Thursday, January 31, 2013


John Cardos, 1977
Starring: William Shatner, Tiffany Bolling, Woody Strode, Lieux Dressler

“Are you crazy lady? This is our home, and no damn spiders are gonna run us out!”

A veterinarian nicknamed Rack (Shatner) calls on a local farmer and his sick calf. The calf dies of unknown causes and Rack sends off a blood sample to be analyzed. Soon an arachnologist, Diane (Bolling), shows up with predictably bad news. The calf was killed by spider venom. A very large dose of spider venom. Despite Rack’s stubborn disbelief, more animals die and the farmer reveals a huge spider burrow on his land. Diane theorizes that because pesticides have killed off their natural food source, the big, hairy spiders are turning to large mammals, with humans next on the horizon. In retaliation, the farmer sets the spiders and their home on fire, but they escape and later kill him. The local sheriff tries pesticide, which also doesn’t work and leads to a widespread assault on the humans by their eight-legged enemies. Planes are crashed, cars and trucks are overturned and widespread panic is caused. Rack, Diane and some others hole up in a lodge and prepare to escape, but they are trapped by the spiders and prepare for a final showdown. 

This movie... it’s wonderful. There are a lot of mediocre arachnids attack films, but Kingdom of the Spiders sits securely at the top of the list and manages true greatness. For starters, there’s an amazing early performance from William Shatner. He’s not quite as over the top as Incubus, Kingdom of the Spiders is probably one of his most straightforward, restrained roles. With that said, it’s still Shatner being Shatner. You either think he is amazing or you are a fool. His infamous performance of “Rocket Man” is actually from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror films award show, where Kingdom of the Spiders was nominated for Best Horror Film. 

The other actors can’t live up to Shatner, but do excellent work considering the film they were cast in. The lovely Tiffany Bolling (Candy Snatchers, Wicked Wicked) doesn’t get naked in this surprisingly straight role and is able to keep up with Shatner’s mildly offensive and male chauvinistic romantic banter. Their chemistry makes some of Shatner’s painful dialogue easier to bear. Marcy Lafferty (Shatner’s then wife) appears, as does Lieux Dressler (Grave of the Vampire). 

The ending is the second key reason to watch this film (after Shatner). It’s absolutely insane and is emphasized by the near perfect pacing of the film. I’m not going to spoil the fantastic, surprise conclusions, suffice to say that you will hopefully be as delighted by it as I was. 

5,000 tarantulas were used in the making of this film and by god, they are everywhere. Though a few rubber models were used, most of the tarantulas you see in this film are real. As a tarantula lover, it upsets me to think that some of them were harmed or killed during the making of this film, but I try not to focus on that. If you know anything about tarantulas, you would know that you have to keep them apart because they are territorial and cannibalistic. That means 5,000 separate containers. And actors and extras willing to have tarantulas crawling all over them. Fortunately Mexican red knees were used. They’re known for their docility and make great pets and movie spiders, though of course the red knee I had for a few years was a right bastard. RIP Armand. 

There is no mistaking the low budget of this film, which is particularly reflected in the stock music borrowed from TV shows like The Twilight Zone, but I don’t think the financial limits will surprise anyone familiar with the genre.  

Kingdom of the Spiders comes highly recommended. This is definitely the best spiders attack movie out there and has believable performances, solid direction, and some great cinematography that takes advantage of the Arizona setting. And a lot of amazing spiders. The special edition DVD is another excellent release from Shout Factory and includes a lot of great special features. There’s a great commentary track, some interviews, behind the scenes footage, etc. 


Irwin Allen, 1978
Starring: Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain

This is the last day of animals attack month, so I thought it was important to go out with a bang, as so basically every animals attack film since Jaws has tried to do. Though I love many of the films in this genre (Italian Jaws rip offs notwithstanding), The Swarm is one of my absolute favorites, because, well, the more ridiculous the better. 

Dr. Bradford Crane (Caine) is on the trail of a curious new species of bees. Evil, intelligent bees who are some how a genetic cross of sweet tempered, American honeybees and murderous African killer bees. The military, led by General Slater (Widmark) is skeptical of Crane, but is otherwise out of options when dealing with the deadly black cloud of killer bees that is devastating the Texas countryside. A small town near the army base is preparing for their annual flower festival. Can Crane and Slater save them in time? Absolutely not. They all die.

