Friday, July 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Friday the 13th: The Orphan' (1979)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

For a while, every time the 13th fell on a Friday, I would make sure to cover one of the movies in the long-running Friday the 13th horror franchise in this space. Eventually, I ran out of options, having to leave off a few movies at the end of the series since they don't have 13 in their titles. But now, in the tradition of 1933's Friday the Thirteenth, here's another movie that shares a title with the adventures of Jason Voorhees but has absolutely nothing to do with the hockey-masked killer. In fact, if IMDb is to be believed, the producers of the more famous Friday the 13th actually had to cut a deal with the producers of Friday the 13th: The Orphan in order to get the rights to the title, since The Orphan was released first (although subsequent releases often omit the first part of the title).

Online reports also indicate that despite its 1979 release date, the bulk of The Orphan was actually shot in 1968, with writer/director/co-editor John Ballard spending the next decade cobbling together the resources for post-production. That protracted editing process might explain why the resulting movie is so incoherent and disjointed, a series of scenes that feel like they were strung together almost randomly, with key elements missing (other online reports claim that the 85-minute version currently available is 30 minutes shorter than Ballard's original cut). Whatever the reason, The Orphan is a complete mess, both tedious and bizarre, with jarring tonal shifts, inappropriate music cues, characters who come and go at random, and a story that's dull and slow until it goes completely bonkers.

That story is loosely based on the famous short story Sredni Vashtar by Saki, although many of the details are changed and expanded. The main character is young David (Mark Owens), who's apparently witnessed his parents die in a (possibly accidental) murder-suicide, and has now been placed in the care of his stern Aunt Martha (Peggy Feury). Martha keeps David confined to the family's sprawling estate and denies him the pleasures of eating toast (one of the movie's more absurd plot points), and for long stretches The Orphan is mostly just about mundane family squabbles, interspersed with disconcertingly cheery montages set to jaunty music. David's father spent much of his time traveling in Africa, and eventually David builds a sort of shrine to a stuffed monkey his father brought back from one of his trips, and that's when things finally get weird.

The Orphan isn't quite a horror movie, although it features some surreal and grotesque imagery in its final act, and it eventually builds up a modest body count. It's more of a psychological thriller about David's unraveling mental state, although Owens isn't quite a good enough actor to make that descent into madness convincing (to be fair, it's a lot to place on a child actor), and the narrative is too jumbled to convey the progression of David's madness. Instead it just stumbles from one odd image to another, often repeating and doubling back on itself, until the chilling final moment when David finally gets to eat some toast.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

VODepths all-dinosaur edition: 'The Jurassic Dead,' 'The Jurassic Games'

Usually I try to include three movies in these occasional VOD round-ups, but when I received screeners for two dinosaur-themed straight-to-VOD movies that were being released on the same day (and just a week before the release of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), it seemed obvious that I should throw together a quick edition of this column to cover them both. Since Fallen Kingdom itself is actually very similar to a dopey dino B-movie (albeit with much better special effects), it would probably fit right in with these opportunistic knock-offs.

The Jurassic Dead (Ruselis Aumeen Perry, Andy Haman, Mia Klosterman, dir. Milko Davis and Thomas Martwick) Despite multiple prologues and an onscreen text crawl at the beginning of The Jurassic Dead (also known by the equally ridiculous title Z/Rex), I had basically no idea what was happening for most of the movie's running time. Like a lot of no-budget B-movies, it promises a grand sci-fi world but mostly takes place in a bunch of dingy corridors, in this case inside some sort of secret government facility in the middle of the desert. That's where a stranded group of teenagers and a group of mercenaries (or maybe special operatives?) come together after a meteor strike (or maybe a missile attack?) wipes out all electronics and possibly releases a deadly toxin or virus into the outside world? None of this is ever clear, and is also not really important, since mostly the movie is about these characters running from some sort of zombified Tyrannosaurus Rex that the evil scientist villain has created (although I have no idea what dinosaurs have to do with his ultimate world-ending plan), and then also fleeing from each other when contact with the T. Rex (or Z/Rex, per the title) turns them into zombies, too. Nothing makes any sense, the acting is terrible, the characters are dumb cartoonish stereotypes, and the special effects are beyond atrocious. Nearly the entire movie is shot against a green screen, with even simple locations like hallways created via CGI, and it looks like the characters are in that old Nickelodeon game show where kids were inserted into arcade games. Not even a zombie dinosaur eating people can make this movie watchable. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

