Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Legion of Silly Dinosaurs Anniversary Special: The Silliest Dinosaur???


As I write this, I'm still in overdrive actually finishing an actual novel, and I realized I actually had an extra week that I could either take off or make one post for. I also very much had in mind that this month would be none other than the third anniversary of the first post of my feature on silly AWESOME dinosaurs. (Yes, that was always supposed to be the gag...) Since I had already scaled back to bimonthly posts to keep my blog sustainable, I could have still have skipped, but then, the whole point of this feature has been to make a little time for something that's been a part of my life as long as I've been alive. So, I'm going through with this just a little after the actual anniversary, and as luck would have it, I just spent way too much money on a dino that fit the bill. Behold the... uh... Allo-Cerato-Thingysaurus???

It looks like there's not enough light. Actually, there's kind of too much...

Now for the story, I sighted this guy in a used bookstore where I've made a fair number of acquisitions featured here (including the worst-ever bigmouth and for that matter my favorite/ most useless reference model the Truckstop Queen), and I knew this was worth taking home just to have absolute proof it actually exists. As a further incentive, I discovered there were no obvious production markings, making this at least a minor mystery. So, I bought it for a price in the high single digits that was still definitely on the steep side for what I was getting, and brought it in for closer inspection. And here's another pic of this damn thing.

Once I had already paid for it, I did what I could have at any time and tried a search with a few terms that might identify the manufacturer. I quickly confirmed my early suspicion that this was part of the Fisher Price Imaginext line, which got in here with the Jurassic World Therizonosaurus. Further inquiries indicated that it was part of a 2005 set called T. Rex Mountain, which also included a caveman. Of course, that begs the question of what this is supposed to be, and that's where the horror begins. But first, a couple closeups...

Foot pegs never lie!

To begin with, this is a clear case of a "composite" dino, which really isn't a bad thing in itself. Its strongest affinities are with Ceratosaurus (which got its own post and an appearance together with a W@lmart hadrosaur before that), complete with the ridge along the back, but the number and placement of the horns don't exactly match. In other respects, it's more like a generic allosaurid, particularly in terms of the hands and the shape of the head. But with all these forgiving considerations taken into account, it still does an amazing number of things exactly wrong. The posture is a redundant combination of the "modern" horizontal orientation and the classic "tripod" pose that in terms of design functionality gives the disadvantages of both and the advantages of neither. The arms are in the basketball-dribbling pose that the nitpickers have been saying was impossible, and in any case are hopelessly ill-proportioned and grotesquely sculpted to boot. The feet are their own kind of mess, outlandishly small yet still clunky to a degree that may not fully show in the pics. The cherry on this sundae is the head. It has a bit of what now gets called "shrink-wrapping", which I have thought of as a "mummified" look. That only brings out the real problem: The eye is much too far back, in what would really be the anchoring windows (I know, fenestrae) for the jaw muscles. On casual inspection, it might look like someone mixed up which opening is the eye socket, but it's really worse than that. The head is too short for its comparatively limited depth, which didn't leave enough room to sculpt the details of the skull structure. It's all the more striking that these issues really came out because people were clearly trying to do this as a "realistic" dino rather than a dinosaur-like fantasy monster like the  patchisaurs. Yes... this is beautiful

And because this was a little bit thin, I decided to take a few pics of my reissue Marx Tyrannosaurus, which I don't believe I featured except as a pic for my T. rex-vs. research post. This is another epitome of bad dino design. As covered in my video on the Hideous Abomination, this was made as part of the 1950s "large mold" group, along with the great Brontosaurus and less great Kronosaurus pliosaur/ plesiosaur hybrid. This, on the other hand, was easily the worst dino Marx ever did. The pose is wrong, the teeth are wrong, the expression is just goofy, and the arms are... actually right??? It's the kind of mess that can be endearing long after well-meaning "scientific" restorations are forgotten. Here's a few pics.

"Howdy, is this where I audition for Valley of Gwangi?"

And why not a pic with the Abomination?

"Yeah, my agent said I was going to be in Dungeons and Dragons..."

And an interactive pic...

So, that finishes my anniversary post. As I already rambled at the beginning, this feature is one of the things that keeps this blog going, and the blog has been a major reason I've gotten back into writing far enough to be close to finishing a novel. (Too bad about the ones I actually posted here...) It's a small thing, but like a tiny fossil, small things can be everything. The bottom line is, I'm glad to have come this far, and I hope to go a lot further. And I couldn't end this without the Truckstop Queen!

"When they said cowboys and dinosaurs, this was not what I had in mind..."

That's all for now, more to come!

Monday, May 29, 2023

Adaptation Insanity: The one that was the first video game movie



Title: Super Mario Bros

What Year?: 1993

Classification: Improbable Experiment

Rating: What The Hell??? (2/4)


As I write this, it’s the end of a weekend, and I have once again been debating between several movies to review. This time around, however, I knew I wanted to get in a second entry in my newest feature before another one went by, and the one at the top of the list is pretty much the reason it exists at all. As a further twist, I swear I was ready to do this before the para-franchise blew up pop culture (and inspired me to write an actual novel in six weeks…). Without further ado, I present Super Mario Bros, the live-action version, and very possibly the reason it took three decades to get another one.

