Wuchakk

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Reviews

The Shadow
(1994)

Genghis Khan's descendant intrudes upon The Shadow's urban world in 1930
After some kind of epiphany and receiving training in Tibet in the 20s, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) fights corruption in New York City in 1930-31 as the mysterious Shadow. When the last descendant of Genghis Khan comes to town (John Lone) Cranston sets out to stop his diabolic plans. Penelope Ann Miller plays a socialite, Ian McKellen her father, Tim Curry a mad scientist, Peter Boyle the Shadow's cab-driving partner and Jonathan Winters the police commissioner.

"The Shadow" (1994) is a worthy enough cinematic version of the radio/pulp/comic character that debuted in 1930. The movie obviously borrowed from "Batman" (1989), which is ironic since The Shadow partially inspired the character of Batman, who debuted almost nine years later in 1939. Anyone who likes the Batman tetralogy, "Dick Tracy" (1990) and "The Rocketeer" (1991) should appreciate this.

The best parts beyond the superb recreation of New York City circa 1930 are Alec Baldwin as the shadowy crime-fighter and the authentic look of the Shadow. Baldwin was still lean & mean at the time and has that dark side to his personality to pull off Lamont Cranston. Meanwhile the look of the Shadow is perfect (with a prosthetic nose).

While I liked the movie, it would've been better if they removed the campy elements (e.g. Tim Curry) and shot for the more serious, darker air of the future "Batman Begins" (2005), which was obviously influenced by this movie. Don't get me wrong, the flick is serious and dark to a point, but there's some eye-rolling comic book camp that plagues the proceedings.

Since Cranston/the Shadow is easily the most interesting character, more focus needed spent on him. Instead we get this jarring supervillain when the story would've worked better with a more mundane rogue akin to Marvel's Kingpin.

The film runs 1 hour, 47 minutes, and was shot at the Universal backlot in Hollywood on five sound-stages with a five-day mini-unit tour of location shooting at Ambassador Hotel & Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena and Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California.

GRADE: B-

Miasto 44
(2014)

Hell on Earth in a crumbling city during WW2
After five years of German occupation, youths in Warsaw in 1944 rise up to resist at great cost. Józef Pawlowski, Zofia Wichlacz and Anna Próchniak play the main protagonists.

"Warsaw '44" (2014) combines the setting of "The Pianist" (2002) with the basic situation of "Enemy at the Gates" (2001) and the brutal action of "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). Like "Pearl Harbor" (2001), it establishes a youthful romance and then follows the players through the carnage. In its own unique way it's pretty much on par with any of these earlier movies.

Once the uprising starts the storytelling becomes pretty chaotic due to the frenzied state of affairs, which might turn off some viewers. There are also 2-3 artistic flourishes, which struck me as curious, but I just rolled with them and enjoyed the cinematic art thereof. In other words, don't let these eccentric embellishments ruin the experience but rather the opposite. The close that creatively showcases the burning, collapsing city juxtaposed with modern Warsaw is excellently done.

At the end of the day, "Warsaw '44" is enlightening, shocking and... unforgettable.

I should add that this is a Polish production with the characters speaking mostly Polish. Needless to say, if you don't speak Polish you'll have to utilize the subtitles.

The film runs 2 hours, 5 minutes (minus the opening 2.5 minutes of tedious studio credits), and was shot in Warsaw, Poland.

GRADE: A-/B+

Beyond Atlantis
(1973)

Gem-hunting adventure on an isolated isle in the East Indies with Patrick Wayne
In the Philippines some Americans learn of valuable pearls on a remote island and form an alliance to get the treasure, but they have to deal with the inbred tribe that inhabits the isle. John Ashley, Sid Haig and Patrick Wayne star as the venal team members along with Lenore Stevens as a scientist. Leigh Christian plays an alluring blonde member of the remote society.

"Beyond Atlantis" (1973) is an oceanic adventure that combines "City Beneath the Sea" (1953) with the women-in-skin-bikinis of Hammer's "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" (1970). Like the latter, it has a barely-a-B-movie vibe, but it's more entertaining due to the superb location shooting and quality cast. The director knows how to tastefully shoot women (no pun intended) and it's one of the flick's highlights.

This could've been as good as "City Beneath the Sea" or "Mysterious Island" (1961), but more time needed spent on strengthening the (obviously) loose script. That takes time and time means money, which the producers regrettably didn't have. While this is a "bad movie," it's entertaining enough to check out.

The film runs 1 hour, 31 minutes, and was shot in the Philippines.

GRADE: C/C-

The Beast Must Die
(1974)

Werewolf Whodunit at an English manor
A wealthy businessman in England (Calvin Lockhart) welcomes five guests to his fenced-in estate in the countryside to join him & his wife (and security man) for a special get-together: One of them is a werewolf and he's going to find out which and slay the beast! Peter Cushing is on hand as one of the guests, a lycanthropy enthusiast, but it's a too-small role.

