happyendingrocks

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Reviews

Halloween
(2018)

Rob Zombie: "No one could ever make a Halloween movie worse than mine."; David Gordon Green: "Hold my beer..."
Even though I nearly walked out of the theater in sheer frustration when I first beheld the astonishing idiocy of this "only true" sequel, my loyalty to the series these film-makers told all Halloween fans to pretend no longer exists compelled me to take another look with fresh eyes. What they saw was a movie even stupider than I remember, but my revisit did allow me to pinpoint precisely why this obtuse wasted opportunity is such a crushing disappointment.

The big selling point here is the return of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, who escaped Michael Myers during his original 1978 Halloween night rampage. Nevermind that Curtis has already reprised the role in 3 previous sequels, and her character was definitively killed off in the 2002 installment- -none of those movies happened now because H2018 director David Gordon Green said so, remember?

But here's the thing: if everything after the first Halloween is erased, then Laurie is not a woman who has been tormented for 40 years by a merciless supernatural Shape impervious to death who repeatedly resurfaces without warning to terrorize her and everyone in her family; she's just someone who once had a chance fleeting encounter with a serial killer that was promptly arrested and institutionalized and has never seen the light of day since.

Consider the recent flurry of coverage on the Golden State Killer, whose malevolent shadow crossed the paths of over 100 people; many of his surviving victims have come forward to articulate enduring far more horrific atrocities than those perpetuated by the fictional Michael Myers, and while their souls are enduringly marked by those appalling events which occurred in their youth, all of them have gone on to build otherwise reasonable lives for themselves, refusing to allow their lone encounter with a monster paralyze them with fear forever- -and they did so while their scourge remained unidentified and at large and still conceivably an active threat, not safely locked away with no chance of release.

None of them turned their homes into gated survivalist compounds equipped with basement death traps and spent decades stockpiling an arsenal of weaponry, all in anticipation that one day their tormentor would return for a final confrontation. Yet the Laurie Strode we're supposed to root for here is an admitted paranoiac basket case who devoted her entire life to doing exactly that, all based on what amounts to a few harrowing hours when she was a teenager; she's not the noble heroine we've been cheering on since 1978, she's a pathetic drunken recluse who exists in eternal mortal terror of a sixty year-old mental patient she hasn't had any contact with for four decades.

That's not to mention the numerous other times this film trips over its own amended lore, such as when the most obnoxious character in the movie unveils the historic Shape cowl to Michael and declares, "this is part of you!" Dude, no it's not; if none of the other sequels took place, that piece of rubber is not a pivotal talisman, it's just some $3 mask that Michael stole from a hardware store in 1978 and wore that one night- -likely chosen at random because it was the day of Halloween so the shop only had a few options left in stock.

Even stripped of these existential issues, this is a wretched mess of a film brimming with more inane elements than I have room to list here, most notably a sudden third-act swerve which ranks as one of the lamest and most nonsensical plot twists I have ever seen in any movie, ever. The teenaged ensemble is uniformly vapid and annoying, even by disposable victim standards, yet we're still forced to spend long segments of the already padded running time following their mindless subplots. The adults aren't much better either, except for a steely Sheriff who delivers perhaps the only pragmatic line in the film when Laurie announces that she has been praying every night for Michael to escape custody: "Well, that was a dumb thing to pray for." The one consistently intelligent and enjoyable character here is an elementary school-aged kid, who helps liven things up during the movie's sole truly effective suspense sequence but sadly never materializes again after the movie spirals back into a deluge of nonsense five minutes later.

There have been plenty of weak Halloween flicks, but this abysmal entry marks the absolute nadir of the entire franchise. And if you've ever heard me rant about how execrable Rob Zombie's contributions to the series are, you'll know that's saying a lot.

Death Machines
(1976)

Regrettably, this movie doesn't feature the tower of teeth shown on the poster, but it does feature plenty else
Featuring a threadbare plot that seldom makes sense, a cast of actors who seem to have forgotten to read the script before shooting their scenes, and some of the least convincing karate ever committed to film, this incomprehensible bargain basement action flick might very well be unwatchable if it wasn't so rife with unintentional humor. Lucky for us, there's oodles of the latter, so what Death Machines lacks in white-knuckle thrills it more than makes up for with its deluge of sheer giggle-inducing lunacy.

Though the title refers to a trio of assassins who spend the movie lumbering from one quarry to the next, the central villain here is unlikely underworld crime boss Madame Lee (Mari Hanjo), whose already massive beehive wig seems to swell even larger from one scene to the next, and whose basic inability to form complete sentences renders at least half of her dialogue completely unintelligible. It's a good thing we don't ever need her to clarify her nefarious plot, since she doesn't have much of one to speak of. The general idea is that she has concocted some sort of mind control serum which transforms her three hand-picked Death Machines into mute and mindless killers who are impervious to bullets and will carry out her orders without question, then sets these lethal mandroids into motion against her enemies.

The silliness abounds from the opening montage, during which Madame Lee carefully chooses her three subjects by observing them in combat. After a lengthy kung-fu exchange, one of the future Death Machines simply pulls out a gun and shoots his opponent to death at point blank range, which sort of negates the entire purpose of the demonstration. Elsewhere, the squad's results are equally successful, and their methods are equally unsubtle. They engage one of their disposable and nebulously-designated victims by driving a truck into the restaurant where he's eating, wait until another target boards his helicopter and level it with a bazooka instead of just offing the dude when he's all alone on the ground, and massacre an entire karate class for the sole purpose of taking out the instructor.

While each of these vignettes technically qualifies as an action sequence, their clumsy execution instead renders them some of the funniest parts of the movie. Swords that don't come within four feet of striking anyone somehow produce mass casualties and end up sheathed in blood, while other foes are felled by knock-out punches that are visibly swung well above their heads, so on most of the occasions these untrained performers engage each other on the screen they look like they're trying their hardest not to accidentally hit each other.

Since most of what happens in Death Machines is utterly extraneous, watching the film unfold creates the sneaking impression that the producers filmed everything they had scripted, then scrambled to concoct various random things for their cast to do once they realized they had only logged about a third of a feature-length offering. That's really the only way to explain the presence of a restaurant owner who eats up several of the movie's lean 90 minutes bragging about how good his spaghetti is. Furthering that effect, the film also introduces a grizzled detective to track the eponymous killers, though he doesn't make much of an effort to actually hunt them down and most of his screen time is instead spent getting yelled at by his Lieutenant for falling behind on his paperwork and not attending some mandatory civics class.

An even larger chunk of real estate is devoted to the recovery of Frank, the lone survivor of the afore-mentioned karate school slaughter, who struggles to adapt to a whole new way of life after having his hand amputated in the skirmish. As the spree's only living witness, Frank is immediately tagged for a follow-up attempt on his life to stop him from aiding the police; however, he mostly keeps himself busy plotting revenge against the slayers who butchered his dojo buddies. Frank also mopes a lot, which his nurse evidently thinks is super hot, because she is shoehorned into the ensemble for a romantic subplot with him. After a decidedly awkward tableau that suggests the duo engaged in some highly unsatisfactory sex, they adjourn to the bar where Frank works, at which point a wild brawl promptly breaks out, ostensibly because there hasn't been a proper fight scene in several minutes. Despite his abiding commitment to martial arts, Frank gets summarily beat down by a drunken codger who looks to be in his 70's, a head-scratching turn of events that doesn't go very far in establishing him as a credible foil for the invincible Death Machines. This turns out to be a moot point anyway, since the vengeance half the film is squandered setting up doesn't actually take place; Frank never has a second encounter with Madame Lee's assassins and instead spends the climax battling her.

I could go on and on. There's also a tacked-on biker rumble at a mom and pop diner that one of the DMs gets into for no apparent purpose, which occurs following an extended diversion involving him being captured by the police and escaping custody, none of which has any bearing whatsoever on the story. Not to mention the fate which befalls a father-of-the-year-candidate bank manager who refuses Lee's demand that he quit his post even after he's informed that her minions have kidnapped his daughter and will inflict all manner of horrific carnal debasements upon the poor young lass if he doesn't comply (his response, essentially: "well, daughters come and go, but do you know how HARD I worked to get this job?!").

Suffice to say, Death Machines is an incompetent mess. But thankfully it's the kind of incompetent mess that is a giddy blast to behold for anyone who fancies themselves a connoisseur of ridiculously awful cinema. Once you factor in the awesomely schlocky Radio Shack synthesizer score, what we have here is a certified classic that fans of this particular subgenre should not sleep on.

Although the nifty but obvious twist at the end overtly announces the instant potential for a sequel, that augured follow-up never did arrive. What a shame; hell, I'd watch an entire franchise of these.

Five the Hard Way
(1969)

Kind of like two totally different movies squished together; unfortunately, only one of them is decent.
Contrary to all of the scathing reviews I read, the worst thing about The Sidehackers isn't the senseless title, the numerous extraneous scenes that pad the running time, or the schmaltzy execution of the romantic subplot. The biggest drawback here is that there's actually a pretty decent movie buried in this slog that could have been extracted and polished into something worthwhile in more capable hands.

Whether you're viewing this caper under its original heading or the one that better matches the poster illustration, neither has much to do with what actually occurs in this flick. "Five the Hard Way" is the name of the song which runs during the opening credits, but that's as close as that moniker comes to squaring with the narrative. The amended Sidehackers masthead seems to be an attempt to cash in on a brief two-man motorsports fad, though this isn't much more illuminating given that the story's central protagonist Rommel is only one man and thus requires no pluralization for his sidehacking activities. Besides, while he does indeed participate in the indicated competitive pursuit, he does so by piloting a motorcycle rather than the distinctive eponymous accessory, which makes his best friend-slash-wingman Luke the only actual sidehacker we meet here; since there's only one Luke, also, no matter how you break down the title it just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Further muddying this affair, the sidehacking ultimately has almost nothing to do with the plot, other than providing an opportunity to fill fifteen minutes with tedious footage of dirtbike races which are presented in such a confusing manner that it never becomes clear who, if anyone, wins. Rommel and Luke are evidently the circuit's star hackers, but this isn't really important, either. The more crucial aspect of their kinship is that Luke is the happily married exemplar who serves as Rommel's sounding board while he prepares to settle down with his fiancée, Rita. The latter couple's amorous bliss is established via an extended tableau of them frolicking in a meadow, during which the dialogue they exchange is so painfully saccharine that most viewers will find themselves wondering if writer Tony Houston ever actually had a conversation with a woman before he knocked out this screenplay.

The real story begins when we meet J.C., who is introduced as a curt and supercilious stunt rider of some sort, even though if memory serves we never once see him operate a vehicle in the entire film. While delivering his cycle to Rommel and Luke's garage for them to fine-tune it, J.C. becomes far more fascinated than we are with the concept of sidehacking, and his ardor is further piqued when he accepts Rommel's invitation to watch their next race. A brief friendship blossoms, culminating with J.C. attempting to convince Rommel to leave Rita behind and hit the road with him and his entourage. However, the more time all concerned spend in J.C.'s company, the clearer it becomes that his brash eccentricity is actually dangerous volatility; once he starts dropping N-bombs and smacking around his beleaguered gal-pal Paisley, the villain of the piece emerges in earnest. Worse, our hero faces another conflict in the form of the latter scheming abusee, who decides she's ready for a bit more stability in a partner and begins maximizing every opportunity she has to try to seduce Rommel.

But when her would-be new-daddy rejects her one too many times, Paisley resorts to some wickedness of her own, tearing her clothes to stage a sexual assault and telling J.C. that Rommel forced himself on her. Suddenly, the Sidehackers becomes an entirely different film, and the frivolous tone of its first act becomes even more befuddling, when J.C. and his goons storm Rommel's cabin, savagely beat him, then rape and murder Rita. The story quickly pivots to a bleak revenge tale, albeit one consistent with the meandering pace already set forth: Rommel decides to seek retaliation by killing J.C., but not before he has a long conversation with Luke about the immorality of vengeance, and then has basically the exact same conversation again with a previously un-introduced artist friend whose only contribution to the movie is that single drawn out and wholly superfluous scene he appears in.