The Jurassic Games (Adam Hampton, Katie Burgess, Ryan Merriman, dir. Ryan Bellgardt) Compared to The Jurassic Dead, The Jurassic Games is practically Jurassic Park, but it's still mostly terrible. Mixing a bit of The Hunger Games with a bit of The Running Man plus a bunch of dinosaurs, Games takes place in a future where death row inmates are given the chance to win their freedom in a deadly virtual reality game that is watched by hundreds of millions of people. Ten convicted killers are placed in a world where they're pursued by dinosaurs and other dangerous prehistoric creatures, and if they die in the game then they die for real. They're also allowed to kill each other, and since the last person standing wins freedom, there's really no good reason for them not to just fight to the death immediately and ignore the dinosaurs. There are a lot of plot holes here, of course, but director and co-writer Ryan Bellgardt just barrels right through them, and at times the movie is silly and exciting enough for that to work out. Ryan Merriman perfectly captures the smarm of reality TV hosts as the game's master of ceremonies, and the filmmakers make good use of sports-style graphics and talking heads to give the games a sense of authenticity. But the contestant characters are all one-note and boring, the acting overall is inconsistent, and the creatures themselves are completely unconvincing, especially when shown in the harsh daylight. It's also a bit disappointing that the dinosaurs are virtual, since the contestants are essentially just playing a really high-stakes video game. There's a moment when one of the contestants asks another why the designers chose dinosaurs to chase them around, and the second contestant jokes that they tested better than robots. That's probably about as thoroughly as the filmmakers thought through this premise, which plays like it started with the title and then filled in the rest from there. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Hell's House' (1932)

Oftentimes in these quick and cheap programmers that Bette Davis made in the 1930s, she has a small part and relatively low billing, which means just a few scraps for Davis fans to hang onto. For some reason, 1932's Hell's House gives Davis top billing, but her part is just as small (if not smaller) than in other forgettable movies she made during the same time period. Pat O'Brien is billed just under Davis (and they're both prominently featured on the poster), but the real star is neither Davis nor O'Brien, but Junior Durkin as Jimmy, an annoyingly naive teen who gets caught up in a bootlegging operation (without even knowing it) and shipped off to juvenile detention.

Jimmy is such a simpering loser that it's hard to feel bad for him as he's stuck in the mildly abusive reform school, where kids are forced into hard labor (which appears to involve stacking bricks into endless piles) and punished by being forced to stare at a line on a chalkboard until they pass out. It's pretty tame stuff, but of course Jimmy can't handle it, and he's desperate to get back to his aunt and uncle, and more importantly to gangster Matt Kelly (O'Brien), the guy who got Jimmy in trouble in the first place. Jimmy is absurdly loyal to Kelly, whom he meets at his aunt and uncle's, where Kelly is renting a room. They've only known each other a few days when Kelly hires Jimmy to watch over his warehouse full of illegal booze, and Jimmy gets nabbed by the cops just a few minutes into his first day on the job. Despite this obvious set-up, he takes three years in juvie over ratting out his new best friend to the authorities.

Jimmy's love for Kelly has some serious homoerotic undertones, as does his relationship with fellow inmate Shorty (Junior Coughlin), who always calls Jimmy "big boy" and basically dies in Jimmy's arms from his heavily foreshadowed heart condition. It's all absurdly overwrought, with Durkin playing up Jimmy's good-hearted innocence so excessively that he becomes irritating and difficult to root for. And Kelly isn't much of a hardened gangster, barely shown doing anything menacing and portrayed as more of a coward for letting Jimmy take the fall for his (extremely non-specific) crimes.

