Sunday
Oct062013

Better Than The Real Thing: PRISON (1988) Review

 

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything on here (time has not been on my hands lately), but I’m making sure to at least cram as many horror movie reviews as possible into the month of October. I’m trying to pick movies that seem like a good choice to watch on or around Halloween (whether they’re any good or not will be decided). So how about a classic eighties haunted house movie? Well, it’s not necessarily a classic, and it’s not even necessarily a haunted house movie! But that doesn’t make this specific haunted location any less terrifying.

PRISON (1988) Review 

In 1964, inmate Charles Forsythe was executed via the electric chair, and soon after, Creedmore Prison was shut down. Now, more than twenty years later, the penitentiary is being reopened under the direction of Warden Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith), a former guard at Creedmore. However, Sharpe soon finds that he might be in over his head when a wall being broken down sparks bizarre supernatural occurrences often lead to gruesome death. Nice-guy prisoner Burke (Viggo Mortensen) wants to find out why these things are happening as well as Sharpe’s secret connection to Forsythe’s death. Will anyone right the wrongs of the past before hard time turns deadly for everyone in the prison?

There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Prison (then again, you’re on a website called Obscure Cinema 101, so there’s also a good chance you have), and with some of the people involved in this movie, you might be even more surprised that you haven’t heard of it. This isn’t a star-studded movie by any means, but you’ve got Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) in the director’s chair and this is also very notable for being Viggo Mortensen’s (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, A History of Violence, and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, my favorite in the series) first starring role. Usually early efforts from talented filmmakers are either very impressive or a big letdown, and I’m happy to report that Prison is, without a doubt, very impressive.

Renny Harlin isn’t a director often credited for subtlety, but there are some scenes in Prison that prove that this guy is good at more than just filming action scenes. Despite really being a horror-action movie, the cinematography, lighting, and locations give Prison a vibrant neo-Gothic look (the film was shot in an actual abandoned prison, so naturally it’s going to be creepy) along with an air of professionalism that was found in a lot of the bigger-budgeted Empire Pictures movies. This is also due to Richard Band’s great (as always) score which always seemed to fit whatever was going on onscreen, be it intense action or subtle creepiness. It also employs one of those small characteristics of eighties horror movies that I love to death, which is a heavy use of blue lighting in gloomy locations (try to tell me you don’t love that too and I’ll call you a dirty liar) and a lot of shots of people standing in front of shafts of light (which is equally awesome).

But that isn’t to say this movie isn’t over-the-top (this is a horror-action movie made by Renny Harlin, after all). It’s still got all the gore, explosions, stunts, and inventive deaths you’d expect from a 1988 haunted prison movie, and all without losing style. The screenwriters really got creative with some of the kills, like a prisoner being cooked alive in “the hole,” a pipe impalement, and in the film’s most infamous scene, a prison guard being constricted by barbed wire, and they go out of their way to not skimp on the red stuff in these scenes. The effects were done by John Carl Buechler, who had to have been one of the best effects guys in the horror industry around this time (there’s famous story of how Buechler was impressed by stuntman Kane Hodder’s willingness to put worms in his mouth for a shot on the set, which caused Buechler to cast him as Jason in Friday the 13th Part VII). I’d imagine one of the hardest aspects of making a movie set in prison is developing likable characters, and Prison does this just fine. Some of them are a little goofy, like a stereotypical Italian named Lasagna and a practitioner of voodoo, but as a whole a lot of the inmates are pleasant enough people, which leads to some suspense when the shit really hits the fan and they’re all in danger.

A big complaint people have with the haunted house subgenre is is the nagging question of, “Why don’t these people just move out?” Well, in Prison, they can’t! That’s just one small plot detail that makes Prison so enjoyable and surprisingly smart (well...that may be pushing it). Still, I really can’t find anything wrong with this movie. There’s some overacting in places and occasionally there will be a terribly dated hairstyle in the background (the background extras were real prisoners), but none of this really takes you out of the movie. The switch from subtle and creepy scares in the beginning to the whiz-bang explosion-filled climax is handled well, and even the characters get a good amount of screentime so we feel sympathy for them as they try to stay alive. Scream Factory gave this a long-overdue Blu-Ray/DVD release a few months back, and they’ve certainly made up for lost time. The picture is great (I actually noticed a neat “bubbling skin” effect I hadn’t been able to see in the VHS version) and the extras, while seemingly slim, cover nearly everything you’d ever want to know about the making of this underrated classic. Besides, it’s Aragorn’s first starring role. That should warrant a viewing.