Our story begins with an introduction to an alternate universe where dinosaurs survived, and a baby left on an orphanage’s doorstep. We then jump forward and meet the brothers Mario and Luigi, whose last name is revealed to be Mario, two struggling New York plumbers. In the course of their work, Luigi has a meet-cute with a woman named Daisy, who leads the brothers to a portal to another dimension. They discover a soft-cyberpunk universe where dinosaurs evolved into sentient humanoids, which coexist with another race evolved from fungi. A conflict is in progress between the dino leader King Koopa and the loyalists of the Mushroom King, who has devolved into a filmy encrusting organism vastly more intriguing than anything else here. Of course, Koopa’s plans include taking Daisy hostage. It’s up to the brothers to save the day in the mildest possible way, and if you’re wondering what this has to do with the game besides the name, you poor bastards…

Super Mario Bros was a 1993 science fantasy film by Hollywood Pictures, based on the video game series by Nintendo. It was the first live-action theatrical film to be based on a video game. (I know, you can argue over The Last Starfighter...) The production reportedly went through a troubled development and further conflicts over intended audience and possible rating. The film went into production with Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel as directors. The cast was led by the late Bob Hoskins as Mario and Dennis Hopper (d. 2010) as King Koopa, with John Leguizamo as Luigi and Samantha Mathis as Daisy. Lance Henriksen appeared very briefly as the restored King. The score was composed by Alan Silvestri (see Mac And Me, Predator 2, etc, etc, etc). The film was a commercial failure, earning $38.9 million against a budget of up to $48M, and received mixed to unfavorable reviews. Hoskins claimed that he had been repeatedly injured and endangered during filming. The film was released on VHS in 1994 and several times on DVD, but fell out of print in the US after 2010. It is not currently available for authorized digital streaming in the US.

For my experiences, what stands out about this one is that I can very clearly remember following reactions to it when it came out, and I can attest that at the time, it really wasn’t that big a deal. Plenty of people were saying it was bad, plenty more was said about how much money was lost (in hindsight before there was really a frame of reference for the cost of post-1980s movies), but if one went by contemporary reactions, it was easy to conclude that it was nothing more or less than a typical early 1990s action movie. Needless to say, the fact that I am talking about it now is the surest proof that this was the one thing it was not. The crowning irony is, everything I have to say now is from three viewings over the last 5 years or so, and my own reaction is and always was that it wasn’t that big a deal either way. (Hey, I knowingly watched Inseminoid more than once, my brain is broken…)

Moving forward, what I have to say on the established vein is that this really is as close as it could have been to a “mainstream” Nineties movie. In those terms, it holds the line at average and regularly rises to decent or genuinely impressive. The story is solid and simple, with enough wild cards for real surprises. The cast is genuinely good, with Hopkins and Hopper pulling their weight and Leguizamo and Mathis being actually cute. (I realized in the course of my parody novel that I must have made up the Luigi/ Daisy pairing independent of anything I would have known about.) As a bonus, the villains and heroes are both reasonably competent, to the point that Koopa thinks to use his de-evolution machine to power up his minions. What really makes the film memorable is the quite well-realized grunge dystopia, which manages the cyberpunk feel while the genre was really still coming into its own in the live-action medium. The result is some hit-and-miss gags (a bit with an egg in a stroller is just weird) balanced against a world that actually works well enough for the bystanders to remain focused on getting on with their lives.

And if you were sensing a big qualifier, this is the kind of movie that will put “Not bad, but-!” on my tombstone. (It’s that or, “Don’t watch Shanks.”) The real problems with the movie tend to come in when it tries to reference the games, which tends to make even less sense if you actually know what they are referencing. The most obvious offense is the ludicrous tiny-headed design of the Goombas and the completely unnamed and unexplained creatures that appear to be Koopa troopers. (An extra distraction comes from the unnervingly inhuman masked worker drones toward the end, which feel like they wandered in from a Konami game.) Even worse are the moments when the movie tries to shift to a slapstick tone that someone presumably thought would appeal to kids, always telegraphed by wonky music that sounds like the very recognizable Silvestri (see my Predator 2 soundtrack post, again) riffing on himself. An extra rant is in order for that damn fungus, which is genuinely developed into a very intriguing concept of decentralized intelligence, but still gets used mostly for gags. The very brief appearance of the legendary Henriksen (I kind of forgot I actually reviewed Terminator) feels like an unintentionally fitting epitaph for the creature and the film.

Now I’m up to the “one scene”, there is truly one that will stay with you whether you like it or not, and it is the elevator sequence. (See The Lift???) As we build toward the finale, the brothers must sneak into an elevator to infiltrate King Koopa’s lair. When the Goombas and Koopas start to board, the heroes simply hide behind the bizarrely proportioned creatures. Just when it becomes clear that this could be a problem, Luigi notices that the elevator music is playing “Somewhere My Love” (aka the theme from the 1960s-scandalous film Dr. Zhivago). Our protagonists try nudging two of the creatures enough to turn their awkward shuffling into something like a dance. It quickly spreads, until the lot of them are dancing and grunting or humming to the music as the brothers climb out the top of the elevator like they could have at the beginning. The touch that makes the scene is that the creatures are still dancing when the doors open on their evident superior, who calls them to attention. It’s weird, random and unnecessary, and for the brief time it lasts, it’s exactly what a movie like this needs.