Additional time is squandered on Rommel's struggles to come up with some cash to enlist the help of a musclebound meathead and a guffawing yokel to augment his punishment crew, and then some more with a handful of light-hearted passages which show the group cementing their tenuous alliance. But finally, after a long and winding track getting there, The Sidehackers eventually pays off. The last twenty minutes essay the final desert confrontation between Rommel's squad and the lamming J.C., who has helpfully bolstered his circle with several shooter-toting extras to multiply the film's body count and lend the closing action sequences increased gravitas. Despite the inept handling of the set-up, this concluding segment is surprisingly satisfying, loaded with gunplay and juicy blood squibs and punctuated with an exclamation point of an ending that might not win over a ton of fans but nevertheless serves up a memorable denouement.

Sure enough, the best moments in this outing could likely be whittled down to an episodic short, but The Sidehackers is nowhere near as worthless as its reputation suggests. While the pace is indubitably slow, that leisurely approach allows for a gradual and effective immersion into J.C.'s madness, and even though actor Mike Pataki doesn't look particularly menacing his deeds compensate for his stature. Ross Hagen's Rommel is a somewhat bland rugged everyman, yet that also works in the movie's favor, lending a sense of increased realism to the rough and gritty climactic combat. The horrific violence inflicted upon sweet, ingenuous Rita is more implied than explicit, presented via an unsettling montage of quick cuts rather than an exploitatively graphic rape vignette. And despite not fully reconciling the transformation an otherwise ordinary person would have to undergo to transition from wanting to kill the man who murdered his fiancée to actually setting forth on that mission (the only real soul-searching Rommel does here is essentially relegated to him standing in various locations gazing pensively off-camera), at least some effort is made to segue the protagonist from pathos to payback.

Make no mistake, this picture is indeed a mess. But it's a mess that mostly cleans itself up before the departing credits roll, making any cries of "worst movie ever" a stretch at best. Sweeping judgements like that are better made with a sense of perspective; in this case, I viewed the film as part of a Mill Creek box set which features four titles per DVD, and both of the movies on the flip side of this particular disc were at least ten times lousier than The Sidehackers. This missed opportunity may only have 30 strong minutes to speak of, but I've sat through plenty of flicks that don't even offer that much.

Weekend Pass
(1984)

I think they misspelled "Weakened"
Though the adventures of the sailors in this caper unfold over the course of the weekend indicated in the title, this bare bones offering seems to have been written and produced in even less time than that. This quick and economical approach was precisely the driving force behind Crown International's massive roster of b-flicks, a library that encompasses minor classics to unwatchable duds and everything in between, but in the case of Weekend Pass less is definitely less.

The story is built more on a scenario than an actual plot, following a quartet of Navy lads fresh out of basic training as they trek to Los Angeles for one last splurge of hedonistic freedom before reporting for duty. The first half of the movie essentially doubles as a tour of 1980's LA as the group drives aimlessly from one site to the next, hitting Sunset Boulevard, then a strip club, then the beach, and just to make sure the flick packs in as many requisite decade cliches as possible, the squad also takes an aerobics class and spends some time in south central gang turf.

There is a vague attempt made to infuse this otherwise banal road trip with some sex comedy tropes, but the film falls well short there by failing to deliver any legitimately funny moments--an especially egregious oversight in this case, given that a healthy chunk of the movie actually takes place inside a comedy club where the late great Phil Hartman serves as MC; yet, sadly, nothing especially humorous happens there, either. There's also no sex, so aside from a few bursts of gratuitous nudity, much of the action plays out like a generic PG teen rom-com.

Still, while this result may frustrate viewers expecting a healthy dose of raunch, it does serve to present the four leads as likeable scamps rather than horny dirtbags. Likewise, the gals they end up paired with are a refreshing change of pace from the new-wave strippers, naked masseuses, and vapid showbiz predators they initially lust after. The result is four couples you end up sincerely rooting for, which is a surprising outcome in a film that is otherwise built on tedium rather than engagement.

That satisfying finale isn't enough, though. The cocktail napkin plot requires lots of padding to flesh out into a feature-length film, so the few noteworthy aspects here are swallowed in a sea of filler. Director Lawrence Bassoff (who would go on to helm the last, and worst, Crown International release, Hunk) may have been hamstrung by working from a script that was ostensibly only 15 pages long, but that doesn't excuse his lazy mismanagement of the run-time. The strip club scene, which is there merely to set up a semi-comical exchange with one of the dancers, eats up twenty minutes of the film and features three complete performances. Ditto with the afore-mentioned sequence in the comedy club, where one of the sailors finally gets a chance to achieve his dream of doing stand-up... but not until after we sit through 15 minutes of painfully unfunny material from a slew of performers who otherwise have nothing to do with the movie. Certainly, a flick of this caliber isn't likely to draw the next Scorcese, but given how much emphasis is placed upon the bond between our principal Navy brothers during the conclusion, Weekend Pass would have been far better served by allowing its leads more onscreen camaraderie instead of squandering so much time on the film's unmemorable ancillary players and dead-end diversions.

In more capable hands, this movie could have maximized the potential of its endearing cast by giving them some genuinely humorous material to work with. Unfortunately, most of what ultimately ended up on the screen here is a slog to get through. And, while this certainly isn't the the shoddiest entry in the Crown International catalog, it stands as a largely forgettable jaunt that is easily overshadowed by any number of like-minded flicks of its era. Even if you have a whole weekend to spare, there are a lot better ways to fill it than this.

My Chauffeur
(1986)

This ride is well worth taking.
The set-up for this light-hearted romp isn't exceptionally complicated: the manager of a limo company whose drivers are all stodgy old men is grudgingly forced to allow an esoteric new wave babe a chance to join their ranks, so he sets about to do everything in his power to make sure she fails miserably. Yet wrapping up the requisite wacky mid-'80s nudie hijinks in a fresh and unconventional plot is a big plus in this case, and My Chauffeur ends up being one of the more memorable offerings of its flavor and vintage.

The film's most abundant strength is that it's truly funny, and frequently so. Since the laughs arrive with such generous consistency, the movie maintains a lasting charm throughout rather than serving up a couple of decent gags and settling for being a nice try. Of course, central to that is the spirited performance by Deborah Foreman, who would handily steal the show even if she wasn't already the tale's leading lady. Add in some welcome support from Howard Hesseman, E.G. Marshall, a slew of familiar character actors, and the debuts of Penn & Teller in one extended notable sequence, and the result is a flick that doesn't necessarily demand inclusion in the decade's comedy canon, but comes admirably close nonetheless.

Most of the slapstick elements are handled with gusto by the limo-riding bit players, with Foreman acting as the sassy straight-(wo)man who inevitably gets chastised by her grumpy boss for the misdeeds of her passengers ("but she was worth 20,000 points" is one of her sharpest zingers, though I won't spoil the set-up by explaining it, and that particular vignette is so wtf bizarre it defies description, anyway). Naturally, she proves to be wildly popular among her clientele and thus an asset to the company, so watching her gradually win her co-workers over like she wins us over from the start imbues the film with bursts of surprisingly sincere heart to go with its keen comedic soul.

Though most of the action is dominated by the encounters between Foreman's delightfully-rendered Casey Meadows and the unruly fares her plotting dispatcher throws her way to scare her off the job, the amorous subplot which blooms between her and one particularly difficult client is just as pleasant to watch unfold. Since the two share a palpable natural chemistry and Casey is so comprehensibly endearing, it's easy to root the pair on all the way through the denouement, where once again the movie exceeds expectations by adding an additional layer to the twist the viewer has been conditioned to anticipate since the opening moments (while also affording Foreman the opportunity to deliver the best line in the movie for good measure).

My Chauffeur isn't a perfect film, but it is a whole lot of fun, delivering enough raunch and skin to please that sector of the audience while also allowing its adorable star and the likeable auxiliary characters around her to elevate the material beyond the obvious. What could have easily been just another entertaining but interchangeable sex farce is shaped into something far more impressive in these hands, and this outing doesn't merely work as an amusing diversion, a cavalcade of breasts, and a serviceable rom-com, it also works as a satisfying, well-made flick. And if nothing else, there are way worse ways to spend 95 minutes than hanging out with Deborah Foreman.

Hunk
(1987)

The list of things I recommend about this movie is a blank page
Ugh. This miserably inept little caper ostensibly aims to reframe the ancient "be careful what you wish for..." plot device for the 1980's, but every aspect of the film is so obtuse and dully executed that "be careful what you watch" ends up being a better moral for the story.

The Faustian narrative revolves around an unlucky computer developer named Bradley Brinkman who creates a program that somehow summons a sultry and cunning demoness, with whom he barters his soul in exchange for a reversal of his fortunes. When he awakens the next morning, he discovers that his Stygian swindler has fulfilled her end of the bargain by making his condo look like an '80s Sharper Image catalog, stocking his closet with a fresh stylish wardrobe, parking a shiny sports car in his driveway, and filling his bank account with enough money for him to afford brunch with Gordon Gekko. But shaping Bradley into a new man isn't merely a metaphorical endeavor, she also gifts him with a whole new identity: the ridiculously-dubbed Hunk Golden, a perfectly-chiseled Jockey ad specimen who makes every woman he encounters lust after him at a glance and is also a karate master (who's powerful enough to stop speeding cars with his bare hands, for good measure). Obviously, this updated persona leads Bradley to adopt some radically amended personal habits, such as bedding a succession of beach bunnies & mermaids and walking around in a Speedo for most of the rest of the movie. Equally obviously, Bradley-slash-Hunk quickly discovers that when you make a deal with the devil, there's always a catch, which leaves him scrambling to find a way out of his pact. While still mostly in a Speedo.

That's a decent set-up, but the failures of Hunk (both the dude and the flick named after him) are so immediate and abundant that watching each phase of the action unfold is an absolute chore. The most obvious and grievous problem is that this movie simply isn't funny, despite its numerous lame attempts to infuse the rote happenings with humor. In addition, since the whole story hinges on the alleged "improvement" of Bradley when he becomes his chiseled revision Hunk, one of the film's other glaring deficiencies is that Bradley is easily way more endearing and likable than his altar ego.

Brinkman's main flaw is being social awkward, but he's otherwise a pretty decent guy and he certainly doesn't come across as the sort of pitiful sad sack who routinely gets squashed by the world. His driving desire for change seems mostly based on a single cruel encounter he has with a quartet of stereotypically superficial '80s yuppies with names like Alexis and Skeet, who mock his clothes and kick sand in his face like high school bullies. It's not abundantly clear why Bradley so desperately wants to be accepted into this particular clique; all four of them are actually much more pathetic mouth-breathers than he is, and they're also such irredeemable d-bags that most viewers will undoubtedly wish this was a horror flick so we'd at least be treated to the sight of each of them being gruesomely murdered. Yet once Hunk takes Bradley's place, we're then tacitly expected to root for someone who's just as vapid and unlikeable as they are, which is a pretty big leap to ask for in a movie that presents every other character who fits that archetype as a villain. Plus, did I mention his name is literally Hunk? It seems worth citing again, since that's by far the most asinine element in a film that reaches Herculean levels of idiocy even without it.

Hunk becomes a celebrity and starts behaving like the very thing he once despised, he's jeered by everyone in town in one scene then the guest of honor at a "Man Of The Year" banquet three minutes later, Satan shows up in various guises such as an obese pirate with Baby Jane curls, while a pre-stardom Brad Pitt shows up as an extra and somehow manages to out-act everyone else in the scene despite merely sitting in the background. Oh, and Bradley learns that life is really hard when you're rich and attractive and live in a condo right by the beach (yep, all of that sounds horrible). That about covers it, so if you're still curious to sit through all 102 minutes of this idiotic mess to find out how everything gets resolved, then you deserve what you get.

