across the ground and over walls and such. These range from “okay” to fantastic, with the average being toward the high end.
Other great effects include the melting flesh of its victims. That’s right, “melting flesh”. Used sparingly, perhaps to avoid censoring, the effect is not so much convincing as it is startling. Prior to melting, the skin would expand as though roasting. Another effect that’s not terrific, it’s nonetheless disturbing. Where later movies would halt the story to revel in the decay of the body, this one emphasizes the horror by showing the sheer grit of victims struggling to live long enough to help other people. You want them to succeed, and you feel their agony and determination. It’s a chilling and effective approach that surpasses the ability of effects alone to achieve.
The rest of the movie plays like a combination police/army/scientist procedural. What makes it stand out is that, while everyone is pursuing their own agendas and mandates, everyone works together effectively when it comes to preventing catastrophe. As much as I love the pessimism of films like The Crazies (1973), which imply that every attempt to solve a problem worsens it, there’s something uplifting and satisfying about seeing people set aside their differences to accomplish the impossible.
Directed by Kiah Roache-Turner
Written by Tristan Roache-Turner and Kiah Roache-Turner
Starring Jay Gallagher, Bianca Bradey, and Leon Burchill
When I was a teen, I saw Return of the Living Dead and Re-Animator so closely together that I honestly don’t recall which was the first zombie movie I’d ever seen. They were the first two, however, and they set me up for a lifetime of disappointment in zombie films. The genre is so regularly terrible that there are people who, with a straight face, claim to like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, a film with 10 minutes of fun that comes after a full hour of sheer tedium. This is how low the bar is set.
So imagine how hard my jaw hit the floor when five minutes into Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead I realized that I was actually having a great time watching it! The feelings of surprise and delight continued throughout the film, despite the inevitable deaths of beloved side characters. It is a zombie movie after all; it’s a minor miracle if anybody lives.
The film takes its name from the Book of Revelation. There, it is the name of a star that falls to Earth, polluting a third of the potable water. In the movie — well, it’s a biblical quote that says the star will bring a disease that kills “a fuckload of people”. The pollutants introduced into the air by meteorites turn everyone into zombies. Everyone without a gas mask or A- blood, that is. This is a deadly blow to the human race, as populations range from only 0.2-8% with that blood type. As far as zombie infection causes go, it’s certainly novel. It’s also easy to mention, drop, and move past, which is critical for this kind of romp. Less talk, more fun please.
The beginning is a bit of a jumble. It starts with an action sequence, then goes to Benny’s flashback, before going back to Barry’s flashback. Except it isn’t all really Barry’s flashback, as there are scenes of his sister Brooke intermixed. These siblings are the focus of the movie, as the plot largely centers on them trying to reunite. One of the many joys in Wyrmwood is that the other characters aren’t just there to fill dead space. There’s a lot of personality on the sidelines, which keeps the journey lively and makes for some genuine sense of loss as they fall to zombies, researchers, and sheer idiocy.
Did I say “researchers”? There’s only one that we see, but he’s a doozy. Think of Dr. Logan from Day of the Dead, only gleefully sadistic. His aim is to find out how to make everyone immune, which means sacrificing as many survivors as it takes. This requires people to procure test subjects, and this justifies the hunting squads that both clean out zombies and capture healthy people. After all, survivors are a rare commodity.
A lot of these plot beats are typical, or close to it. What separates Wyrmwood lies in the details. The zombies are stronger by night, which lets the film have both fast and slow zombies. This has to do with the gas that their bodies generate. By day they emit it, but at night it fuels them. There’s some business about zombie blood being the only liquid that burns now, which makes for zero sense but is fun. Then there’s — well, I won’t spoil it except to say that Brooke’s story arc is neat enough to offset the unpleasantness of her being in bondage for most of the film.
