Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Damnation Alley

Damnation Alley is a post-apocalyptic thriller loosely based on a short story and novel by science fiction writer Roger Zelazny. Zelazny learned the hard way that Hollywood is not big on being faithful to source material, though rumors he demanded his name be taken off the film are not true. Nevertheless, stories of post-apocalyptic survival have been done far better. Not to mention with a budget much large than the $23.35 with which this one was obviously made.

The film opens up with the end of the world. Two Air Force officers, Tannen and Denton, in charge of a missile silo in California get the call to launch the arsenal according to the MAD strategy of mutually assured destruction. Three years later, the silo is still in operation, but the command structure has fallen apart. Tannen has resigned his commission and indulged his misfit ways. Denton, his former superior, is a hardnosed major still holding things together. An explosion at the silo kills all but four men, so Denton decides to take the survivors on a trip to Albany in search of a lone radio transmission.

The four take off in two Landmaster, twelve-wheeled all terrain transport vehicles. They are supposed to be impressive, but again, low budget problems. The prop is still enough of a novelty that it is part of a San Francisco based show featuring famous vehicles from movies and television. Do a Google search and you will find a load of photos with tourists posing with it.

The Damnation Alley refers to a path of lower radiation throughout the central United States in which the two Landmasters travel. It is the path of least resistance, which is a peculiar concept considering one of the Landmasters is loat immediately in a storm, then the survivors encounter carnivorous cockroaches, vicious rednecks, weird, violent storms, and a flood before making it to Albany.

Much of their trouble is caused by the earth tilting off its axis due to the nuclear war. Thus, we get giant scorpions, as well as the aforementioned carnivorous cockroaches and violent storms. The problem with them is they are too ambitious for the budget to handle. The photo above is actually one of the better attempts to make a regular sized scorpion large like a giant using the same camera tricks that had been around for nearly forty years at the time Damnation Alley was made. The storms are also psychodelic falashes of color amidst high winds. They look more like a bad acid trip than anything else.

These silly effects contrast so starkly with some truly ethereal moments that they actually diminish those moments. There is a scene when the survivors reach Las Vegas and take the time to play the slor machines. It is a ghost town, and there is no money to be won, but they laugh and have a good time all while fantasizing the place is packed with people enjoying themselves. But then you get bad camera tricks showing cockroaches eating Paul Winfield. Not that watching Winfield devoured by cockroaches does not have a certain amusement factor. Darmok and Gillard when the cockroaches feast.

To add a human element, Tannen and Denton pick up two survivors, a beautiful girl and a kid. They both bond quickly with Tannen as opposed to the more authoritative Denton. There is a quick scene in which the kid subtlety emulates Denton, as though he admires him, but Denton pays no mind and that is pretty much the end of it. There appears to be a mized ,essage in the film. On the one hand, the more misfit characters say the world would not have been destroyed if everyone had been like them. Well, okay. Pretty much every character but Denton does act that way. Yet Denton is the guy who gets them safely across the united states and into Albany, so he did save the day. Exactly whose philosophy of life is best? We are apparently not supposed to dwell on that, because this is not a particularly introspective film.

It is a not a very good one, either, which is a surprise as far as the cast is concerned. George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield, Jackie Earle Haley, and Dominique Sanda do what they can with the bare bones script with which they have to work. What few bright spots they can muster are completely overshadowed by terrible special effects. What the filmmakers wanted to do was too ambitious for their resources. The cast was there to make this a small, personal film about survival, but instead it is a gaudy science fiction film. So bad it is good? Not especially, but I do not hate it. Watch it only after you have run out of far better films in the genre.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bordello of Blood

There is not much to be said about Bordello of Blood It was supposed to become a horror/comedy cult classic, but it is too--if you will pardon the vampiric pun--anemic with both the horror and the comedy. But really, how can a film starring Dennis Miller and corey Feldman hope to succeed?

The film begins with Lilith, the mother of all vampires, being brought back from the dead by heart restoration. Lilith is played by super model Angie Everhart. She cannot act her way out of a paper bag and speaks her dialogue as though English is her second language. Such problems translate poorly into job skills. About the best ever hart could do is start a brothel, so that is what Lilith does. Everhart may be brilliant casting in that regard, when you really think about it.

