Invaders from Mars (1986)

Invaders from Mars (1986) movie poster

director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 02/03/2018

Invaders from Mars, in which Tobe Hooper directs a 1986 B-movie remake of a 1956 B-movie. I give it a B minus.

Invaders from Mars may not be Hooper’s finest moment, though it captures him in a very conscious homage to Atomic Age science fiction. In fact, it draws some visual elements directly from the 1956 flick by William Cameron Menzies. In fact, the whole film is very in keeping with the original’s perspective, a space loving kid (Hunter Carson, here in 1986.)

Carson stars alongside his mother, Karen Black, who in the film is actually his school’s nurse. But when Carson’s parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman) get taken over by aliens, Black surrogates him in what otherwise seems a vaguely odd and cozy fashion.

Even with Stan Winston and John Dykstra designing critters and Dan O’Bannon helping with the script, it’s hard not to feel somewhat cynical as the film devolves into truly child-like (child-ish?) fantasy towards the end.

Best scene: Louise Fletcher swallowing a bullfrog.


It Conquered the World (1954)

It Conquered the World (1954) movie poster

director Roger Corman
viewed: 09/24/2017

It Conquered the World (spoiler: It didn’t)

Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World is really a half-decent 1950’s sci-fi alien invasion picture. It’s undermined (or alternatively enhanced), however, by a classically comical schlock monster that is almost impossible to take seriously.

In the 1950’s it’s always about Communism, isn’t it?

The film starts with a nice opening shot following cool, low budget title sequence. More than anything, it features a cast of folks who perform well and would go on to bigger, better things. Lee Van Cleef, Beverly Garland, and Peter Graves perform nobly.

It features some quintessential 50’s sexism, what with women not understanding stuff like science and whatnot, though also winds up having the wife take on the monster with a shotgun towards the end. So, feminism?

“The world is full of fat heads, full to overflowing.”


Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) movie poster

director Joseph Zito
viewed: 12/20/2016

If you think about it, it’s kind of clever to have The Final Chapter before the halfway point of your film series.  Like the makers of the Friday the 13th movies, I guess I had no idea when they’d finally think that the series was totally bankrupt and out of breath.  I wasn’t even sure.  Had I seen this one?

Turns out I had.

It’s easy to see why it’s popular with some fans. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter has a good cast, not just young Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman, but other familiar faces like Lawrence Monoson or Bruce Mahler.  And behind the scenes Tom Savini.  It also features the strange addendum of watching old porn movie reels.

Director Joseph Zito keeps the pace popping along, sometimes making some of the kills a little perfunctory even.

That final kill, that effect is pretty slick.  And that final shot of evil Corey Feldman.  Most memorable moments from episode 4, The Final Chapter.

Effects (1978)

Effects (1978) DVD cover

director Dusty Nelson
viewed: 12/11/2016

Effects is a curious, ambitious meta-thriller made in 1978 but not released until 2005.  Not exactly “art house” material, Effects features embedded film-within-a-film motifs that play out as the interior film is captured by a crew, detailing a murder, playing with narrative and levels of reality.  Because beyond those two levels, there is yet another level at which a “snuff” film is being made.

For a film that never got released in its day, it’s a polished and complex work.  Sure it’s not exactly your typical slasher or thriller, but god knows the quantity of much worse films that found their way into movie houses or video players.

It features some notable character actors, including a young Tom Savini before he was entirely dedicated to visual effects.  And it stems from a Pittsburgh-oriented independent filmmaking cadre, which sounds interesting (apparently the DVD has a documentary that delves into this — wasn’t available on Fandor.  Would be interesting.)

How many other lost (or hidden) films exist out there?  Probably most won’t come to the level of quality and creativity that Effects strove for, if only partially achieved.  Definitely interesting.

Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

Track of the Moon Beast (1976) VHS cover

director  Richard Ashe
viewed: 10/30/2016

You look at the title and the image on the VHS cover of Track of the Moon Beast and tell me that you don’t think “werewolf”.  On closer observation, you might suspect it’s maybe slightly not a werewolf, but jeesus you weren’t thinking it was going to be a komodo dragon man monster.

Actually, the monster is kind of cool, and seeing that Rick Baker worked on this, well, heck, you kind of wish you could see it a little better.  The lizard man is nearly black and shot in the darkness of night rarely gets his real close-up.

He comes about when a minerologist is hit by a meteorite that fell from the moon.  His pet komodo dragon disappears and then he starts taking on the transformation and lizard-like qualities as depicted in ancient Native American drawings (which look like they were drawn by ancient Native American children).

Somehow, despite a lack of gore or gratuitous nudity or that much of a monster, this really pretty bad movie is actually kind of fun.  But I like bad movies, so you’ll have to take that into consideration regarding my esteem.  It has the feel of a bad movie made a decade or two before 1976, with its bad science and hokey nigh hilarious ending.

