movies

Take me to “The Church”

The Church DVDI have little to no experience with Italian horror films.  I mean, if I am being completely honest, I don’t have a ton of horror movie experience overall.  I was easily scared as a kid and kept my distance from horror flicks while at the same time always found myself lingering over the boxes of horror movies at the video store.  I’ve written about this before, but those boxes were almost pornographically alluring–this was the stuff only my dad was allowed to rent, and maybe I would catch a glimpse of it if I walked into the room while he was watching it.

Such was the case with The Church, a late 1980s film produced by Dario Argento and directed by Michele Soavi, which my dad rented at random sometime in 1990 or so and which my friends and I happened to catch the last half of one afternoon when he was home watching it (probably because he’d fallen asleep watching it the night before and needed to return the rental).  Back then, my experience with horror was limited to The Lost Boys, Fright Night, Carrie, and bits and pieces of horror movies that would air on TV, such as Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

I don’t think I understood what was going on when I watched The Church nearly 30 years ago and the movie didn’t scare me, but two images stuck with me:  a woman painted with weird symbols being put on an altar so that she could have ritualistic sex with a demon, and a naked woman making out with a demon who is grabbing her naked behind.  A couple of years later, I saw the latter image–which was Boris Vallejo’s “Vampire’s Kiss”–on some guy’s T-shirt when I was at Mission Beach in San Diego.

But I never saw The Church again, even in my browsing through the more random depths of the video stores of my youth and even when I had gotten over my trepidation about horror and rented some of the classics.  In fact, I had forgotten it had existed until I began compiling my list of topics for this blog and had thrown it into my Netflix queue where it lay buried until it showed up on the mail a few weeks ago.

Which segues into my very brief summary of the movie’s plot:  The Tetonic Knights slaughter a village of Satan worshippers, although one of them (played by a tween-aged Asia Argento) escapes.  They bury the bodies and over the years, a gothic cathedral is built on top of it.  Flash forward to modern day where a small group of main characters both accidentally and deliberately brings about the chain of events that will unleash the evil contained underneath.  All that stands between that evil and our world is Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie–Castigir from Highlander), who seems to be the only person in the entire film not possessed, driven insane, or otherwise affected by the coming evil.

This is not a movie that you watch for its story or for its character beats.  This is a movie you watch because when things get going, a lot of really weird shit happens.  People get possessed and rip out their own organs, they get impaled, they have sex with demons, they use other people’s severed heads to ring church bells–it’s almost like the writers sat around a room and brainstormed the hell out of what you could do to a group of people trapped in a demonically possessed gothic cathedral.

It’s not an all-time great movie, but I did find that The Church still stuck with me all these years later, much like it had in the 30 minutes or so that I saw back in 1990.  As of my writing this post, it’s not available on a streaming service, but a Blu-Ray was released earlier this year that apparently cleaned up some of the picture issues seen on the DVD and may have even remastered the sound (if there’s one thing you have to get used to, it’s the amount of dialogue that was obviously looped in post-production).  I’d check it out if you’re a fan of schlocky, crazy horror or really like gothic cathedrals.

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“That’s Not a Star Wars Movie”

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The Return of the Jedi bedsheets I had as a kid.  Image courtesy of “Mighty Jabba’s Collection.”

It’s late August or early September 1995.  I’ve just started classes at Loyola and I’m sitting in my freshman seminar course for the college’s Honors Program.  Our professor is doing a classic icebreaker where we talk about ourselves.  I listen to all of the smart and worthwhile ways my classmates spend their time and immediately feel like the dumbest person in the room–after all, renting movies and playing roller hockey are not the most academic pursuits–and then hear another guy in the room profess his love for Star Wars.  After class, I catch him the quad and tell him that I’m into Star Wars as well and just watched Return of the Jedi the other night.

He pauses for a moment and said with a sniff, “That’s not a Star Wars movie.”

I don’t exactly remember how I reacted at the time–I might have laughed it off or half-agreed with him–but that moment stands out to me because it was the first time I encountered a snobby nerd.

It seems odd that it took me until my freshman year of college to have such a moment, especially since reading comics and watching science fiction movies was not the domain of the popular crowd in junior high and high school, and I had dealt with a number of rock snobs by then, but this was the first time I had run into one of my own looking down upon the way I approached a shared interest.  It was also one of the first times that I realized that there were people who had a problem with Return of the Jedi.