Second only to Kingdom of the Spiders, The Swarm is a solid gold piece of shit. If you are expecting something serious, this is not the film for you. There is some of the most ridiculous dialogue ever committed to film ("But the bees are our friends!") and plot lines wander in and out of the film with reckless abandon. Michael Caine's Crane is the centerpiece, but seems to have little to no idea what is going on nor does he understand the concept of time in any reasonable way.

Based on the novel of the same name by sci-fi author Arthur Herzog, who also brought us Orca, the combination of a story by Herzog and direction by Irwin Allen, despite his impressive resume of sci-fi and disaster films (The Poseidon Adventure, Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series), could not save The Swarm. Neither could Michael Caine, for that matter, or any of the long list of award winning actors in the film. How they tricked all these big name actors to appear, I have no idea. It certainly seems to be a clash of the egos. Besides Caine, Ross and Widmark, we also have appearances from Olivia de Havilland, Lee Grant, Patty Duke, Henry Fonda, Ben Johnson and Jose Ferrer, all vying for as much screen time as they can get. Surprise. Except for Caine and Ross, all of your characters are going to die and they will probably die mid-plot line, sometimes mid-conversation with half a back story unfinished. I don't know of many other films so excited to kill off its characters as The Swarm.

Characters aside, there are the bees. They don't just kill people, they also manage to blow up a nuclear power plant. Yes, blow up a nuclear power plant and everyone in the surrounding area is totally fine. Then they destroy a train. The good general decides to use flame throwers against them, but when those don't work, they purposefully spill oil into the Gulf of Mexico, lure the bees there and set the entire Gulf on fire. The truly ironic thing about this is that it's Crane's idea. He originally prevented General Slater from nuking the bees to high heaven out of his CONCERN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT.

From the get-go the film makes absolutely as little sense as possible, with bees taking over a missile silo, killing all the military personell, but then mysteriously disappearing and I guess taking the bodies with them. Dr. Crane waltzes into the missile silo like he doesn't know how he just happened to find his way into a secure military base and then the President gives him complete control over the operation.

As a final note, The Swarm has some of the worst special effects in any '70s film. I don't know how this cost more than 20 million dollars, but if you pick up the Warner DVD, the hilarious documentary will shed a little light on that. I want to recommend it because of how ridiculous and amazing everything is, but sitting through The Swarm is a true test of will. The original release was 116 minutes, but for some reason it was expanded to 156 minutes for the laser disc and later DVD. I sat through the whole thing, but this Youtube compilation might be enough unless you really love bad animal disaster films.

Wu Tang Clan "Triumph"

"Triumph" and its amazing accompanying video was my introduction to the Wu Tang Clan in the beginning of high school. At the time I mostly listened to rock, metal, depressing pop or goth music, but the sheer number of times MTV played this video convinced me that Wu Tang was something I should maybe pay attention to. I came to learn how influential they are (particularly the RZA) and that I had a lot more in common with them than I thought: a passionate love of cult movies.

Though I watched and loved the kung fu movies - particularly Shaw Brothers - I saw on TV, I learned about Shaolin and Wu Tang through Wu Tang Clan and, as a result, the whole underground culture of more obscure kung fu movies. It has been a lifelong love affair.

"Triumph," from their second album Wu Tang Forever, goes beyond their love of Asian action cinema and into more familiar territory for my blog: animals attack films. The plot of the "Triumph" video, fittingly directed by Brett Ratner, is that a swarm of killer bees, in the form of Wu Tang and actual bees, descend upon New York, evade the police, escape from prison, cause general mayhem, etc. In addition to the overt animals attack visuals, there's also a clip from D.W. Griffith's massively offensive and pro-slavery Birth of a Nation.

References to movies abound in their work. Killa Beez is one of the many Wu Tang offshoots. Killer Bees (1974) is a made-for-TV horror film starring Gloria Swanson, whose character has a psychic link with a swarm of killer bees. Coincidence? (Killer bees also refers to a hybrid of Western and African bees.) The side group Killa Beez released a compilation album called  The Swarm, presumably named after my favorite bee-centered horror film.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Saul Bass, 1974
Starring: Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick

Though I’ve included it in animals attack month -- you can’t write about animals attack films or ecohorror without at least mentioning this film -- Phase IV is not really a horror movie. It is an odd, dark, cerebral science fiction outing and is one of the most interesting off shoots of the genre, though this is probably due to the fact that Jaws came out a year later and Phase IV avoided many of the genre trappings that later films would copy verbatim. Ants are evolving rapidly and begin building strange towers and designs in the desert. They have seemed to develop a strong telepathic power. After most of the local populace flees in fear, scientists (Michael Murphy and Nigel Davenport) struggle about whether they should try to understand the ants or destroy them. The ants successfully resist Davenport’s destruction-obsessed character and Murphy’s character can either flee or attempt to communicate with them. A young woman is also lost somewhere in their midst... 