It's worth noting that this was reportedly the last film ever launched by Crown International Pictures, a production house with such a storied legacy of low budget B-flick titles that they were practically legendary among fans of movies so awful they're awesome. CID certainly warranted a better send-off than this, but there is at least one appropriate aspect of Hunk serving as their swan song: if any movie has ever been terrible enough to sink an entire company, it's definitely this one. Though Hell is never actually shown on the screen here, slogging through this outing often feels like being there.

The Beach Girls
(1982)

You should definitely accept an invitation to this party.
This equal opportunity '80s nugget flips the coin on any number of "horny dudes road trip to the beach to party and score" movies by instead focusing on a trio of attractive ladies in pretty much that same scenario. Shy and bookish Sarah invites her wild best friends Ducky and Ginger to her uncle's waterfront cottage for a summer of fun in the sun, and a slew of politically incorrect debauchery promptly ensues. Ducky and Ginger are eager to take their clothes off whenever the opportunity presents itself and (ahem) socialize with as many guys as humanly possible, but Sarah only has eyes for Scott, the sensitive bohemian guitar-playing hitchhiker who tags along with the gals after they give him a lift. It's all fairly standard stuff, but thanks to a cast of likable characters and a number of effective laughs, The Beach Girls ends up being a notable standout amongst a cluttered field of similar offerings.

Right from the opening montage, amusing sight gags like a nun in full habit regalia waxing up her boogie board to hit the waves suggest that this comedy might actually have some of that in it. The action is also peppered with recurring bits like an omnipresent handyman who thinks he's gone to voyeur heaven when the house becomes essentially filled with naked partygoers but instead spends the movie being alternately electrocuted and knocked down staircases, as well as the hijinks of a beach dog with a penchant for fetching the bikini tops off of unsuspecting sunbathers. In addition to the standard pratfalls, The Beach Girls also introduces a handful of comical absurdist elements like an inept karate-practicing limo driver and (hey, why not) a left-field subplot about an overzealous coast guard crew pursuing a band of marijuana-smuggling pirates, complete with eye patches.

Even the ribald one-liners land more often than not, such as when one of our leads has to disentangle the nude bodies of an amorous couple making out on the couch to locate the remote control; after finally digging it out from underneath their conjoined mass, she holds up the bulky device and asks, "didn't you feel that?", to which the lass on the sofa replies, "oh, I thought it was him." The humor is all strictly low-brow, but the producers of this outing clearly understood their intended audience, and the fact that this flick seems to be poking fun at itself half the time only adds to its charm.

Of course, the good times can't last forever. Soon, Sarah's uncle arrives to discover the raging fiesta and some of his uppity neighbors begin objecting to the bacchanalian happenings in their peaceful neighborhood. Meanwhile, Sarah herself faces an identity crisis as she tries to shed her demure disposition to keep up with Ducky and Ginger's prodigious consumption of boys and booze. All the story threads work themselves out about the way you'd expect, and nobody really learns any significant life lessons to speak of, but anyone who attends this bash with The Beach Girls looking for heady twists is totally missing the point.

Ultimately, this is a movie that delivers exactly what it advertises: a whole lot of gratuitous nudity and a consistent slew of memorable antics in a genuinely funny 90-minute package. I'm not sure if The Beach Girls qualifies as the "best" entry in the 1980's sex farce catalog, but its highly attractive cast, winningly goofy music, and inspired gonzo climax certainly make a strong case for that designation, and any cinephile who fancies themselves a connoisseur of this inimitable genre should consider this an immediate must see. Your payoff won't be quite as rewarding as that of the frolicking revelers who actually get to partake in the shenanigans here, but experiencing this gala second hand is still loads of fun.

The Van
(1977)

This Van is a lemon.
The simplest way to sum up the plot of this single-minded caper is thus: a freshly graduated high school lad fantasizes about having a pimped out van with a waterbed inside so he can lure women into the back of it and get them naked, so he purchases such a van and starts doing that. That's pretty much the gist of this flick, and while it's a decent outline for a teen sex comedy, much of what actually happens in The Van (both the movie and the vehicle) is so gross and wrong that the frolicking carefree ambiance the film seems to be aiming for ends up accidentally morphing into something decidedly morbid instead.

The biggest problem right off the bat is the woeful miscasting of Stuart Getz as Bobby, the sex-wagon enthusiast whose exploits we're expected to vicariously delight in throughout the movie. Granted, it's not necessarily Getz's fault that he looks like a cross between Beck and Ted Bundy, yet rather than diffusing that association with charisma or a benevolent disposition, the role he brings to life on the screen amplifies it by being far more predatory than personable. Though this may merely be a side-effect of Getz not knowing how to act, Bobby comes across as a legitimate sociopath and he looks downright evil when he smiles, so his myopic obsession with ensnaring female strangers in the back of his van immediately takes on an unintentionally sinister character.

And that's not even taking into account what Bobby actually does throughout the movie. His first van outing finds him at a pizza parlor indiscriminately hitting on every girl in the joint until one finally agrees to jump in the cabin of the newly procured "Straight Arrow" to smoke some pot. When she resists his advances inside the vehicle, Bobby viciously sexually assaults her, a horrific attack which the film indifferently shrugs off as just one of the skits, complete with goofy hijinks music, a sight gag punchline, and Bobby's own tickled laughter. Elsewhere, his endeavors lead him to admit two different prostitutes into his love den (who were both hanging out at the same pizza place, evidently) and subsequently a heavy-set burger joint counter girl who is used as the trigger for a particularly mean-spirited joke when her weight pops his waterbed. Another scene depicts Bobby prowling up beside one of his scantily-clad would-be conquests as she's washing her car, and while his facial contortions are ostensibly meant to convey, "man, that girl is hot," his expression looks more like that of a hunter sizing up a trophy kill and picturing what its head would look like on his wall; he also underscores his fixation on this particular target later in the film by parking outside her house to watch her undress through the window with binoculars. Yet another stymied attempt for Bobby to score inspires him to vigorously rock his own van from the inside while blasting a conveniently available audio recording of a woman in the throes of carnal ecstasy so that his friends watching from the outside will think he's having a wildly successful encounter with the disinterested date they set him up with.

Just to keep the timeline straight, this latter event happens after he perpetrates his second sexual assault of the movie upon that very same disinterested date, but it occurs before he kidnaps her and threatens to drive them both off a cliff if she doesn't give him a chance to confess his feelings for her. Clearly, this is not the most stable protagonist in the annals of this genre. Then again, what do I know? That kidnapping and confession ultimately lead Bobby's victim-slash-bae to realize how much she really liked him all along, and the two of them end up using that waterbed after all. Evidently, I've been tackling the dating scene all wrong all these years.

Danny DeVito's presence is especially puzzling; this film landed right between his appearance in the Oscar-winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and his break-out success with Taxi, so it's hard to imagine what appeal this particular project held for him. Nevertheless, his part does contribute a few mildly humorous moments, so it's nice to have him aboard. But the real star of this movie is "Straight Arrow", a truly impressive recreational vehicle that not only includes the pivotal waterbed, but also mirrored ceilings, multiple televisions, a killer 8-Track deck, and a refrigerator (I'm assuming Bobby also has a drawer full of duct tape, zip ties, and knives in there somewhere, but that feature is strangely never mentioned).

The basic premise of The Van could have easily been shaped into a wacky and fun slice of '70s camp. Unfortunately, following this slavering stalker around while he devotes his every waking moment to badgering women into sex by any means necessary isn't a very enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. By the time the action culminates with a climactic death-defying van race (because of COURSE it does) and we're still being encouraged to root Bobby on, it becomes abundantly clear that the people who made this film are even stupider than they assumed their audience would be.

Rest assured, I have spent countless hours of my life watching unwatchable flicks because I love ineptly-made low-budget crap cinema as much as anybody. But The Van is a comprehensively awful movie by any standards, and unfortunately I don't mean that in a good way this time.

The Pom Pom Girls
(1976)

I'll spare you the obligatory pun equating pom poms to breasts.
It's hard to know what to make of The Pom Pom Girls. Though the producers of this flick clearly knew what they were doing when they cooked up that moniker to lure in their target young male audience, the title has very little to do with the movie they actually made. There are indeed cheerleaders in this film, but most of them are essentially used for set dressing while the bulk of the proceedings fixate upon the shenanigans carried out by two of the football players they're on hand to cheer for. Obviously crafted on a grindhouse budget and with that mindset, The Pom Pom Girls further confounds expectations by eschewing the anticipated exploitation elements to devote most of its run-time to a series of tepid vignettes that aren't connected with any real story to speak of, then abruptly swerving into a fairly straight teen drama in the the third act (reportedly, 80 seconds of nudity and language were excised from the original R-rated cut to earn the film a wider PG release, which is the version that most commonly circulates now). The end result is a movie that is roughly half decent and half pointless, which makes delivering a firm recommendation somewhat of a challenge.

The centerpieces of the action here are Johnny and Jesse, two best friends gearing up for their upcoming high school gridiron season. They spend most of this caper wandering from one misadventure to the next with little rhyme or reason: driving around, eating burgers at the local hangout, making out with various girls, defacing the cars at their rival school, having food fights, urinating out of their classroom windows, then stealing a fire truck and nearly murdering the town Sheriff with it (you know, normal teenage stuff). Though presented in a light-hearted way, their antics are more hm-amusing than sincerely ha-ha-humorous, which leaves the comedy quotient here severely lacking. The tenor of the film shifts for the better when the duo finally couples up with Laurie and Sally, the main Pom Pom Girls they've been casually chasing from the start. Suddenly, actual storylines begin taking shape: Johnny contends with the increasingly volatile machinations of his gal's jealous ex-boyfriend, as Jesse struggles to kick his habit of bedding a bevy of lasses in the back of his van and commit to just one while also butting heads with the team's despotic coach. From this point forward, PPG remains a far cry from the nuanced character studies in Dazed And Confused, but the narrative at least finds some sense of purpose and the last 30 minutes are a vast improvement because of it.

It's interesting to see a pre-Revenge Of The Nerds Robert Carradine tackle the leading man role, particularly because his Johnny is pretty much the same soon-to-be iconic goofball minus the glasses and few braincells. Only here, that mien results in him being a popular football player who's impressively successful with the ladies (who knew a change of clothes and a pair of spectacles could make a young man's social fortunes plummet so drastically?). TV cop show stalwart Michael Mullins does a capable job of bringing Jesse to life, while the spotlit Jennifer Ashley and Lisa Reeves are both attractive and likeable enough to distinguish themselves as the clear stand-outs among their fellow Pom Poms.

However, the most engrossing elements in this effort are an accidental product of its era. This is a thoroughly '70s film, and since it's singularly focused on youth culture a lot of the best aspects of that decade play prominent roles. The small town where the action takes place is straight out of a simpler time, while notable features like the bustling carhop, roads with no traffic, and wide open plots of waterfront sand without another beachgoer in sight offer glimpses of a world which sadly does not exist anymore. The classic cars and vintage clothes are all authentic in a way that no modern period piece could ever faithfully duplicate, and even without the benefit of a purse large enough to license popular contemporary songs for the soundtrack, all of the needfully obscure music used in the film sets the tone very well.

In the end, you can't sincerely fault The Pom Pom Girls for not being what it appears to be, since what it really is has more than enough charms to justify the 85-minutes you'll spend with it. If you're so inclined, give it a look for the beautiful girls, good tunes, and a vivid snapshot of high school in the 1970's. Anyone likely to be interested in a B-grade relic like this has undoubtedly invested much more energy for a much more meager payoff than that.

My Tutor
(1983)

Man, why did I take Spanish in high school instead?
This prototypical '80s adolescent nookie farce combines both the "luckless dudes trying to score" and "older teacher instructs her student in the art of love" tropes, which should add up to twice the fun. Regrettably, My Tutor invests all its study time in a generous allotment of nudity and no time presenting characters or antics that are enjoyable enough to hold the viewer's interest in between the topless vignettes.