The Verdict: Basically, Prison just succeeds in everything it does. It’s eerie, gothic, gory, intriguing, and by the end, very exhilarating. Talk about a real roller coaster of a movie, but without the nausea (unless barbed wire constrictions make your stomach turn).

Rating: 9/10

 

Monday
Sep022013

Quick Thoughts: ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE (2006)

In light of the oft-sought after 2006 slasher flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane finally getting a release on VOD circuits, I've decided to share my thoughts on this film that caused quite a stir at film festivals then "vanished (notice the quotation marks) for a good seven years. 

ATBLML initially lured me in with its premise of an old school slasher set at an isolated ranch as a group of teenagers  begin getting slaughtered with the apple of everyone's eye, beautiful Mandy Lane, somehow at the center of it all. This is directed by Johnathan Levine, who's most famous for the recent successful rom-com-zom Warm Bodies. Anyone expecting the same kind of cheeky good times in this movie is going to be in for a rude awakening, because Mandy Lane turned out to be something even a slasher nut like myself wasn't expecting.

If you take a look at a sizable chunk of the indie slasher movies that have seen a release in the past decade or so, most of them boldly proclaim "In the spirit fo the great '70s/'80s slashers." And most of them are terrible. You won't see that kind of promotion on this poster, yet All the Boys Love Mandy Lane feels more like a '70s-style slice 'n' dice than most other throwback slashers. But not your typical '70s slahser; no, this movie reminded me a lot of when the slasher movie was going through its awkward puberty years before Halloween set the formula in stone. 

For one thing, not a whole lot of attention is paid towards the kills. There are some great death scenes in this movie (like one character enduring a throat full of gun barrel, and another geting slashed across the eyes), but unlike typical slasher throwbacks, the kills aren't at the forefront. The movie mainly focuses on atmosphere and characters. The atmosphere in this movie is, to put it lightly, top-notch. This is one of the most surreal slashers I've seen in ages, thanks to the beautiful cinemtography which makes the day scenes overly bright with harsh sunlight and the night scenes dark and very creepy. There's also the really jumpy editing, which I usually hate, but found myself liking more and more, and the phenomenal soundtrack comprised of both older and newer songs, most of them being almost unbearably melancholic pop numbers.

The film's other focus, the characters, is also one of its downfalls and part of the reason I'm labeling this movie as "good, not great." All subtleties aside, they're pretty much all bitches and dicks. To the movie's credit, they're all very entertaining bitches and dicks, but I wouldn't have minded seeing some likable protagonists go up against this killer. There are a few exceptions, though. Amber Heard was a stand-out as the gorgeous but quiet Mandy Lane, and I also really liked Edwin Hodge's performance as Bird, the black guy who craftily avoids being a token black guy and is probably the most likable teen at the ranch. Of course, I can't go without mentioning Anson Mount as the badass ranch-hand Garth. Thats not to say that all of the other actors did poorly; actually, this is one of the best casts I've seen in a modern low-budget slasher. It's the writing that makes these people unrelatable. If you love lots of dialogue centered around sex, you'll have a ball (see what I did there?). Me, I found it a little grating, even thought there are some good bits of writing in it.

Overall, I recommend this movie. It starts off on the well-traveled path (it even includes an eighties-esque prank-gone-wrong type scenario that, sadly, really has little to do with the rest of the movie) and then gradually strays from that path as it goes on. I found myself continually muttering "Wait...that's not supposed to happen," and that's a good thing. It may take more than one viewing to fully appreciate what this one is going for, but with its above-average actors and actresses, brutal kills (very much in the spirit of seventies exploitation), jamming soundtrack, exceptional location (they really use the ranch setting for all it's worth), and gorgeous camerawork, chances are, there's something you'll like in here. Granted, I wasn't too keen on the final twist, and sometimes the film's attempts at doing something different didn't work out that well, but this is still a fine example of a modern horror film done right and one that's long overdue for a US release.

Yes, I don't love Mandy Lane, but that doesn't mean we can't be friends.

