Saturday
Apr132013

Hop For Your Life! THE JITTERS (1989) Review

Oriental culture has always made for popular cinema, as evidenced by the ever-growing popularity of directors from the Far East, immortal martial arts films, J-horror, etc. Of course, there are always going to be those really stubborn people that refuse to watch anything made out of the good ol’ USA, so how do you get the same culture onto film, but with a western spin? Set it in a location that’s purpose is just that: Chinatown! The late eighties saw a few films see release set around San Francisco’s Chinatown, including John Carpenter’s excellent Big Trouble in Little China and the Eddie Murphy vehicle The Golden Child. And then it’s just common knowledge that for every popular American film, there’s a Canadian and an Italian counterpart (not sure what the status is on Chinatowns in Italy, though). And who better to do a Canadian rip-off of Big Trouble in Little China than John Fasano of Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare and Black Roses fame?

THE JITTERS (1989) Review

Michael (Sal Viviano) is your average guy whose life is going pretty well, as he’s just gotten engaged to his girlfriend, Alice (Marilyn Tokuda). However, both are devastated when Alice’s uncle’s shop is robbed and vandalized by a vicious gang of street punks who’ve moved into Toronto’s Chinatown, and her uncle is killed in the process. However, a kind old sorcerer (James Hong) and his grandson (John Quincy Lee) perform an ancient ritual and bring the uncle back to life in the form of a jiangshi, basically a Chinese hopping vampire. The jiangshi gets loose and causes havoc in Chinatown, so now this unlikely group must deal with the gang out for the uncle’s money and this bizarre new problem.

As ridiculous as a “Chinese hopping vampire” may seem (and it definitely is), there have shockingly been a surprising amount of films featuring them as antagonists, protagonists, or both. Most are Asian (of course), but there are over 100 movies with jiangshi in them, most of which came out before The Jitters, so this movie takes the idea and pokes fun at it a lot. I must also say that while this is definitely low budget, it’s incredible what a step up this is from Fasano’s other works (Black Roses, which I found dull, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, which is one of the best unintentional comedies of all time). It’s a funny movie, but all the humor in this is purely intentional. Fasano knows how absurd this concept is, and he has a blast with it. Sal Viviano is no Kurt Russell (the personalities of Jack Burton and Michael are totally different, though), but he and his hair fit well. And you can’t have a Chinatown movie without James Hong (he was in all three of the Chinatown movies mentioned here), who’s as good as ever as the quirky sorcerer. The acting in this movie isn’t good, but it does look like all of them are having fun making it.

Whereas Big Trouble in Little China (this movie doesn’t seem like a rip-off, but there’s more similarities between the two than meets the eye) excelled in both comedy and action, The Jitters does a good job with the humor and a passable job with action. There’s great comedic timing with where each humorous part is placed, and some of it is really clever (the way the jiangshi stops at a stoplight was really funny). The choreography on the fight scenes looks like it would be good, if the actors performed them at a good speed and didn’t look like they were constantly attempting to hit their cues on time. The end fight was very disappointing, in part due to the camerawork around it, but no matter. It’s a struggle to label The Jitters as a horror movie, even though it does deal with vampires and there is a nifty (okay, it was really cool) transformation scene where, for no reason, an uber-vampire pops out of another vampire. No explanation, but you’ll get no complaints from me.

The thing with The Jitters is that that’s pretty much all there is to it. It’s a relatively short movie, and it plays out exactly the way you think it will. It’s mainly the four main characters running around trying to control the jiangshi, the gang acting “bad,” random fight scenes, and a little more. I can commend it for having fun with its little budget, but at the end of the movie, it fells like there should have been something more. More plot elements? Maybe. A bigger budget? Certainly. Chinatown is such an interesting setting, and I found it disappointing that they primarily stayed in and around the same locations for the whole movie. Take the climax, for example. The climax, for such a cheap movie, is staged very well. It goes on for a while and involves a battle between the gang and the protagonists, plus the jiangshi. The problem is that it all takes place in an alley. It’s not a bad location, but if the brawl was in a cooler spot, The Jitters would have ended on a much bigger bang.

As painful as a Canadian Big Trouble in Little China rip-off sounds, The Jitters surprised me by being a fun and breezy watch. The movie is a big step up from the laugh-out-loud ineptitude of Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare and the dullness of Black Roses, and manages to succeed as a serviceable action/comedy/horror flick. It has no real ambitions and doesn’t attempt to do anything too special (well, aside from that great transformation) and is quite comfortable with its miniscule budget. It relies on entertaining writing rather than gruesome gore and special effects. Retromedia recently released The Jitters on DVD with picture quality comparable to that of a really good VHS tape, two promo trailers, and a fun and insightful audio commentary with Fasano and Marilyn Tokuda featuring some entertaining stories about the production. The Jitters isn’t a great movie, nor a terribly memorable one, but it’s one I had a good time with and one I’ll be viewing again in the future. It even ends on a theme song reminiscent of the theme from Big Trouble in little China. Go figure.