Lead Matt Lattanzi is the weakest thing in this movie, which is unfortunate because he appears in almost every scene of it. His ever-slouched bedroom eyes are ostensibly meant to convey sensitivity, but the guy just looks like he's about to fall asleep at any given moment (which he actually does in a brothel on top of a nude Kitten Natividad during the movie's first thwarted almost-got-some skit). His archetype is also the kind of chiseled-abbed mansion-dwelling high school socialite who ends up bedding half the cheerleading squad in real life, so the premise that he shares the same daunting struggle to shed his virginity as his two truly inept sidekicks is the most absurd element in a film that already has plenty of those.

Poor little rich boy Bobby's fortunes finally take a turn for the better upon the arrival of the live-in French tutor (?) his family hires to help him ace the test that will get him into Yale and make his father proud. It's not much of a leap to understand why a teen who lusts after nearly every other female character he encounters in the film would also quickly develop the hots for Caren Kaye's attractive and down to earth Terry, and the two eventually embark on an extended romantic staycation complete with Kama Sutra mishaps and shared bubble baths. This second half of the film is slightly more engaging than the opening salvo of lame coitus interruptus hijinks, unless your funny bone is tickled by the notion of seeing Crispin Glover strapped to a wheel of punishment by a dominatrix or watching Bobby get chased by a biker gang after unsuccessfully trying to complete a transaction with the leader's waitress girlfriend who turns tricks on her lunch break.

As if Bobby required more reasons to be insufferable, his histrionic reactions anytime a subplot is introduced to imbue the movie with conflicts suggest that he might be as psychotic as he is obnoxious. When Terry's caddish ex-boyfriend shows up to lure her back, Bobby not only pulls a gun on the louse, he actually fires it at him. And when he learns that the tutor being paid to help him pass his test receives a monetary bonus once he passes said test, he gets enraged and literally accuses her of being a hooker, which suggests that in silver-spoon Bobby's estimation having to work a job to earn money is equivalent to prostitution.

Naturally, Terry also instructs Bobby about life beyond her guest room sheets, so he ultimately gains the confidence to tell his dad he doesn't want to go to Yale, make some independent decisions about his future, and ask out the high school crush who's been in his heart all along. Then again, Bobby sucks, so you won't really care about any of this.

Kevin McCarthy doesn't get much time to shine as Bobby's domineering patriarch, but his presence is always welcome so at least that's one thing My Tutor has going for it. However, the best thing in this movie by far is Amber Denyse Austin, whose sporadic pop-ins as Bobby's alternate love interest are way too brief and underutilized. Austin is jaw-droppingly gorgeous here, and she radiates enough charisma to light up the screen whenever she's on it; it's frankly astonishing she didn't have a more substantial career, but if nothing else she certainly deserved to be spotlighted in a flick much better than this one.

Outside of its relatively high quotient of attractive disrobing, My Tutor is a subpar and undistinguished offering that does little to separate itself from a crowded pack of similar '80s romps. It does feature not one, but two aerobics montages, so nostalgia buffs will surely get their fill. But comedy buffs, or anyone just looking to have fun for a solid 90 minutes, will not.

Jocks
(1986)

Not quite a deuce, but not a lot to love either.
Spying the luminaries in the Jocks cast roster, it's tempting to imagine that this must be an elite breed of the adolescent coitus comedy promised by its poster artwork. It's not; Christopher Lee and Richard Roundtree reportedly only appeared in this film as a favor to director Steve Carver, and nothing that happens in this movie bears any relation to the image on that selfsame poster. Regardless, Jocks does feature a few time-capsule nuggets which disqualify it from being a complete waste of time. It's just a shame that a filmmaker with such talented friends couldn't find a better use for them than this.

The plot traces the journey of a group of hard-partying misfit tennis players who travel to Las Vegas to compete in a tournament that they must win in order to stop their school from cutting their funding and disbanding the team. Hijinks ensue, they hit some bars and meet some girls, conflicts arise and are surmounted, etc. In that sense, Jocks almost comes across as a real movie. Unfortunately, whether you enjoy tennis or not, it's not a sport that lends itself particularly well to an against-all-odds athletics story, which leaves only the comedy and the genre's lewder elements to supply the bulk of the thrills. Since the quantity of the latter is so paltry here, Jocks doesn't really qualify as a sex comedy, and with only a handful of chuckle-worthy moments to speak of, it barely qualifies as a comedy at all.

On the plus side, the Sin City setting adds immeasurably to the film's appeal, capturing the storied mecca in all of the delightfully divey glory of its bygone years. Viewers who never experienced Vegas before it was transformed into a high-tech adult Disneyland will barely recognize the place as it appears on the screen here. Most of the landmarks that defined the town in the '80s don't even exist anymore, so all of the establishing shots and backgrounds are rich with a nostalgia that's often more engaging than what's actually taking place in the movie.

Most of the characters are presented as one-note archetypes which exclude any real connection to them (Tex says "y'all" and wears a cowboy hat, yuppie Jeff is too square to party and has an ex-fiancée improbably named Muffy, Jheri-curled Andy hits on every girl he meets and is a good dancer, etc). Don Gibb from Revenge Of The Nerds is on hand to stretch his acting chops by essentially playing Ogre again, and much effort is expended trying and failing to make the rebranded "Ripper" this outing's equivalent break-out character. But the gang's centerpiece is the team's star player, "The Kid", who Scott Strader manages to infuse with enough charisma to make him mostly likeable even though he's basically a d-bag. Still, even though the film lingers its focus on this core squad, the supporting cast is far more memorable and enjoyable to watch. Lee and Roundtree would be welcome presences even if they were just reading out of a phone book, veteran pinch-hitter Trinidad Silva steals any scene he appears in, and a young and gorgeous Mariska Hargitay is a joy to behold whenever she's on the screen.

Jocks isn't strictly bottom of the barrel, but with so many promising elements in play that never reach their potential, the film is ultimately interesting for what it could have been rather than for what it actually is. 1980's completists will have a decent time, but for anyone curious why fans of the era still hold movies like this close to their hearts, there is a long list of titles that will provide much better answers than this one does.

Coach
(1978)

Can Coach transform the Stallions into a winning team? Doesn't matter, because you'll probably lose interest before then
Popular legend asserts that Angel Tompkins was originally slated to play the titular instructor in this tepid exercise. It's a shame that didn't pan out, since anyone who saw her in The Teacher is bound to imagine that Coach would have been greatly improved by her magnetic presence. Unfortunately, devoid of Tompkins, or much of anything else to get overly excited about, this comprehensively dull flick is too rote to qualify as engaging and too misogynistic to qualify as fun.

Though promoted as a frivolous sex comedy, there's almost no sex or frivolity to be found here. The movie mainly centers around the laments of a monumentally lousy high school basketball team, whose players sincerely espouse themselves as top-caliber athletes even though the first time we actually see them in action they proceed to whiff nearly every shot they take when they're not busy tripping over their own feet and falling down. Aside from a few gratuitously bared breasts and a medley of exposed butts when these lads shower together, most of the film unfolds like a toothless TV teen drama about the players learning to coalesce as a team on the court and psyching each other up to ask out the girls they like when they're off it.

The film's central conflict involves Granger High's sexist jerk of a principal, who is unduly horrified to discover that Randy, the new coach he hired sight-unseen to mentor the school's struggling hoops squad, is (gasp!) a woman. Old man Granger's estimation of the fairer sex is so stunted, in fact, that he seems to legitimately still believe that girls have cooties, as evidenced by a subtle scene in which he shakes Randy's hand then dodders off scrubbing his palm like he just touched something slimy. Perhaps this is indicative of Coach being a product of its time, but modern audiences will likely have trouble swallowing his vehement consternation, and when he enlists the equally aghast boys on the team to show Randy that they don't take kindly to no women-folk teaching them no basketball, the ensuing barrage of lewd comments they hurl at her makes for a decidedly ugly scene that is uncomfortable to watch for all the wrong reasons.

Of course, Randy quickly earns the team's respect and they discover that by believing in themselves and in each other they have the power to turn their fortunes around. She also ends up bedding one of her presumably underaged players (a pre-sci-fi-horror-veteran Michael Biehn, whose appearance is one of the film's few points of interest), which sort of negates any chance of Coach being misconstrued as a parable about a strong woman shattering stereotypes while she shatters the glass ceiling. This twist also makes it harder to root her on as Granger machinates to come up with illegitimate reasons to fire her, since she pretty much hands him a perfectly legitimate one the instant her and Biehn start canoodling (or even before that, when she barges into the men's showers to berate an entire room full of nude teenage boys). To be fair, the romance between Biehn and his older bae is handled fairly capably and their chemistry is well-essayed. Still, the twenty-or-so minutes of screentime devoted to that subplot don't make the other 65 minutes pass any faster.

Though Cathy Lee Crosby gives a decent performance, she's simply not a good fit for the material, or it isn't a good fit for her. This mismatch extends to the movie as a whole, and Coach never really settles upon a tone that works. The erotic elements hinted at throughout are far too tame to please viewers hoping for a carnal romp, while the athletic angle is too low-rent and low-stakes to make this a success as an earnestly rousing losers-make-good sports movie. It's difficult to peg exactly what audience Coach is trying to please, but it's even more difficult to imagine anyone being particularly thrilled with the results.

Fans of the era will get more mileage out of the few quaint charms here, but ultimately this is one shot you can miss without any significant consequences.

Cavegirl
(1985)

Relationships with a 25,000-year age difference are tough
The 1980's were a virtual golden age for low budget teen sex comedies, a reliably successful genre whose purveyors cranked out new titles throughout the decade with such frenzied regularity that many video stores gave these movies their own dedicated section. Cavegirl is fairly prototypical aside from its admittedly novel concept, neither the worst nor the best of its species, but it's still a good time despite its sophomoric execution making something like Hardbodies look like a masterpiece by comparison.

The action centers around a hopeless high school egghead named Rex (played by an actor who looks to be in his late 20's, naturally) who encounters some nebulously defined magic crystals during a field trip to a mine and somehow gets transported back in time to the dawn of homo erectus. There, he meets the titular Cavegirl, a gorgeous neolithic nymphette named Eva, and proceeds to spend the rest of the movie awkwardly lusting after her and teaching her to say the word "boobs".

The bulk of the hijinks here are more amusing than truly funny, but this flick is still fairly endearing in its own quirky way. The introduction meant to establish Rex as a lovable loser is done away with in the first ten minutes, which mostly consist of his classmates punking him with a series of pranks like dropping firecrackers on him while he's sitting on the toilet and leading him into the girls' locker room to be chased by a group of topless women wielding tennis rackets. Oddly, other than those gals, there only seems to be five other students at Rex's school and their entire purpose for attending seems to be to torment him. Even odder, Rex doesn't seem particularly put-off by their shenanigans-though one gag results in the entire backside of his trousers being torn off, he's wearing fresh pants in the next scene, which suggests he's so resigned to their oafish antics that he plans ahead by bringing an extra pair of jeans to class just in case.

The story hits its stride once Rex reaches the "Stone Age" (although the "Stone Age" looks suspiciously like the California mountains). Once we meet Eva (played by the stunning Cindy Ann Thompson), it isn't hard to gather why her presence was flagged as the focal point of the film. Amidst a series of pratfalls, flatulence vignettes, and Rex's thwarted attempts to score with his prehistoric princess, he gradually integrates himself into her furry-loinclothed family and becomes one of their rock-dwelling tribe. There's also a fleeting subplot about Eva and her squad being kidnapped by cannibals and Rex conquering his geeky skittishness to come to their rescue, but since that entire thread is introduced and resolved within the span of exactly five minutes, it's rendered more of a skit than a legitimate conflict.