Despite the ridiculous poster art and damaging marketing campaign that both loudly declare this to be another version of Them!, Phase IV is an intelligent and complex film, probably more so than any other in the animals attack genre. It did poorly in the theaters, but has since developed a cult following, become surprisingly influential to science fiction cinema, and was given an episode on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Though there are decent performances from Murphy (Batman Returns), Davenport (Peeping Tom) and Lynne Frederick (Vampire Circus), the film has a very basic plot, little dialogue and little human action overall. The ants and their visual world are the real stars of Phase IV

The only film directed by accomplished designer Saul Bass (he created some of Hitchcock’s most beloved title sequence, among many others), the impressive visuals are the most compelling reason to watch Phase IV. The intricate, detailed insect scenes - shot by Ken Middleham (The Hellstrom Chronicle, Days of Heaven) - are breathtakingly beautiful and make the ants collectively the strongest character in the film. It’s truly amazing that Middleham was able to accomplish some of these scenes at all. The almost equally impressive remaining cinematography is from Dick Bush (a regular on some of the loveliest Hammer and Tigon horror films). The Morricone-like sound design from Brian Gascoigne is also greatly enhances the film, though successful scoring and sound design is an element of many of the better animals attack films - Jaws, Lost Weekend, etc. 

Phase IV isn’t perfect. It is obviously low budget and has some silly plot developments, as well as some completely unbelievable scenes, like an elaborate ant funeral. There is a slow burn to the psychological terror and not a whole lot happens over the course of the film. There is some violence, but almost no gore. The general ambiguity of the film and its ending might bother some viewers, but if approached with the right attitude, Phase IV can also offer a lot of surprises and rewards. It comes highly recommended and is fortunately available on DVD from Legend Films in a bare bones edition. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


George McCowan, 1972
Starring: Ray Milland, Sam Elliott, Joan Van Ark, Adam Roarke

Why is this movie called Frogs? Sure, there might be some frogs present - actually I believe they are toads - but there are also a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, insects and arachnids. Most of these animals - snakes, turtles, geckos, tarantulas, frogs - are not remotely deadly. I can’t think of a way in which frogs or geckos could kill a person and this movie isn’t very good at thinking up ways for that to happen either. Tarantulas could potentially kill you if you’re allergic to their venom (as with bees), but the majority of “killer” animals in this film have no hope of ever actually killing a person. As a result, the death scenes are absurd and laughable. Many of them have to be seen to be believed. Did I mention that the titular frogs croak a lot, but never actually attack anyone?

The Crockett family is beset by a variety of animals and insects (I forgot to mention the butterflies earlier) at their Florida island home after they treat nature like total garbage. A nature photographer accidentally gets involved and implores them to treat the environment better, but his pleas fall of deaf - some might say dead - ears. Between the pollution and pesticide sprays, the animals of the island have had enough and decide to take back what is theirs. 

This is another movie where someone treats the environment poorly and all hell rains down upon them. Unlike most other films in this genre, which attempt a sort of thin scientific explanation, Frogs doesn’t even bother to give a reason. Most of the animals used are real (some of the scenes seem to be bolstered with stock footage), not props, which brings a little more credibility to the film, but it also makes it a little more dull. The swamp can be a scary place, but not in Frogs. The animals are overly intelligent and seem to have some sort of inter-species telepathy that allows them to gang up on the humans. Most of the deaths involve the animals getting together and scaring the humans into accidentally killing themselves. If I had to listen to incessant croaking like that all the time, I would probably accidentally kill myself too. 