"The Beast Must Die" (1974) is a werewolf flick from an "And Then There Were None" angle with a quaint 'Werewolf Break' near the end. The creature, when it finally appears, is not a wolf-man, but rather an ordinary wolf (played by a cost-effective German Shepherd made up to look diabolic). It has elements of "The Devil's Nightmare" (1971), "Frogs" (1972) and Jack Palance's "Dracula" (1974). "Howling V: The Rebirth" (1989) borrowed the plot, but switched the events to a Hungarian castle.

While this is the least of these, it has a few highlights: Lockhart makes for a cool protagonist and the climax is creative and thrilling enough (I wasn't able to guess who the werewolf was and there's an interesting twist or two). The groovy early 70's score is incongruous, but some might like it. Lockhart was chosen as the lead at the last second by producers to cash-in on the blaxploitation craze; their original choice was Robert Quarry. It was Lockhart who suggested Marlene Clark to play his wife.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the film isn't very compelling, which was the case with "Frogs" but not as bad. Not enough focus is put on fleshing out the characters, which makes them uninteresting, although one of them is a member of Styx. (Just kidding, lol). The females, Ciaran Madden (Davina) and Marlene Clark (Caroline), are pretty much wasted.

This was an Amicus production, which is similar to Hammer, but lesser. Both were known for their horror flicks, but they each only did one werewolf movie. Hammer of course did "The Curse of the Werewolf" (1961).

The film runs 1 hour, 33 minutes, and was shot at Shepperton Studios, which is just outside of London to the southwest. There are also establishing shots of what looks like the Scottish Highlands and so forth.

GRADE: C+

Mattie
(2011)

Good locations, decent yarn, nice spirituality, but subpar filmmaking
In the desert wilderness of the Southwest wilderness in 1902, a grieving young woman (Kaylee DeFer) marries a miner (Ryan Doom) who's curiously never home while his humble younger brother (Ric Maddox) takes care of the homestead, which includes her younger brother and sister. How can a family function with the husband perpetually roaming elsewhere?

"Renegade" (2011), originally called "Massie," is an Independent Western drama with fine Arizona locations, a worthy story, welcome biblical spirituality, a few worthy actors and a decent score, but it's unfortunately hampered by amateurish filmmaking, including dubious acting by several peripherals, which is obvious right out of the gate.

I'm perfectly able to overlook a film's lack of resources and even skill if the story is commendable and the actors give it their best. The micro-budget "Border Shootout" (1990) is a good example. But the filmmaking in this one is so subpar my mind kept wandering. Thankfully, I was able to acclimate enough to appreciate the Southwest locations, the music, the semi-overt biblical elements and, by the last act, the story (which, admittedly, is predictable, yet heartwarming).

This is fine as a student project for the director & crew to learn from and could be appreciated by their families & friends for input and growth. But, as a viewing experience for the general public, it isn't worthy. As pointed out, it's not all bad, the director & team just needed more finances, improved skills or both for an effective product.

The film runs 1 hour, 29 minutes and was shot at Gammon's Gulch Movie Set, Arizona, which is about 25 miles east of Tucson.

GRADE: D+

Il grande silenzio
(1968)

Killers in the snow of the (Italian) Old West
In 1898, a mute gunfighter called Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) comes to a snowy town in northern Utah where ruthless bounty hunters clash with fugitives in the hills. He accepts a job from a widow (Vonetta McGee) to take out Loco (Klaus Kinski), the man who slew her husband.

Directed & co-written by Sergio Corbucci, "The Great Silence" (1968) ranks with the better Spaghetti Westerns due to several highlights: The awesome snowy setting, a moving score by Ennio Morricone, the silent protagonist, the uniquely beautiful Vonetta McGee (a rare black woman in a prominent role in an old Western), the dastardly villain played by Kinski and the shocking climax. It influenced future Westerns, like "The Claim" (2000) and "The Hateful Eight" (2015).

As with most Italian Westerns from back then, the English dubbing is serviceable at best. The only issue I have on this front is the voice used for Kinski's character, which seems incongruous.

The movie runs 1 hour, 45 minutes, and was shot about 15 miles from the border of Austria in northeastern Italy (San Cassiano & Cortina d'Ampezzo), as well as the flashback done at Bracciano Lake, Rome, with other stuff done in Elios Studios, Rome.

GRADE: B+

City Beneath the Sea
(1953)

Sea adventure in Jamaica with Ryan and Quinn
Two American divers (Robert Ryan and Anthony Quinn) get a gig in Jamaica to find a sunken vessel with gold cargo while carousing and seeking out fair ladies (Mala Powers and Suzan Ball). Unfortunately, there are shady characters afoot (George Mathews). Woody Strode has a peripheral role.

"City Beneath the Sea" (1953) is an oceanic adventure/thriller that has the look and tone of "Dinosaurus!" (1960), but is thematically similar to "The Deep" (1977), "Into the Blue" (2005), "Into the Blue 2: The Reef" (2009) and "Fool's Gold" (2008).

The best of these, believe it or not, is "Into the Blue 2," which was a direct-to-video release. This one is worthy too if you can acclimate to the early 50's quaintness. It's rollicking escapist fare with a buddy film foundation.