Next we meet Katherine, an employee of the local mega church whose delinquent brother, Caleb, has gone missing. Caleb is played by corey Feldman, who is essentially playing himself. The police are not much interested in helping her find Caleb because he has been a notorious troublemaker, so she hires a sarcastic private detective named rafe to find him. Rafe is played by Dennis Miller. We hit the trifecta here. Miller is also playing himself. It is a real shame all three of the main characters do not have to slide into a new persona, yet are all awful. None of the three must be comfortable in their own skin.

Rafe discovers Lilith’s brothel is being run beneath a funeral home. The brothel is staffed by vampires. Caleb is a client and eventually becomes a vampire. He is part of an elaborate scheme to funnel the brothel money into the mega church scam operation at which Katherine works. There is also some wild bit about Lilith regaining her immortality. Katherine is kidnapped. Rafe eventually rescues her and destroys the operation with a squirt gun full of holy water. You think the two are going to live happily ever after, but Katherine has become a vampire who kills him in the end.

The big problem with Bordello of Blood is that it is a Tales from the Crypt movie. Its failure can be chalked up to two points. One, Miller obviously thought he was bigger than the franchise. It is a humorous point considering how many bigger Hollywood stars starred in and worked on the HBO series. Miller tossed aside the dialogue written for him so he could do his usual brand of cynical wit and obscure references. I am a Miller fan. I found many of his adlibbed jokes funny. But I do not watch horror movies to see a Miller routine. His antics ruin the tension. If I had to guess, I would imagine writer/director held some animosity with Miller upon losing a lot of creative control. Feldman complained to Howard Stern during an interview while promoting the film that miller had refused to write any bits with him. The second point is Tales from the Crypt stories always end in a gruesome O. Henry manner. The bad guys have to win. In Bordello of Blood the bad guys lose and while Rafe meets a grisly end, after two hours of his smarting off, it is a relief. The ending just is not dark enough.

I cannot recommend Bordello of Blood. It does not even qualify as being so bad, it is entertaining to mock. It might have been that had another actor played Rafe and stuck to the script, but I have doubts. The film cannot decide what it wants to be--an absurd comedy or a post modern vampire mythology. The CGI is pretty decent for a 1996 release, but that is not enough reason to seek the movie out. It killed the planned franchise, save for a small DVD released film in 2001 which flopped badly. Skip Bordello of Blood and leave it up to the imagination why the storied franchise ended with it.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Seventh Sign

The Seventh Sign is the first of a handful of late ‘80’s-early ‘90’s films that were popular with customers back in the days when my mother owned a video store. I do not recall this one ever being considering a classic among renters aside from the Demi moore nude scene. I have never been a big Moore fan, but after having seen her naked numerous times before watching this film for the first time, I am not hugely impressed by her early skin exposure. It does not elevate the film any.

I am still surprised I missed The Seventh Sign back in the day. It was released in 1988 during my sixth grade year when my class was tormented by a Bob Jones University educated teacher who was obsessed with finding Satanism in anything and everything. Some of the less rigid classmates at our Christian school developed a taste for horror films just to spite her. I could barely get into many slasher flicks, but the constant speculation about the coming apocalypse the BJU trained teachers enjoyed indulging in had me seeking out all sorts of end of the world films, particularly if they were laced with spiritual elements. The Seventh Sign would have been right up my alley at 12. At 34, it is a fun, confusing watch.

When signs of the apocalypse begin following a wandering stranger, the Vatican sends a priest, Father Lucas, to investigate. In n interesting twist, he is a skeptic that end time prophecy is being fulfilled, but the pregnant Abby, played by Moore, believes differently. Usually in these kind of movies, the priest is a rogue true believer going against the skepticism of his superiors. that is an original twist.

As are the flashbacks in which we learn the wanderer is revealed to be Jesus come back to earth to judge mankind while Father Lucas, was Pontius Pilate’s porter who struck Jesus before he was condemned and had to wander the Earth--the Wandering jew legend, methinks--until Jesus’ return. Abby is also reborn. She is a woman who offered jesus water while he hung on the cross. Her baby is, naturally, the Seventh Sign of the apocalypse.

