Saturday, September 29, 2018

Enlighten The Mind. Feed The Insanity: Beyond The Black Rainbow (2010)

Beyond The Black Rainbow (Canada, 2010)
Rating: ***1/2
Starring: Eva Bourne, Michael Rogers, Scott Hylands

Take the art of Suspiria (1977), the last minute stalk-and-stab of a backwoods slasher, the everything else from a David Cronenberg movie and you get this fever dream tribute to 1980s "scifright".

Some time in the 60s, the Arboria Institute, a secluded quasi-futuristic commune researching ways to merge science and religion, was founded by one Dr. Mercurio Arboria. His work eventually gets passed down to his protege Barry Nyle in the 80s, though the man appears to be less interested in continuing the institute's goal of enlightenment and is obssessed in understanding Elena, a mute girl with psychic powers he is holding captive underneath the building.

On the daily, Nyle conducts psychological experiments on Elena and watches the results in amusement whenever it cause the girl or anyone around her distress. (Or in one ocasssion, death) As he slowly deteriorates mentally, it isn't long before murder, both planned and unplanned, are afoot and Elena gets a chance to escape this horrible fate. But even in her flee, Nyle, deformed and dagger at hand, is murderously on her trail.

More like a fever dream of lights, color and nightmarish visions of otherworldly proportions, Beyond The Black Rainbow sets itself less as a story and instead as an experience given the fact that the plot is pretty basic should you strip away its artistic and psychedelic execution, centering on a steady build-up to Elena breaking free from the institute while Nyle dwells in his own insanity, eventually revealing what started and fuels this psychopathy and how it links all the way back to Elena.

What transpires within the thin plot is a whole lot of imagery, saturated in hues of reds and blues building a LSD trip-inspired dreamscape full of gigantic yet claustrophobic rooms and monstrosities of unexplained origins. Dialogue is nearly absent, relying a good lot on haunting scores and body languages from our two main casts to establish and deliver, adding to the mysterious atmosphere and tone of this film. Whenever words are spoken, however, it mostly dabbles in philosophies of control, power and new age science, showing the not-so-hidden failures of the institute's goal of spiritual enlightenment as one of its results revels in mental torment.

With this strong approach on artsy nightmare fuel, the slasher elements of Black Rainbow are absent until the last act when Elena finally got out. Unsurprisingly with this film's approach, the bodycounting comes almost out of nowhere, with half of the victims being "reasonable" targets while the other half are just random throwaways that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Oddly even is that the bloodiest deaths happen to these throwaway characters, which I suppose is to reflect our killer's loss of self control over their mind thus the remorseless brutality to these bystanders.

Any flaws this movie bears would be from its own style and direction, as I am sure not everyone would or could be on board to what Beyond The Black Rainbow is or what it is trying to achieve. Personally, the hauntingly beautiful visuals are a treat and the last act slasher horror was a delightful slice of bloodshed but the slow pace can get testy and the lack of a satisfying finale just had me feeling short of any resolution. I highly doubt it's something I can repeatedly view just for fun, but for what it is, I say this movie deserves a viewing for all fans of surreal cinema and obscure scifi horror.

1 female had her head implode through psychic force
1 female had her neck bitten open, bled to death (flashback)
1 elderly male overdosed on injected medication
1 female had her head crushed
1 male gets a dagger through his jaw
1 male gets a dagger shoved down his throat
1 male lands head first on a rock
Total: 7

Monday, September 24, 2018

When Good Puppets Go Vengeful: Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge (1991)

Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge (1991)
Rating: ****
Starring:  Guy Rolfe, Richard Lynch, Ian Abercrombie

Some people sees Puppet Master II as the sequel to top the original, but I beg to differ. For me, this is not only how you top an original, but also do the Puppet Master title justice!

Taking place in 1941 World War II Berlin, where a gentle puppeteer named Andre Toulon and his wife Elsa entertain children with marionette shows satirizing Adolf as a coward, much to the disgust of a Nazi lieutenant disguised as a civilian. However, the soldier's disgust soon turns into intrigue when, while snooping around after the show, he discovers that Toulon's puppets are in fact alive, fed with a strange serum that animates them into sentience.