There’s a relatively high body count with a bit of gore. Frogs is surprisingly well-cast, with Ray Milland making a particularly welcome presence. It’s adequately acted, well directed overall, and the swamp-based set is nice to look at. Unfortunately there are many slow, dialogue heavy scenes. The movie has no major climax, but I disliked most of the characters enough that I was happy to spend 90 minutes watching them die and then have everyone wander off into the sunset. Frogs is flawed, but amusing and is the sort of film to watch in a room full of horror fans. Preferably intoxicated. It’s funny and lighthearted and while it attempts to take itself seriously, there is no way any audience could have done the same. If you like a lot of cheese with your movies, then Frogs is definitely for you. Check out the DVD from MGM. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

BUG (1975)

Jeannot Szwarc, 1975
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Joanna Miles, Richard Gilliland, Jame Smith-Jackson

Please don't watch this movie. You'll thank me. I'm a sucker for animal-attack films, particularly anything involving bugs or spiders, but... no. Just no. This falls squarely under the territory of so-bad-it's-bad, possibly even so-bad-it's-unwatchable. It was the last film produced by the great William Castle, so I wish I had better things to say. Alas.

Super smart cockroaches emerge from the bowels of the earth during a major earthquake. Because that wasn't enough, they're also able to set fire to things, though unfortunately (?) they aren't used to the environment and begin to die off. A resourceful scientist saves some and figures out how to breed them with regular cockroaches, breeding a resilient, intelligent, fire-starting, flying cockroach. Just what the world needs. Needless to say, disaster strikes, though not hard enough to keep this from being the silly, boring snoozefest that it is.

Based on Thomas Page's novel The Hephaestus Plague, I'm wondering if there's any way the book is better than the film, but I'm not brave or masochistic enough to find out. Other than the boredom factor, I have no idea why this film didn't work. It has a ridiculous enough plot and some amusing death scenes. Unfortunately death-by-fire is usually a poor substitute for gore and Bug supports that hypothesis 100%. The plot also dips into too many different sub-genres. Part disaster film, part animals-attack film and part mad scientist sci-fi effort, it's spread too thinly over the map with not enough effort put in any one area.

Check it out if you're feeling up for some self-punishment, otherwise go for Szwarc's far superior Jaws 2. Not as good as Jaws or Jaws 3, but still entertaining. I'm pretty sure you either have to be pre-pubescent or drunk to enjoy Bug. Not being either of those was clearly my mistake. I actually saw it at an all-night horror film fest, when it was screened during the wee hours of the morning. Despite how tired I was, Bug enraged and frustrated me enough to stay awake during its running time. 

Here's a taste:

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Claude Lanzmann, 1985

“Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” – Theodor Adorno

Today, January 27th, in 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet forces. Auschwitz was the largest of all the Nazi death camps and around a million people are believed to have died there. When I say died - and certainly some of them perished from sickness, starvation, the freezing Polish winters, old age, etc. - they were all murdered, regardless of technical cause of death. Though there were many more concentration or “work” camps, there were six camps build specifically for the purposes of mass extermination: Auschwitz, Chelmno, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and in honor of that, I’m reviewing Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s nine and a half hour documentary on the Holocaust, a tremendous and historic piece of filmmaking. (Shoah is the Hebrew word used to describe the Holocaust.) Avoiding common documentary techniques like narration or archival footage, Lanzmann interviews a wide range of subjects and visits key sites. He interviews survivors, bystanders and perpetrators with elegant simplicity and a harrowing directness. Lanzmann begins with two of the most difficult interviews captured throughout the lengthy running time: Simon Srebnik and Mordechaï Podchlebnik, two of the only known survivors of Chelmno. Srebnik relates that he survived because the Nazis enjoyed his youthful singing voice. Podchlebnik, whose appearance in the film is understandably brief, describes how he was kept alive to move corpses. With a mixture of nervous laughter and unimaginable anguish, he explains that he uncovered the body of his wife. 

This opening sets the tone of Shoah, which is less a film-watching experience and more a journey, an educational experience, and an endurance test. I did not watch the film straight through. Time constraints aside, there was simply no way I could have done this. Parts of the film are easier to get through than others. Some are upsetting, frustrating, enraging, hopeful. The best/worst parts of the film are absolutely harrowing. Even though I have an extensive knowledge of Holocaust history and none of the events related during interview were a surprise to me, the only word that describes how I felt during much of Shoah is horror. The only other time I have felt a similar emotion is when I visited Dachau in 2001. I have been an atheist most of my life, but I don’t understand how anyone could continue to believe in God after the existence of the Holocaust. 