The Verdict: The Jitters is just one of those movies you can’t hate; with its childish humor, kung-fu fights, Chinese hopping vampires, and bad guys so over the top you won’t be able to ever take them seriously, this is one that’s worth seeking out.

Score: 7/10

Saturday
Apr132013

Quick Thoughts: EVIL DEAD (2013)

I know I've been AWOL from this site for a while, but I've got some reviews and other articles in the pipeline so OC101 won't be this dead for long. Even though I do my best to stay away from "mainstream" titles (look at the title of the website if you're wondering why), I think it would be good if I gave some quick opinions on this latest Evil Dead remake. Given that The Evil Dead from 1981 was the first movie to get me into ultra-gory, low-budget monster extravaganzas, and Army of Darkness is my favorite film of all time, having another Evil Dead flick on theater screens for the first time in 21 years was kind of a big deal for me, remake or not. Let's take a look.

So the premise of this one is pretty much the same as in the original, but with a slight variation. Five friends head up to a remote cabin in the woods, but not for fun; one of the girls (I would assume a redux of the "Cheryl" character from the original), a drug addict, OD'd and nearly died, so now they're isolating her to kick her addiction. One of them reads from a book bound in human flesh and inked in human blood and...well, you know what happens. 

There are parts of Evil Dead I really, really liked. My big number one: an almost complete lack of CGI. Aside from some fire-effects, everything in this movie is done with prosthetics, and there is a LOT of gore in this movie (even more than in the original; how this movie got an R-rating is an enigma). This movie definitely goes for the gross-out more than it goes for the scare, shown by the leering close-ups of people pulling knives and needles out of their skin after a deadite attack. Hopefully the effects in this movie, which are more disgusting and disturbing than most "gross-out" films in the past few years, will encourage a new wave of practical gore effects. The film is directed very slickly and very well. There are some beautiful and down-right creepy shots, especially how they shot the fog-enshrouded forest, 

On the flipside of the coin, the worst and almost devastating part of Evil Dead is the boring, boring characters. In the original, we spend a lot of time with the characters before the "festivities" begin so I care a little whether or not they get dismembered. In this one, none of the dialogue is character-building small talk, and all of it has to do with the girl getting rid of her addiction, the girl's brother leaving them and just now coming back, etc., and it's all dull. I haven't seen the original in over a year, and I know the characters' names by heart. I just saw this one yesterday and I've forgotten nearly all the names (except Mia, because they certainly repeat it enough times). The only character I found myself liking was the Eric character (a projection of Scott from the original), as he was the one taking charge and he knew what to do. I felt similarly about Scott's character in the first, but then they gave me a reason to like Ash more when he leaves them all to die. I still liked Eric more than all othr characters when the credits started rolling. This is nothing more than a splatter movie with no attempts at creating scares aside from a lot of jump scares thrown in. 

I guess what pissed me off about Evil Dead the most was the lack of fun. I was watching a possessed girl slice her tongue in half, and I just thought, "Shouldn't I be having fun by now?" There are a few darkly comedic touches, like the girl whose arm is hanging onto her body by a thread, how abused the Eric character gets (I really began to feel for the guy), and a splat-tastic Grand Guignol finale that had me grinning like an idiot. I know Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell were pretty involved, but I wish they had more of a hand in writing the script (the movie's biggest downfall). Fede Alvarez certainly has talent with directing, but I think he should stay away from writing his own scripts. I'd say it's a decent movie to watch with some friends (especially if they're squeamish), but if you're looking for a fun time by yourself, stick with the original three and remember the good old days. if this was an official review, I'd give it somehwere around a 5 or 6 out of 10. It's not bad; it's just not what an Evil Dead movie should be. 

*NOTE* There is a scene after the credits, but while it's a nice touch, it adds nothing to the story and seems like it should be a DVD easter egg than an after-the-credits clip.

Saturday
Mar162013

Cold Bodies & Hot Pizza: THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982) Review

So I’ve been on a bit of a Slumber Party Massacre kick as I work my way thr ough this fantastic series, and I figured I’d share the love with some reviews. The first one is yet another horror flick released in the fantastic year of 1982. I’ve carried on about how much I love that year before, so I won’t. However, I will say that this is one of the staples of the year.

THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE

(1982) Review

Trish (Michelle Michaels) is a high school girl who’s decided to throw a good old-fashioned slumber party for her basketball team. Unfortunately for them, this has coincided with a homicidal, portable-drill wielding mental patient escaping. Well, the two events eventually cross paths, and it’s up to the girls to bring him down before the blood flows even more.

Watching The Slumber Party Massacre again, I’m beginning to realize that this film really has some issues. First, some background. This was initially written as a horror satire by feminist lesbian author Rita Mae Brown. Legendary producer Roger Corman stripped the script of most of its comedic elements, and Amy Holden Jones directed it. So here we have a 1982 slasher movie directed by a woman, written by a woman, and produced by Roger Corman. If you don’t think the result will be interesting just based on that, you obviously haven’t seen enough slasher movies (which is also sad). That sounds awesome! Even if the two writing and directing do a dismal job, at least Corman will be there to spice things up and make it bearable. It also features a cast of (for the most part) unknown actors and actresses, with the exceptions being Debra DeLiso and Joseph Alan Jonson (who both appeared in one of my guilty pleasures, Iced). Enough of that; now let’s see why this movie was followed by two sequels and a series of spin-offs.

As much as Corman tried to prevent it, some moments of comedy do peek through. Not a lot, but a few lines like when one girl says, “He’s so cold” about a deceased pizza man and one girl responds with “Is the pizza?” and proceeds to gorge herself. Most of the movie is pretty straightforward, but little moments like these just make it that more lovable. But this is not a comedy. In all honesty, The Slumber Party Massacre has some of the most nail-biting sequences in any slasher I’ve seen. I’ve seen it multiple times, and the chase in the locker room has me holding my breath every time. A finale that does get quite intense is also a heavy bonus. The obligatory gore is here in spades, even if all the murders are more or less the same thing (the only real question is “where is he going to put the drill this time?”), aside from a painful-looking stabbing. Corman made damn sure the boob quotient was filled with a long shower scene being the tip of the iceberg, so hats off to him. On a side note, one of the fun things about The Slumber Party Massacre is seeing standard slasher conventions critics were deeming “sexist” flipped on their ear. For example, while many opposed to the slasher boom were complaining about how violently women died, the girls’ deaths are mostly quick, while the boys are the ones that really get dispatched gruesomely. The sexual overtones are heavy too (they make the whole "the drill is his penis" symbol quite clear).

Unfortunately, SPM really just couldn’t keep it together in the scenes between the locker room chase and when the girls realize they’re in danger at the party. It’s filled with almost every false scare in the book (Oh God that meat cleaver’s getting closer…oh good, it’s just the friendly neighbor out hunting for snails!), and not always with successful results. The writing is pretty bland and the acting isn’t what I’d consider “enlightening” for this chunk of the film. It goes on like this (despite a pretty good murder) for a while, until they open the door and discover the pizza guy’s eyes have been drilled out (but they still got the pizza, thank the lord). Then there’s the characters of Valerie, the chick who lives across the street but is on the outs with these girls because she’s a better b-ball player, and her little sister Courtney. They basically bicker about boys and Courtney wants to be beautiful like Val. Then Courtney scares Val twice. In the same way. Don’t reach for those cyanide capsules! It does get better.

Yeah, I really dig The Slumber Party Massacre. The title will have you thinking it’s your run-of-the-mill slice ‘n’ dice extravaganza, and it is. However, it does successfully prey on those expectations by occasionally throwing in a delightful curveball with the other great shenanigans. A serviceable amount of bloodshed, lots of nudity, some fun writing, great suspense, and one creepy, creepy killer (I forgot to mention this mask-less maniac, but he is creepy). The terrifying organ-synthesizer score is a huge help too. Shout! Factory released a Slumber Party Massacre collection a short while ago, and the presentation for the first film is great. The picture is very nice, the audio commentary is informative, and the trailer is really fun in that early-eighties trailer kind of way. There’s a really good documentary on all three movies as well. I always consider dropping the score down one grade, but the really good stuff here shines through the bad.

The Verdict: The Slumber Party Massacre is a rad, vintage ’82 girls-get-naked-girls-get-dead flick with heart. If stereotypical slashers is your thing, or even if you want it to be your thing, this is pretty much mandatory.