This discovery eventually reaches a Gestapo officer named Major Kraus and excites a scientist named Dr. Hess, who is forced by the Nazis to find a way to reanimate corpses to use as living shields for the war. It isn't long before the Gestapo raids Toulon's theater and attempts to take the puppeteer away for his secrets, even killing his wife in the process, but Toulon isn't gonna back down. Not with his trusted small friends armed to the teeth and willing to fight back.

Impressively shot and released eight months after the last sequel, Toulon's Revenge is less of a slasher movie, or horror for that matter, and instead plays itself more as a mash of fantasy, macabre and scifi themes under the structure of a revenge thriller with a good dash of splatter. With this shift, it re-introduces the murderous puppets of the two prior films in a more anti-heroic light, fighting off a greater evil under the orders of a master who would never used them for killing until tragedy forced him to. It's undoubtedly a far cry from what started as a set of bodycount films, but the movie's direction, solid writing and even stellar acting made it workable not just as an entry to a movie franchise, but also as a standalone film of sorts.

In fact, the movie basically took a jab at "comic book continuity" and either missed or retconned the matter that at the beginning of Puppet Master (1989), Andre not killed himself at 1939 in America while trying to escape the Nazis, thus making this a possible detailed re-telling of his and his "friends" story, coinciding with a plot concerning Nazi occult science and suicidal zombies.

The movie's mythos also strongly help hammer down this new moral turn for the puppets as it established that each puppet contains the will of Toulon's friends and loved ones, all victims of Nazi cruelty. It could have all looked cheap and shoehorned in an attempt to humanize the puppets and empathize with them as now they're given a reason to kill, but this was mostly handled with subtlety and the puppeteering and screen effects did most of the fleshing out for each puppet's personalities considering how more screentime they're given in this entry along side of our titular puppet master.

"Hands up, pardner!"

Adding to this cavalcade of tiny terrors is Six-Shooter, a six-armed cowboy with a devilish grin, originally conceived as early the first movie, though instead of a Western gunslinger he was a multi-armed ninja. The character's inventive design fits perfectly with the movie's theme and proves to be a fan favorite as he would later become a more prominent member of the puppet crew as the series progresses.

In terms of production, Toulon's Revenge made the most out of its estimated eight hundred grand budget and verily defines the big budget look. The sets look impressive and, again, the special effects used here are some of the best this franchise had to offer. While the background actors can be a bit distracting (is that a bad German accent I hear?), Toulon's Revenge also fixed the problem of the first two film by improving the human actors and their scenes. Seeing this is an origin film of the puppet master, it would have been more fitting to match Toulon's personality with that found with the version of this character seen at the beginning of Puppet Master (1989), which meant a humble fatherly figure to root for. Thankfully, not only does actor Guy Rolfe fits the look, but his soft yet anguished performance is as sympathetic as it can be and it works perfectly.

On the side of the Nazis, Richard Lynch plays a decent bad guy as Kraus and, much like Rolfe, he has the look and the cold presence his character needed to intimidate. To be fair, though, he didn't really do much apart from bark orders and be impatient (oh, and shoot Toulon's wife dead), but he made it workable on some level. In between this battle of good and evil is a curious scientist played by Ian Abercrombie, whose character tries hard to uncover Toulon’s formulas not only because the Nazis order him to, but also for his own quench for knowledge and, soon, understanding as he (all too quickly) made friends with Toulon. James Bond's Major Gogol actor Walter Gotell also makes a rather raunchy appearance here as General Mueller, who's supposed to be the head of the Nazi's reanimation project but best remembered for his sexcapades in a brothel and being the victim of one of Six Shooter's awesome kills.

For me, this is Puppet Master. As much as I love the slasher-esque take of the first movie, it's nothing compared to the defined and developed story this sequel brought upon its fans. It's also here where the puppets start being seen as the good guys and Full Moon Entertainment, which produces this films, decided to cash in on this by (mostly) ditching the idea of the puppets being killers in the franchise's following sequels and have them side with a master who's good, thus using them for heroics (or anti-heroics). Can't say if this is a good turn for the series, but as far as I can tell, most of the films that followed weren't that entertaining for me (or well made for that matter. To be fair, the fourth and fifth movie was supposed to be the last) so, suffice to say, I think it'll be for the best to end my Puppet Master reviews with just the first three movies. Whether you agree with me in this or not, Toulon's Revenge deserves all the praise it can get and more.