In closing, what I find myself coming to is what 1980s-‘90s video games really meant to kids like me. As I ranted when I was reviewing the cartoon, to us, even the cartoony fantasies of the later Mario games were something we took seriously. It’s a testament to their strength that they have held up longer and better than the vast majority of the romances and dramas that were supposed to be our window on the “adult” world. With that context, I can at least appreciate what this movie was trying to do. After years of being talked down to in watered-down cartoons (have I mentioned I saw the Battletoads pilot?), seeing our heroes as adults in a functional society was exactly what we were waiting for. At the same time, it is quite clear that it failed, and probably would have even without the external pressure to be “kid-friendly”. The only really good options here were an over-the-top romp like Flash Gordon or a full deconstruction like Hancock, but the Hollywood “mainstream” was simply not ready for either when it came to video games. What we got instead, as laid out, was a decent movie knocking on the door of either good or “so bad it’s good”. With that, I can offer my respects and move on. Punch it, Bishop!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Fiction: Retro gaming novel battle demo!


It's Thursday of an off-week, and I've been trying to do a week of posts while trying to finish my Nintendo fan/ parody novel (see Demos 1 and 2) in an insane amount of time. As part of this, I went ahead and let out some very spoiler-ish material for what I wrote as the "final battle" part (as a "song fic"...), so I made the further decision to post that and a little more here, plus some autoshape sketches of what the setting is supposed to look like, the version that looks good above and the one that's more accurate further down. Long story short, it's a star fort on a floating Sky Island, and this is still my Metroid-parody heroine. Also a reminder, I used to write a series called Exotroopers, and I started this blog with a story where the protagonist cuts off his own leg...

Meliboia opened fire on two advancing Myrmidons with her 7.5mm rifle from what cover the caryatid on the left side provided. One of the attackers fell with a shattered visor. She activated her shoulder pods, and promptly launched an anti-armor rocket from the righthand pod at the pair who operated their own launcher from cover. The blast blew out a gout of rock and rubble. The Hoplite reloading the launcher staggered, either stunned or blinded, and then fell with a cry. The one with the launcher popped up again, only to find himself exposed. A three-shot burst shattered his helmet. Mel pivoted, just as a fighter came out of the clouds. From her left pod, she launched a single anti-aircraft missile. An engine burst into flames with the blast, and the left wing twisted off at the rear as the craft pitched and rolled out of sight, its weapons still blazing. A single bolt obliterated a section of the upper balcony, leaving the right caryatid supporting only crumbling entablature. Then another, much larger craft rose up from below. “Euphonia,” she said. She retreated as the chorus played…

 “It is the end of the day

There is only the bill left to pay

Let the Fool rise

When Amphion falls!”


The bolts of the Euphonia’s starboard medium plasma cannon sailed through the Keep, occasionally detonating with the force of concussion grenades against the columns and walls. As often as not, they sailed straight out the other side of the deceptively porous fortification. An incendiary rocket detonated against the hull next to the gun, only briefly fouling the alignment of the gun. “All Hells!” Mel shrieked from behind a column. “Fire a missile already!” Then she glimpsed the incoming parasite craft. She hefted a translucent ammunition cannister over her shoulder, racking five rockets directly into the conjoined muzzles of the launcher. Already, the transport was shifting, giving the unseen gunner a more favorable angle. Before the next shot could come, the transport banked and swerved, too late. Its portside wing was struck by the bottom wing of the out-of-control fighter, catastrophically damaging both craft. As the parent craft reeled, the loops on the far side flickered with the silhouette of the approaching parasite. She fired the full load of rockets through a sally port and ran up the stairs to the upper balcony. The craft disintegrated as the chorus replayed…


“It is the end of the day

There is only the Boatman to pay

Let the Fool rise

When Amphion falls!”

Mel emerged outside the door of the uppermost structure where she and Ajax had spent what she counted as their true honeymoon. She came almost immediately under fire. She activated the shoulder pods for suppressing fire. On the right, her reconfigured 6mm rifle raked the balcony with bursts of fire, felling one of the two Hoplites who came vaulting over. On the left, her grenade launcher fired down at another who had topped the corner battlement. She raised the 7.5mm for what she was sure would be an attack from the center. She still froze as a final parasite craft rose into view, with two Hoplites clinging to the weapons racks. She leaped backward through a window behind the bed, just before they opened fire.

Meliboia crashed down on top of the nuptial bed, propelled by the blasts behind her. Her rifle flew from her hands. She kept rolling, crushing already splintered wood. The sheet and blankets wound around her, tearing where they met rough edges. She frantically tried to deploy the pods, producing only urgent warnings to withdraw for repairs. The final verse of her challenge was all she could hear over the ringing in her ears…

“Behold the old gods have fallen,
Their idols are cast to the flames!
Now let us worship
The Fool, our new God,
He is better than no God at all!”

Two Hoplites burst in the door to the left of the bed, melee blades drawn. An apparition came rushing to meet them, trailing streamers of cloth like an unwinding shroud. The first had only a glimpse of the shape before a leaf-shaped blade drove under his breastplate. The second parried over the body of the fallen companion, then delivered a stroke that was parried in turn by a blade that sprang from Meliboia’s left wrist. Then a bedsheet fell over the adversary’s head and torso, to be wound tight enough to haul him off his feet as the apparition circled behind. Her sword drove into his lower back, and her wrist blade laid open his throat. The apparition rose, now crimson, at a pounding at the door. Just before it smashed to pieces, a grenade plowed through, catching her in the chest.