Score: 8/10

But don't take it from me; look at this satisfied customer:

Friday
Mar012013

Carrie's Imaginative Brother: THE SENDER (1982) Review

Most horror fans praise 1981 as being the greatest year for the genre (or at least in the eighties), but I would say that 1982 is easily the best year for this type of film. In this year, we got a wide variety of types of horror to choose from. The slasher boom was in full swing, horror maestros like Stephen King, George Romero, John Carpenter, and more were at play, and there was a huge variety to pick from. One film I hadn't heard of until recently (surprising, considering you'll be hard-pressed to find a negative review of it) is a supernatural/psychological horror thriller called The Sender. With some intriguing art and a sure-fire plot dealing with dreams, I’m surprised I had never heard of this and most people still don’t.

THE SENDER (1982) Review 

A man (Zeljko Ivanek) wakes up near a road, walks to a public lake, and attempts to drown himself by stuffing rocks in his shirt and wading out. The man is sent to a mental hospital and given the tag John Doe #83. Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) is chosen to take care of him and discover who he is and why he attempted to kill himself, but soon finds herself in over her head when strange going-ons begin to occur whenever he falls asleep. A mysterious woman (Shirley Knight) shows up claiming to be his mother and wants him back in her care as faucets pour blood and John Doe is seen outside the hospital when he is still locked up. Farmer begins digging deeper into his psyche and discovers the horrifying reason behind what’s happening.

When I look back on The Sender, I realize that it really shouldn’t work at all. The plot easily makes for an intriguing story, but it really shouldn’t be as scary as it is. It’s not traumatically scary, but I would be lying if I said that there weren’t parts that jolted me, or at least creeped me out. Ironically, The Sender really works because of the direction. Ironic, because this is directed by Roger Christian, who also directed the infamous Battlefield Earth. Don’t worry; this movie is light years away from that in every conceivable way. It’s one of those movies that really shouldn’t work, but does due to the talent involved. This was Zeljko Ivanek’s first starring role and he’s one of the reasons this movie’s so great. Harrold is good as Farmer (nothing terribly interesting about he role, though) and Knight puts up a good fight with Ivanek for best screen presence as John’s mother. The actors playing the other mental patients are solid and it’s nice to see that the mental patients have some distinct characteristics (one’s a shell-shocked ‘Nam vet, another thinks he’s Jesus, etc.; I didn’t say they were original).

Even though The Sender is loaded with this great acting and some great camerawork, what really holds it together is the score. There are some striking images in the movie, but like Carpenter’s Halloween, what really makes them stand out and almost makes them disturbing (certainly unnerving) is the score. It opens and ends with this beautiful piece, but the music does a complete tonal shift when John attempts to drown himself and during the electroshock scene (maybe the best part of the movie).  There’s just something unsettling about nearly every scene in this movie, and I can’t put my finger on a reason. Part of the reason The Sender is scary is that we never truly know the extent of John’s powers. We see his dreams projected into reality, but even at the end, it’s never fully explained whether these illusions can cause any serous damage, even when the line between dream and reality blur. Ivanek does do a great job of acting like a frightened child inside of a man’s body without overdoing it. Knight also manages to come off as really creepy without doing much, especially near the end. There aren’t too many other good things to say without ruining the movie, because there are some surprises to be found.

The problem with The Sender is that it can be very slow, especially the first half. It builds tension and intrigue well, but it can be a chore upon repeat viewings. There’s a scene in Farmer’s apartment that goes on a little bit longer than it should have, and most of the religious themes went nowhere. Horror fans may also be let down by how the movie is really more of a supernatural psychological thriller with some horror elements. The lack of information represents a catch-22 in that it builds on scares, but it also leaves the viewer feeling confused by the end. They also could have done so much more with the whole “dreams becoming a reality” concept, but they stuck with the basics like cockroaches in the fridge, rats in the bedroom, blood pouring from faucets, etc. Yeah, it goes with the subtle nature of the movie, but who wouldn’t have liked to see a werewolf or a zombie or a dinosaur tear up the hospital? The "twist" ending was also letdown after everything that had happened before it.

For its obscurity, The Sender is a surprisingly solid little watch. It’s got that vintage ’82 feel and definitely gets bonus points for doing something original. Of course, it’s a big help that it has good camerawork, a great score, solid acting, well-built suspense, and a few gory moments to spice things up here and there. Those who have seen it can attest for its good qualities, and thankfully, it is available on DVD from Legend Films. Nothing really to talk about there but a crisp transfer and no bonus material. Ah well; The Sender will have its time in the sun someday, preferably on Blu. Yeah, it’s got some big flaws, but the product as a whole stands the test of time and is one ripe for a fresh audience.

The Verdict: The Sender really isn’t a horror film more than it’s an unnerving thriller, but it’s a really good unnerving thriller. Give it a spin when you’re in the mood for a creepy slow burn.