1 male shot dead
1 female shot dead
1 male strangled to death
1 male drilled through the back
1 male garroted
1 male had his face bashed with a wrench, fed to leeches
1 male repeatedly shot, falls off a building
1 male gets a thrown brick to the face
1 male choked on a live leech
1 male shot
1 male shot dead
1 male knifed on the gut
1 male snared with hooks, dropped unto a halberd
Total: 13

 Bonus Review

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)
Rating: *1/2
Starring: Charlyne Yi, Thomas Lennon, Michael Paré

Well, not gonna say this was a bad idea. But it could have been a lot better.

So, over the years, Full Moon Pictures has been sucking ass on the horror business (see Exhibit A) so I kinda stopped caring for their movies around the 2010s, this including their Puppet Master Axis Trilogy which tried too hard to recapture the glory days of the franchise but only succeeded on making it kinda lame. (Well, mostly lame. I'm still saving up to get me a replica of Kamikaze, one of the coolest evil puppets from that trilogy. (And no, it's not racist of me seeing that I, too, am Asian! I think. Are Filipinos still considered Asian?))

Nevertheless, there's a part of me that still cares for the Puppet Master movies and I am willing to try whatever shtick they'll come up with, even if it now includes a parallel world where Andre Toulon is an evil Nazi and the entire production is being released by RLJE Films, which already brought forth some decent titles like Nobody Gets Out Alive (2012) and My Name is Bruce (2007). If only the resulting product is anywhere as watchable as those two examples...

So, we start the movie in 1989, as a heavily scarred Toulon tries to pick up a potential one night stand at a bar, only to leave disgusted as he finds out the lady bartender is lesbians for a waitress. It isn't long before the two lovers are killed on the road by a thin-wire trap and the cops quickly piece together that Andre Toulon is responsible. After raiding his hotel and catching him with a gun, a pair of cops (one of them being B-movie staple Barbara Crampton) gun Toulon dead, thus ending his reign of terror. For now.

Cut to the present, we now follow Edgar (Thomas Lennon), a comic book artist returning to his home town to live with his folks after a devastating divorce. Digging through his old junk, he discovers his late brother owned one of Toulon’s puppets and decided to sell it at an upcoming Toulon convention, where other Toulon enthusiasts gather to discuss the macabre infamy of the puppet master's creations. Hopping along the ride is Edgar's new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and proudly Jewish boss Markowitz (Nelson Franklin), the trio journeys to the estate and gets into a exposition trip tour hosted by the very cop who shot Toulon.

After all of that jazz and the convention goers settling within the hotel, the puppets, both old and new, start coming to life and murdering the guests in a seemingly supremacist fashion. The massacre is quickly realized and those still surviving are now forced to find ways stop the littlest Nazi army before all of them are minced meat by morning.

Now, the gorehound inside of me should be happy about this direction; not only are we going back to the franchise's horror roots, but with we are also getting updated gore and a more villainous take on the fan favorite killer puppets, as well as some new additions to create a literal puppet army. I would have been fine with these changes if only they did more with this twisted jab on the film series.

As much as I love the splatter and bloodshed, there is such as thing as too much and this is the problem with Littlest Reich. It's nothing but death porn, one kill jumping to the next in a pace that seems rushing, thus concepts and plot points got introduced and dropped at a moment's notice, numerous supporting characters simply exist to be killed off, the tone shifts back and forth from dumb to misplaced serious, and it all the ends with a twist that makes little sense and simply drops us one of them annoying "to be continued..." farce. 

Worse yet is that our puppets are reduced to mass-produced weapons brought to life by ancient magic, which is the last thing I expected a Puppet Master movie to do. While I understand that this is supposed to be a reboot of sorts where the puppets are as evil as the Fuhrer's determination for world conquest, they could have at least gave the tiny terrors some shred of personality which made them memorable to begin with, whether as killers or anti-heroes. But, nope. The movie favored the massacre approach so much that they made sure there's enough copies and variations of each puppet to slaughter a building full of people, letting go of the very things that made them stand out among other killer toy villains. A real shame.