Saturday
Jun222013

He Just Wants To Be Your Friend: MIRAGE (1990) Review

Have you ever encountered a film that you wanted to see really badly but couldn’t get your hands on a copy? I’ve had those experiences a lot over time. Whether the DVD was OOP and fetching collector’s prices, or it was a movie that never got a theatrical release and only existed in the form of torrents, we’ve almost all had that frustrating search and usually when we end up obtaining that movie, our thirst will either be sufficiently quenched or we’ll find that the waters have poisoned. That’s pretty much my story with Mirage. I couldn’t find it anywhere I looked, but at long last, almost a year ago now, I found it. And here are my thoughts.

MIRAGE (1990) Review

Three couples head out to the middle of the desert for a little fun in the sun. However, tensions rise as brothers Greg (Kenny Johnson) and Kyle (Todd Caldecott) continually argue since Greg is now dating Chris (Jennifer McAllister), Kyle’s ex. Things do nothing but get worse when a mysterious black truck is spotted and soon, it begins to menace them. The group finds their numbers dwindling as the motor-bound psycho picks them off in gruesome ways. With no chance of escape, the remaining teens must find a way to fight back or die…but what is real and what is a mirage?

The reason Mirage is so obscure is simply because it never got a video release in the US (to my knowledge). New World Video over in the UK and possibly other places did release it. A true pity, because this is one very, very good surprise of a movie! 1990 was a great year for horror that doesn’t get talked about a lot, and Mirage fits comfortably alongside all the other titles released that year. The best way I can describe it would be that this is what would happen if you took Duel, took it off the roads, and replaced Dennis Weaver with a group of teenagers. How perfect is that? Despite being unknown, some names you might recognize are Todd Caldecott (the male lead in the also underrated Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan), Kenny Johnson (who had small roles in Dexter, Burn Notice, and several other TV shows), and notable stuntwoman Laura Albert (who B-movie fans may recognize from schlocky flicks like Blood Games, The Unnamable, Dr. Caligari, and more). Director William Crain is no stranger to the horror genre with titles like the misunderstood Blacula under his belt along with Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde.

Let’s talk about the vastly underrated setting of the desert in slasher films. There are typically two other slashers that come to mind when I think of desert-based horror (aside from the Drew Barrymore film Far From Home) and each does something great with the desert. Death Valley (1982) makes great use of the tourism aspect, with locations like gold mines and ghost town tourist traps. Blood Frenzy (1987) expertly captures the arid climate of the place (try watching that movie without getting heat stroke). Now, Mirage, which does a great job of setting up how vast and hopeless the desert is. Throughout the movie, we always see these large land formations not too far in the distance, but no matter how far these characters walk, they never seem to reach it. This, when paired with the synth score, the nigh-teleporting killer, and the bright blue sky against the dusty ground, gives it a very surreal vibe.

In technical terms, Mirage is really only an okay movie. The acting isn’t anything special (if anything, it’s not really that good) and cinematography buffs will notice a frequent use of the “running shot” throughout the movie that loses some of its impact as a result of almost-overuse. The pace is nicely handled though, as it consistently manages to not move at a breakneck pace, but it never gets so slow that I would rather be looking down the barrel of a gun than at the screen. The dialogue’s a bit a little stiff and awkward in places, but I felt the characters still came across as likable and there actually is some suspense in the death scenes. Chris, the final girl, is also both likable and resourceful, even though I wish they had built up her character a little more. The film’s ending is also very weak. However, all these are but minor nitpicks that are easily overlooked.

In terms of a slasher movie, Mirage is fantastic! Let’s start with the basics: the kills. They’re great, there’s a good crop of them, and they’re evenly spaced for the entire runtime. Major props also go to the filmmakers for not restraining our killer to just one weapon; over the course of the movie, he uses a knife, a shotgun (one of the few slashers where the killer has the balls to use a firearm), his truck, and even grenades! It’s almost a war movie! Crain doesn’t wuss out on the kills either; all of them are expertly done and very gory. Of course, how can you not love the kill where one unfortunate chap gets buried up to his neck and terrorized? Now what else…oh, you want nudity? You get nudity in the form of Bambi (Laura Albert’s character) who can’t seem to keep her top on (understandable, given they’re in the desert). There aren’t a lot of boobs, but they’re there. The killer himself is pretty creepy. We never see his face until the final twenty minutes where he menaces Chris around some rocks, but his all-black attire, leather gloves, and lack of vocal expression definitely make an impression. When he does turn into a chatterbox at the end, he taunts Chris with great lines like “Don’t let it get you down, everyone has a bad day once in a while!” and “I always wondered how long one of you prom queen bitches would last.” I also must note that the actor playing the killer, who hasn’t done anything else, did a really good over-the-top job in the role.