On the female front, Suzan Ball is reminiscent of a taller Salma Hayek while Mala Powers evokes Susan Hayward.

The film runs 1 hour, 27 minutes, and was shot at Universal Studios in Universal City, California.

GRADE: B.

Hollywoodland
(2006)

The mysterious death of 50's icon George Reeves
In the early morning hours of June 16, 1959, George Reeves (Ben Affleck), star of the Adventures of Superman that ran from 1952-1958, is found dead in his Westside Los Angeles bedroom from a gunshot wound to the head. While the official cause of death is listed as suicide, his mother hires a private detective (Adrien Brody) to investigate the possibility of murder. Although it is argued that Reeves had reasons to kill himself due to depression over being typecast and aging issues, several individuals had motive and opportunity to kill him, including ex-girlfriend Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) and her powerful husband, the manager of MGM (Bob Hoskins), as well as Reeves' fiancé (Robin Tunney). The biggest mystery is why the other three individuals in the house at the time of Reeves' death waited 45 minutes to notify police.

"Hollywoodland" (2006) is a crime drama in the neo-noir vein and also a tragic biopic similar to "Auto Focus" (2002), "Mommie Dearest" (1981) and "Changeling" (2008). The only fictional character is Brody's private eye, but he was based on real-life detective Milo Speriglio.

The movie effectively details the three different death scenarios with the hint that one is the most likely. But, really, it begins as a mystery and ends as one, which I think is fitting since no one actually knows what happened at this point. In any case, this is a worthy tribute to Reeves and his life in Hollywood during the 50s. After watching, research the case for yourself.

Also notable on the female front are Caroline Dhavernas as the detective's girlfriend and Molly Parker as his ex.

The film runs 2 hours, 6 minutes and was shot in Los Angeles and the greater Toronto area.

GRADE: B.

A Midnight Clear
(1992)

Christmas is near on the snowy Western Front in WW2
In the beginning stages of the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, a reconnaissance patrol is sent ahead in the Ardennes forest on the border of France and Germany where they encounter some German soldiers. Who will survive to celebrate Christmas?

"A Midnight Clear" (1992) is an obscure artistic WW2 movie focusing on a patrol in the wintery sylvan landscapes of the Battle of the Bulge. It's more realistic than the surreal "Castle Keep" (1969), but it reminds me a little of that arty flick.

While a couple of scenes could've been more convincingly executed and some elements of the story are unlikely or weird, it's almost an exact recounting of author William Wharton's actual experiences (he wrote the 1982 novel the script was based on). Director/scriptwriter Keith Gordon desperately wanted to plainly state "This is a true story" at the beginning, but the lawyers wouldn't allow it. As such, the supposed disclaimer during the end credits is vaguely worded for legal reasons.

Speaking of Keith, you may remember him as the protagonist in "Jaws 2" (1978) and, especially, "Christine" (1982).

In any case, I appreciated the wintery war ambiance in the woods with cast members from "Platoon" (Kevin Dillon and John C. McGinley), "Dead Poets Society" (Ethan Hawke) and "Forrest Gump" (Gary Sinise). I also liked the inventive approach, the music, and the depiction of this handful of young men united in a struggle of life and death. While the middle starts to get a little tedious and questionable there is a turning point and, from there, the film is quite compelling.

The film closes with a haunting rendition of "It Came upon a Midnight Clear" by Sam Phillips as the credits scroll. I felt moved and reflected.

The movie runs 1 hour, 48 minutes, and was shot in the Park City area of north-central Utah.

GRADE: B.

Howard the Duck
(1986)

The infamous film version of Steve Gerber's intelligent, wise-cracking waterfowl from another world
An English-speaking duck from another planet is somehow transported to Cleveland, Ohio, where he befriends a rock group leader (Lea Thompson). She introduces him to her friend, a quirky lab assistant (Tim Robbins), to figure out what happened, but the situation is complicated when a doctor at the lab is possessed by a "dark overlord of the universe" (Jeffrey Jones).

"Howard the Duck" (1986) is the film version of Marvel Comics' anthropomorphic waterfowl created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik with the Duck's first appearance being in Adventures into Fear #19 featuring the Man-Thing, which debuted in March, 1974 (cover date Dec. 1973). While the cartoonish character was atypical for Marvel, he was a surprise hit, which led to this movie a dozen years later.

It's made in the mold of "Ghostbusters" (1984) and obviously influenced "Men in Black" (1997), but it's the least of these and notoriously bombed at the box office. It begins well enough, both intriguing and amusing, but starts to lose its mojo in the second act before spiraling into a loud, frantic last act with loads of colorful special effects.

The problem is that, after the first act, the flick abandons the characters for action-oriented zaniness and it loses the attention of the viewer. Creator Steve Gerber plainly said the movie "sucked" and was dissatisfied with the duck's bland voice and costume. Howard's face just isn't animated enough and his eyes are too cute & innocent for Gerber's ill-tempered, wise-cracking waterfowl. That said, there are enough entertaining elements in the "Ghostbusters" / "Men in black" vein to enjoy the movie to some degree as you revisit 1985 America when it was shot. But you have to be able to accept it as a cinematic alternative to Gerber's original concept.