But hey, taking a caper like Cavegirl seriously is missing the point. Those with a healthy appetite for '80s nostalgia will have plenty to chew on here. The whole production is so evocative of its era it practically serves as a postcard, and a smattering of choice synth-rock numbers by bands so obscure they aren't even identified in the credits are almost worth the movie alone. Rex turns out to be a likeable goofball, Eva is a delight to behold every time she's on the screen, and despite the horny-adolescent mindset of the humor their clumsy courtship unfolds with a genuine sweetness that makes it difficult not to root them on.

There are certainly raunchier and funnier entries in this crowded canon, yet Cavegirl has enough appealing attributes to make it worth a $2.99 rental-which is precisely the result the producers were counting on when it was released. Today, it serves as both an enjoyable reminder of a simpler time and an untaxing way to turn off your brain for 80 minutes. And as far as I'm concerned, that result is equally worthy.

Brain Twisters
(1991)

Not a classic, but enjoyable is more than good enough for me
I put off watching this flick for a long time due to the glut of scathing reviews available online, but finally doing so served as a great reminder not to believe everything on the internet. Brain Twisters is surely a middle of the road offering, but an engaging concept and some creative visual flourishes elevate it slightly ahead of the pack, and the net result justifies its 90-minute investment.

Many of the vilifications I read were centered around the film's dearth of graphic violence or nudity, the expectations for which are likely a product of this outing being most readily accessible as part of various b-movie multipacks put out by companies like Mill Creek. Fair enough-anyone sitting down for Brain Twisters expecting a bounty of grindhouse trappings is bound to be disappointed. However, this is simply not that kind of film. The tone and production values here are more in line with the brand of fare that was being cranked out for original movies on the USA Network in the early '90s, and it's easy to imagine this project was originally slated for a similar arena but received a promotion to direct-to-video status when it turned out better than average. While it's true Brain Twisters rarely dips its toes beyond PG-13 territory, skewering a movie for not infusing exploitation elements into a story that doesn't necessarily call for them and works well enough on its own terms seems a bit short-sighted to me. I have hundreds of films in my library that feature explicit gore and nudity, and I have hundreds more that do not--this just happens to one of the latter, which I don't consider a knock against it.

Although a number of the most unfair criticisms I read blasted the acting, everyone involved actually does a decent job with the material, especially considering the caliber of actors available for a modest production like this. There's even some choice dialogue and interplay between Terry Londeree's surprisingly nuanced evil scientist Rothman and Joe Lombardo's everyman hero cop which reveals that whoever wrote this thing rubbed a few braincells together while doing it. Very few of the cast members graduated to substantial bodies of work, but their characters are fairly well fleshed out and anyone who's invested any time in the world of craptastic cinema showcased in budget DVD collections like the ones you're likely to find Brain Twisters on has definitely seen worse thespianism than this.

The film is dry at times, yet while the computer graphics involved in the titular malevolent experiments are now dated, they're still impressive and disorienting enough to make the lofty concept fly. Subsequent parallels like a well-crafted scene in a drive thru car wash and shimmering soap bubbles in a bathtub serve as novel augmentations to the technological imagery in the tale, and since these callbacks are used as triggers for the film's unsuspecting test subject victims, the central concept ends up unfolding with plausible panache.

Brain Twisters isn't the best hidden gem you'll find in the genre's public domain ether-it probably isn't even the best movie about cabalistic brainwashing computer developers in that field. Nevertheless, any cries of "worst movie ever" are at the very least hyperbolic (you don't need to look any further than the flick that shares the same disc with Brain Twisters in the Mill Creek set I viewed it from to find a movie approximately 80 times dumber), if not the myopic ramblings of disgruntled viewers who clearly haven't watched enough truly awful films to render an informed opinion. I have willingly subjected myself to more unwatchable movies than my sanity will allow me to admit, and this solid thriller that features a nifty score, a passable measure of suspense, and a flawed but interesting idea does not belong anywhere near that category.

Watch it for what it is and enjoy the humble payoff. Or you can grumble about there not being enough slit throats and copulation throughout, but that's a waste of time... if Brain Twisters is in your vicinity, chances are you have between 49 and 199 other movies in the same box set that might better suit your needs.

La figlia di Frankenstein
(1971)

The monster isn't very impressive, but the Lady definitely is
It's probably fitting that a story about reanimating the dead has been resurrected so many times throughout cinematic history. This umpteenth reimagining of Mary Shelley's eternal classic certainly doesn't improve on the masterful blueprint Universal laid out in the 1930's, but when you see what does unfold on the screen here, it's easy to gather that the filmmakers had wholly different intentions for this flick. Lady Frankenstein is neither the best nor the worst incarnation of Shelley's monstrous parable, though it is an undeniably entertaining ride.

Skipping over the usual extrapolations and jumping right into a grave-robbing scene to open the film, this Italian number is clearly focused on highlighting the more ghoulish aspects of the story. The first half essentially dispenses with the entirety of James Whale's original opus in a lean 40 minutes, the only significant additions being a determined inspector focused on catching the scoundrel who's been busily pilfering cemeteries to supply Dr. Frankenstein bodies for his experiments, and obviously the arrival of the eponymous Lady Frankenstein, the scientist's buxom daughter who returns home after establishing herself as a surgeon in her own right in medical school. The rest you know. Of course the good Dr. makes a creature, of course he is undone by his perversions of nature (but only after delivering the decidedly fantastic line "on Earth, man is God"), and of course his creation escapes. This leads us into the film's second chapter, which is where this offering veers from the template to assert its own kinky vision, which luckily for us consists of a mutilated abomination rampaging across the countryside leaving a trail of nudity and gore in its wake.

The astonishingly attractive Rosalba Neri handily steals the show as the titular heiress to her father's legacy, and her machinations throughout the movie establish her as a sultry and cunning villain. The plan she sets into motion as the monster terrorizes the region puts a novel twist on the established formula, so the simple gimmick of changing the gender of the lead character is far from the only fresh idea the film infuses into the Frankenstein mythos. Her excellent performance alone make this flick worth watching, particularly as her design plays itself out during the affair's second act, which packs in a lot more iniquitous scheming and spicy action than the comparatively staid introduction.

The picture is also, somewhat surprisingly, extremely well-made. The production values are high, the script is sharp, everyone in the principal cast tackles their parts with the gusto of established stage actors, and both the lavish sets and costumes are augmented by a keen Hammer-esque attention to detail. Regrettably, the makeup for this disfigured incarnation of the classic monster isn't nearly as impressive. Though serviceable given the limitations of the budget and the era, the creature prosthetics look unavoidably clunky in their numerous close-ups, a drawback that is underscored often throughout the film since so much of the mayhem takes place in broad daylight.

The main thing that hampers Lady Frankenstein from elevating itself in the ranks of its superior predecessors is its rather sober delivery. Despite its numerous positive qualities, the movie does drag on at times and isn't as overall fun as it reasonably should be given its gonzo body count and madcap storyline. The stuffy nature of the early lab scenes and their unavoidable seen-it-before familiarity add up to a relatively slow opening, and even when the action begins in earnest, the entire middle sequence is centered around a repetitive cycle of the creature lumbering from place to place to kill canoodling lovers, hapless fishermen, a mom and dad who appear to know nothing about self-defense, and unsavory criminals, slaying pretty much everyone he comes across with little or no rhyme or reason.

The ending also falters in places. Notwithstanding a horde of torch-wielding villagers setting fire to everything in sight and the nifty twist which befalls our maleficent Lady, the final confrontation the conflict has been building toward just sort of comes and goes without much fanfare. Worse, the film abruptly ends during one of its most powerful scenes without so much as a credit sequence, so the payoff for this otherwise intriguing turn of events is severely minimized. To be fair, all of this may be due to the truncation of Lady Frankenstein for its public domain distribution in the US. The original German cut is reportedly 15 minutes longer; given how perfunctorily a few key plot points are glossed over here, this missing footage may indeed have strengthened some of the weaker aspects and made the film feel more complete.

Nevertheless, as it stands, Lady Frankenstein is an enjoyable romp no matter where you see it. I doubt Mary Shelley could have ever imagined her concept would eventually spawn an adaptation this lascivious and wild, but given the depths of eccentric imagination exhibited in her original composition, I think she might be proud.

Cries in the Night
(1980)

Something might be wrong with Granny, but a lot of things are right with this movie
Anchored by a stylish production, sustained deftly-orchestrated suspense, a subtle and effective musical score, and a cast that seems genuinely determined to make a good movie, Funeral Home has enough quality ingredients to coalesce into a well above-average entry in the early-80's horror canon. A lot of its elements have since been utilized so frequently they've become clichés, but the film regardless has plenty of strong moments that make this mortuary well worth visiting.

A spunky young woman moves to a small rural town to help manage a bed & breakfast that her grandmother has converted from her absent husband's titular previous business venture. At first, it's a lovely change of scenery for Heather: the house is charming, she meets a nice local lad and begins exploring a budding romance, and Granny Chalmers is the kind of sweet and benevolent matriarch who offers everybody tea. But that set of circumstances wouldn't add up to much of a horror flick, so it isn't long before Heather begins discovering that this seemingly idyllic situation is masking some darker tidings. There's a creepy handyman who looks like Donnie Wahlberg lurking about, stories about her vanished grandpa's unsavory past are bubbling to the surface, and a whole lot of other people are also mysteriously disappearing within the quaint little community. As for Granny, she's showing signs of puritanical possessiveness, referring to her missing husband as if he's still living with her, and spending way too much time hanging out in the middle of the night down in the cellar she's declared strictly off-limits to her guests. Dot dot dot.

That's a strong enough launching pad for an absorbing thriller, and Funeral Home runs with it admirably, gradually peeling away the layers of the plot one at a time without revealing too much too soon. The pace chugs along on the slower side (the introduction and subsequent offing of a sleazy, obnoxious couple seems implanted just to inject a little action into the first act), but stays on track throughout, building a tight mystery that offers up some well-nested surprises along the way. And once a genial acquaintance guilty of asking too many questions meets his grisly end, the film charges on toward the climax and never looks back.

The setting and characters are all well-rendered, and even the initial lethargy of the local law enforcement works in the context of the story (the last person to turn up missing was a greedy real estate speculator who came to town to dupe folks into selling off their land, so no one misses him enough to look for him very hard). Most of the decisions the denizens make follow a logical arc, so the whole tight-knit ensemble is an authentic and likeable bunch that lends the material a heightened aura of realism. Heather does spend a little too much time rationalizing odd behaviors that would make anyone else pack their bags immediately, but since the rest of the community also gives Granny the benefit of the doubt because they feel sorry for her circumstances, our heroine's dawdling is likewise forgivable. Kay Hawtrey's capable performance certainly helps in this regard; her Maude Chalmers is disarmingly affable for most of the film, yet along the way the actress wisely doles out her more sinister aspects like breadcrumbs in a measured manner that keeps the action fresh long after it becomes clear something about Granny is definitely off.

Referencing the name of the film Funeral Home blatantly lifts every beat of its conclusion from would give the whole final act away, so I won't do that here. Nevertheless, despite its overt familiarity, the apogee plays out in satisfactory fashion and puts a nice punctuation mark at the end of this enjoyable outing. Those expecting a slasher flick will likely be disappointed; the body count here is modest, and the gore quotient is minimal. But the approach to these proceedings is clearly focused on generating tension rather than bloodshed, and there's more than enough of the former to make up for the absence of the latter.

Funeral Home isn't quite a classic, but it is a wholly solid film that stands above several similar offerings of its vintage. Though currently consigned to relative obscurity, this thriller is well worth seeking out and will supply ample rewards to those who do. Recommended.

Peopletoys
(1974)

Not worth the infamy it has cultivated over the years, but definitely worth 88 minutes of your time
Neither as appalling nor effective as its status among grindhouse aficionados might suggest, Devil Times Five is actually far too clunky to be frightening and far too silly to be offensive. The film's entire approach is ostensibly built on the idea that polite audiences will be automatically horrified to see children gleefully perpetuating wicked deeds, but this is a flimsy concept at best; anyone who has ever been around a toddler throwing a tantrum already knows that kids can turn into monsters at a moment's notice. Any shock value inherent in the concept wears off rather quickly, so what the movie really boils down to is one nastily gruesome kill scene and a macabre coda that provides a too-brief taste of the genuinely unnerving ambiance which is woefully absent for the rest of this otherwise inane caper.