If it seems as though I have mixed feelings about this movie, it’s certainly the truth. There are plot threads that are left dangling, the speed with which the research team starts in is nearly preternatural (the whole movie takes place over the first two days of the infection), and the lack of official response (outside of possibly the 5 member research team) feels like an oversight. In the end, the combination of originality and joie de vie lifts it above problems like logic and narrative structure. It’s not going to replace my two genre favorites, but its severed heads and spilled guts place it above the ordinary, gruesome fare.
Directed by Giulio Paradisi
Written by Luciano Comici and Robert Mundi
Story by Giulio Paradisi and Ovidio G. Assonitis
Starring John Huston, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, Barbara Collins, Lance Henriksen, and Paige Conner
The Visitor is a movie that defies summarization. You can say that it is about a space angel coming to Earth to take a daughter of Satan to space Jesus for reform school, but that doesn’t get across a fraction of the crazy sauce that this movie has to offer. Lance Henriksen claimed that rewrites came in every day, to the point where nobody knew what the film was about anymore. I believe it, since it certainly plays out that way. Very few scenes seem to be connected outside of the reappearance of core actors. Then there’s the problem that nothing which happens during the majority of the film matters in any way to the conclusion. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film starts by telling us about the evils of Sateen, who will not be appearing in this film. We then see a basketball game. The owner of one team turns out to be Lance Henriksen. His money came from a secret organization that’s wants him to have a son with his girlfriend (Barbara Collins). She can bear children with the powers of Sateen, and her daughter already exhibits telekinetic abilities. The cult wants a breeding pair of Sateen spawn, which they somehow believe they’ll be able to control.
The only part of any of that which matters is that there’s a girl with major power.
Shelley Winters masquerades as a housekeeper to keeps tabs on the girl for another unnamed organization. She scolds and threatens and even slaps the girl, but it’s never relevant. Also not important is the detective that is trying to solve the “accidental” shooting of her mother. Nor are the people focusing their mental energies on a rooftop at the request of John Huston, space angel.
The only thing that matters — and you’ll want to skip over this if you want to save the anti-climax for your own viewing pleasure — is that John Huston sits down to play pong with the devil child. Yup. That’s it. That’s the final confrontation between good and evil. Pong. Okay, there are a few magic bolts and demon eyes, but basically after playing a video and deciding she can’t beat the angel, she surrenders and goes to Space Jesus Camp.
I love this movie. It’s awful, and it’s stupid, and things happen for no reason, and I love it for that. Every few minutes it’s a whole new set piece in which something horrible occurs. It’s a pre-1980s movie that’s made for the “MTV generation” of short attention spans and senseless visuals. You can pop this in at a party, knowing that nobody will miss anything by not paying attention but everyone will be rewarded for watching bits of it. Heck, make it a game to see if the group can reconstruct the plot from the different fragments they saw. It’s a goddamn treasure to have a movie like this that is better for being such totally entertaining crap.
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.
Written by Eric Heisserer
Based on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, and Ulrich Thomsen
When John Carpenter took a stab at making a new film adaptation of John W. Campbell’s masterful story Who Goes There? he chose to name it after the first movie version. So he took the title The Thing From Another World and shortened it to The Thing. That’s pretty much all he took from the 1951 film that wasn’t part of Campbell’s story to begin with. Audiences had changed dramatically in 30 years, as had effects technology. The more modern take was a showpiece for practical effects, drawing on the ability of Campbell’s monster to imitate the crew of the Antarctic base to create grotesque hybrid forms for the thing to assume between masquerades. The two adaptations are both good, although in different ways that speak to their times. The first reassured us that American determination and scientific achievement would win the day, and the second warned us that the best we can hope for is mutually assured destruction.
That’s where the story could have ended, but another 30 years on someone decided to show how it began. Carpenter’s movie started with the thing arriving at the American camp in the form of a sled dog. A helicopter from the Norwegian base pursues it but crashes. When the Americans finally check out the other base, the find it in ruins with no survivors. This adds to the feeling of isolation while heightening the danger. We don’t need to see how the previous base got wrecked; it’s happening again. Well, someone felt that we really needed to see it after all, and thus the prequel to The Thing, imaginatively titled The Thing.