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The Return of the Jedi trash can that sat by my bed for a few years.  Image from DJbrian.net

I have always had a fondness for Return of the Jedi.  That movie, which came out 35 years ago today, was the only film in the original trilogy that I saw upon its initial release (twice if you count the 1985 re-release).  Sure, I watched my copy of Star Wars on VHS endlessly and I had a number of toys from the first two films, but Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were movies that came out when I was unaware of movies. Jedi was the one that I was old enough to go see in a theater and the one I talked about with my friends on the playground at school and whose scenes we re-enacted during recess (especially the speeder bikes and the lightsaber fights).

Moreover, it was the film whose logo was emblazoned on just about everything I owned. This isn’t hard to picture, of course, considering that the merchandising for the movie was a juggernaut that I think was so unavoidable that parents were issued at least one piece of Jedi merchandise for Christmas in 1983.  And while this isn’t a comprehensive or accurate list, I am sure that I owned, used, or consumed, in addition to toys: bedsheets, a garbage can, a calendar, posters, a lunchbox, an iron-on sweatshirt, records, books, Dixie cups, wrapping paper, cookies, and party favors (for my birthday in 1984).  I wore out the “read along” book/cassette and played my picture disk record with sounds from the movie endlessly on my parents’ stereo.  I was six years old and in heaven.  It was, to say the least, my Star Wars movie.

Return of the Jedi Fan Club Poster

A special Return of the Jedi poster that was available only to Lucasfilm Fan Club members.

A critical look at the film will tell you that out of the original trilogy, it is the weakest–I personally consider Empire to be the best, which isn’t controversial–and it suffers from the pressure of what it had to do after its predecessors, which is wrap up loose ends and complete the saga in a way that was bigger than anything that had come before.  It doesn’t do its job as well as it could have–for instance, there are two particular adventures in the movie that feel like two separate movies shoved into one and I wonder if it were made today, Jedi would have either been a three-hour movie or two movies altogether.  Plus, Han doesn’t have much to do aside from being comic relief, and the Tattooine stuff does drag up until the battle on the sail barge (and that’s before the godawful “Jedi Rocks” segment from 1997’s Special Edition).

But “That’s not a Star Wars movie?”  It certainly felt like Star Wars when I was six; it feels like Star Wars now.

If this were an isolated incident, I would probably be able to let it go.  But even before I graduated college, I remember being fansplained to about the way the Ewoks were the worst thing ever to happen to Star Wars (I never had much of a problem with the Ewoks), and since then I have seen more than a few “Here’s How Return of the Jedi Ruined Star Wars Forever” takes on the Internet.  I even had a moment in my LCS around the time of The Force Awakens when a guy scoffed at my then-eight-year-old son’s saying he loved the Ewoks and I had to say, “Well, he’s eight, you know.”

And while I understand that there were earlier versions of the plot that kept the tone of Empire and that the movie is criticized for the sheer amount of tie-in products that were available, I still can’t look down my nose at Return of the Jedi as less-than.  It’s disappointing that its legacy seems to range from snark to sneering that it’s “not a Star Wars movie” because when I sit down to watch it, I’m always taken back to being six and listening to my records, reading the storybook, and looking at the poster that I got from the Lucasfilm Fan Club.

For the next four years of college, I don’t think I had another conversation with that guy from my honors class.  Apparently, since I couldn’t Star Wars right, that gave him license to be a total prick to me whenever we were in the same class.  I’m sure he’s out there somewhere, perhaps lamenting the presence of a little kid holding a porg or something.  I’d rather not think about his pretentious ass and instead will laugh at an Ewok stealing a speeder bike.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 85: Victory or Death!

Episode 85 Website Cover.jpgGreetings, listener. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada!  That’s right, it’s time to brush up on your video game skills and fly into my coverage of the 1984 sci-fi flick, The Last Starfighter.  Over the course of this episode, I recap the movie and give it my review; plus, I take a look at the novelization by Alan Dean Foster, the comics adaptation from Marvel, the aborted toy line, and several attempts at video game adaptations.  I also talk about sequel and reboot rumors.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

As mentioned in the episode, here are some extras …

The storybook …

Last Starfighter Storybook

Plaid Stallions’ post on the aborted toy line (I mentioned another site in the show but then realized that they had swiped all of their pictures from Plaid Stallions, so I went to the source):  Galoob Last Starfighter

Video Game Attempts …

The Wikipedia pages for … Solaris and Star Raiders II

Atari Protos looks at what could have been the video game version of The Last Starfighter

The NES Version …

Last Starfighter NES

Rogue Synapse’s “Starfighter” Game:  The Last Starfighter Starfighter Resources Page

Last Starfighter Poster

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 80: The Blair Witch Podcast

Episode 80 Website CoverSHOCKTOBER CONCLUDES!!!