The Seventh Sign is light on horror, which is fine with me. I prefer thrillers to gore films in the genre. There is a lot of tension early on when you know these two man are interested in Abby’s baby, but you are not certain which one has the unborn child’s best interests at heart. The revelation of who all the players really are comes across as corny, but it still fits in with the tone of the rest of the movie. It is the end of the world as we know it, but nothing is being taken too seriously. In fact, there is one sequence in which Abby is channel suffering through images of the four Horseman’s work: war, Famine, Pestilence, and Death. Interspersed is a scene from a gaudy game show. It would be reality television that is considered a more apt sign of the apocalypse.

I liked The Seventh Sign. It is way too pedestrian for horror fans to enjoy, even if those fans like apocalyptic films. But there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it, either. It has a good cast. The story plays out plausibly even with its corny elements. Some viewers might be upset a villain has down’s syndrome and winds up killed himself. I was not too rattled by it, but I did find it a strange story element. I advise watching if you have nothing better to do, but there are better films in the genre if you want something scarier or at least with more substance.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Scream 4

I watched Scream 4 solely because I am a completist. Nature abhors a vacuum, although there was really no big hole to be filled from the lackluster Scream 3. my big issue coming into the film is how its motif would fit in with today’s horror. The Scream series is as much a satire on horror as it is horror itself. The genre has changed a lot in the last decade with torture porn, found footage, zombie flicks, and ghosts of creepy kids replacing the hack and slash films of which the series used to poke fun.

I am not especially hip to today’s popular horror themes, so I was not even certain how much a satire would resonate. Turns out, I need not worry. There was very little updated beyond some jokes about the abundance of remakes that have come down the line in recent years. Ghostface is his usual self stabbing a bunch of pretty people. While I need not to have worried whether I could get into the satire of today’s horror, I found myself bored by the same old, same old. There was nothing new.

The bad thing is Scream 4’s weakness is the strength of the other installments--the returning cast. Sidney, Dewey, and Gail are back for a fourth go around with a brand new Ghostface who needs yet another reason to murder his victims. Seriously, what do these guys and girls have to have done in life to get three different people willing to don a costume in order to murder them? Someone else thinks Sidney has ruined his life enough to merit murdering her? Geez, hon. Maybe its you who are the problem. Not that I could blame sweet Neve Campbell for anything. I still have a thing for her lingering from the ‘90’s.

When I said there was nothing new, I think that was meant to be part of the idea behind the film. The current ghost face is rebooting the original film with a bunh of new kids who mirror the original cast. It was possible to have fun with the idea, but its falls flat in execution. I chalk it up to dividing screen time between the new kids and the old guard. There was not enough crossover between their respective plights to merit such a thing. It is another reason the old guard should not have appeared. The spotlight would have been exclusively on the new kids. The audience was bound to be full of dedicated fans. They would have gotten the homage to the original film without the old cast there. Probably would have been more amusing, to boot.

So the homage often fails. The films drags quite a bit in places which evaporate the tension. It does not help either that Scream 4 has more jokes than the others. They tend to be about the remakes and reboots that have filled the horror genre as of late. I said above I am not that big on today’s horror, so I did not laugh as often as I did in the previous films when the trappings of slasher flicks and pop culture in general were being skewered. Maybe I am just getting old, huh/ I would have preferred less humor and more tension. Some creative kills, too. There is a serious been there, done that vibe to them. It is Ghostface and a knife. The killer’s true identity is ridiculous and his motives even worse, so the entertainment value of the kills is more important. So much for that, then.

Scream 4 barely recupped its budget at the box office, so I assume I am not alone in being under whelmed by it. Nostalgia just does not carry the film as much as was obviously intended. Much of that can be blamed on the script. It was heavily rewritten from an original draft by Kevin Williamson. Hans Zimmer is gone as well. The music helps tighten the screws in these films. The absence of the master is keenly felt. But hey, Alison Brie and Hayden Panettiere are pretty to look at, so there’s that.

Bottom line is Scream fans ought to watch, but lower their expectations. This will most certainly be the last one unless Wes Craven can pump one out on half the budget. Frankly, it is struggling with the resources already at hand. Worth watching, but could have been better.

Rating: *** (out of 5)