"I told them there's not a single corpse in Shoah. The people who arrived at Treblinka, Belzec or Sobibor were killed within two or three hours and their corpses burned. The proof is not the corpses; the proof is the absence of corpses. There were special details who gathered the dust and threw it into the wind or into the rivers. Nothing of them remained." – Claude Lanzmann

Writing and thinking about the film is almost more difficult than watching it. The beauty of Lanzmann’s style of filmmaking is his ability to embrace silence. He does not edit out natural pauses during conversation, highlighting his interviewees' difficulties. During many of these interviews, he inserts footage from the places in question: covered mass graves at Chelmno, crematoria at Auschwitz, etc. In all of these shots, the many moments of silence are more effective than narration could ever have been. 

The voices that do fill up the running time are diverse. Interviews are conducted in French, German, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish and English, with subtitles and often with translators. Lanzmann’s wide range of subjects only begins to capture the breadth of European experience with the Holocaust. In addition to the Chelmno survivors I have already mentioned, Lanzmann sits down with an Auschwitz escapee, a Polish train driver who transported Jews to Treblinka, German guards, all who were filmed secretly, Polish group interviews, Jan Karski, and many more. These men (and a few women) speak primarily about four key subjects: Chelmno and the gas vans used there to murder Jews, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Shoah is relentless, unsensational, meditative and simply tries to document history, not ask questions that there are probably no answers for. There were moments when I didn’t think I would be able to finish the film. The interview with barber Abraham Bomba is almost physically painful to watch and the secretly filmed testimony of SS guard Franz Suchomel is nauseating. He sings a song Jews were forced to learn their first day at Treblinka.

“Looking squarely ahead, 
Brave and joyous at the world,
The squads march to work.

All that matters to us now is Treblinka,
It is our destiny.
That’s why we’ve become one with Treblinka
In no time at all.

We know only the word of our Commander,
We know only obedience and duty.
We want to serve, to go on serving,
Until a little luck ends it all.

When he is finished singing he declares, “No Jews know that today.” This is the key moment where I thought I was going to have to stop. I can’t tell you you’re going to enjoy this film - you are most certainly not - but it is vitally important. It took Lanzmann 11 years and a journey through 14 countries to make this film and you owe it to him and to the survivors of the Holocaust to see it, to briefly experience one of the worst moments in human history. It is estimated that before WWII there were almost 10 million Jews living across Europe and the USSR. About 6 million of them were estimated to be killed during the Holocaust. In Poland, over 90% of Jews were erased from history. The only way they will be remembered is with survivors testimony and films like Shoah

Fortunately Masters of Cinema has released an excellent 4-disc collection and Criterion is rumored to release a version sometime this year. Shoah was recently re-released to limited theatres by IFC and this year Lanzmann is going to be awarded an honorary Golden Bear at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival. Lanzmann’s work has been celebrated with many awards over the years, a teaching position at the European Graduate School, and a French Legion of Honor. His family was forced to go into hiding in Paris during WWII and he joined the French resistance. He has made other documentaries about the Holocaust, such as Pourquoi Israël (1973), about the founding of a Jewish state, Sobibor, 14 octobre 1943, 16 heures (2001), about the revolt in Sobibor, and several others. He is currently the chief editor of Les Tempes Modernes, a journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartes and Simone de Beauvoir and he recently released his memoirs, Le lièvre de Patagonie.

“Making a history was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to construct something more powerful than that.” – Claude Lanzmann

Despite its lengthy running time, Shoah is not able to cover the enormous range of Holocaust experience. The experience of homosexuals, Roma, political prisoners, priests, and Jews in the work camps are not covered. We don’t learn about other ghettos, the horrific camps in Yugoslavia, the tattooing process, Jews in hiding, or more controversial subjects like rape. Post-war experiences such as displacement camps and the founding of Israel are also ignored. If you want to learn more, visit the USC Shoah Foundation online, the D.C. Holocaust Memorial Museum or Yad Vashem in Israel. Learn about the many films, books and works of art dedicated to and inspired by the Holocaust. Learn about the brave survivors and the rare, brave people who risked life and limb for friends, neighbors or complete strangers, such as Chiune Sugihara, who is being honored today. While governments sat back for years and did nothing to stop the wholesale, industrialized murder of millions of people, individuals like Sugihara and the more famous Oskar Schindler, rescued thousands. Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat, stayed up nights with his wife writing fake passports and rescued 6,000 Jews. That, to me, is the meaning of bravery and humanity. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Piers Haggard, 1981
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Nicol Williamson, Sarah Miles, Sterling Hayden, Susan George, Michael Gough

A wealthy family’s ten year old son is kidnapped in his own home by the sexy maid (Susan George), the family’s crazed chauffeur (Oliver Reed), and an international terrorist (Klaus Kinski). They don’t realize that there was a recent mix up at the pet shop  and a snake that was supposed to go to the London Institute of Toxicology was switched with the boy’s pet, so he winds up with a black mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. It escapes and begins to wreak havoc upon the household. The kidnappers are soon trapped in the house by the police, lead by the spirited Commander (Nicol Williamson), who engages in a battle of wits with Kinski’s terrorist. 