The force of the concussion grenade threw Meliboia back to the wall. She rose to hands and knees, to look through a spiderwebbed visor. “Autolycos,” she said. “You’re an ass, but you are my brother. Walk away.”

“Oh, all Hells, Mel!” he exclaimed. “You think you can tell me that? I’ll tell you one last time, baby girl, just because Aeacus makes us play nice with you doesn’t mean you’re one of us.”
“No,” she said, “I suppose not.” As she spoke, she completed an emergency override, just before she realized exactly what she was activating.

Her second anti-aircraft missile launched. It did not go even five times its length before it hit Autolycos in either the belly or the groin. It blasted him straight off the balcony, past the corner of the bastion, before its overstrained mechanisms exploded at a fraction of its intended minimum range. She had a brief, searing glimpse of his upper body flung upward as his legs dropped to either side.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Robot Revolution: The one Basil Poledouris couldn't save



Title: Cherry 2000

What Year?: 1985 (filming)/ 1988 (limited theatrical release)

Classification: Improbable Experiment/ Mashup

Rating: For Crying Out Loud!!! (1/4)


With this review, I’m continuing my survey of robot movies, and what is standing out is that I still haven’t covered several of the movies that made me think of this feature in the first place. This time around, I’m finally getting to one that I planned on all along. It’s a film that I could have long since fit into one of my other features, especially Space 1979 and No Good Very Bad Movies, but I have found it odd enough that I have continued to put it off until I could give it a more proper treatment. Now, I’m ready, and I’m not playing nice. I present Cherry 2000, a movie where actual humans die over a rich guy’s sex robot. And yes, they managed to waste Basil Poledouris in the process.

Our story begins with a middle/ upper class guy named Sam getting frisky with his wife/ partner while a dishwasher overflows. But it turns out the lady is a robot, and unlike actual robotic submarines built since the 1950s, she is not waterproof. After this tragic incident, only the bot’s brain is salvaged, so Sam tries to obtain a replacement body. However, it turns out that this is a post-apocalyptic future, and the only spares are in an abandoned warehouse in the territory of an actual warlord. The guy sets out on his quest, with the help of a rough and tough guide who also happens to be a very attractive woman. Bullets will fly, cars will chase, romantic tensions will rise, and it all comes down to… woman vs machine?

Cherry 2000 is a 1988 science fiction/ romantic drama film by producer Edward R. Pressman (see The Hand) and director Steve De Jarnatt, known as a writer for Strange Brew. The film starred David Andrews as Sam and Melanie Griffith as the guide “E”, with actress/ model Pamela Gidley as the bot Cherry and Tim Thomerson as the warlord Lester. The score was composed by Basil Poledouris (see the Starship Troopers and Conan the Destroyer soundtrack posts), following work with Pressman on the Conan franchise. The film was reportedly completed as early as 1985, but had its release repeatedly delayed. It received a limited US theatrical release in early 1988, which earned only a reported $14,000 box office against a $10M budget. It was released on VHS later in the same year, with possibly greater success. De Jarnatt directed one additional film, Miracle Mile, before returning to a career as a screenwriter and author. Pressman continued to produce films such as Masters of the Universe, Judge Dredd and The Island of Dr. Moreau, with his final film Daliland being released several months before his death in January 2023. Cherry 2000 is currently available on multiple digital platforms, including free streaming on Tubi.

For my experiences, this is a film I first heard of simply because it came up in the Poledouris filmography, and I never saw it mentioned spontaneously again until it was mentioned in correspondences related to this feature. As alluded, however, I had long had it in mind. Where it really stands in my skewed frame of reference is as the epitome of a category that only a reviewer could arrive at: Movies to play and half-watch while I’m working on something I deem more important. Needless to say, the characteristics of such things are unflattering but not exceptional, not good enough to make me want to give it my full attention, not bad enough to be actively annoying. (The Nest has been the archetypal example so far.) In the lead-in to this review, I gave it exactly that treatment. What came through all the more was that this is the kind of film that makes mediocrity far more offensive than actually “bad”.

Moving forward, most of what I could say would be on the same vein already stated. Outside of the bot, which is reduced to a Maguffin for the vast majority of the relatively slim running time, everything here is interchangeable and forgettable, which to me includes Griffith’s admittedly charming character. The toll is especially heavy on the score, which can make this absolutely painful. As I have commented (see my post on the Predator soundtracks), Poledouris is the one movie composer varied and creative enough that I have rarely if ever recognized his material during a viewing, but here, I finally recognized recurring cues (especially from Robocop) that are almost always far inferior to the works they tie into. In the midst of this, what becomes even more disappointing are the action scenes, which only made an impression with a surreal moment when the bad guys ride out on ATVs with bolted-on machine guns. What is truly baffling is that this film can’t even get to the “over the top”/ “so bad it’s good” level, which is the last issue one would expect from the people involved here. As a further corollary, the only fun to be had is from Thomerson as the truly unhinged warlord and his even more fractured submissive moll played by Cameron Milzer (apparently also in Chopper Chicks In Zombietown). This is a genuinely terrifying portrait of shared psychosis, and the source of many potential honorable mentions for “one scene”. (“No sandwich for him!”)