This might just be the hardcore slasher fanatic in me, but I really loved Mirage. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the best films from 1990, and that’s a hard thing to do. This is a movie that manages to have a great sense of fun (dig the opening scene of a couple making love in the back of a pick-up truck as a weight presses down on the accelerator and they zoom across the desert, or the football montage) while also being suspenseful when it wants to be. If you’re only sort of a slasher fan, I’d still say give it a look as this is far and away one of the best obscure slashers in existence. But there’s the problem: this hasn’t seen a Stateside VHS or DVD release. I have no idea who owns the rights (perhaps Image, as they own most of New World’s catalogue, so maybe this is in there by default). I’m not even going to expect a DVD release anytime soon as this one doesn’t even have much of a cult following (another sad fact). Maybe it’s because of the amount of blondes in Mirage. That’s it.

The Verdict: The hunt was worth it. Proving that not all early-nineties slasher are bad, Mirage is a fun rollercoaster of entertaining characters, surreal atmosphere, a well-utilized setting, gory deaths, and not to mention great use of a bow and arrow. What’s not to love? 

Score: 9/10

*NOTE* It's a bit unfair to tell you about how gory Mirage is and include only mostly-bloodless pictures, so here's some nice grue for you to feast on:

Sunday
Jun162013

Space Satan: THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON (1990) Review

One good habit to get into when looking for an unknown movie to watch is to always judge a book by its cover. If it’s shot-on-video, never been released to DVD, and rated PG-13, then you’d probably be better off staying away from that movie. So whenever one stumbles across a horror-sci-fi movie from 1990 that they haven’t heard about, it would probably be best to avoid it. Is this a keeper, or would you actually go to the dark side of the moon to avoid it?

THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON (1990)

Review

In the year 2022, the maintenance ship “Spacecore I” is sent to repair a satellite armed with nuclear weapons that is floating near the dark side of the moon. Once they arrive at their destination, they find another ship floating in space and decide to board. However, it turns out the entire ship is empty save for one dead body with a perfect triangle of skin cut out of his belly. A member of the crew does some investigating and finds that not only did the ship they find crash-land onto the Earth several years ago, but the dead body isn’t exactly dead and begins spreading whatever he has around the ship. Is it the Devil possessing them, or is it all just some misunderstanding? And what is the connection between these events and the Bermuda Triangle?

What a pleasant surprise. The Dark Side of the Moon turned out to be a well-made and enjoyable science fiction horror flick. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers of Event Horizon saw this beforehand due to a large amount of similarities. However, whereas Event Horizon was big-budgeted and very flashy, this one has a miniscule budget and manages to be creepier than the former due to that. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any recognizable names in the cast or crew listings, even though most of the actors have done bit parts in other films (Camilla More, who played Lesli here, was the girl who got thrown through the window by Jason in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter). Unfortunately, director D.J. Webster hasn’t done anything else, although writers Chad & Carey Hayes have both achieved success in the horror world with movies like House of Wax and the upcoming James Wan flick The Conjuring.


What I like about The Dark Side of the Moon is that it manages to take its time while rarely being boring and is successful at building atmosphere. The heavy isolated vibe plays off well with the supernatural plot elements and the low-key score gives it a major boost (the music was done by Phil Davies and Mark Ryder, who also did music for the underrated Society and the three Trancers films). I really don’t want to go into too much detail with the specifics, seeing that a lot of my entertainment came from being pleasantly surprised as the film went along. The supernatural elements are presented well, even if they’re occasionally heavy-handed. The method of possession is standard as well: vibrant yellow eyes and a deep, growling voice talking about Judgment Day and the like. However, despite being stereotypical, the filmmakers manage to show them off in a way that makes them eerie. There's very little gore too, but what we do get (mianly some intestines) isn't half bad.