I don’t know how this script was actually turned into a film, but that’s the late ‘70s/early ‘80s for you. Though this is more of a straight forward suspense/thriller than horror film, the plot and cast are so insane that it should be ranked at the top of the list for killer snake films. The performances absolutely drive Venom. Reed is delightfully unhinged and you could make a drinking game out of the number of times he calls other characters a bastard, including the kidnapped child. Kinski is more subdued than normal, but as with most of his straighter roles, we can feel the psychosis simmering just beneath the surface. 

Reed and Kinski allegedly hated one another and I’m surprised with that much ego and force of personality on set that the film was ever finished. (I wonder how many takes they did on that bitch slap.) Supposedly they both hated the first director, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, even more than they hated one another and drove him off set to be replaced by Piers Haggard. The supporting cast is equally memorable. Susan George (Straw Dogs, Die Screaming Marianne) is lovely, but is sadly given little screen time. Nicol Williamson (Merlin), John Forbes-Robertson (The Vampire Lovers, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), and Michael Gough are all delightful. 

The death scenes are outrageous, particularly George’s and Kinski’s, as are the effects. Though there are a number of very dramatic deaths, I can’t exactly say that this is a violent or gory film, though it does something most animals attack films from the period were unable to do. Instead of relying on a rubber or mechanical snake, a real black mamba was hired from the London Zoo along with its trainer, David Ball. What a stupid idea. But the snake looks excellent, even in the scenes were a rubber model was clearly necessary for the actors’ safety. Though this isn’t technically an animals attack film, the snake is excellently used and becomes a major character in the film, even though it is little seen. And as in most animals attack films, it gets a lot of fabulous POV shots. 

Oh for the love of all that is holy, the ending. Even if you just dig that up on Youtube, it must be seen to be believed. I don’t want to ruin anything, but it is over the top and sort of bewilderingly stupid, but fits perfectly with this absurd, fun film. Director Piers Haggard (Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu) does a decent job, despite some odd elements, such as a lot of still shots. It seems like he tried to keep production as serious as possible, which must have been a Herculean effort, considering the nature of the script. The film could probably be even more over the top, but is still wonderfully insane in a lot of moments. Michael Kamen (Die Hard and Lethal Weapon) provides an excellent score, giving the film further elements of seriousness and suspense.

The inclusion of Kinski and Reed prevents me from ever thinking this is a bad film, though it is undoubtedly somewhat of an acquired taste. I think it’s fantastic and it comes highly recommended. Check out the Blue Underground disc with a rather unfortunate cover image that implies this is an earlier version of something like Anaconda. Haggard’s commentary track is also worth a listen. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Frederico Prosperi, 1989
Starring: Jill Schoelen, J. Eddie Peck, Jamie Farr, Savina Gersak

Akin to such cinema classics as Tremors, Jaws 3 and Day of the Animals, Curse II: The Bite follows in a great tradition of ridiculous animal-attack movies. If you like campy, absurd excuses for dumb characters to get mutilated and eviscerated by animals that are somehow wrong in the eyes of God and/or nature, then you need to acquire a copy of The Bite ASAP. I know I said I that for animals attack month I wouldn't review movies that involved human-animal hybrids or weres, but The Bite is just too delightful to pass up and is not strictly speaking in that subgenre, even though it seems to be for most of the film. I also said (about two hours ago when I reviewed Killer Crocodile) that I wouldn't review another animals attack film to come out of Italy - because they are all so appallingly bad - but technically this is a U.S.-Japanese-Italian co-production. And it was directed by Frederico Prosperi, brother of Franco Prosperi, the genius behind Wild Beasts, the best Italian animals attack film ever made. 