In the summer of 2017, two podcasters got on Skype to record a podcast about a horror movie. Three months later, their footage was found. Join me and Michael Bailey as we look at the seminal found footage horror film The Blair Witch Project. In this episode, we talk about the movie; its marketing; the tie-in comics/books/TV specials; and its sequels, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and Blair Witch.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

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The VHS box for Curse of the Blair Witch

Curse of the Blair Witch

The Sci-Fi Channel special Curse of the Blair Witch in full:

 

The Void

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c.  D-Films/Cave Painting Pictures

One of my favorite things to do on the Internet is to watch trailers for horror movies.  I mean, I rarely actually watch the movies, but very often, the advertisements for even the crappiest movies are well done enough to keep me entertained for a couple of minutes.

And then there was the trailer to The Void, which io9 linked to about a year and a half ago:

Done as a bit of a throwback to 1980s creature flicks like John Carpenter’s The ThingThe Void begins in the middle of … something.  A drug addict named James flees a house and a woman tries to follow but she is killed by two men, whom we later learn are Vincent (Daniel Fathers) and his son Simon (Mik Byskov).  James is picked up by a local cop, Daniel (Aaron Poole), who takes him to the local hospital, which is half-abandoned due to a fire some time ago and has a skeleton crew of a staff that includes Daniel’s estranged wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe), a med student named Kim (Ellen Wong), a nurse named Beverly (Stephanie Belding), and an attending physician named Dr. Powell (Kenneth Welsh).  Including Daniel and James, a young girl named Maggie (Grace Munro), who is very pregnant; and her grandfather, Ben (James Millington) are also there.

It’s hard to write a review for this without giving too much away, so I’ll offer up enough to make you consider looking at the entire film.  There are some very strange things going on at this hospital.  People cut their own skin off and are reborn as creatures.  Members of a strange cult whose symbol is a black triangle are surrounding the hospital and attack anyone who tries to leave.  In other words, something otherworldly is going on and whatever it is, it looks to claim the lives of everyone inside.

So what you have is the conceit for what could be a million low-budget horror flicks going all the way back to Night of the Living Dead, and much like that Romero classic, that particular plot contrivance works for The Void.  The directors, Steven Kotsanksi and Jeremy Gillespie, put all of their major characters in the same place so that they can simply concentrate on building tension between them and build the tension surrounding them.

The former comes in the form of the strained relationship between Daniel and Allison, which came about after she lost their baby, which is played straightforward and with the right amount of emotion from the actors–they spend a lot of time trying to avoid one another even though he is also determined to protect her.  And the theme of loss and coping with loss, especially that of a child, is a major one in The Void and the reason it is more than just a gory monster movie.  Kotsanski and Gillespie put some serious work into practical monster effects and combining that with performances that are all-around solid despite from scenery chewing from time to time, this is well-crafted.  You’re not subjected to shaky-cam or found footage, and everything is not explained to you at every turn.  While the reveal of the movie’s villain makes clear what is going on ad why, they still trust their audience enough to make us fill in the blanks where it’s necessary.

At the time I watched this, it was available on Netflix, so if it is still there, watch it.  If you have to rent it, go ahead.  I think that if you’re a fan of 1980s horror films that deal with more supernatural/cosmic elements and monsters (instead of slashers and dead teenagers), you’ll find The Void a worthwhile viewing this or any Shocktober.

Delivery: The Beast Within

mv5bmtaxmzu1mtcxnzneqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mdi3mzkxnjex-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_My first movie for Shocktober was the Roman Polanski classic Rosemary’s Baby, which blended psychological horror with a story about a woman unknowingly pregnant with Satan’s child.  Since then, there have been a number of “demon/monster baby movies,” including Demon Seed, David Cronenberg’s The Brood, and a number of B-level direct-to-video flicks that I would have probably passed by on the video store shelves before finding something I actually wanted to watch.  It’s now years later and though we have no video stores around here, I find myself doing the same thing whenever I browse Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon–passing by schlocky B-level stuff on the way to whatever I actually want to watch.  Besides, how many clones of classic horror or monster movies do we really need?