Oh, and Bette Davis is also in this movie. She plays Kelly's girlfriend Peggy in just a handful of scenes, and she's suitably spunky, taking a shine to dopey Jimmy and later scolding Kelly for letting the kid rot away in juvie for crimes he didn't commit. She looks stylish and puts a bit of attitude into her lines, but Peggy is little more than a plot device, a tool for exposition and for getting Jimmy and Kelly to reconcile at the end. Davis deservedly received top billing in plenty of other movies in later years, but in this case she doesn't contribute much, and her name recognition probably wasn't yet strong enough to make an impact.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

VODepths: 'Bark,' 'The Nursery,' 'Soft Matter'

Bark (Annie Brennen, Caitrin Gallagher, Eli Rubenstein, dir. Anna Nilles and Marco Jake) Three young siblings (two in high school, one in college) deal with their mother's suicide in a movie occasionally narrated by the voice of their dog in Bark, which sounds like it would be cutesy and sentimental, but is actually slow and naturalistic, with a lot of silent long takes and awkward interactions. Writer-directors Anna Nilles and Marco Jake withhold some basic information at first, including the nature of the mother's death, but their revelations are so restrained that initially I wasn't even sure what they were meant to convey. Some of the mumblecore-style bickering among the siblings is entertaining, but it's more often just tiresome, and there are some weird metafictional elements (in one scene another actor walks onscreen to essentially "tag out" the main actor playing the teenage brother, saying that the directors want him to take a break) that seem jarringly out of place. Even the conceit of the narration from the dog is inconsistent, reaching its culmination in a scene that feels like it should be the end of the movie, then completely dropped as the movie continues on. The occasional lyrical passages aren't enough to compensate for the disjointed structural composition. Available on No Budge.

The Nursery (Maddi Conway, Emmaline Friederichs, Carly Rae James Sauer, dir. Christopher A. Micklos and Jay Sapiro) At one point in The Nursery, one of the characters describes what's happening as "textbook ghost stuff," and that's a pretty fair description for this occasionally passable, entirely generic micro-budget horror movie. A college student babysits at a remote house where vaguely spooky things start happening, and when her friends show up to visit her, they're all terrorized by a malevolent spirit that may or may not be connected to the family that lives in the house and their young baby that Ranae (Maddi Conway) is charged with watching. It takes a little while for the story to get going, and once things start moving, the scares are pretty familiar loud noises and sudden apparitions. The filmmakers try to deepen the narrative by giving Ranae a tragic back story that just comes off as melodramatic, although the performances are fairly strong for a movie of this small a scale. The reveal of the ghost's true nature is pretty underwhelming, the kills are tame, and the conclusion is anticlimactic, brushing aside all the death and danger preceding it. It's textbook ghost stuff, and not even a particularly engaging textbook. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Soft Matter (Ruby Lee Dove II, Hal Schneider, Mary Anzalone, dir. Jim Hickcox) I don't even know where to start with the bizarre sci-fi/horror movie Soft Matter, which exists somewhere around the intersection of Troma, John Waters and Harmony Korine. It's certainly one of the grossest movies I've ever seen, the kind of movie in which a character is speaking entirely literally when she calls someone "a disgusting bag of slime." The plot, such as it is, involves two scientists experimenting on patients at an abandoned nursing home in order to discover the secret to immortality, in which they are thwarted by both an ancient sea goddess living in a mop bucket and a pair of hipster artists looking to stage an installation in a decrepit building. There are some moments of deadpan humor and some creative animated interludes, but mostly this is a movie that is just weird and off-putting and unpleasant for the sake of it. Watching a disgusting bag of slime bust out some dance moves to a synth-pop groove is kind of entertaining at first, but a string of inexplicable moments like that eventually just gets to be tedious. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Mercury 13' (2018)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Given the massive success of Hidden Figures, I imagine it's only a matter of time before the Netflix original documentary Mercury 13 gets optioned for a major studio feature film. It's another inspirational story of smart women pushing against entrenched prejudices at NASA, in this case a group of 13 female pilots who went through an unofficial astronaut training program in the early 1960s, only to be denied the chance to be considered for actual space flight. There's not quite the same happy ending as in Hidden Figures, though, since none of the women ever ended up going into space (although at least some of them went on to thriving aviation careers). Still, it's hard not to be at least a little moved by the testimonials from these determined women and the injustice they suffered.