Allow me to start off by clarifying that Curse II: The Bite has absolutely nothing to do with The Curse, though they are sort of similarly themed. In The Curse, a meteorite crashes to earth and corrupts the water supply, which in turns affects the crops and animals, turning everyone into crazy zombies. In The Bite, a couple travelling through New Mexico runs afoul of some radioactive snakes. The idiotic male lead, Clark, gets bitten and soon his arm transforms into an evil snake. An exciting side effect is a series of Dr. Hyde-like personality changes. For example, he becomes abusive and murderous. Lisa, his girlfriend, soon begins to figure out what is going on. Can she save herself and other innocent people from the killer snakes from Hell? Can she save Clark and find a way to reverse the damage? Probably not.

This movie is more wildly entertaining than it has any right to be, with some imaginative effects and disgusting gore. It also has a touch of the mean-spiritedness that graces so many '70s and early '80s slasher films. The Bite is certainly not for anyone who expects a serious horror film or for anyone who can't suspend their disbelief long enough to get past the concept of radioactive snakes with venom that causes some serious mutations. The characters are vapid and all basically deserve to die, but if you can get to the ending, you're in for a treat. There's some laughable acting, but who doesn't expect that from a film called Curse II: The Bite

There might not be any motherfucking snakes on any motherfucking planes, but this movie absolutely tops any of the terrible '90s killer snake movies, adding a healthy dose of panache and creativity lacking in its more popular brethren. Anaconda, I am referring to you. Check it out. You can find it on a split DVD with The Curse from MGM.


Fabrizio De Angelis, 1989
Starring: Richard Anthony Crenna, Sherrie Rose, Van Johnson, Ennio Girolami

I don’t care what it is or how interesting or important it is, but after Killer Crocodile I am not reviewing another Italian animals attack film. With all of the themed months I’ve done for my blog so far, I’ve learned an important lesson. For example, during Bond month I learned that I incorrectly judged Roger Moore. Though he may not be Sean Connery, he is a delightful Bond. During animals attack month, I’ve learned that I passionately hate Italian Jaws rip offs. I like many other genres of cheap Italian exploitation and horror films, but I hate these. Hate them. Last week, the few days I spent reviewing Italian shark films, I nearly lost the will to live.

Killer Crocodile is marginally better, because it involves a crocodile instead of a shark (or a mystery octopus hybrid), but perhaps “marginally” is an exaggeration. This movie is terrible. A group of the most idiotic environmentalist types invade a tropical swamp to investigate a corporation that has been polluting the area with toxic chemicals. They get what they deserve (for their sheer idiocy) and a giant crocodile begins to pick them off one by one. They make this incredibly easy by spending as much time in the swamp as possible and by doing things like leaning out of boats, hanging out within easy reach of the crocodile, and, in case I failed to mention it, by being the most extreme kind of idiots. 

Richard Crenna’s son Richard Anthony Crenna (an extra in The Blob remake and the wonderful Predator 2) stars as Kevin. Though none of the acting or characterizations are good and the dialogue is horrifying, Crenna’s character Kevin has to be the worst thing about this film. He’s simply horrible and must be one of the most unlikable characters ever written. He is initially against the killing of the rampaging, man-eating croc, but because director and screenwriter Fabrizio De Angelis (producer on many of Lucio Fulci’s films) hates his audience, Kevin is the hero. He inexplicably blows up the crocodile with a boat propeller, though that is just one of many ridiculous, illogical elements of the plot.

If anyone should have been the hero it is Joe, played by Ennio Girolami (Nights of Cabiria, Tenebre, 1990: The Bronx Warriors). Joe shoots the crocodile and then harpoons it. When these things are ineffective, he proceeds to jump on the back of the crocodile, ride it, and continue stabbing it with a harpoon. Sadly, he is killed by the crocodile while Kevin looks on like the asshole he is. 

I hate this movie. Many other things about it are lousy. The voiceovers are worse than usual, the camera work is dreadful, they steal the Jaws theme, and, to add insult to injury, I couldn’t even find anything likable about the incredibly fake crocodile. For some reason Killer Crocodile was shot at the same time as its sequel Killer Crocodile 2, which I could not bring myself to watch. Killer Crocodile is not available on region 1 DVD, though I don’t know why you would want to find it at all. 


Lewis Teague, 1980
Starring: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Michael Gazzo

"Beneath Those Manholes, A Man-Eater Is Waiting..."