That leaves Cherry herself, and for all the noted limitations imposed by the story, she offers a fascinatingly nuanced picture of the domestic android and the implications and complications of human/ AI relationships. The one big “pro” is that the protagonist is actually developed and quite sympathetic. Whatever one makes of the bot and the perceived relationship, it’s quite clear that he views her as a person and feels real grief at the perceived loss. Of course, it’s also established that he has a lot of trouble relating to people not programmed to like him, which becomes an obstacle to sympathy when his quest starts getting real people killed. Even so, he retains enough moral judgment to avoid killing anyone who isn’t trying to kill him. It also has to be said that the real plot hole is why the warlord isn’t simply selling off the robots. When we do get a look at Cherry, what comes across is an entity that is neither anthropomorphic nor unsympathetic. There can be no doubt that she has no choice but to serve and satisfy her owner, yet it becomes evident that she at least has the benefit of emotional satisfaction from her master’s approval. There’s a somewhat cringey payoff when she tries going through her routines in the middle of a life-and-death battle, which could be evidence of rote programming but also a clear consequence of her lack of any frame of reference for the situation. Overall, it’s a picture of a dysfunctional relationship that isn’t necessarily “worse” than the human/ human pairs on screen. I can charitably allow that this point is reinforced when the bot and the moll connect in the epilogue, in a surreal moment that fits both characters. In here, however, it's too little, far too late.

That leaves the “one scene”, and I’m going with one of the few that has stayed in my mind across multiple viewings. Soon after the bot short-circuits, Sam’s friends take him to a bar in an effort to connect him with a real woman. Things quickly go awry as we see multiple interactions that are more transactional than romantic. It culminates with a meeting between a friend and an apparently interested lady, mediated by a third party (yes, that’s Lawrence Fishburne) who seems to have formal authority. The mediator spells out jarringly detailed terms for a prospective encounter. It’s a bizarre scenario fleshed out enough for the viewer to ask if this would be a viable alternative to our norms, at least until the lady brings up an “oral clause”. From there, things go south in a hurry. To me, it has always felt like nothing more or less than a glimpse of a far better film.

In closing, I have to reiterate that this one is just bad. It’s definitely the actual worst film to receive any consideration for this little future. In its own way, it’s among the worst movies I’ve ever watched, especially with “does this even count as a movie?” entries like Ingagi and Death Bed filtered out. By my usual refrain, I judge movies on a curve, and this is the kind that I find peculiarly insulting: It may not be “that bad”, but only because it is too polished to be inept and too unimaginative and unambitious to be offensive. What I find most telling is that even back then, the powers that be looked at this thing and effectively dumped it straight to the home video market. It’s the most fitting epitaph for a movie that squandered ideas, talent, and quite a bit of money. The one thing I’m happy for is that I can say I am done with this. Rest in pieces!

Image credit Metacritic.

Friday, May 19, 2023

The Horrible Horror Vault: The one that's the best horror reboot



Title: Evil Dead

What Year?: 2013

Classification: Weird Sequel

Rating: That’s Good! (4/4)


As I write this, I’ve been debating what do for an off-week post while trying to maintain a ludicrous output for another project. After going through several promising contenders, I decided to investigate some recent chatter. That brought me back to something I had thought about reviewing for quite a while. It also brings me into territory that was already opening up once I reactivated this feature, the “modern” horror reboot, which has long since become synonymous with the most hated trends in modern genre films. Just to be contrarian, I’ll be taking on an entry in one of the most infamous and iconic franchises of all time. Here is Evil Dead, 2013 edition, and it is… really, really good???

Our story begins with a young girl captured by yokels who believe she is possessed by a demon. We then jump to the beginning of another story as we meet Mia, a young lady on her way to a cabin with her brother and her friends as part of her recovery from substance abuse. The friends soon warn the brother that Mia has already had to be resuscitated after an overdose, and this intervention must be hardcore. But the group discover signs that someone has been using the cabin, including a book with dire warnings scribbled in not to ever, ever read from it. Naturally, the smart guy of the group manages to disobey. As Mia gets wired, strange visions appear. As her madness begins to spread to the others, it becomes clear that there is a supernatural force in their midst, and the darkest secrets are what they brought with them. It’s up to Mia and the brother to defeat their literal and metaphorical demons, before Hell arrives on Earth!

Evil Dead was a 2013 horror/ dark fantasy film directed and cowritten by Fede Alvarez, developed as a reboot of the 1981 film and franchise created by Sam Raimi (see Darkman). The film reportedly entered production in 2011, with Raimi and star Bruce Campbell credited as producers. The film starred Jane Levy as Mia, with Shiloh Fernandez as the brother David. Effects for the production used a reported 70,000 gallons of fake blood, mainly for the rain of blood in the finale, breaking a record previously set by Dead Alive. The film was released by Sony in April 2013. It was a commercial success, earning $97.5 million against a $17M budget, and received largely favorable reviews. Alvarez followed the film with Don’t Breathe, also starring Levy, in 2016. A TV series Ash Vs. The Evil Dead, starring Campbell and directly following the first two films, aired on Starz from 2015 to 2018. In 2023, a new film Evil Dead Rise was released, which did not directly follow or reference any prior films.