The story tracks five disturbed youngsters who improbably survive the wreck of a bus that is shuttling them up into the snow-entombed mountains for no evident reason. Their exodus leads them to the opulent abode of a wealthy businessman who is hosting a group of nebulously-related family members and colleagues for a weekend getaway. The adults take immediate pity on their unexpected guests despite the kids' sassy leader pointing a rifle at their faces when they first meet, but inviting the moppets to stay with them until police can be summoned to the secluded hilltop locale quickly begins yielding deadly consequences.

Most of the various murder scenes range from baffling to ridiculous, and even some of the most inspired homicides end up being memorable for the wrong reasons. The first--a ponderous slow-motion slaughter that stretches out to several minutes and features the kids wielding a medley of weapons to dispatch their hapless victim--looks like it was lifted from an entire different film, rendered in arty sepia tones and shot with oblique abstract camera angles. It's an interesting sequence, but becomes a befuddling one after subsequent comparatively mundane portions of the film are given a similar slow-motion treatment. The emphasis placed upon the introductory slaying makes little sense in the context of the rest of the movie, particularly once we learn that our pint-sized villains have likely orchestrated exploits like this before. But at least it looks kind of neat, which was probably the sole reason the editors opted to use all the tricks at their disposal to turn 10 seconds of action into 5 minutes of screen time.

If only they exercised more care with the rest of their footage. This was reportedly a problematic production, hampered by a replaced director and extensive reshoots, but surely at some point someone must have considered broaching the issue of Leif Garrett's hair, which transforms from a shoulder-length mane to a close-cropped bowl cut from scene to scene (much like a creepier and more suitable title like Peopletoys was transformed into the generic and unbefitting Devil Times Five) . Elsewhere, a few additional awkward segues testify to the film's muddled orchestration, such as the relationship between two women who get into a spirited catfight early in the movie yet interact as seemingly comfortable friends a few minutes afterwards. Later, the discovery of one corpse prompts one of our protagonists to conclude, "don't tell anybody about this," upon which the film immediately cuts to a scene of people being told about it.

The adult characters spend most of the movie bickering with each other, and since they're largely clueless about anything else going on around them, there isn't a whole lot of suspense as they're systematically dispatched by their youngling assassins. They're also far too eager to accept anything the kids present to them, even when the explanation provided for one of the killings is that the dead man somehow managed to accidently cleave himself in the back with an axe (don't you hate it when that happens?). A pre-pubescent girl in the ruinous troupe is in the habit (ha!) of draping blankets over her head to simulate a nun's garb, and rather than being unsettled by this bizarre affectation, the grown-ups address her as "sister" every time they speak to her instead (when she helps with the post-supper cleanup, the property's mentally-challenged handyman delivers perhaps the best line in the movie: "I've never washed dishes with a nun before"). In short, these aren't particularly savvy victims, so caring what happens to them becomes increasingly difficult as the action wears on.

The most memorable effect in the film is the oft-referenced piranhas-in-the-bathtub sequence, which is indeed a grisly piece of work. However, even this eminent tableau is imbued with the same head-scratching absurdity that populates most of the story; since the owner of these lethal fish is sitting directly beside their tank for the duration of the murder, good luck trying to figure out how the kids managed to procure the predators to accomplish their fiendish plot. Ditto with the spiked harness that allows one of the vicious tots to swing down from the ceiling to impale another victim, and the complex series of calculations which leads the group to strategically place hidden bear traps in a configuration that perfectly ensnares each of their prey's limbs simultaneously when he falls upon the snow.

Rest assured, this is a really stupid movie. However, it's certainly not entirely lousy, and its handful of stronger moments make Devil Times Five worth a quick look for committed genre fans. Despite its unsavory reputation, this is a relatively tame excursion compared to the more disturbing grindhouse offerings of its era, so lowering your expectations will probably heighten your reward. Besides, the goofy music and mirthful demeanor of the killer kiddies seem to indicate that this flick isn't really meant to be taken seriously. Which is a good thing, because it's pretty hard to.

The House of the Dead
(1978)

No Aliens or Zones, but plenty of other nifty stuff
There's something undeniably quaint and inherently likeable about Sharon Miller's uneven anthology flick The House Of The Dead, a four-tale medley that plays out like a handful of decent Tales From The Darkside episodes sandwiched together. Some excellent creative flourishes make the whole stronger than its parts, and while most of the individual stories aren't markedly exceptional, they are at least engaging to watch despite their largely tepid resolutions.

Though originally issued with the inexplicable title Alien Zone (a futile moniker, give that there isn't a single extraterrestrial being in the film's cavalcade), the most obvious inspiration for this outing is EC's classic horror comics. Each of the segments plays out according to that blueprint, with a deadly-droll mortician subbing for the wisecracking Crypt Keeper to usher us through each of the parables. The framing device is remarkably novel, with a well-cast Ivor Francis telling the gruesome backstories of various inhabitants of the coffins in his funeral parlor to a luckless visitor who stumbles inside to get out of the rain. The dueling performances from both Francis and John Ericson are fantastic, and this ongoing thread of the movie maintains a creepy ambiance throughout, even if the telegraphed climax lands flat.

The first segment is arguably the strongest, focusing on a crabby teacher who is terrorized by a horde of homicidal children. Miller executes this portion very well, utilizing some effective genre tropes that weren't yet tropes when this film was made to wring maximum suspense out of the scenario. When the payoff arrives, the cheap drugstore Halloween masks used to hide the faces of the murderous moppets imbue THOTD with its most potently eerie images, and a hallucinatory finish ends this passage on a particularly high note. Unfortunately, since the movie strives to pack so much material into its lean 79-minute running time, there isn't a lot of room to develop the promising concept. The only real glimpse we get of Miss Sibiler being mean to kids occurs when she snaps at a young duo who are sitting on the hood of her car, so the subsequent retaliation inflicted upon her seems a bit uneven and thus loses some of its punch. If shaped into a more detailed narrative, this segment could have been tremendous; unfortunately, in this truncated format, it's merely the best idea in a movie that has a handful of fairly good ones.

The second tale is rote and forgettable, a barely sketched-out profile of a serial strangler who lures his victims into his home so he can film his crimes. While the killings themselves are sufficiently savage to provide some visceral horror, the goofy affect of the murderer and the lack of any real twist or purpose strips this one of any lasting impact. The entire act basically boils down to: he kills a couple girls, the police come catch him, the end. Since the tone is way too light to serve the darkness of the concept, Miller seems to have missed whatever mark she was aiming for here. The time squandered on this road to nowhere might have been better used to add a bit more meat to the sturdier stories, so its inclusion is capricious at best.

Division three features an entertaining sleuthing battle between two world-renowned detectives, but its climate doesn't quite fit the genre and the resolution is sort of preset once you realize there are only two characters in the entire piece. The finale is laughably implausible, though it does provide the goriest moments in the film so forgiving viewers will still enjoy watching it unfold. Nevertheless, like each of the tales, this chapter rushes by far too hastily to maximize its concept and misses some definite opportunities along the way.

The final fable will be innately familiar to any fan of The Twilight Zone, presenting a relatively standard morality play which utilizes the brand of role-reversal scenario featured in several different episodes of Rod Serling's legendary program. In this iteration, we meet an arrogant yuppie who abuses anyone he views as below him until he is put through an ill-explained cycle of torments and emerges as the very thing he has been abusing. Despite the conventional territory and the nebulous cause of his comeuppance, the claustrophobic feel here and a couple of nifty set-pieces like a wall of spikes inexorably inching toward our villain's face make this segment a standout that sends us into the film's coda in solid fashion.

The House Of The Dead is far from the best anthology thriller ever made (obviously, I tip my hat to Creepshow), but despite its many weaknesses it's still plenty of fun to watch. The atmosphere and production are pleasant reminders of a halcyon epoch for the horror genre, a magical spell during the late 1970's and early '80s when low-budget offerings like this were opening nearly every weekend and thriving. Despite the sincere efforts of many modern film-makers, the overall aura of this flick's vintage isn't something that can be duplicated-like the adage goes, "you just had to be there"-so it's always nice to stumble across a worthy period-piece that has largely slipped through the cracks. Contemporary audiences probably won't find a ton to enjoy here, but fans of the era will have a perfectly good time.

Nightmare in Wax
(1969)

When inert wax statues are more exciting than the movie they're appearing in, that's a problem
Given that Nightmare In Wax was made in 1969, when some of horror's most visionary auteurs were readily pushing the boundaries of what they could present on the screen, this toothless offering seems to have arrived about a decade too late. The macabre elements at play here are tame even by the genre's earliest standards, and since the story itself is far too time-worn and harebrained to generate any real suspense or thrills, it hard to find much to like about the dull pastiche that unfolds over the course of this 90 minute slog.

Cameron Mitchell is always a welcome presence, but this is assuredly one of the weakest entries in an extended filmography replete with C-grade gems. As the caper's central villain, disfigured in a fiery attack and driven to aimlessly dwell like a Phantom without an opera in the bowels of a workshop beneath the Movieland Wax Museum, most of Mitchell's screen time here is devoted to numerous lugubrious scenes of him spouting angry monologues at his waxen creations, all of which play out as more silly than sinister. The dollar-shop burn prosthetics that bring his character to life don't help matters either, especially since every good glimpse we get of his scarred countenance creates the impression that the makeup department merely glued a couple strips of sandpaper to his cheeks and called it a day.

Unfortunately, not much else in the film is any better. The happenings will be readily familiar to anyone who has ever seen a horror film set in a wax museum (hint: not all of the displays are made entirely of wax), and the awkward plot Mitchell utilizes his special creations to carry out is so convoluted that even he never seems quite sure whether his goal is to fiendishly imprison the people he has lured into his lair by turning them into living statues, or to use narcotic injections and hypnosis to make them act as his malevolent slaves. There are a couple of detectives roaming around throughout the movie investigating the strange fates of the disappeared people in Mitchell's orbit, but despite the cameras following them away from the main storyline enough times for half of the film to resemble one of the era's TV cop shows, the police angle ultimately has no bearing on the resolution and their attendance ends up being largely extraneous.

No one in Nightmare In Wax seems to find it strange that a deformed recluse took it upon himself to speedily sculpt perfect effigies of several prominent missing actors he was personally acquainted with and put them on display in his gallery--not even those brilliant detectives, who come face to face with the mad waxer's most recent victim just days after he vanishes without a trace and simply stand there marveling at the realism of Mitchell's craftsmanship. Even more obtuse is the museum's tour guide, who catches one of the exhibits blinking at him yet subsequently writes it off as a totally normal occurrence after Mitchell explains that his waxworks talk to him all the time so seeing one of them blink isn't really that big a deal.

The whole point of Mitchell's bonkers and long-winded plan seems to be orchestrating revenge on the movie mogul scoundrel who maimed him, but since their final showdown above a vat of boiling wax ends the exact same way every showdown above a vat of boiling wax in movie history has ended, we're left supposing that the dude should have probably thought up a better location to take a flying leap at his nemesis. The tepid climax is further hampered by a needless wrap-up montage that flashes back to several flashbacks we already saw earlier in the flick, which serves no purpose other than making this film even longer than it already feels like it is.

About the only item of interest here is that much of the picture was shot on location inside the original Movieland Wax Museum, a Southern California landmark that served as a delightful attraction for cinema fans until its doors were sadly closed in the early 2000's. A few of the gallery's most iconic dioramas are shown prominently throughout the film, and had the characters spent more time exploring additional exhibits, I might have been tempted to give this thing a couple more stars for nostalgia's sake alone.