Remember when Gus Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho and the world yawned? This isn’t really the situation here, but it sure feels like it at times. Mediocre CGI replaces the phenomenal puppetry and stop-motion while attempting to look the same. Same ideas for combating the thing. There’s one small difference in identifying who’s still human, but it makes absolutely no sense. We’re told that the thing can’t copy inorganic material, so only humans would have fillings. Okay, but the thing also imitates clothing; including zippers, snaps, and synthetic fabrics. The only place the movie breaks truly free from failing to ape Carpenter is with the space ship.
Where the earlier movie started with the mystery of the Norwegian’s hunting a sled dog, this one starts with the Norwegian’s almost literally stumbling into the discovery of the space ship. Seen only through the ice before, here it is largely dug out. Yet with this potential for exploring something different, once the thing is discovered the ship is forgotten until the climax. The filmmakers took a lot of effort to set up and explain the appearance of the Norwegian camp in Carpenter’s film, and by all the mead in Valhalla you’re going to see every bit of that explanation, down to the smallest minutia.
Finally granting us entry into the alien vessel at the end, the film refuses to show much of anything. No hint of the crew, bones or personal items or anything. Just immaculate science fiction halls. The one chance to break free of merely attempting to attach itself to a superior film — to create its own identity — and it fails to deliver.
It’s not a terrible movie, and I have certainly seen worse even during the Hubrisween project. It’s just so unnecessary. Watching it, I felt as though I was seeing a detailed facsimile that wasn’t quite convincing. It just made me wish I were watching the real thing.
Directed by Piers Haggard
Written by Robert Wynne-Simmons and Piers Haggard
Starring Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden, Barry Andrews, and Anthony Ainley
Tigon had the distinction of not being Hammer Studios. It wasn’t even Amicus, which produced movies that casual viewers mistook for Hammer. Still, with modest budgets Tigon was able to make a few of the more memorable British horror films of the 1960s-1970s. Witchfinder General showcases Vincent Price in his most purely villainous role, and The Creeping Flesh is an enjoyable monster flick featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as scientists combating evil itself. In my opinion, the studio’s greatest achievement was the 1971 satanic thriller Satan’s Skin, aka The Blood on Satan’s Claw.
Set during England’s interregnum, the action of the film takes place in a secluded village. An eerie humanoid skull, covered in clumps of fur, turns up when farmland is plowed. The bones go missing, and soon the youth of the village begin acting strange. They stop attending religious instruction and begin playing deadly games in the woods. Strangest of all, several grow odd patches of fur on their skin. It’s up to The Judge, local representative of order and modern society, to stop the Devil from assembling a new body on Earth.
This isn’t a perfect movie. The music is irritating and often at odds with the mood of the moment. While stalwarts like Patrick Wymark and Anthony Ainley anchor the cast, the many children are of wildly varying ability. The pacing compares unfavorably to glaciers. Yet there is much that works in its favor. Unable to afford the lush sets of richer studios, much of this film was shot in actual locations — locations that, by and large, were cramped and decayed. The dinginess of the movie, the claustrophobic rooms in the open countryside: it all sets a mood of fear and decline that fits nicely into the themes of ancient evil and religio-political upheaval.
The setting of the film is perfect. With the established power structures disrupted by the Interregnum, it’s unclear who can address the contamination of the youth. The local representative of the church is only barely able to resist temptation himself, and the only law presence is a judge who spends most of his time in London and considers the rural people to be ignorant and superstitious. The order of the land has been upset, and evil will make use of the disruption to gain a foothold.
All in all, it’s a nice little apocalyptic movie that shows what can be done within the constraints of a meager budget.