I suppose one complaint I may have with The Dark Side of the Moon is that it doesn’t do anything spectacular, and it doesn’t try to either.  It’s comfortable with its atmosphere-laced self, which gives the movie itself a comfortable vibe. But if it had gone for some more intense scenes, this might be even better known today. Some of the deliberate pacing leads to a few moments where I would have liked it to move a lot faster, and the low-budget leads to a few cringe-worthy explosion effects that lessen what could have been a totally badass finale. Those are really the worst parts about this movie. Some of the smaller stuff I enjoyed was how the opening credits are over intensely bright flames, and after they’re over, we’re plunged into the darkness of outer space which appropriately establishes the mood for the next 85-minutes or so. I found myself liking most of the characters we’re meant to like and really hating the characters we’re meant to hate, partially thanks to the performances by the small-but-talented cast. There are also some scenes where I would be lying if I said they didn’t creep me out (the revelation of the mysterious ship is very creepy).

I just love that title. There’s nothing terribly bombastic about it like (like Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death or something of that ilk), but it manages to be decidedly sinister without even doing anything besides naming an exotic location. It’s also a title that you can do anything with: aliens, a serial killer on a ship, killer robots…anything would fit, but I’m glad the makers of The Dark Side of the Moon went the supernatural route. It’s not as enjoyable as Event Horizon, but it’s definitely creepier. Everything that makes this effective is subtle, like the score, the pace, the scares, and even the appearance of the moon as just a dusty rock instead of a glowing orb of moonlight. It’s well made having come from a first-time director, and the cast does nothing but enhance it. The deliberate pace and small-scale of everything doesn't seem like it'll bode well for revisiting, though. The only truly frustrating part is that it’s not on DVD! It’s understandable, seeing as few people have seen this, most likely because of when it was released. If this had been released in the wave of Alien’s popularity, this might be a cult classic today. But instead, it got washed away in the torrent of DTV horror flicks of the early nineties. Oh well. It’s not fantastic, but don’t skip it either.

The Verdict: The Dark Side of the Moon is a rare movie from this time that really doesn’t do anything wrong; but it doesn’t do anything so right that I want to go out and recommend this to everyone and their dog. This is a more-than-serviceable and very eerie outer space horror romp from a time where original ideas and genuinely good movies were hard to come by. However, it's not one I'll be finding myself re-watching a lot, so I can't give it too much praise.

Score: 6/10

Wednesday
Jun122013

My Favorite Horror Victims: Det. Lt. Morgan, KILLER WORKOUT

*Spoilers for the movie Killer Workout (1987)*

To put it lightly, Killer Workout is a masterpiece. The film is the epitome of a perfect “bad” movie. A large body count, TONS of spandex and leg-warmer-filled aerobics, a ridiculous weapon of choice, random kung-fu fights, and a soundtrack loaded with all the best ‘80s pop songs you’ve never heard of but won’t be able to get out of your head. And above all, it’s got one of the greatest horror movie characters to grace the realm of VHS holiness. He’s a man of the law. He isn’t “some ordinary cop.” He is heroism incarnate. 

Detective. Lieutenant. Morgan. The name that makes every criminal’s heart drip with icicles of pure terror. After the first body hits the ground in the showers of Rhonda’s Workout, Morgan struts into Rhonda’s office and he knows what’s up. He grills Rhonda, and despite some of her snide remarks, he isn’t having any of it. When Morgan walks in the room, you know the case is a s good as solved.

Detective Lieutenant Morgan proves himself a master of words as he spouts such great lines as “Tell that college boy if he doesn’t have that lab report ready in 30 minutes, I’m going to come over there and do an autopsy on his face!” and “Good, I’m running out of body bags.If that wasn’t enough for you, watch in wonder as Morgan bangs on one possible witness’s door demanding her to open up without telling her it’s the police! Then gaze in awe as Morgan sees the killer running down a street and decides not to follow the perp even though he could easily catch up! Look at Morgan taking charge and slamming the primary suspect against a wall, gun aimed at his head! Look again a few seconds later at Morgan sprawled on the ground, unconscious, and the suspect getting away!

And then…the finale. Morgan knows who killed all those people at the spa. Morgan knows who got away with it. And Morgan’s not having any of it. He drives Rhonda, the real killer, out to the middle of the woods and prepares to dish out justice. Unfortunately, he didn’t even see the shovel coming. Poor Morgan…if only he’d seen it coming faster. At least he solved the case.

In all seriousness, Det. Lt. Morgan is one of the most worthless detectives I’ve seen in any movie. The fact that he talks so tough just before he fails at…well, just about everything makes it, and the movie in general, that much better. Regardless of what I’ve said here, Det. Lt. Morgan is still my hero. If that blow from the shovel didn't kill him, I hope he's still out there and hasn't changed a bit. R.I.P. old sport.