Nonetheless, if you're just in it for the gore then The Littlest Reich won't disappoint. Two kills really stood out the most among the carnage, one involves a pregnant lady getting attacked by a racially insensitive new creation called "Money Lender" (guess what he looks like), while the other had a large fellow getting the whirly bladed end of another new killer toy. The rest varies from classic stabbings and slashings, to upfront burnings and messy car engine crushings, all done mostly in glorious practical effects with some CG enhancements as well as a few slices of dark humor in which the victims are supposedly gays, gypsies, Jews, and other individuals intolerants love to hate. Could have worked well if, again, they stick to this idea since in the end, it looked like they're just killing off everything that breathes regardless of skin color and preferences.

Sure, it will shock and offend but the execution comes with little to no effort. Real shock and offensiveness comes from build up and purpose, and this movie simplifies that to the point character and story hardly matters in the end, which in turn made this movie hardly matters in existence. The Littlest Reich may find new fans for its dumbness and chunky gore, but I sincerely can't find any life nor joy out of the point A-to-B style mayhem it embraces and its absence of a real conclusion.

1 female decapitated with a thin wire
1 female murdered offcamera
1 male shot dead
1 male seen set ablaze (opening credit)
1 male stabbed on the neck (opening credit)
1 male, 1 female, 1 boy and 1 girl slaughtered (opening credit)
1 male seen shot (opening credit)
1 female thrown off a ship (opening credit)
A number of victims seen slaughtered (opening credit)
1 male and 1 female set on fire
1 male and 1 female stabbed to death
1 male had his head sliced off
1 male disemboweled, throat sliced
1 female found murdered
1 pregnant female had her baby ripped out from her own womb
1 female had her throat cut
1 male had his back ripped open
1 female disemboweled
1 female had her head crushed
1 male had his face repeatedly stabbed, head crushed with a car engine
A number of victims massacred in a parking lot
1 female seen murdered
1 boy had his hands sliced off, killed offcamera
1 male had an arm ripped off
1 male shot on the head
1 female shot on the head
A number of victims seen murdered in a hallway
1 female found burnt and drained of blood
1 male stabbed on the throat
1 female hits her head against a dumpster
1 male found mauled to death
1 female hit with a brick, throat sliced
2 males presumably killed
1 victim seen killed
1 victim seen killed
1 victim seen killed
1 male found mauled to death
1 female shot on the head
Total: 41+

Saturday, September 22, 2018

So I Saw Eli Roth's New Movie Yesterday...

For years, I best remember Eli Roth as that funny looking guy who directed one of my favorite early 2000s horror flick Cabin Fever (2001) and the 2005 torture porn guilty pleasure Hostel. For a while, I began seeing and recognizing his face on other genre favorites like Inglorious Basterds as Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz, Justin from both Cabin Fever and 2001 Maniacs (2005) (so does that mean the two movies share the same cinematic universe?) and that wet T-Shirt guy at Piranha 3D (2010) I also started to look into the other projects he produced and/or directed, most of which I enjoyed like the aforementioned 2001 Maniacs, as well as The Sacrament (2013), Clown (2014) and, what is personally the best "torture porn" movie apart from Saw VI (2009), Hostel: Part II (2007).

And then I get to see some of his more "confused" works like Aftershock (2012), a gory disaster film wherein we watch a small group of Chilean partygoers, both native and foreigners, try to survive everything from crumbling building structures to escaped murdering rapists during the same night an earthquake hits the city hard. That movie may have been fun to read in paper but execution-wise, I just find it too chaotic to enjoy fully. (I mean the city just have been hit by an earthquake. I'm pretty sure the last thing you wanna do, even if you were a criminal, is to rape a woman or kill people coz, oh, I dunno, THERE'S A FRIGGIN' EARTHQUAKE GOING ON!)