Written and directed by Dan O’Bannon
Original story by Rudi Ricci, John Russo, and Russell Streiner
Starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, and Beverly Randolph
It’s well-known that Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain because the last-minute title change accidentally removed the copyright notice from the distributed film. It’s less widely known that George A. Romero’s sequels dropped the word “living” from their titles due to the terms of splitting the remaining IP between Romero and co-writer John Russo. While Romero kept the rights to make official sequels, Russo kept the right to use the phrase “living dead”.
It’s a deal that worked well for everyone. Romero, who’d had no attachment to the title their movie had been released under, could explore further dimensions of the setting. Russo could use the title to cash in on the fame of the original work. With a touch of luck, he made some money and launched a new franchise with another film that revolutionized zombies.
The luck took the form of Dan O’Bannon, whose reworked script and directorial vision made The Return of the Living Dead a horror classic in its own right, and a damn funny one at that. O’Bannon had previously contributed to another game-changing film, co-writing Alien with Ronald Shushet. He had collaborated with John Carpenter on Dark Star while in film school. With no credited directorial experience, it’s a wonder that O’Bannon was allowed to helm this project. Again, lucky for the resulting movie that he was.
The story is fairly simple. Workers in a medical supply warehouse mess with old canisters misrouted by the US Army. One of the containers cracks, letting out a toxic gas that brings the dead back to life. The warehouse is beside a cemetery, and before too long the entire area is awash in the living dead.
But the story isn’t the whole picture. In fact, as an ensemble piece the story itself depends on which characters you’re following. Many horror films rely on a core group, who are whittled down as they separate. This one has two main groups, who intermix to an extent without ever fully blending. These are the staff of the supply warehouse (along with the embalmer who works nearby) and a group of punks who are friends with the newest employee at the warehouse. What’s brilliant about this is that it allows the veteran actors to anchor the film while including characters that appeal to a younger demographic.
Another smart move was using a punk soundtrack. It had only been a few years since Valley Girl had proven that a film fueled by new wave could move tickets and a single year since the cult film Repo Man used punk songs. It was by no means a safe decision to go with a playlist style of soundtrack at that time, at least not with one that wouldn’t appeal to nostalgic baby boomers a la The Big Chill. Yet it worked, partly because the songs added to the sarcastic tone of the movie, but also because clever selections and editing made the music serve as a score. To this day I can’t hear The Cramps’ “Surfin’ Dead” without envisioning survivors running every which way to broad up windows, and “Burn the Flames” by Roky Erickson makes an eerily somber accompaniment to self-immolation.
The best idea kept from Night of the Living Dead is one of Romero’s recurring themes: every attempt to control the situation makes it worse. There’s a number printed on the canisters to notify the Army about their location. Burt, the owner of the warehouse, decided against calling it when the shipment arrived years ago, likely because of an aversion to getting involved in a bureaucratic snafu. Once the gas leaks, he again dismisses the notion of calling the number as it would lead to an investigation and possible criminal charges. He decides they can handle it themselves, and by “handle” he means “cover up”. So the evidence is taken to the mortuary for burning. Problem solved, except that the smoke has seeded clouds with the reanimation agent 2-4-5 Trioxin. This awakens the dead of the Resurrection Cemetery, creating a situation that spirals quickly out to f control as well-meaning paramedics and police provide more fuel for the fire. It’s all so avoidable, yet completely inevitable, that you have to laugh cynically. One businessman took out at least a large portion of Louisville, Kentucky, because he didn’t want to deal with red tape.
The Return of the Living Dead is credited with creating and/or popularizing a number of additions to film zombies. Unlike Romero’s undead ghouls, O’Bannon’s ate only brains. They could run, although the more intact corpses were better at it. They could speak, which is still fairly uncommon. The most unnerving part, though, is that they could feel. That’s their entire motivation. It hurts to be dead, and eating brains relieves their suffering for a time. To be consciously dead, aware of your body decaying, and knowing that there is no way to recover — it’s a nightmarish concept that is all too real for sufferers of terminal diseases. The greatest choice O’Bannon made was to make his zombies sympathetic. They are also victims in this film where the enemy is the failure of systems to incorporate human behavior.