As a movie, Mercury 13 isn't all that impressive; directors David Sington and Heather Walsh combine talking-head interviews (with some of the surviving pilots and relatives of those who've passed away) with archival footage to tell the story of 13 female aviators who were recruited by NASA medical specialist Dr. Randy Lovelace to undergo the same battery of physical and mental tests as the famous Mercury Seven male astronauts (famously depicted in The Right Stuff). Lovelace was convinced that not only could women be just as qualified as men to participate in space missions, but also that in some ways they might make for superior candidates. Without NASA authorization, he initiated his own program to test and train women, but he was ultimately shut down when his plan progressed to having the women train on military fighter jets.

A little while later, there was a Congressional hearing about the possibility of having the women officially join the astronaut training program, but that led nowhere, and it wasn't until the 1980s that NASA actually put women on its space missions. Sington and Walsh lay out all this information in a mostly straightforward, pedestrian fashion, and the interview subjects are compelling enough to keep the movie engaging over most of its slim 79-minute running time. But the directors also pad out the film with cheesy re-enactments (including a hokey speculative version of women participating in the first moon landing) and lots of lovely but questionably relevant footage of airplanes in flight. There's also an overbearing score to juice the emotions that are plenty powerful on their own. The result is a movie that succeeds almost in spite of itself, because no amount of lackluster filmmaking could undermine the emotional impact of the story and the inherent charm and grit of the women portrayed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

VODepths: 'Cartel 2045,' 'Darc,' 'Dead List'

Cartel 2045 (Brad Schmidt, Danny Trejo, Alex Heartman, dir. Chris Le) There's kind of a cool sci-fi premise at the heart of Cartel 2045 (also known as Juarez 2045), in which sophisticated military robots have become just another weapon to be stolen, co-opted and junked when no longer useful. Here, they've been smuggled to Mexican drug cartels, who use the deadly bots to assert their dominance in organized crime. The idea of futuristic technology becoming scrap to be scavenged by criminals reminded me a bit of Neill Blomkamp's Chappie, not that anyone should be trying to emulate that movie. But there's the potential to explore some interesting sociopolitical elements here, even on a low budget. Writer-director Chris Le doesn't care about any of that, though, and instead fills the overlong movie with repetitive, listless action sequences populated with interchangeable characters. There's a former Marine released from prison so that he can join a team of fellow Marines in tracking down the contraband droids, but his shady back story turns out to be irrelevant, and his look and personality are barely distinguishable from his teammates. Danny Trejo chews some scenery as the evil drug lord, but even he can only carry things so far, and the rest of the performances are flat and uninspired. The effects aren't terrible, as long as the robots don't have to interact with the actors (in which case they almost always look like they're in separate images), but the fake film grain just highlights how far this movie is from a genuinely creative and entertaining B-movie. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Darc (Tony Schiena, Armand Assante, Shô Ikushima, dir. Julius R. Nasso) At first glance, Darc seems like a run-of-the-mill low-budget action movie, with a stock plot about a determined badass seeking revenge for the death of his mother. And for the most part, that's what it is, with Tony Schiena playing Jake Walters, who as a child witnessed his prostitute mother's murder at the hands of a Yakuza boss. The adult Jake (who also goes by the name Darc, inspired by a manga hero he read about as a child in Japan) is sprung from prison, where he's serving a sentence for unspecified crimes, by an Interpol agent played by a mumbly Armand Assante, tasked with rescuing the agent's daughter from the very same Yakuza boss who killed Jake's mom. Lots of violence and gratuitous nudity follows. What sets Darc apart is that it's a vanity project for star and co-writer Schiena, who is a private security contractor, activist, combat veteran and martial-arts champion with an insane Wikipedia entry that he almost certainly wrote himself. The action here is pretty solid, and Schiena is passable as a stoic man of action (or at least is no worse than Steven Seagal would've been in the exact same role 30 years ago), but the violence is repetitive and mind-numbing, the tone is vaguely misogynistic, and the presentation of the title character is so self-aggrandizing that it verges on parody. Available on Netflix.