The Bat People (1974)

The Bat People (1974) movie poster

director Jerry Jameson
viewed: 08/14/2016

The B-side of the DVD of The Beast Within (1982) turned out to be a very odd pairing.  A movie from 8 years prior, with no recognizable parallels, The Bat People is a creature feature of a very different order.  It’s probably that this MGM DVD release is the only randomized way that these two films would ever share a roster.

But let me tell you something:  The Bat People is a hysterically bad movie, one well-deserving in the pantheon of camp, bad acting, and enjoyable inanity.  Apparently, this is not news, as it has been given the MST3K treatment years ago, but it’s really worth watching if you enjoy bad movies for bad movies’ sake.  Forgo the comic commentary and develop your own.

Dr. John Beck (Stewart Moss) and his wife Cathy (Marianne McAndrew) are attacked by a bat (a regular-sized flying mouse) while on a tour of a cave somewhere in California.  Cathy unthinkingly kicks the bat into a hole before they can discover if it’s rabid or not.  So John has to endure rabies treatments, and worse for him, something else is going on with that bat, something more than rabies.

Moss has the most hysterical flip-outs as he starts to change.  But the funny thing is, he was having weird bat nightmares in the opening credits.  If he was always so freaked out by bats, what the heck is he doing going caverning?

Also truly hilarious are the actions and inactions of his doctor (who gives bad advice, but is easily swayed by the concerned Cathy) and the apparently evil sheriff, who is entirely inappropriate at the best of times.

It’s terrible.  But I really enjoyed it.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 06/04/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The X-Men movies keep surprising me.  Rising from the ashes of The Last Stand (2006), the re-booted franchise that kicked off with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) and renewed yet again by Bryan Singer’s surprising return to the franchise that he first brought to the screen in 2000, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), this (currently) 2nd trilogy has managed despite odds and levels of narrative complexity, turned out some really decent movies.

Not great movies, mind you, but good movies.  Entertainment.

This series took on the added challenge of a reworked timeline, setting the films in the past:  First Class in the 1960’s, Days of Future Past in the 1970’s (as well as in the present?), and now Apocaplypse in 1983.  Frankly, even trying to get my head around the whole timeline thing is more than I care to strain for myself.

But I think I know why this works, at least to some extent.  The X-Men were always a more interesting crew than Marvel stablemates, The Avengers.  The Avengers were always sort of Marvel’s mainstream, while the X-men were sort of their “alternative culture”.  And ultimately are a more interesting gang of characters.

It’s 144 minutes of mind and butt-numbing action, so incredibly much packed in to this sprawling cataclysmic story.  An almost all-powerful villain Apocalypse (a heavily CGI & make-up-buried Oscar Isaac) rises from nearly 6,000 years of slumber to re-boot the Earth.  It takes all of the X-men to come together to take him and his associates down.

I often think that one shortcoming of the modern superhero story is that every villain is an existential one, every one is bringing an apocalypse to Earth (or even the universe) and the heroes have to “save the world”.  Old school comics had heroes and villains on smaller scale stories that were still compelling.

This story isn’t quite so complicated unless you’re trying to tie it into the prior movie’s narrative (which was complicated and is essentially extended here with the action taking place a decade later — almost 20 years since First Class).

For its broad spectrum of response (seriously “mixed” reviews), Apocalypse hardly seemed like a sure thing.  When I told my superhero-loving 12 year old daughter we were going to it, she said, “Yusss!”  And when I found myself walking out of the movie thinking, “Gee, I really kind of liked that…”   I started realizing that despite the fact that I stopped reading superhero comics around 1983, that I guess the X-men were the ones I liked, far more than a lot of the others.

Lastly, quite as in Days of Future Past, the film’s singular best sequence features Evan Peters as Quicksilver, saving the day in a prolonged time-stretched action scene, here saving the whole Xavier school’s populace from an explosion.  Talk about a character crying out for his own movie.  It’s kind of clear that Singer has made the case for him, perhaps made the case that Singer should make it himself.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead (1988) movie poster

director Stan Winston
viewed: 05/25/2016

Hollywood make-up/FX man Stan Winston’s one and only film as director, Pumpkinhead, is notable for being Hollywood make-up/FX man Stan Winston’s one and only film as director.

Coming out in the late 1980’s, it often gets lost on the shuffle of that era’s slasher flicks, which it is decidedly not.  It’s a creature feature and the creature is indeed pretty cool, a giant demon creature summoned from a backwoods graveyard to effect revenge on whomever the summoner has targeted.  This summoning is at the behest of grieving father (a surprisingly hunky Lance Henriksen) whose little boy is run down accidentally by some hooligans.  Only too late does Henriksen realize the true horror of revenge.

The film features some nicely designed and shot sets, and the cast does a pretty decent job.  But the story is underdeveloped and the film’s tone is shifty, from some misty sentimentality to more typical horror scenes, not improved by the winsome soundtrack with harmonicas.  In the end, it’s mediocre at best, really.

That said, it’s easy to imagine having seen this film at the right point in one’s life and having really connected with it.  The scenes between Henriksen and his son (Matthew Hurley) are touching, if overdone.  And the creature and some of the settings are striking.