Then there's Knock Knock (2015), a remake of 1977's Death Game that's so uneven with its tone that I find myself uneasy all for the wrong reasons: it has a dumb plot, unbelievable characters even by horror movie standards, and the downer ending just felt too pretentious to be worth the message it tries to relay on us. In fact, this movie should show that we should keep remake projects away from Roth seeing just how bad he might screw them up but of course, we just have to let him do not one, but three remake projects, resulting to the boring 2015 Cabin Fever remake (which I'm sure non-hardcore horror fans wouldn't even have heard about until now and I'm not gonna blame you), the recent Baywatch "movie-fication" and Death Wish remake.

I was hoping his gory Italian cannibal horror tribute The Green Inferno (2013) would be the saving directorial grace that'll restore some faith on Roth but, nope: while I enjoyed it at first, I eventually noticed the uneven tone of the movie and how its unbelievably stupid mid-credit scene more or less say what ruined this film's chances on be better than what it is. Instead, and ironically, his saving grace for me is his newly released movie, which he produced and directed: a PG-13 Fantasy Horror flick starring Jack Black, called The House With A Clock In It's Walls.

The funny part is, I wasn't even supposed to be seeing this yesterday on my day off. I was planning on seeing The Nun (2018) that day but then I noticed the poster of this movie. And it was showing! So I decided my film via coin flip: heads for The Nun and tails for The House. You can tell where this went and, frankly, I'm not that disappointed as you can see, too.

The story takes place in 1955, following the misadventures of a geeky boy (Owen Vaccaro) who lost his parents in a car crash, thus forcing him to move in with his eccentric uncle (Jack Black) who turns out to be a warlock and is friends and neighbors with a witch (Cate Blanchett). After discovering that his uncle's house is magic and that he, too, can become a warlock, we watch as our lead learns all sorts of sorcery and rituals, finding out that not all spells are all fun and games, especially if one of them happens to have Apocalyptic dangers tagging along.

So, this is basically Harry Potter minus the giant castle schools, chosen one mumbo jumbo, and the fact that anything can and will kill you should you step outside said school, and more on attempting to recapture a fun 80s/90s style family-friendly genre flick, which can be seen not only in its little side of practical effects amidst the parade of CG monsters and friendly living furniture, but also in its casts and sometimes incredibly dark story.

Vaccaro plays your typical child hero in these kind of movies: nerdy, excitable and frightened, longing for guidance that he'll soon find in the seemingly unlikeliest of people. Said unlikeliest people is wonderfully played by Jack Black, channeling his inner cartoon again as his booming presence and crazy antics definitely excites this film's target audience (and also terrify them with a certain scene that involves, um, a "body horror of baby proportions". Sure freaked me out to an unsettling snicker.) Playing the straight woman for these two, Cate Blanchett is as elegant as the sly and witty witch she plays, whose childish name-calling between her character and Black's come as adorable as it can be, but at times knew when to grow up and teach these boys a thing or two about inner strength, responsibility and warmth.

As cheesy as that last bit sound, it fits perfectly with the kind of story The House With A Clock In Its Walls. It's mostly innocent and fun, but it doesn't shy away from being creepy and scary at the right momentum, with many false scares thrown in at the beginning where it's mostly magical and fantastic, but it soon dwells into grimier territories as black magic (or as this movie calls it, "blood magic") gets introduced and  suddenly we get a red-eyed zombie warlock and his disturbing flashback involving the horrors WWII and meeting an actual demon, living creepy automatons, monstrous Jack-o-Lanterns and indications of murder. Granted the pacing may have killed off the creepiness of some of these scenes (and I really wanted to see more of that WWII post-war trauma bitter candy), the inexplicable image and idea of the entire world being slowly destroyed by a warlock's tampering of time still warrant a point or two for its originality, especially if the whole shebang links itself to our hero in a much more simplistic and relatable way.

I'm not sure where this movie will lead Roth to, but I will admit I'm quite surprised to how sincere and fun House is. It's nothing really new in terms of plot, the script could use some more panache, and some of the jokes are on the lame side (Oh, look, that flying topiary lion explosively poops dead leaves. Wonderful...), but for what it is, it's campy fun with the right balance of doom and gloom, just the kind of whimsical silly film to lighten up a genre fanatic like me self! So if you're a fan of movies like Goosebumps (2015) or Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017), then this is a good film to spend an hour and a half with.