I'm not big on Lea Thompson, but she's winsome enough as Beverly on the female front, although she didn't exactly fit Gerber's version of the Duck's babelicious pal. Liz Sagal is also notable as Ronette in a minor role.

The film runs 1 hour, 50 minutes, and was obviously shot in the Bay area of Northern California, NOT Cleveland, Ohio.

GRADE: C.

Lake Placid
(1999)

Crocogator horror with humor
A monstrous croc is discovered to live in a remote lake in Maine and so a conflicting group of people join together to capture or kill it: the local Sheriff (Brendan Gleeson), a Fish and Game officer (Bill Pullman), a paleontologist (Bridget Fonda) and an expert croc hunter (Oliver Platt). Betty White is on hand as a comical lady who lives on the lake.

"Lake Placid" (1999) is the best of the series due to the simple fact that it was the only theatrically released installment and cost $35 million, which is about 17.5 times as much as any of the five follow-ups, which had TV-budgets (for instance, "Lake Placid 2" only cost $2 million). With such a hefty budget for what is essentially a Grade B creature feature, the croc looks great compared to the cartoonish CGI of the sequels. The cast is pretty top-rate as well and the dialogue is witty, plus delivered smoothly (although you have to pay attention because it's so rapid-fire).

Speaking of which, this can't be taken as a serious creature-on-the-loose flick, like "Prophecy" (1979) or "Black Water" (2007) because it's so funny in a droll way. Films like "Crocodile" (2000), "Humanoids from the Deep" (1980) and "Piranha" (1978/1995) are dead serious by comparison. If you can roll with it, however, it IS genuinely amusing and you start to buy into the reality of the characters and their situation. While their relationships are what psychologists would call conflict-habituated and the old lady cusses like a sailor, the movie has a warm heart, just stick around till the ending.

Of course Bridget stands out in the female department. She was 34 during shooting and would only do seven more movies (two of them TV productions) before leaving acting to focus on raising a family (she also worked on two TV series at this time). While people complain about how annoying her character is in "Lake Placid," it's understandable if you consider what's happening in her life in combination with being a fish-out-of-water camping out in the backwoods; besides, she becomes warmer as the story evolves.

Also on the feminine front are Meredith Salenger as Deputy Gare and Natassia Malthe as Janine, the latter in a bit part. Both are winsome and easy on the eyes.

I didn't have very fond memories of this film due to the dry humor and conflicting personalities, but I 'got' it this time and really enjoyed it for what it is, an amusing creature feature supported by a huge theatrical budget. If you like this one, be sure to check out "Lake Placid 2" (2007) as it's a worthy sequel, even though it only cost a fraction of the amount.

The film is short-and-sweet at 1 hour, 22 minutes. It was shot at Buntzen Lake, British Columbia, which is just northeast of Vancouver, as well as other lakes in the region (Shawnigan Lake & Hayward Lake), plus establishing shots of Camden, Maine, and opening shots of Manhattan.

GRADE: B.

Butchers
(2020)

Realistic hillbilly horror
Two young couples break down in the sticks of the Northeast where they encounter some questionable shack-dwelling yokels (Simon Phillips, Michael Swatton, etc.) who have a pregnant captive (Samantha De Benedet).

"Butchers" (2020) is a wilderness slasher that creates a feeling of mundane, solemn realism similar to the tone of "Wolf Creek" (2005) whereas "Wrong Turn" (2003) became increasingly cartoonish. Remember the sequence in the latter where the protagonists try to evade the hillbillies by walking way up in the tree branches? Why Sure! "Wrong Turn 2: Dead End" (2007) is even more comic booky, campy and thoroughly unbelievable. Don't get me wrong, they're both entertaining for what they are and have loads of gore, but they don't really create a sense of horror. "Butchers" does, very much so.

It recalls the realistic backwoods horror of "The Shuttered Room" (1967) and "Deliverance" (1972), just from a slasher angle and with a lower budget, which you wouldn't know from the proficient filmmaking.

Other than De Benedet (Celeste), Julie Mainville (Jenna) and Anne-Carolyne Binette (Taylor) appear on the feminine front and are more prominent.

So why not a higher rating? It's probably too mundane & grim for its own good and therefore is NOT a fun film (like the Friday the 13th flicks), which ironically is the basis of my praise above. Plus they coulda done more with the women, particularly Anne-Carolyne Binette.

The movie runs 1 hour, 32 minutes, and was shot in the Eastern Ontario townships of Merrickville-Wolford and Elizabethtown-Kitley, as well as Cumberland Heritage Village, which are in the Ottawa area and to the south toward the St. Lawrence River.