That thought occurred to me when I first saw the trailer for 2012’s Delivery: The Beast Within (as few horror movies I watch, I love watching horror movie trailers on IMDb … I know, it’s weird).  It looked like yet another movie in a long line of tired found footage flicks that promised something horrifying in its trailer but would ultimately be unsatisfying; furthermore, it looked too much like “It’s Paranormal Activity, but she’s pregnant!”  Still, a couple of moments in the trailer intrigued me and I quickly found it on Hulu for free … aaaaaand didn’t watch it and then it left Hulu.  Luckily, as I went to watch the movies for this month’s blog entries, I remembered Delivery and decided that $3.99 was an okay amount to pay to stream it on Amazon Prime (and before you say “that’s too much,” I must remind you that Blockbuster was charging around that much back in the late 1990s).

The film is a pastiche of three specific genres–the found footage horror film, the mockumentary, and the “demon spawn” horror movie.  Laurel Vail and Danny Barclay play Rachel and Kyle Massy, a young couple who are expecting their first child and have decided to allow their pregnancy to be covered as part of a cable reality show called Delivery.  When the film opens, the filmmakers are interviewing the show’s creator and producer, Rick (Rob Cobuizo), and we learn right away through some quick local news footage and interviews with other people (friends and doctors who knew Kyle and Rachel) that Rachel is dead and while the pilot episode of Delivery was put together, the show never aired and it’s possible that the key to Rachel’s death lies in what was left over.

The first half hour or so is the abandoned pilot, complete with peppy guitar music and fast-forward traffic footage in the interstitials, where we are introduced to Kyle and Rachel and hear about how they met and got married and how they have been having trouble conceiving and even had a miscarriage but are now finally pregnant.  They tell Rachel’s mother Barbara (Rebecca Brooks) and then their friends, but the evening of the baby shower, Kyle finds Rachel in the bathroom of their apartment sobbing and bleeding and upon arrival at the hospital, it appears that she has miscarried again.  However, the next morning and another ultrasound reveals a heartbeat and the couple is overjoyed that their baby has, in fact, not been lost.

This, by the way, is where the first odd things start happening.  The footage of Rachel in the hospital room when they find out she has not miscarried has some minor glitches, and when they get home, Kyle’s dog Madden begins growling and barking at her.  Then, when they hunt for houses, Rachel is accosted by a homeowner’s mother who screams “Devil!” at her in Armenian.  She’s rightfully weirded out but things seem to be okay and they buy a house.

There’s a point at which the pilot episode ends and a title card tells us that the rest of the film we’re watching was compiled from the leftover footage of the reality show.  Rick, the producer, provides some background information as to how certain moments went down or the increasing technical glitches that were occurring, especially around Rachel, even having a sound guy isolate an otherworldly scream that was recorded in one particular moment.  Rachel has trouble sleeping and the artwork that she paints becomes darker and darker, and her marriage to Kyle becomes more and more strained.  More and more supernatural-like things start occurring around the house and Rachel becomes fixated on the baby name Alastor, which a paranormal expert (whom she hires) says is the name of a demon.

I honestly don’t want to go very much further with a plot summary because to give more details away would spoil the film’s ending and it’s possible that those who are reading this (both of you) may not have heard of the movie and are actually interested, so I’ll just drop the trailer here and get to my spoiler-free review.

I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I honestly thought I would.  I’ve gotten tired of found footage horror movies (as have so many other people), especially those with cheap jump scares and bad payoffs.  Delivery: The Beast Within actually doesn’t contain very many jump scares (I think I honestly counted one Paranomral Activity-esque jump scare) and it sticks to its premise really well.  If you ever watched TLC during the early 2000s (its Trading Spaces salad years), you may have come across shows such as A Wedding Story and A Baby Story.  Those were reality/documentary shows where each episode followed a couple to the altar or the delivery room.  It was the latter that writers Brian Netto and Adam Schindler (Netto directed) took and really ran with before giving us a look at the leftover footage, making the “found footage” part of this story plausible (and way more plausible than the “camera that can see ghosts” thing from Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension).  Furthermore, as the production becomes increasingly troubled beyond the unaired pilot because of Rachel’s increasingly erratic behavior and Kyle’s increasing rage, the presence of the crew and cameras in themselves become an issue, with the production actually ceasing a couple of months before Rachel’s due date, resuming only with Rick (who says in interviews that he had come to be very close to both Rachel and Kyle) and his camera.