For my experiences, what really popped into my mind going into this is that remakes and reboots are usually the kind of film that go over my radar. The further irony is that the relative few I have dealt with are easily among the best movies I have ever reviewed. In the process, I have ended up giving a reasonably comprehensive survey of the different approaches to remakes. Night of the Living Dead gave a straight do-over of the original film, with a bigger budget and a few twists to reflect changes in society at large. The Thing, by now the most revered in the whole category, went back to the pulp source material for what became a readaptation as much as a remake. In the middle, you have the 1980s The Blob and Invaders From Mars (which I now must admit belonged on my “best” list), which kept the essential concepts with plenty of updates for effects, production values and politics. By comparison with these, most of the modern remake/ reboot waves objectively reach no more or less than the proverbial high standard of mediocrity. The real result is a certainly frustrating glut of films that are simply too unambitious either to inspire or offend. The present film stands as the outlier that did something different, and that is just the beginning of why it is by far the best of an iffy lot.

Moving forward, I will add as I usually would have already that I saw this in the theater, pretty much at its opening. (Yes, I also just saw the new one, but I don’t want to talk about that one yet.) What was jarring at the outset was that it almost entirely removed the humor of the franchise, something I would have said was so essential that a film without it might as well be marketed as completely separate. In fact, what emerges from under the one-liners and splatstick is an allegory of madness, grief and redemption. I must say as a further rant that it also highlighted a counterintuitively conventional spirituality that was there all along. In the midst of the secular nihilism of the slasher era, the original films offered admittedly imperfect good against absolute supernatural evil. (I will get back to that…) The further step of making the demonic forces into a symbol of addiction and familial dysfunction was perhaps not the best or even the most original move, but it makes for a film that at a minimum has something to say. That, in turn, builds to a jaw-dropping payoff with the literally Biblical finale.

Then there are the “Deadites” themselves, which have no name here. What’s most noteworthy is that they are made far more vulnerable than their earlier counterparts, without being any less terrifying. These are true demoniacs, and as such can be permanently neutralized by the things that would kill a normal human. At the same time, the prominent role of bodily fluids gives a biological logic that supports lends itself to alternative semi-scientific explanations discussed in the film, at least for a while. The limitations of mortality are more than made up for by their utter savagery and a further penchant for self-mutilation that had not appeared in the franchise before. The most intriguing result is a genuinely two-sided escalation in brutality as the uninfected defend themselves by increasingly desperate means. Another emerging subtext is an emphasis on violence by women against men and each other, which somewhat eases the especially uncomfortable sexualization of the first film. The difference shows especially in the direct remake of the most infamous scene of the franchise to represent the possession of Mia by the slimy spawn of the Abomination. Things are toned down enough to give the feel of the symbolic, and perhaps debate the reality of the events within the film’s own universe, but the implications remain clear and brutal.

Now for the one scene, I am giving honorable mention to what was really my first choice, the smart guy reading the possession spells, which stands out as a notable remnant of the humor of this odd franchise. But I couldn’t avoid a scene that has stood out from the beginning, the first possession besides Mia’s. After the main character’s first freakout, the one character with medical training (played strikingly by Jessica Lucas from Cloverfield) runs for supplies while still covered in gunk of uncertain composition. After a few moments of conversation, we find her in a bathroom trying in vain to clean up. She finally gets out a fateful syringe and a container of medicine. The door slams shut, and she sees her own face, grinning and mutilated, before the mirror shatters. As more creepy sights builds up, she starts to withdraw into another room, further from the group. That’s when she freezes literally in her tracks, an action that feels as violent as any number of the many convulsions before and since. Then the camera zooms in on her legs, and we see another fluid trickling. It’s a subtle detail, yet brutal (and borderline misogynistic) in its implications, and it’s everything one would expect from an Evil Dead film.

In closing, what I wanted to close with is what made the Evil Dead franchise great to begin with, something that figured very much in my reactions to the latest installment. What set it apart from the first film onward was its humor. I would argue that what made it last (especially from Evil Dead 2 onward) was its underlying optimism about human nature. This is a series that says you can be weak, fallible and outright cowardly, but still have a chance as a champion of good, and if the cosmic forces of evil take your hand, replace it with a chainsaw. I posit further that this is exactly where the present film got the point of the original and ran with it all the way. For me, that’s more than enough to get it the highest rating, and that’s where I’m fine ending it. Hail to the king!

Monday, May 15, 2023

Movie Mania: Heavy Metal soundtrack!


It's Monday and I still don't have my weekend post, so I decided to do something that actually came up in the course of my epic fan fi/ parody novel (see Demos 1 and 2) that I'm actually on track to finish. Most of this feature has been about movie soundtracks (see the Predator post from about 6 months ago), but this time, I have something different. It's a soundtrack of pop rock songs from one of the most famous/ popular movies I ever reviewed, and I actually like it. Here is Heavy Metal, the soundtrack! Here's a pic of the insert booklet.