GRADE: B-

The Devil Rides Out
(1968)

Christopher Lee takes on some satanists in Southern England
In London & the south of England in 1929/1930, an expert on the occult & his associate (Christopher Lee and Leon Greene) clash with a cult of Satanists led by a man with the power of mesmerism (Charles Gray). Nike Arrighi and Patrick Mower are also on hand

"The Devil Rides Out" (1968), also known as "The Devil's Bride," is a supernatural thriller from Hammer based on Dennis Wheatley's 1934 novel. Cinema started to flirt with satanism in the early 60s with Roger Corman's "The Masque of the Red Death" and England's "Devils of Darkness," which were shot in 1963 and 1964 respectively. You can trace it back further if you consider "The City of the Dead," aka "Horror Hotel," which was made in 1959. The overt satanism is surprising for films shot way back then.

None of them paint satanism in a positive light, but goat-sucking LaVey capitalized on this new interest and sprung his "church" of satan in 1966. "The Devil Rides Out" and "Rosemary's Baby" went into production the next year. Rob Zombie's "The Lords of Salem" (2012) is a worthy modern example of the genre.

The setting is great, including the old automobiles; and the woodsy Baphomet sequence is superb, as well as some other effective scenes. Meanwhile Gray is appropriately satanic-looking as the villain (not to mention borrowed by Marvel Comics 5-6 years later). Unfortunately, the mesmerism angle is overdone and I didn't find myself caring about the protagonists. On the surface, it's one of the more notable films of the genre, indeed, but its shallowness in human interest lowers my view.

The movie runs 1 hour, 35 minutes, and was shot in Elstree Studios, which is just northwest of London, and places nearby, like Black Park Country Park, which is a dozen miles southwest of the studio.

GRADE: B-/B.

Crazy Lake
(2016)

A group of youths go to a cabin-in-the-woods (no, seriously)
Several coeds retreat for some fun-in-the-sun at a vacation home in the backwoods of central Florida. Unfortunately, there's a weird guy lurking about and suspicious things start happening.

"Crazy Lake" (2016) is a dynamic-yet-traditional cabin-in-the-woods slasher that meshes "Bread Crumbs" (2011) and "The Lake on Clinton Road" (2015) with the common tropes of the Friday the 13th films. While only costing $285,000, it does not smack of a "student project," as one critic called it (I don't think he's seen too many micro-budget flicks). Sure, the cast members are all no-names, but the writing/acting is convincing enough and the filmmaking is proficient. The movie doesn't try to reinvent the wheel and doesn't need to; it simply entertains within the framework of its subgenre.

Someone complained that the protagonists are an obnoxious bunch that "deserve to die," but that's not true. They're typical youths out celebrating on the weekend or school break. We've all done it and we were all likely "annoying" when we did it.

Someone else lamented the flick as "soft porn" because of the "almost no clothing" but, gee, they're involved in vacation activities like swimming and slip-sliding, which necessitate swim attire. It is true that there's a strip poker sequence but, again, it's not like this isn't something common youths might do when they're in party mode on Spring Break or what have you. If potential viewers don't think they can handle such a sequence, I suggest staying away.

Dark-haired Keily Fernandez stands out in the female department, followed by blonde Skyler Joy. There are a couple of other notables. The director has a good eye for depicting feminine beauty and keeping it fun without getting too tasteless.

At the end of the day the movie works for what it is. It contains all the requisite staples of the genre and works them into an entertaining stew that doesn't overstay its welcome. You won't figure out the story until the final 15 minutes and, even then, there's a small surprise or two (although I would've done the end-credits sequence differently if I wrote the script). It's superior to the cartoonish "The Evil Dead" (1981), the over-the-top comical "Evil Dead II" (1987), the trashy "Cabin Fever" (2002), the lame "Zombeavers" (2014) and the too-creative-for-its-own-good "Cabin in the Woods" (2012).

The film runs 1 hour, 20 minutes, and was shot in the boonies at Brooksville, Florida, about a 40-minute drive north of Tampa.

GRADE: B.

Lake Placid 3
(2010)

Serviceable but routine installment in the amusing crocogator franchise
The nephew (Colin Ferguson) of deceased Sadie Bickerman takes over her rustic estate on Black Lake, but his son starts feeding the little crocs and soon there's a huge problem with monstrous killer crocs. Kirsty Mitchell is on hand as his wife while Yancy Butler plays an amusingly droll hunter.

"Lake Placid 3" (2010) is a solid, if unremarkable, entry in the series, marred by the cartoony croc CGI. I was never a big fan of the semi-campy series since they're throwaway horror flicks with the first movie (from 1999) being the only one released theatrically with its relatively big budget and big-name cast. I've only seen the first four and favor the second one (from 2007) because it has the most compelling story and best cast, in particular the lovely females (e.g. Sarah Lafleur) and John Schneider.

Brunette Kacey Barnfield (now Kacey Clarke) stands out on the female front as college girl Ellie. There's also blonde Angelica Penn as her friend, Tara; Roxanne Pallet (now Roxanne Carrion) as hitchhiker April; and Bianca Ilich as babysitter Vica.

The Lake Placid series is basically Friday the 13th with killer crocs substituting for Jason, but they're just not as all-around entertaining as any of the F13 flicks. Then, again, all the F13 films were theatrically released and therefore had bigger budgets with the exception of the original "Lake Placid."

The movie runs 1 hour, 31 minutes, and was shot in Bulgaria.

GRADE: C.