Score: 7/10

Monday
Feb252013

Franco February: DJANGO (1966) Review

As Franco February comes to a close, it’s about time to examine the film that started it all. The movie that made Franco so popular in the sixties and seventies and helped kick start the spaghetti western craze. Most people are familiar with its name due to a recent (and awesome) “reboot” of sorts (really not that at all). How do you introduce a movie like this? Of course, I can only be talking about…

DJANGO (1966) Review

In the 1800’s, a mysterious gunslinger only calling himself Django (Nero) walks into a desolate town pulling a coffin. He saves a young woman from being killed by a KKK-type band of outlaws led by the ruthless Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and discovers hatred between them and a gang of Mexican bandits. Django has a history with Jackson and is out to ruin him in every way he can, so he sides with the Mexicans and robs Jackson of a ton of gold. However, Django has an agenda of his own that may cost him his life…

Okay, Django may not have sparked the spaghetti western craze (Leon’s Dollars trilogy was probably responsible for that), but it did leave one hell of an impact. If you’ve heard of Django, you’ve no doubt heard of the huge amount of unrelated westerns taking the name while not really being sequels (ironically, the one “real” sequel from 1987 is more mediocre than most of the unofficial ones I’ve seen). In my personal opinion, the one true sequel is Django, Prepare A Coffin, but that’s another story for another time. We’re here to talk about the original. Nero is the one familiar face in the cast, and boy does he look young. Maybe it’s the lack of any serious facial hair. And even though nobody else really achieved fame, everyone did respectable jobs, which is hard to see past the awful dubbing. That’s really the movie’s weakness; choosing the wrong voice for each character. Worst of all is Django himself; Nero is a gruff-looking guy, and this voice seems more akin to a tour guide at a museum.

In my mind there are two kinds of Italian directors: the visionary ones and the ones interested in making a corny B-movie to get a paycheck. Sergio Corbucci is clearly the former. Right off the bat, Django holds your attention with one of the best title songs you’ll ever hear and the striking image of a figure trudging through a muddy wasteland dragging a coffin behind him. In most westerns, all of the action takes place in a sandy landscape, but not in Django. Everything in the beginning looks filthy, from Django’s ragged outfit to the people themselves. The mystery of what’s in the coffin holds your attention during the kind of slow beginning, and I’m not going to spoil what’s in it. It’s revealed like twenty minutes in, but the reveal itself is so awesomely done I’ll save that for your own viewing pleasure.

The plot is simplicity itself, so Django really relies on its stylistic elements to make it as great as it is. It’s Italian, so the camerawork is naturally really good, and the score is out of this world. Luis Bacalov, who’s probably best known for collaborating with Quentin Tarantino some, composed it and it’s perfection. Every piece of it fits each scene exceptionally well, especially the main theme. Another aspect that makes this movie stand out from others of its kind is the depth the main character has. Django isn’t the do-good cowboy of the ‘30s; he’s an antihero more than anything. He’s just a good guy who’s gotten screwed over by life so bad he attempts to only care for himself when there’s really much more to him. The fight scenes are choreographed very nicely, and this is one of the rare westerns where the fighting actually feels real (exaggerated sound effects intact, though). The climax is strong, but what I’ve found is the case with a lot of spaghetti westerns, the main villain(s) is vanquished too fast and too easily, but the final shot is a memorable one.

I really hate reviewing this movie. Don’t get me wrong; I love Django and I love talking about it, but the problem is I’m writing it for a website called Obscure Cinema 101. This movie really shouldn’t be obscure at all. This is one of the best westerns out there, and it’s one I would rank right up with Leon’s classics. Even with Tarantino’s Django Unchained gaining a lot of popularity, I still don’t think the original gets the attention it deserves. Aside from some questionable dubbing and a climax that should have been a little more, well, climactic. The characters, the action, the twists, the sets, the music, the cinematography are all present and are some of the best around. Blue Underground is on the ball yet again with both a DVD and a Blu-Ray of Django, and both look great. This is one you should really buy on Blu-Ray just for all the great aesthetics of it. The extras are great too, with interviews with Nero and assistant director Ruggero Deodato, a short film with Nero, a documentary on spaghetti westerns, and trailers. This comes as highly recommended from me. I’m giving it a 9/10 for its small problems, but every time I watch it, I feel inclined to boost it up to a 10, so take that for what you will.

The Verdict: Django is by far Franco Nero’s best film and one he hasn’t been able to top yet, despite his impressive catalogue. Even if you’re not a fan of westerns, check this one out, and you may find yourself watching more like it within a week.

Score: 9/10

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