Now, there's a lot of lore here that I already covered or skipped over. Heavy Metal was an animated anthology film based on the magazine/ comic of the same name, which was in turn based on the European publication Metal Hurlant. (Oh, yeah, my review is now in my zombie movie ebook.) In the process, the filmmakers made an unusual if not unprecedented decision regarding music. They paid for a top-notch orchestral score from Elmer Bernstein (see An American Werewolf In London and... Robot Monster???). They also got the rights for a lineup of contemporary rock songs from artists including (alphabetic order is easiest) Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick (see Rock & Rule, already intertwined with this saga), Devo, Journey and Stevie Nicks. The problem, as one can extrapolate from at least the last two, was that this was in fact pretty light on the "metal", but as I have pointed out, the title was technically that of the magazine first.

Moving forward, the real twist here is the very different fates of the two halves of the soundtrack. Both were released around the time the movie came out, on vinyl, cassette and CD. However, the orchestral score has gone on to fall into Copyright Hell, with any disc copies going for $50 and up, while the present album has remained available in both physical and digital formats right up to the present day. I got my particular specimen last year, in what I just remembered was the same order as my Blu Ray of Death Becomes Her. Before that, I had listened to it regularly on free music streaming. In fact, I can recall going to sleep listening to this, which once again brings us to the problem.

In fact, considered objectively, this is nothing more or less than a representative sample of 1980s pop rock with a bit of a "lean" toward the metal/ punk/ proto-grunge cluster. A good starting point for consideration is the one I have always been able to place within the movie, "Heavy Metal/ Takin' A Ride" by Don Felder, played at the start of the "B-17" segment. It's a surprisingly good fit for the material, and okay overall. For maximum confusion, it has the same title as the opening track, "Heavy Metal" by Sammy Hagar, which I completely forgot plays in one of my favorite scenes in the film. ("If there's one thing I know, it's how to drive when I'm stoned...") That's followed by "Hearbeat" (which I managed to reference in the Sidekick Carl adventure, still very much in my mind) and "Working In A Coalmine" by Devo. The fifth track, "Reach Out", turns up in the Lincoln Stern segment, and after Felder's track, I start to kind of tune out. Aside from one I'll get to in a moment, the most memorable of the remaining tracks would be "Radar Rider" by Riggs, played in the opening sequence "Soft Landing", and "Blue Lamp" by Nicks, an oddly dark song that I just figured out plays in the police station scene of "Harry Canyon".

That leaves three songs that stand out to me. One of them is a song that isn't in the soundtrack, "Through Being Cool" by Devo from the Taarna bar scene, which I cross-identified in Sky High. At one point, I kind of assumed it was in the soundtrack, as the digital version of the album was already down at least one track. I still can't fathom how it wasn't included, given that the band was already represented. Another is "The Mob Rules" by Black Sabbath, track 13, also from "Taarna", which I discovered was included here months before it was released as part of the album of the same name. Then there is by far the most noteworthy track here, "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" by BOC, which was also included in the soundtrack prior to its album release. As far as I can recall, I knew of this song from multiple references in fiction, without knowing anything about it until I recognized the title lyric during a viewing of the film. Having heard it, I can say that it is truly one of the most emotionally powerful songs of the 1980s or any other time. The one "problem" is that it easily converts to generic angst, especially of the male variety, which it absolutely is not. Its appearance in the film could really be a case and point, as it simply plays at the discovery of the Loc Nar in "Harry Canyon" rather than any truly introspective moment. My further thought is that it could get back a lot of its depth from a cover by a woman, which I literally have not found even once.

So, that's the album. For what it is, it's a very important release that earns its enduring pace in pop culture. It's worth a listen as a whole as well as for its parts. And for one more thing, here's a pic I managed to take without glare, because apparently the Couch Mark 2 is really, really well-lit.

That's all for now, more to come!

Friday, May 12, 2023

The Horrible Horror Vault Revisited: The one with an evil boat



Title: Ghost Ship

What Year?: 2002

Classification: Mashup/ Irreproducible Oddity

Rating: It’s Okay! (3/4)


As I write this, I’m at the tail end of a phase of retiring some of my longest-running features, usually with some measure of relief. That has brought me back around to considering whether I should dust off any of them. It happened that the one that finally forced my decision was a horror movie from within the “modern” era, which I have usually specifically avoided outside of zombie films like Splinter.  I quickly realized that the one place it really fit was my one dedicated horror feature, the Horrible Horror Vault, and what made things interesting was that this one went in a quite different direction. I present Ghost Ship, a movie about a literal boat from Hell, and boy do I know there’s more than one.

Our story begins in the 1960s, with a captain and a little girl dancing on a cruise ship deck until a preposterously gruesome mass casualty event strikes. Skip forward, and we meet an evidently competent salvage crew with a butch lady boss who is technically second in command. A nondescript guy comes to them with a lead: After 40-some years, a missing cruise ship has been rediscovered, still drifting around what would in regular reality be the maritime border between two superpowers. This apparently seems neither improbable nor utterly terrifying to the crew, who sign on for a job. They discover a standard spooky ship where rats still scurry about and mysterious figures appear and disappear, particularly the captain and the girl. Just when the audience is thinking get the Hell off this thing, the crew discover a fortune in the hold, only to lose their own ship. The lady and her dwindling crew must survive the perils of the ship and the sea. But they are already part of a trap that claimed the lives of the original complement, and the stakes are their lives and their souls!