The Virtuoso
(2021)

"Are you an assassin?" "I'm a soldier." "You're neither."
A professional assassin (Anson Mount) is given an ambiguous gig in a small town in the Poconos. Can he get the job done with as little collateral damage as possible? Anthony Hopkins plays his boss, Abbie Cornish a waitress and David Morse a deputy.

"The Virtuoso" (2021) is a neo-noir crime drama/thriller with a Tarantino bent. Films with criminal protagonists don't usually interest me unless there's angle of redemption or some other intriguing aspect. "Death Wish," "The Punisher" and "Taken" are exceptions because the central character isn't really a criminal, but rather a (anti)hero on a mission of justice denied by the system.

This is a well-made neo-noir with an interesting second person narration. It doesn't focus on eye-rolling action scenes and explosions every five minutes, but rather the assassin figuring out the mission, executing it (no pun intended) and surviving. Unfortunately the gross contrivances of the script emerge in the last act and it's impossible to suspend disbelief, as they say. I get the message of the film, but what do I care? Assassins who heartlessly murder people simply to make a good living are criminal scumbags and should be executed themselves.

Still, the heavy mood is to die for, the psychology of a professional assassin is well written, Mount makes for a great masculine protagonist, Abbie is jaw-dropping in a curvy way, the second-person narration is effective and the locations & score are superb.

The movie runs 1 hour, 50 minutes, and was shot in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the Poconos, as well as Santa Ynez, California, which is about an hour's drive west of Malibu.

GRADE: B-/C+

The Messengers
(2007)

Little Haunted House on the Prairie
A troubled family from Chicago (Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller and Kristen Stewart) moves to the prairie of North Dakota after purchasing a dilapidated farmhouse where they plant a sunflower crop. Unfortunately, the estate's past interrupts their enjoyment of their new home. John Corbett plays a drifter who hires-on while Dustin Milligan plays the daughter's potential beau.

"The Messengers" (2007) is a haunted house flick from the Pang brothers of Hong Kong, which is their first American film. The basic set-up is exactly the same as "Cold Creek Manor" (2003) with the difference of a rundown farmhouse substituting for the woodsy manor. From there it throws in elements of "The Grudge" movies mixed with "The Amityville Horror" and "The Birds."

While I appreciated the colorful prairie setting, this is easily the least of these because the story is too simplistic and dramatically dull. Fans of Kristen might be interested though; she was 16 during shooting.

The film runs 1 hour, 30 minutes, and was shot at Indian Head and nearby Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, which are just a couple hours' drive north of the border of North Dakota.

GRADE: C-

Cold Creek Manor
(2003)

Manor-in-the-woods thriller/horror
A troubled New York City couple (Dennis Quaid & Sharon Stone) move to the country after purchasing a dilapidated estate at a can't-refuse price. Unfortunately, the manor's past interrupts their enjoyment of their new home. The cast is rounded out by Stephen Dorff, Juliette Lewis, Dana Eskelson, Christopher Plummer and Kristen Stewart (who was 12 years-old during shooting).

"Cold Creek Manor" (2003) is a drama/thriller with a bit o' horror that mixes "What Lies Beneath" (2000) and "The Messengers" (2007) with "Undertow" (2004). Instead of cabin-in-the-woods, it's a manor-in-the-woods flick, but don't expect over-the-top slasher antics (e.g. Silent masked killer with a machete), as this one's more low-key and realistic, albeit saddled with eye-rolling thriller/horror clichés.

If you can roll with that flaw and a laughably executed snake sequence, this is pretty much on par with "What Lies Beneath" and "The Messengers" although it lacks the artistry of "Undertow." Stephen Dorff is outstanding and the movie brings to life the small town/rural area with the residents thereof. People criticize the casting of gruff Dennis Quaid as a "wuss," but he's not a wuss; he's just not rash because he knows a reckless social mistake can bring life-changing tragedy in seconds. Most other nitpicks can be just as easily explained. For instance, a person can't very well push someone into a well if they're no longer in the area.

The film runs 1 hour, 58 minutes, and was shot at Cruickston Park, Cambridge, Ontario, and places nearby in the Kitchener/Cambridge region with studio stuff done in Toronto, which is just an hour's drive east.

GRADE: B-

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End
(2007)

One of the goriest films ever made
A Survivor-like reality show meets in the backwoods of West Virginia where the contestants & crew find themselves assaulted by a family of mutant yokels. Henry Rollins plays the Drill Instructor-like host of the show.

"Wrong Turn 2: Dead End" (2007) is the first of many sequels in the franchise about cannibalistic hillbillies in Appalachia. The reason "Deliverance" (1972) is so iconic and unsettling is because the story actually COULD happen. The first "Wrong Turn" film from 2003 started out this way but became increasingly unbelievable as the story progressed. As such, it was entertaining and compelling but not genuinely scary.

This one adds some overt camp and goofiness while increasing the gore factor. It may well be the goriest film ever made at the time of its release. And it is entertaining to a point, despite the disgusting elements (not just gore, but sleaze as well), yet it's not truly chilling because it's so over-the-top it's cartoonish.