Dead List (Deane Sullivan, Jan-David Soutar, Josh Eichenbaum, dir. Holden Andrews, Ivan Asen, Victor Mathieu) An actor invokes an extremely ill-defined curse in order to win a role in a Martin Scorsese movie, but the jumbled quasi-anthology structure of Dead List means that people start dying before it's clear who they are or why they've been targeted. Even after we see Cal (Deane Sullivan) acquire a mysterious mystical book and enact some ritual from it, the movie has a hard time conveying what he's summoned or how it works. The vignettes (written and directed in various combinations by the three filmmakers) feature Cal's rival actors dying in what seem to be meant as sort of ironic, Twilight Zone-style circumstances, but it's tough to tell what the connections to their lives are meant to be when we barely know anything about the characters. One short piece in which a victim dies by being transformed into a black man and then gunned down by police at least has the basic premise of one of those stories, but there's no real reasoning behind it. Other segments are tedious and/or excessively gross, and the production values are pretty terrible, with ugly visuals, subpar effects and questionable acting (absolutely none of these people would be up for a role in an actual Scorsese movie). Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Locker 13' (2014)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

The low-budget horror anthology is a venerable genre tradition going back decades, and I've even written about a couple of them (Last Stop on 13th Street and Hellblock 13) in this space before. There's no way that Locker 13 is going to take its place alongside movies like Black Sabbath or Tales From the Crypt or Creepshow, but it's slightly better than its obscure straight-to-video pedigree would indicate. It features a cast full of veteran B-movie stars and character actors (including Curtis Armstrong, Jon Gries, Thomas Calabro, Jon Polito and David Huddleston), mostly giving decent performances, and its individual stories are all fairly concise. The production values are bare-bones, but they're professional enough, and forgiving horror buffs may find this movie to be an acceptable time-passer.

The first full segment is actually pretty good, starring Ricky Schroeder as a washed-up boxer who acquires a mystical pair of boxing gloves from a mysterious stranger and finds himself easily pummeling younger, stronger opponents. He pounds them so hard that they end up dead, though, and he has to face the consequences of his late-breaking rise to fame. The story ends with the kind of Twilight Zone/E.C. Comics twist that these anthologies often rely on, and it's an effective stinger for a nasty but engaging tale. Schroeder conveys the regret of a man whose glory days are behind him (probably not hard for the former child star to relate to), and Polito is his typically dyspeptic self as the boxer's opportunistic manager.

Unfortunately the rest of the stories are not nearly as strong. The wraparound story takes place in an Old West amusement park, with Gries as the veteran employee showing new night janitor Skip (Jason Spisak) the ropes. Gries' Archie tells the movie's first four stories to Skip as they tour the park, and then when Skip is left alone to work, he gets his own story. The other tales include an initiation gone awry at a secret society in the early 20th century; a suicidal jumper getting a unique pep talk; and a hitman interrogating three women who may have hired him. In Skip's story, he discovers that his locker (number 13, of course, which also shows up in three of the other stories) holds a portal to another version of himself.

Unlike the boxing story, those other segments just kind of peter out, without the same punch (so to speak) to tie them together. It's hard to discern a lesson, or even a point, to those segments, and they're not exactly scary or unsettling, either. There are solid performances throughout, including from Huddleston as the creepy leader of the exclusive lodge, Gries as the cheerily philosophical theme-park janitor and Krista Allen as one of the hitman's captives, and the pacing is relatively brisk. With some sharper writing, Locker 13 could have been an underrated horror gem, but as it is, it's only about one-fifth of a gem.