Ghost Ship was a 2002 supernatural horror film directed by Steve Beck and produced by Joel Silver (see Lethal Weapon, Predator 2) and Robert Zemeckis. The production was developed from a script that reportedly emphasized psychological horror over gore and supernatural elements. Similarities were noted to the 1980 film Death Ship (oh dear Logos, that should have been on my list of films too bad to review), ultimately including a very similar movie poster. The film starred Julianna Margulies as the lady boss Epps, with Gabriel Byrne as Captain Murphy and Emily Browning as the girl. Plans to film on an actual ship were rejected in favor of CGI effects and extensive miniatures, provided by the crew Photon VFX from Australia. The movie was released in October 2002 and on home video in March 2003. It received mixed to negative reviews but was a commercial success, earning $68 million against a $20M budget. It is currently available on digital platforms including HBO Max.

For my experiences, this is one I remember seeing around the time it came out without knowing it was “supposed” to have a bad reputation; I liked it, I hear nothing bad about it, and I distinctly remember at least one reasonably positive contemporary review. But what has really stood out is the whole “evil boat” concept. It’s a counterpart to the more niche “underwater sci fi” (see Leviathan, The Abyss) which I have covered with the likes of Deep Rising and The Ghost Galleon. (Wait, doesn’t Event Horizon kind of count???) In that context, what I have found most interesting is the degree to which it rides the line between horror and science fiction. The notes are Gothic, but the visual vocabulary is industrial, with shot after shot emphasizing the very solid if rusted and creaky walls, rooms and fittings of the ship. It’s a fascinating blend of genres, and that’s the other reason I remain very conflicted coming back to this film.

Moving forward, the word that applies here is indeed “solid”. Everything here is genre formula done quite well, with good acting and dialogue, excellent effects, and a story that at a minimum gets a real payoff out of a “twist” villain. It all serves to illustrate that cliches become cliches because they can and do in fact work. What is most impressive is that there is still complex conceptualization and  genuine ambiguity. Several incidents could be actual hallucinations. Others appear to be a combination of illusions by the spirits and hazards already present on the boat. Then there are certain points where the ship seems to show a malign will of its own, to a degree that I considered including this along with The Lift and Willy’s Wonderland under the “possessed machine” category of my robots feature. It all builds to an unexpected touch of beauty in the finale when (fine, spoiler) the sinking ship releases the souls of the dead. The only points where this becomes a problem are where the film goes with shocks over substance. It shows most around the middle act, which sees multiple redundant jump scares and one obvious gross-out. But we already see it in the ludicrous opening, which just feels like an unconvincing ripoff of the laser cheese grater in Resident Evil, even though a little chronological review would indicate that this was mostly in the can by the time that movie came out.

With these issues already on the table, where my nitpicking instincts kick in is the reveal of the original atrocity that killed everyone in the first place. This is the point where the story becomes a straight-up Medieval morality play, and for the most part, it’s another twist that really works, especially once the characters start to question each other’s identities and motivations. The problem is that the chain of events follows neither logic nor proportion. By my further penchant for rewriting, what would have worked is a potentially non-lethal scheme that actually went wrong, like a staged “accident” gone out of control (essentially the set-up of Deep Rising and for that matter an intelligible solution to the actual Mary Celeste). Instead, almost everyone jumps straight to mass murder on a literal war-crime scale, which goes as far beyond the standards of “rational evil” as killing a bank president, vice president and the entire board of directors to rob the bank. Even if this went according to plan, it’s obvious that it would almost certainly end badly. The real “problem” here is that the movie specifically fails to sell this as a slippery slope that might tempt the ordinary viewer, and that specific weakness is in contrast to the unsettlingly believable conflicts that arise among the present-day protagonists.

Now for the “one scene”, the one that really lingered in writing this review is a scene that makes absolutely no sense in cold blood. In the midst of the middle-act slow-down, Byrne/ Murphy has wandered into the captain’s cabin, where he discovers the ghost of the original liner’s captain. What is surreal off the bat is, first, that there is neither fear nor surprise, and second, that this non-reaction actually follows from previously established characterization. The captain simply accepts what he sees, and gives careful attention as the ghost presents a file on the discovery of another ill-fated and infamous ship. Murphy says simply, “I know the story,” without telling the yarn anyway. He adds, “There were no survivors,” at which point the ghost holds out a photo we don’t see. Of course, it’s always possible that this whole interaction is simply how a character we know to be imaginative visualizes a discovery he made rummaging through a desk. For the film’s purposes, it doesn’t really matter, and the story is already moving on accordingly.

In closing, I come to the rating, and this is a fairly rare case where I have been going back and forth the whole time. By my own admission, the main thing this film has had going for it is that I can remember a time when I viewed it quite favorably. Channeling early 2000’s me, I would probably have given it the same rating then that I do now. In other ways, however, time and more experience with the genre(s) have been unkind enough that I came close to knocking the rating down to 2 out of sheer disappointment. What settled things in my mind was simple perspective. This may never have been a great movie, but it still stands as one that did far better than might be expected and in some lights better than it really deserved to. (With Death Ship anywhere in the frame of reference, Sleepaway Camp would get the benefit of a doubt.) That’s enough to hold its own in my book, and that makes one more film I’ve made my peace with. Bon voyage!