It would seem a little contrived to stage the film this way, going from fake reality show to unused fake reality footage to “third guy in the room” found footage, but Netto actually uses that as a way to make the film feel increasingly claustrophobic and intense until it’s ending, part of which you know is coming but part of which is very unexpected.   The footage is staged in ways that feel like your average reality/documentary show, with people out of the range of the camera having what they say subtitled, the occasional shot of a boom mic or crew personnel who would have been edited out of the finished episode, and self-shot “confessional” footage done via Flip cameras that the producers gave to Rachel so she could shoot her “video diary” for the show.

Plus, unlike other horror movies of the last couple of decades, both actors are likable, so you are actually invested in what is happening to them, so when the pregnancy gets weirder and even scarier, you sympathize with Kyle, who doesn’t know what the hell is going on and doesn’t know what the hell to do (unlike, say, the protagonists you’re waiting to see killed and you hope it’s a good death).  The other performances are just as good and natural, which helps Delivery: The Beast Within with its follow through.   While it doesn’t break any new ground and does rehash old tropes (even including a “she’s craving some rare/raw meat” bit as a nod to Rosemary’s Baby), the film is a tight, entertaining 90 minutes and one I’d recommend checking out.

It Follows

mv5bmmu0mjblyzytzwy0mc00mjlilwi3zmutmzhlzdvjmwvmywy4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_If Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby set the tone for the “psychological horror” film back in the late 1960s, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is the culmination of nearly 50 years of psychological terror along with so many other important tropes of the genre mixed in.

And speaking of tropes, we open with a mainstay–the opening death scene, which takes place in a Detroit suburb.  A girl named Annie flees her house and seems to be followed by … something.   She makes it as far as the beach but can’t escape whatever is terrorizing her, as her dead body is found the next day.

We then meet Jay, our college student protagonist who has a new boyfriend named Hugh.  As she’s out on a date with him, he keeps seeing a mysterious little girl that nobody else can see.  Later on in the film, they have sex and Hugh chloroforms her.  When she wakes up, he’s tied her to a chair and tells her that he passed some sort of curse onto her–she will be followed by an entity that only she can see and it won’t stop until it kills her (where it will then go after the last person it pursued, which happened to be Hugh).

The rest of the film is basically the story of Jay and her friends trying to avoid, escape, and then ultimately fight back against whatever is following her, although we never actually know what it is except that it takes the form of various disheveled-looking people, including friends and family members.  And unlike, say, Final Destination, where the characters were being killed off in increasingly ridiculous and cinematically staged ways by a “death” entity, It Follows chooses to have fun with the “audience mindscrew” by offering very few jump scares (thank God) in favor of creating a constant feeling of uneasiness.  Like Rosemary’s Baby, the film has a sense of real place (although Mitchell keeps the time period of its setting deliberately ambiguous) and while this does follow the same pattern of “photogenic white kids in the suburbs getting offed after getting off” of your average slasher flick, it’s quite aware of that.

In fact, Mitchell plays with that knowingly–after all, the entire premise of the movie is the Scream-established rule that having sex in a slasher movie means you’re going to die.  And he sends his characters into the seedier parts of Detroit to either try to avoid the entity (although we know they can’t do that) or confront it directly, hitting upon what Polanski does in Rosemary’s Baby by pointing out that our homes are not safe and perhaps we need to second-guess their comfort.  Furthermore, he avoids the “come at me bro” self-aware final confrontation of late-1990s flicks like Final Destination and has his characters make stupid mistakes and confront the entity in a way that feels at best like a desperate attempt to save Jay’s life (and at worst a trap Fred would try to spring on Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated) instead of the machinations of a protagonist who is too smart for the film in which he’s been placed and is therefore deconstructing the rules in order to win.

It Follows is a fun horror movie.  You sympathize with its main character because she spends the film going more and more crazy while her friends can’t seem to figure out how to help her or what is even going on (that is, until they start getting killed) and the ending doesn’t go for a cheap twist or any big reveal that spoils re-watches; in fact, we never get “origin” or even the true identity of the entity and that’s fine.  Plus, the ending is satisfyingly ambiguous and you leave wondering if everything is okay.