Nevertheless, as it stands, Nightmare In Wax is dumb, tedious, and a chore to last through. And worst of all, its badness isn't even fun, it's just bad. The only chance of this film generating nightmares for anyone is if they fall asleep while watching it, which I did three times before finally making it all the way to the end. Don't bother with this one unless you have a really comfortable chair and a nap sounds nice.

Us
(2019)

I got 6 on it
Since Us is a tale that studies the dualism of opposites (good and evil, light and dark, above and below, etc.), it is perhaps fitting that the film itself grapples with its own intrinsic counterpoints. On one hand, Jordan Peele's second horror feature is a stylish production that boasts some stellar acting, an intriguing concept, and a large handful of genuinely unsettling set-pieces. However, the landscape on the other side of Us's coin is rather blurry, a grab-bag of fantastic ideas that don't ever coalesce into a satisfying whole, a narrative that often fails to adhere to its own internal logic, and a formulaic resolution that lands with a dull thud. Us is at times a very good film, but also a very frustrating one, because both the undeniable talent of its architect and its strongest visceral moments hint at an elusive greatness that the final product never quite achieves.

You already know the plot: a vacationing family whose matriarch is still haunted by a mysterious childhood trauma encounters a quartet of malevolent doppelgangers ("it's Us...") who stalk and torment them until these ordinary people are forced fight back against extraordinary foes. It's the same basic set-up used in any number of "home invasion" thrillers, though Peele tweaks the blueprint enough to put his own unique stamp on the happenings. At first, this is sufficient. Getting to know the Wilsons while the film's creepy subtleties slowly assert themselves drives an engaging opening act, and the initial assault upon their cottage is more harrowing than anything you'll find in the cheap-jump-scare realms of contemporary horror. Yet when Us begins delving into the deeper significance of its macabre scenario, the movie quickly sheds its mask of reality-borne terror and morphs into something far more unviable and far less remarkable.

A comparable film like The Strangers offered up the simplest and most chilling explanation for its cycle of torture and violence: "because you were home." Us presents a much loftier concept, but sacrifices much of its potency to do so. Our fundamental fear of the unknown has been utilized as a powerful tool in countless genre offerings; a bit of ambiguity would have served this one very well, especially since Peele supplies enough solid jolts here to let them speak for themselves. Regrettably, Us instead goes to great and disruptive lengths to explain itself, at one point completely derailing the climax so the principal antihero can deliver a 10-minute monologue which sheds light into every dark corner the film has introduced along the way, outlining the ins and outs of the nefarious scenario like an old James Bond villain's obligatory confession of their masterplan. This reveal opens a slew of plot-holes and brings what should be the most exciting sequence of the picture to a screeching halt, and while the ensuing final battle is staged with stunning visual panache, the payoff ends up being rather minimal after such an interminable detour to get there. Whittling away all of this needless explication would have benefitted the bloated running time and made Us a much leaner and meaner killing machine--ditto with the abundant implants of humor, which aren't unexpected given Peele's comedic lineage, but add nothing to the movie besides trivial distractions from its mission statement.

Ironically, for all of its long-winded elucidations, Us makes less sense the more you ponder it. The overarching device crumbles under scrutiny, the "twist" is so obvious and futile that is doesn't even qualify for that designation, and the amplified dread we are ostensibly supposed to feel upon being transported into the shoes of a normal family in peril is negated by an omnipresent comic-book sensibility. When traumatized children are cracking one-liners moments after brutally and gorily executing beings who look exactly like their loved ones, whatever tenuous sense of "this could happen to anyone" Us is grasping for pretty much flies out the window.

The film has plenty of high-points, the most notable being a charismatic two-role performance by Lupita Nyong'o, who handily steals the show. Peele's gradual introduction of the morbid phantasmagorias that shape the on-screen mythology ensures that the tension level remains elevated as the story unfolds, even if that momentum evaporates once his characters begin ruining the mystery by clarifying everything that's happening. Genre fans will enjoy the sly cultural references peppered in along the way, and the grislier bits of the flick are handled in gleefully vigorous fashion. There are some truly memorable segments in Us that will ensure viewers will be thinking about it long after the credits roll. Nevertheless, like Peele's similarly uneven and similarly over-hyped Get Out, this spiritual sequel is merely okay.

Jordan Peele is an extremely gifted writer who has also demonstrated that he has the directorial acumen to put some excellent things on the screen. I have no doubt he is capable of making an altogether superb horror film. Unfortunately, I'm still waiting.

Body of the Prey
(1967)

Take that, Darwin
The putative origin story of how this silly little cheapie was bestowed its alternate title The Revenge Of Dr. X and why the sparse credits predominantly list actors who do not actually appear in this flick is more interesting than the film itself. Plotwise, this is essentially a reworking of Frankenstein minus the gorgeously intricate sets (and many, many brain cells), but the audience most likely to enjoy Venus Flytrap won't be terribly concerned with its derivative nature since it delivers such generous doses of mind-blowing absurdity.

The tale follows the follies of an overworked NASA scientist whose colleagues urge him to take an extended trip to Japan to relax and pursue his true passion: genetic research on plantlife (this dude really knows how to party). Upon his arrival, he meets his assistant, a coquettish Asian lass with a bevy of friends who enjoy swimming topless. When he describes his aspiration to find a secluded place with a greenhouse to conduct his botanical experimentation, she luckily knows just the perfect spot and quickly shuttles him to an abandoned mountaintop resort which features the requested conservatory and the added bonus of close proximity to an active volcano. Utilizing a venus flytrap that he brought into the country as a carry-on (!), he sets up shop in the B&B's astonishingly well-stocked laboratory to prove once and for all that man evolved from plants (!!). But when he successfully crossbreeds that specimen with a strange strain of tentacled ocean flora, he inadvertently creates a humanoid thingus with a triffid head and flytrap appendages that requires blood to survive. Terror, or something, ensues.

Though that pretty much covers the outline, the above synopsis doesn't quite do this film justice. The hammy acting and ridiculous creature design are a joy to behold for anyone who gleans enjoyment from such things, and the general ineptness showcased in every stage of the presentation surely qualifies Venus Flytrap for the "entertaining for the wrong reasons" category. There's also a hunchbacked handyman present to embody an accidental parody of the source material's Igor character, and plenty of delightfully melodramatic dialogue that would still be hilarious even if it wasn't being shouted at a guy in a rubber suit that looks like a decoration inside a fish tank.

The movie does run on the slower side, with all of the meager action relegated to the final act and the first hour mostly dragged out by repeated tableaus of the volatile scientist alternately bellowing abuse at his hapless lady-aide in one scene then telling her how much he appreciates her in the next (the flirtatious tone of the latter passages unavoidably comes off as creepy, given that the dude looks about 30 years older than her). This is also one of those films in which allegedly exotic locales suspiciously resemble the hills overlooking Studio City, California, so don't view this hoping for a cinematic intercontinental tour--when the movie is over, you won't have seen any more of Japan that you already had before the movie started.

When the voracious plant-beast inevitably escapes during the climax to wreak havoc on a village that is conveniently located adjacent to the derelict volcano inn, the rest of the affair plays out identically to Frankenstein's finale--down the closing shot--just in case anyone forgot what story the film-makers were telling here. The only thing missing on that front is any sort of analogous mediation on whether or not it's right for man to try to play God, but that's probably because the only thing the people who made Venus Flytrap were mediating on was how quickly and inexpensively they could knock out their magnum homicidal shrubbery opus.

Yeah, this is really stupid stuff. But if you like really stupid films, Venus Flytrap is at least a top-shelf offering in that specific genre. If you didn't already want to watch this offering based on the premise alone, you're clearly not in the target audience and should just move right along. As for the rest of you: by all means, supply some botanicals of your own and have a good time with this one.

Sisters of Death
(1976)

Dang, sorority hazing rituals were brutal in the '70s.
If you can get past the brazenly foolish concept that a young girl would be so eager to join a sorority she'd let one of her prospective "sisters" put a potentially loaded gun to her temple and pull the trigger, the aftermath of this flick's preface (spoiler: that turns out to be a bad idea) ends up coalescing into a thoroughly decent soft-boiled thriller. Sisters Of Death is assuredly tame fare and nothing that unfolds here elevates it anywhere near the realm of horror, but a strikingly attractive cast and a couple of agile twists do elevate it out of the realm of outright mediocrity.

Seven years after the pledge death that introduces the film, the remaining members of the exclusive Sisters squad receive mysterious invitations to attend a reunion. Since none of them have evidently ever seen a movie like the one they are appearing in here, all of our heroines opt to make a pilgrimage to the designated rendezvous, where they then allow two men they've never met before to usher them into a car with screened windows and drive them 50 miles into the middle of nowhere (spoiler: that turns out to be a bad idea). When they reach their ultimate destination, the gang finds themselves at a secluded mansion that appears to be vacant--but, hey, there's a pool and free booze, so the ladies opt to discount any apprehensions they may be harboring about the entire suspicious scenario and get the party started. It's not giving much away to reveal that their unknown host has a more sinister purpose in mind for this particular gathering, and the Sisters soon discover that their initiate from seven years past won't be the only member of their group to meet an untimely demise.

The titular ersatz siblings have enough fetching spunkiness to make up for the lack of common sense the film's improbable set-up requires them to demonstrate, so even if the tension quotient here is decidedly lukewarm once the action begins in earnest, at least the gals are entertaining to watch. The villain of the piece isn't particularly menacing, but the timeworn plot holds up pretty well under scrutiny and the vengeful motivation for this caper is capably essayed. The inclusion of an electrified fence around the property is a nice touch, underscoring the group's isolation and denying anyone an easy escape from their predicament. And after the Sisters make the chain of stupid decisions that get them to the film's destination, most of them generally make sensible and realistic ones from that point forward, so the hysterical bumblings which usually telegraph the deaths in flicks like these are largely eschewed in favor of a more thoughtful arc.

Nevertheless, none of these assets are enough to negate the flick's pervasive bouts of blatant silliness. A character who calmly faces down someone pointing a gun at them in one scene becomes intensely terrified when they see a spider a few minutes later, another decides the most judicious thing she should do in the midst of this life-and-death struggle is take a shower (spoiler: that turns out to be a bad idea), one of the gals only agrees to attend the getaway after receiving an incoherent New Age pep-talk by her leisure-suited spiritual adviser during a desert meditation session, and there's even a half-hearted attempt to shoehorn in a romantic subplot (because nothing says "meet-cute" like being mutually imprisoned by a crazed millionaire who's threatening to kill you, apparently). The barely-there budget and inexperienced crew are on ready display throughout, complete with extended scenes that feature a boom mic bobbing in and out of the frame during an entire conversation. The PG rating is regrettably accurate, too, so both the visual aesthetic and the overall tenor of the docilely macabre elements make the film play like a made-for-television project that was subsequently deemed adequate for a promotion to a brief theatrical run with a grindhouse-bait title.

Still, if you forgive the deceptive ad campaign and go in expecting very little, Sisters Of Death delivers enough enjoyable moments to be enjoyable and resolves itself with a satisfying bang. Although it's hard to imagine anyone loving this movie, liking it isn't especially difficult. Not exactly a glowing endorsement, I know, but considering how many offerings of this flavor and vintage don't even merit that modicum of praise, 90 minutes of cheesy fun feels like a worthy use of my time any day.

Snowbeast
(1977)

Too much snow, not enough beast
Boasting a fairly nifty creature design, a capable cast of veteran character actors, and well-realized snowcapped settings, this killer bigfoot yarn has all the ingredients to be much better than it ultimately is. Unfortunately, the film's sluggish pacing, needless subplots, and overall dearth of sasquatchian savagery render Snowbeast an outing that falls well short of expectations.