Still, Rollins does well as the gung-ho host and a few of the protagonists emerge as likable people worthy of surviving. Unfortunately, the most agreeable character is one of the first to buy the farm. I'm of course not taking about the annoying Kimberly Caldwell in the opening, although what happens to her is amusing in a "shocking" black humor kind of way.

Petite Aleksa Palladino (Mara) stands out on the feminine front. Crystal Lowe (Elena) is alluring but her character is a loathsome skank. Erica Leerhsen (Nina), who was a highlight as the Wiccan lass in "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" (2000), still looks good, but has unfortunately lost weight and looks stick-like.

The mutant hicks are well done, but most of them look like Klingons from Star Trek from back in the day, just uglier.

While "Wrong Turn 2" has some entertainment value, it's so excessive in its attempt to be revolting & amusing it loses impact. Less is more.

The film runs 1 hour, 33 minutes, and was shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

GRADE: C.

C.O.R.N.
(2021)

Grade B horror in the cornfield with Kennedy Tucker
Broken down in the Midwest on the eve of Halloween, a brother & sister (Mateus Ward and Kennedy Tucker) meet a Goth-ish local guy (Dylan Riley Snyder) and party at a corn maze. Unfortunately a strange meeting of eccentrics nearby need bodies for their 'art.' Roger Cross plays the stepdad while Robert Donavan is on hand as the leader of the kooks.

"C. O. R. N." (2021), sometimes subtitled "A Field of Screams," is Grade B horror that meshes films like "Freddy vs. Jason" (2003), "Scarecrows" (2017) and "Shadows of the Dead" (2016). With a budget of $950,000, it lacks the production quality of "Freddy vs. Jason," but it's almost on par with "Scarecrows" and superior to the prosaic "Shadows of the Dead."

There's a freestyle manner to the filming/editing, which makes the first 30 minutes iffy in a meandering way. If you can acclimate, however, there are enough highlights to make "C. O. R. N." worthwhile for those who appreciate Indy horror and are in the mode for a flick with lots of Halloween-ish ambiance. The tone is serious, but there's some Vincent Price-like camp with the cult artists, especially Donavan.

Petite beauty Kennedy Tucker as protagonist Tia is worth the price of admission. The commendable female cast also includes the likes of Audra Schildhouse, Meitar Paz and Elise Spicer, amidst peripherals. The writer/director (Robin Christian) thankfully knows how to shoot women, no pun intended.

For those interested, the acronym stands for "Collective Order of Recreational Necro-philanthropists."

The movie is overlong at 1 hour, 42 minutes; it would've worked better at a streamlined 72-90 minutes.

GRADE: B-/C+

Sayonara
(1957)

Brando's romantic culture clash in Japan after WW2
In 1951, an American Air Force pilot serving in Korea (Marlon Brando) is reassigned to Kobe, Japan, where he deals with his American fiancé (Patricia Owens) and a Japanese performer who attracts his attention (Miiko Taka). The problem is there's a military order against fraternizing with indigenous women. James Garner and Red Buttons have peripheral roles while Ricardo Montalban is on hand as a famous Kabuki entertainer.

"Sayonara" (1957) is a romantic drama highlighted by Brando's performance as a genial Southern officer, the Japanese culture & locations, plus the quaint conventions of the time period, not to mention Garner in one of his earliest roles. It's similar to "The Ugly American" (1963), but arguably better. "Désirée" (1954) is another apt comparison, despite taking placing during the Napoleonic era.

The film is a little long at 2 hours, 27 minutes, but I didn't mind. It was shot in Japan with some stuff done in Burbank & Hollywood.

GRADE: B.

Alpha Wolf
(2018)

Cabin-in-the-woods werewolf flick in rural SoCal with Casper Van Dien
A man & wife (Van Dien & Jennifer Wenger) retreat to a vacation house in the arid backwoods outside L. A., but run afoul of a werewolf-like creature. Once someone is bit all hell breaks loose on the full moon. Patrick Muldoon and the hulking Robert Allen Mukes are also on hand.

"Alpha Wolf" (2018) is surprisingly good for what it is, a TV-budget werewolf flick, which pretty much meshes "Dire Wolf," aka "Dinowolf" (2009), and "Wolves" (2014). If you appreciate those ones, you'll like this too. Like "Dire Wolf" it's mostly serious but with a fitting wink of amusement. The alpha male angle is intriguing and the script even throws in something original for a werewolf movie in regards to the curious naked dude (Tyler Gallant).

One eye-rolling sequence involves the couple's first assault by a hairy man-like creature. They brush it off as if a normal animal radically attacked them when it's glaring that it's ANYTHING BUT. If you can roll with this flaw (and the CGI gore), this is a worthwhile werewolf flick that should be enjoyed by anyone who values Grade B horror, especially the cabin-in-the-woods variety, whether the antagonist is a werewolf, sasquatch, slasher, bear or otherwise.