Here's hoping Roth's little stab on kiddie horror is a good track for him to try and that we get some great movies from him (again) in the future!

Monday, September 3, 2018

When Good Puppets Go Badder: Puppet Master II (1990)

Puppet Master II (1990) ( AKA "Puppet Master II: His Unholy Creations")
Starring: Elizabeth Maclellan, Collin Bernsen, Steve Welles

The first Puppet Master movie can be considered as one of the few successful low-budget indies to exist as, in terms of franchising, it not only help put small motion picture productions like Full Moon Features into the picture, but the film itself also rocked a strong cult following. So it wasn't much of a surprise that this film will get its very own sequel with its own set of ups and downs.

Puppet Master II literally begins with a dark and stormy night, as our five sentient puppets- Blade, Jester, Leech Woman, Pinhead and Tunneler- exhume their creator's grave and revive his body with what remains of the original formula that kept them alive.

Some months later, a small team of parapsychologist enters the Bodega Bay Inn to investigate the murders of the previous film after hearing about it from a survivor. It isn't very long before one of them disappears and another gets a drill through the head, which is soon followed by the appearance of a bandaged Bucharest man named Eriquee Chaneé who claims to have inherited the inn.

Of course, this Invisible Man-lookalike is none other than the puppets' revived master Eric Toulon and we are eventually made aware of what's really going down: the puppets are weakening so they brought back their old master from the grave in hopes of creating more of the chemical juju that's the very source of their animation, which one of the vital ingredients happens to be human brains. Unknown to our killer marionettes, however, is that Toulon has personal plans for the serum, too.

Admittedly, compared to the first film, Puppet Master II could have a bit more going for it aside from the usual stalking and killing you would expect from a "killer toy" supernatural slasher as we're given some idea to the secrets of our puppets' animation, doubling as a stronger motive to their murder spree this time around. The puppets, in turn, have a more balanced screen time through out the movie and even showed a bit more personality (which will eventually be explored in the later sequels) through better looking prop work and special effects. They're still as colorful of a cast of pint-sized baddies as they were in the original, some of them biting the dust (for now) and even gaining a new recruit simply named Torch. (Because he has a torch for a right hand and I just realize my favorite killer puppets are unimaginatively named.)
Adorable lil' gnasher, ain't he?
Execution-wise, however, Puppet Master II couldn't hide the fact it is basically a re-thread of the first film with its story of random investigators snooping around in the very same inn the original took place at, only to be killed by murderous puppets. Hell, the two films even have the same finale wherein the villain bites the big one after the puppets had taken enough abuse and decided to go against their master.

The only difference apart from the now not-so-hidden purpose of the murders and some backdrop on the titular puppet master is that this film took the cheesy route of having cliched love-struck villains as Toulon, longing to be with his late wife, connives a mad plan of resurrecting her by killing a look-alike (as in, one of our protagonists) and transferring her and his souls to giant creepy mannequins. It's horrible in a laughably hammy way, but I could have enjoyed this lame villain motivation a bit more if the rest of the movie wasn't so dull and padding.

One of the main problems of the first Puppet Master movie is that the human casts weren't really that special. They're there, yes, but their performance were hardly memorable as most of what they did were talk and suspect. (Oh, and have sex. Let's not forget about have sex) Puppet Master II had the opportunity to work on this and do something entirely different, but not only does the still lack of decent acting made this sequel an underwhelming watch for me, it also made the movie feel like nothing really happened much save for more killings and that one shtick about being lovers forever.

Some of folks claim this is one example of a sequel topping the original but taking this with a grain of salt, I beg to differ. It's not unwatchable and it does improved some elements from the first, but Puppet Master II failed to be as interesting as I hoped it'll be and I will leave it at that. Thankfully, I have Puppet Master III to fill out the good sequel void I long from this franchise...

1 female mentioned murdered, brains hooked out
1 male drilled through the head
1 male repeatedly knifed on the head, chunks of brain pulled out
1 female torched alive
1 boy torched offcamera
1 male found with his throat being cut
1 female slashed to death
1 elderly female found dead
Total: 8