The film is basically Jaws relocated to a ski resort with a murderous yeti subbing for a prowling great white, and the filmmakers follow Spielberg's template so closely the homage isn't even subtle. Our thankless protagonists are made aware something is amiss when a teenage girl goes missing, local higher-ups urge them not to divulge what they know because the chalet's major tourist season will be placed in dire financial jeopardy if they do, a cursory hunt leads to the killing of a lesser creature that our heroes know can't possibly be the monster menacing their mountaintop, and no decisive action is taken until a savage attack right at the town's doorstep forces everyone to acknowledge that they are being threatened by something far more heinous than the potential loss of leisure industry dollars. None of the characters are named Brody, but other than that, every aspect of the plot here will resonate as strikingly familiar to anyone who's ever visited Amity Island.

Regrettably, Snowbeast's primary weakness isn't its blatant plagiarism. What really undermines the film's aptitude is a vexing shortage of its most promising horror elements and an even more vexing abundance of rote melodrama. While it's reasonable for anyone sitting down to investigate a flick called Snowbeast to anticipate that most of what they're about to see unfold is centered around a beast in the snow, far too much of the runtime here is squandered on ancillary story threads like a tepid love triangle and the midlife crisis of a former champion skier (named Gar Seberg, no less). Certainly, solid character development can add immeasurably to the tension in a scenario like this, yet the momentum generated by the film's more exciting moments is quashed by an abundance of needless vignettes, such as an extended monologue revealing why our reluctant hero Gar decided to hang up his poles at the height of his success. The disjointed tone these interludes foster, along with the inclusion of some truly cheesy '70s library music, often makes Snowbeast feel more like a Halloween episode of Quincy M.E. than a proper horror film.

When the movie stays on topic, the results are much stronger. The monster design is certainly more impressive than the shaggy bipedal Ewok featured in the far stupider (but far more fun) Shriek Of The Mutilated, and there are numerous effective shots of the titular creature lurking among the trees and lumbering through the arctic terrain as it stalks its prey. The gore quotient here is sadly as paltry as the era's made-for-TV rubrics mandated, though some of the implied violence is executed to chilling effect--particularly the discovery of the first victim, which lends the film its best lines: "Maybe I'll recognize her when I see her face"; "She doesn't have one." The way the kill scenes dissolve to a stark red screen to suggest the terrible things left unseen is likewise a novel device, even if these inserts were probably mostly utilized to provide easy spots for the network to cut away to commercial breaks.

Still, with only a few deaths sprinkled throughout and not a lot of payoff when these moments arrive, Snowbeast's gruesome lead never really coalesces into something especially menacing. The most ambitious sequence, an extended attack at a pageant, offers up an entire building of trapped and ready victims yet only yields a body count of one, and elsewhere in the narrative several random characters are tracked through interminable protracted prowl and growl scenes that eventually conclude with them simply skiing anticlimactically away to safety. Snowbeast's moderate milieu didn't allow the filmmakers to bombard the screen with shorn limbs and splatter the hillsides with crimson snow, but since they offer repeated glimpses of the creature's imposing claws, most genre fans will inevitably be disappointed by how little we get to see of the damage those talons are capable of inflicting.

The biggest letdown in the film arrives during the stilted climax, during the final battle between our intrepid protagonists and their wooly nemesis. The creature's comeuppance is staged in far too clumsy a manner to lend the culmination of this saga any impact, and the picture comes to such a dull and unspectacular finish I can only assume someone in the wardrobe department lost the bigfoot costume before the last scenes could be filmed. As the credits cue, it isn't quite clear whether the monster rolled down the mountain or simply vanished into thin air after it was vanquished, but what becomes abundantly clear is that ending a movie about a bloodthirsty yeti with a seven-minute fight scene during which said yeti never once appears on the screen is an utterly dissatisfying tactic.

Snowbeast has its charms, but as far as the lethal abominable snowman subgenre goes, it is neither the best nor the worst entry in that canon. Sasquatch devotees who don't mind spending 90 minutes in the middle of that particular road will find a suitably entertaining romp here; for the rest of you, I'm much more inclined to recommend you just watch Jaws again instead.

Haunts
(1976)

Whodunnit? Who cares?
Not even the welcome presence of low-rent horror stalwart Cameron Mitchell can salvage this tedious, incoherent mess of a film that offers up neither enough gore to satisfy slasher fans nor enough thrills to qualify as a thriller.

Mitchell plays the uncle of a manic farm girl named Ingrid who has the dual misfortune of becoming the target for both a scissor-wielding serial killer and a brazen sexual predator. Ingrid spends half of the film being alternately preyed upon by these villainous admirers with such ready frequency that the viewer can only assume they worked out some sort of visitation schedule ("okay, I'll attack her on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you can attack her on Tuesday and Thursday, and we'll trade off weekends"). When she's not being victimized, Ingrid spends long periods of the film's running time lost in nebulous flashback sequences, during which we learn that her witless caretaker may have molested her when she was a child and subsequently murdered her aunt when his transgressions were discovered. Meanwhile, the furtive slayer (who seems to be a fan of giallo movies, given his affinity for wearing an all-black ensemble complete with ski mask and leather gloves) is wandering around stabbing various ancillary characters to keep the film's meager action moving along. Naturally, the assassin is eventually unmasked, but since there's still a half hour of screen time to fill at that point, we then have to slog through Ingrid's anticlimactic confrontation with her rapist, as well as a lengthy and boring post-script meditation on her tragic final act.

Since Ingrid is clearly the film's focus, it's rather unfortunate that May Britt was the actress tapped to bring her to life. Britt's performance here is so flatly histrionic that despite the empathy our heroine's truly horrific circumstances elicit, she is ultimately essayed as a wholly unlikeable harpy--her go-to reaction throughout much of her ordeal is reeling around like an undosed mental patient and babbling incoherently. To be fair, some of these tics seem to be intentional (the movie attempts to infuse the happenings with an air of mystery by introducing segments meant to suggest Ingrid's ill mind might be manufacturing much of her nightmare), yet Britt's choppy accent and general maladroitness end up resonating as far more silly than stirring.

The willful stupidity exhibited by the supporting cast of characters is so baffling that even the most heinous deeds perpetrated in the film land as bad comedy rather than mounting tension. This is the kind of flick in which future victims have conversations about how scary it is to walk around alone at night with a deranged murderer on the loose, and then proceed to walk around alone at night mere seconds afterwards. Aldo Ray's prototypical small-town Sheriff is initially presented as a kindly voice of reason, but when a bruised and disheveled Ingrid tells the lawman she has been raped, his initial reaction is essentially, "well, wait a minute, are you sure?" However, the most obtuse groaner in the film belongs to Mitchell, who consoles a hysterical Ingrid after she has just narrowly escaped the murderer's blades by helpfully suggesting, "it was probably just a rabbit."

The story is padded with superfluous subplots in an effort to fatten the list of possible suspects, though anyone who has ever watched a murder mystery will likely identify who the killer is the first time that character is introduced. In any case, the obfuscation becomes essentially pointless when this aspect of the plot is resolved well before the credits run and the further misadventures of Ingrid retake center stage. There's nothing engrossing about any of the various cobbled-together elements, so by the time the storyline's central mysteries are tidied up, all but the most masochistic of viewers will have completely lost interest in seeing how everything pans out anyway. Whether you make it to the end or not, you won't be rewarded with answers to all of the questions the muddy narrative poses, nor will you ever get a clue as to why this film is called Haunts.

There are plenty of genre gems that currently languish in an undeserved obscurity; if you decide to investigate Haunts, be duly advised that this monotonous schlep isn't one of those. I sat through it, but that doesn't mean you have to.

Die Hinrichtung
(1976)

The title's right on the money, I'll give them that.
Though the architects of Naked Massacre clearly approached this saga of brutality and depravity with a message in mind, any lofty moral they were striving to put across becomes mostly muddled by the almost gleeful savagery it's framed in. This grim and sleazy little snuff flick is neither pleasant to watch nor particularly entertaining, and the result is a movie that boasts some remarkable qualities but nevertheless resonates overall as a cheap excuse to trot out a sequence of graphic sexual murders.

The bulk of the film is offered as a character study, tracing the depressing descent of an American serviceman named Cain who becomes stranded in Belfast after his discharge from Vietnam and finds himself thrust into the middle of yet another war. Much of the opening act is spent exploring the mundane facets of his miserable circumstance--people-watching in the park, negotiating to procure a sandwich at a pub on credit, sleeping in a homeless shelter, trying desperately to connect with anyone in a place he is utterly disconnected from. While this slow-burning exploration causes the first half of the movie to drag on at times, the approach does demonstrate ample promise, particularly for those who have seen how effectively John McNaughton later channeled a similarly immersive methodology into his masterful Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. However, this film's ostensive motivations are immediately amended when Cain's aimless wandering leads him to a residence shared by eight nurses, who show him kindness and give their penniless visitor food, an act of charity that unfortunately seals their doom.

Mathieu Carriere's lead turn is notably excellent, and he gets an able boost from the rest of the cast. There isn't much in the way of suspense (when an insane man enters the lair of eight attractive women and brandishes a knife in a movie called Naked Massacre, we pretty much know exactly what's about to transpire), but because the performances are all strong, the happenings are infused with a heightened sense of tension and realism. There are even bouts of near-brilliance, such as the nerve-wracking sequence that occurs after Cain guides one of his prisoners, delirious with shock, through the house past the littered bodies of her dead friends; their ensuing exchange at the kitchen table may be the most chilling scene in the film, and the measured interchange between future victim and smoldering killer is riveting to behold.

The name of this outing was originally slated to be Born For Hell--a reference to the tattoo that adorns Cain's forearm, and perhaps a reference to the greater parable the filmmakers were intending to weave. One can only assume it was the picture's exploitation-minded distributors who favored the title Naked Massacre to secure their product a prime slot on the thriving grindhouse circuit. They evidently knew their audience; the ghastly cycle of rape, torture, and murder that unfolds when Cain returns to the house to abuse the ingenuous nurses one by one will only be palatable to viewers already acclimated to such displays after seeing films like (the far more effective) Last House On The Left and (the far more explicit) I Spit On Your Grave. Naked Massacre is nowhere near as tautly-crafted as the former, yet while the rape scenes here never venture into the gratuitously repugnant realms of the latter, those sections are executed with enough unsettling detail to make them wholly uncomfortable to watch. The most horrific sequence arrives when Cain attempts to force two of his captives to engage in lesbian sex, and the outburst of barbarity he exhibits when one of them refuses to comply marks the apex of monstrous behavior in a film already laden with it.

These events are loosely based on the killing spree perpetuated by Chicago mass murderer Richard Speck (one character helpfully breaks the fourth wall to reference those crimes, just to make sure everyone in the audience gets it). The change of setting to Belfast during that city's infamous conflict is ostensibly meant to further the filmmakers' assertion that violence begets violence, and recasting the killer as a Vietnam vet fresh from a front-row seat to unspeakable atrocities is surely intended to augment that lesson. Nevertheless, while the inclusion of contextual commentary about the dangerous desensitization we all become susceptible to when the violence all over our television screens and in our daily lives is prevalent enough to render it almost commonplace is--I presume--propounded with noble intentions, that observation ends up resonating as sort of a pot-kettle-black proclamation amidst a panorama that meanwhile offers up seven attractive and virtuous women being slaughtered in unflinchingly-sadistic ways. Since so much of the film is centered around Cain's despondent reality (bluntly underscored when he subsequently identifies himself as "someone who wants to die"), what this chronicle actually solicits, however inadvertently, is for us to show a little sympathy for him. Which is, you know, decidedly misguided. Maybe my heart just isn't big enough, but "awh, poor guy, look at how much his life sucks" never factored into my thinking while I was watching Cain terrorize, assault, and assassinate seven sweet and likeable nurses.

Don't get me wrong, I've loved grindhouse films my entire life and have a lot of fun watching them. But Naked Massacre isn't very fun, and as a meditation on what drives human beings to commit inhuman acts, there's not nearly enough food for thought here to satisfy that objective. In the end, this flick certainly lives up to its name and is as disturbing as its content dictates, so there's a degree of success in that. But if the film-makers' intention was indeed to elevate this chronicle beyond a pure exploitation vehicle, they seem to have missed their own point.

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