I will say that I’m pretty sure that I saw this movie back in the day at some point, but at no point was a jogged into a key memory of it, but I’m still not sure if I just don’t recall anything more than the monster.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The Hateful Eight (2015) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 12/31/2015 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

The latest film from pop auteur Quentin Tarantino, shot and notably projected in special occasions in 70mm, is his second Western in a row.  After his slave revenge film, Django Unchained (2012), something about the genre must have stuck with him, long as his films gestate, and he turns out a very different film, but as very typical of Tarantino, a very entertaining one as well.

In many ways, The Hateful Eight is the writer-director at the top of his game, weaving a story of eight (or more) villains stuck in an isolated cabin in a blizzard in the nowheres of Wyoming, each with their own set of backstories (or lies, but stories nonetheless), giving them ample reason to suspect that everyone else wants to kill them.

Kurt Russell is “The Hangman”, a bounty hunter with a filthy, mouthy Daisy Domergue in tow (a spectacular Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman with a $10,000 bounty on her head.  And Russell’s Hangman is known to “bring ’em back alive” even if that is not necessary, because he likes to see ’em hung.  Their stagecoach encounters Major Marquis Warren (Tarantino go-to Samuel L. Jackson) with a pile of dead bodies he’s bountied up, followed by running into another feller, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) who claims to be the newly hired Sheriff of the town of Red Rock, to which they are heading.

Jackson and Tarantino were made for one another.  He delivers Tarantino’s dialog better than anyone, and Tarantino gives Jackson the roles and opportunities that have turned him into such a major star over the past 20 years.

At 3 hours in epic length, the film if anything, seems to be quite simply about “storytelling”.  It’s a complex set of events and backstories that sets the characters on the stage of the cabin, unfolding in six titled chapters, zipping back and forth at times in unfolding, populated with many a dialog of reveal of a character’s past, true or untrue, uncovering motivations, acted upon or not.

And so, when suddenly in Chapter Four: “Domergue’s Got a Secret,” a voice-over narrator pops in to tell the audience something that Tarantino has chosen not to “show” us, it’s of course Tarantino himself.  Hey, it’s his movie, of course he’s going to be the narrator if there is a narrator.  He’s got to insinuate himself in there somehow.

Tarantino’s idea, which he told was to put “‘a bunch of nefarious guys… together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens’ ” is constructed tightly and cleverly.  It may be 3 hours long but he snares the viewer early on and his storytelling prowess is flowing freely.  But in a Tarantino picture, you put a “bunch of guys in a room and see what happens” you know what is going to happen: everybody is going to get shot.

As much as I looked for deeper meanings in the text, the only things that stood out was one when Jackson says, as he takes a gun from somebody that “a black man only feels safe when white men are disarmed,” followed perhaps by the title of the sixth and final chapter “Black Man, White Hell”.  I considered if there was some underlying meaning being laid out here, especially with Tarantino’s recent involvement in police protests, but I’m not sure that it’s the biggest point of the film at all.

I keep coming back to Tarantino as narrator, Tarantino as storyteller, and really, that’s where the film sings.  Now, that said, Tarantino loves his own storytelling voice so much that his voice comes through in many of the stories being told, through many of the voices telling the stories, even Jackson’s.  And that is perhaps Tarantino’s great weakness: his admiration for his own skills as a writer and director (and at times actor).

The Hateful Eight is very good entertainment, a great time at the cinema.  If you’re lucky enough to see it on 70mm, I hear that is the way to go.  Unfortunately, I wound up seeing it digitally projected (whatever).  It has its flaws and short-comings, some of them perhaps deeper than others.  But I enjoyed it.  And I’ll look forward to his next film, whatever he does.

The Burning (1981)

The Burning (1981) movie poster

director Tony Maylam
viewed: 10/24/2015

Who knew that The Burning, a solid slasher from the true heyday of the genre, was the first big feature film for the Miramax boys Harvey and Bob Weinstein?  And rather than hunting for films already made or talent already in development, the story emanated right from their heads, Bob even co-screen credit.

When the drunken camp handyman gets horribly burned by a prank gone awry, he somehow manages to survive his injuries, break loose upon New York City (briefly) and then take out his vengeance on all the campers he can get his trimming shears on.  That’s about all the story you need in a movie like this.

Loosely based on the Staten Island urban legend of Cropsey (given its due in the 2009 documentary of the same name), The Burning also features such unusual early roles for the likes of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens, and Brian Backer (the latter of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981) fame).  On top of all that, the gory FX are crafted by the ever-invented Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead (1978), Maniac (1980) & Friday the 13th (1980), to name but a few).

The early 1980’s are crowded with summer camp slashers, but this is indeed another one that should not be overlooked.  Its connections and competitors have their merits but The Burning is a very competent flick, featuring some good gore moments courtesy of Savini, some gratuitous nudity courtesy of the period, and some good character courtesy of all involved.