While petite Jennifer Wenger is perfectly agreeable as the female protagonist, Raquel Woodruff stands out in the beauty department; too bad her part wasn't bigger. Regardless, it's nice to have a director (Kevin VanHook) who knows how to photograph women for a change (and I'm not tawkin' bout nudity, although Raquel has a top nude scene for those who care).

Casper & Jennifer were married five months before the movie's release. Meanwhile Van Dien and Muldoon appeared together in the cult flick "Starship Troopers" (1997).

The film runs 1 hour, 25 minutes, and was shot in Southern Cal at Topanga Canyon, Acton and Ramona (Exteriors & Woods).

GRADE: B.

The Hound of the Baskervilles
(1959)

There's a reason you've never heard of this Hammer flick with Cushing & Lee
Around the turn of the century, Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Doctor Watson (André Morell) try to protect the heir of the Baskerville estate (Christopher Lee) in southwest England after the former owner was found dead, rumored to be victim of a curse going back to the time of the English Civil War in the mid-1600s.

"The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1959) is Hammer's take on Arthur Conan Doyle's oft-filmed tale. While there are some minor changes to the story, it doesn't "wildly" deviate as some have criticized. It features the lush colors and Victorian ambiance that Hammer is known for, plus you can't go wrong with Cushing and Lee. Meanwhile Marla Landi is sharp & spirited in the feminine department while winsome Judi Moyens is notable in a brief opening role.

If you like Hammer and the principles, it's enjoyable to some degree, but there's good reason it's so obscure in the Hammer canon. It's just not that compelling; the well-done opening is the best part.

The movie runs 1 hour, 27 minutes, and was shot at Bray Studios, which is just west of London, and two spots south of there in Surrey: Chobham Common and Frensham Ponds.

GRADE: C.

Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys
(2014)

Another take on the original "Piranha," but with lampreys (eel-like creatures)
A town in Michigan is threatened when myriad aggressive lampreys infest the reservoir and get into the water system. Jason Brooks & Shannen Doherty play the main protagonists with Ciara Hanna as their daughter, Nicholas Adam Clark as her beau and Zack Ward as a Fish & Wildlife worker. Christopher Lloyd is also on hand as the mayor.

"Blood Lake" (2014), sometimes subtitled "Attack of the Killer Lampreys," is a creature feature very similar to "Piranha" (1978/1995), but with bits of other flicks like "Beware, the Blob" (1972), "Squirm" (1976) and "Night of the Creeps" (1986). While this is a production from The Asylum, it's pretty much on par with those films, disregarding the heavy use of cartoonish CGI. The original "Piranha" (1978) is easily the best of the bunch and should be one's first choice.

The trailer makes it seem like "Blood Lake" is more comedic than it is, but actually has the same tone as "Piranha," which means mostly serious with a few bits of humor thrown in, such as the creative fate of Lloyd's character. Despite being a TV production, the principles take the material serious and give it their all. Brooks makes for a great protagonist, Doherty looks good at 42 during shooting, and Ciara Hanna is winsome enough.

The film runs 1 hour, 27 minutes, and was shot in Los Angeles County, particularly Santa Clarita, which is located in the high country just north of L. A., as well as Long Beach. The problem is that most of the locations don't look like Michigan, but rather SoCal. The aridness and mountains are a dead giveaway. In one scene they forgot to switch the license plate of the Fish & Wildlife truck.

GRADE: C.

Lake Mungo
(2008)

Docudrama concerning the possible ghost of an Australian girl
A 16 year-old girl disappears in the water in a rural area of Australia and family members & others claim they see apparitions of her while various secrets are slowly unveiled.

"Lake Mungo" (2008) is a mystery Indie with a bit 'o horror, but in the style of a mockumentary, aka fake documentary.

Like "Curse of the Blair Witch," which was released three weeks before the found footage hit "The Blair Witch Project" in 1999, "Lake Mungo" consists of fake interviews with several people about the central topic, as well as examination of some found footage. "Curse of the Blair Witch" worked because it only ran 44 minutes whereas this one is twice as long and the fact that it's all an act pretending to be a documentary can't sustain interest. I suppose if you thought it was real it might be more compelling.

The brother's revelation (no spoilers) is odd in that it takes away from what the docudrama is trying to do. For me, the first 53 minutes of constant phony interviews is pretty tedious. Thankfully things perk up in the final 34 minutes. Although the first revelation thereof goes nowhere, the second one (the one that occurs at the titular lake) is well done and certainly creepy, not to mention an intriguing concept.

I'm sure everything ties together if you reflect on it, but IMHO it's not worth the effort because the flick just isn't compelling for the bulk of the first hour. And the payoff isn't enough to make it worth the investment UNLESS maybe you're a devotee of mockumentaries or found footage flicks. Add to this the aggravation of the pendulum swinging back-and-forth regarding the nature of the paranormal happenings (she is a ghost; she isn't a ghost, ad nauseam).

That said, the movie is well made for what it is, the actors are convincing and I enjoyed seeing that part of southeast Australia.

The film runs 1 hour, 27 minutes, and was shot in Ararat, which is a 2 hours' drive west of Melbourne, and Mildura, which is 3.5 hours north of Ararat.

GRADE: C-/C (4.5/10)

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