After Grizzly and Piranha, Alligator stands as one of the absolute best animals attack films and Jaws rip offs of all time. Like Piranha, this is clearly a labor of love from cast and crew alike and it is impossible to watch this movie and not have a good time. A girl’s father flushes her pet alligator, Ramón, down the toilet at their home in Chicago. Fortunately little Ramón doesn’t die, he winds up in the sewer system. Years later, after accidentally ingesting pets drugged with an experimental growth hormone, Ramón expands to an enormous size and develops a taste for man flesh. He soon frees himself from the sewer and goes on a rampage through the city. A disgruntled, down on his luck cop, David, is partnered with a reptile expert, Marisa, to stop the gargantuan crocodilian before he eats the entire city. 

Let this be a lesson to you: don’t flush pets down the toilet. In a delightful yet ridiculous twist, the girl whose beloved Ramón got flushed down the toilet winds up being the herpetologist Marisa, all grown up and ready to be the main love interest. What are the odds? There is an understandable stereotype about how sexy leading ladies playing scientists is ridiculous, but I think I saw Alligator at a young enough age to believe it. Plus I really, really wanted to be a herpetologist from ages 10 to 13, right after my paleontologist phase. Robin Riker is a rare example of an un-obnoxious female lead in a '70s horror film. I don’t think she’s a true equal for Robert Forster’s character, but she carries her role believably.

There are two stars in this film. The first is the wonderful Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), who brings seriousness, humor and emotion to his role as the unfortunate, balding cop. Supposedly the hair loss jokes were going to be taken out, but they’re a perfect example of why this film works when so many other similar horror films fail. Forster is absolutely the reason to see this film and I don't understand why he isn't more well known. 

Ramón, the titular alligator, is the other star. He lurks about for the beginning of the film, but when he makes an entrance by busting out of the sewer system, the action becomes incredible and non-stop. His path of destruction is relatively gory and there’s a high body count. He rips off limbs, chews people up, swallows a few whole, and creates all around devastation. Ramón even gleefully feasts on a child, a few cops, businessmen, a wedding party, etc. He also coincidentally makes his way across the city for the sole purpose of destroying the lab responsible for the growth hormone. The effects used to create Ramón are a combination of a real alligator on a miniaturized set, a mechanical alligator, and some clever camera work. I particularly love the alligator P.O.V. shots and the numerous scenes of him blinking. 

Director Lewis Teague (Cujo, The Jewel of the Nile) really gives it his all and does an excellent job with AlligatorThe script by John Sayles (who worked with Joe Dante and wrote Piranha and The Howling) comes close to spoofing the animals attack genre, but in the most loving way possible. The characters are likable and even the alligator is endearing. There is also a nice mixture of suspense and violence, despite the light-hearted tone of the film. 

This beloved movie comes highly recommended and is the perfect thing to watch when you want an ‘80s horror film that doesn't take itself very seriously, but manages to be charming and charismatic. There’s a basic DVD from Lion’s Gate. I would have to say that this is a purchase, not a rental, but for the love of all that is holy, do not watch the direct-to-video sequel, Alligator II: The Mutation. It has nothing to do with the first film other than completely ripping off the plot. But in a bad, non-entertaining sort of way. Just don't watch it. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Sergio Martino, 1979
Starring: Barbara Bach, Mel Ferrer, Claudio Cassinelli

The first thing that has to be addressed with The Great Alligator aka The Big Alligator River aka Il fiume del grande caimano is that there is no alligator in the movie. It’s a damn crocodile. I don’t know what idiot American decided to put “alligator” in the English title, but it’s not an alligator. The film was shot in Asia and Sri Lanka. There are no alligators there, only CROCODILES. (Ok, there are some alligators in China, but we are clearly not in the jungles of China.)

Anyway, The Great Alligator is very similar to Jaws. Daniel, a photographer travels to an isolated resort in the jungle to take promotional pictures for the owner, Joshua. Soon his model disappears after a nighttime tryst with one of the local tribesman and he and Ali, an anthropologist working at the hotel, go in search of her. They learn that Kruna, a crocodile god worshipped by the local Kuma tribe, is getting revenge on the tourists and eating his way through a smorgasbord of guests and natives alike. Joshua doesn’t believe them and refuses to shut down; he goes a step further and tries to have Daniel and Ali “removed.” Kruna makes a grand appearance and Daniel, Ali and the hotel guests have to run for their lives from his giant, gnashing jaws.

This action-adventure-animals attack film is director Sergio Martino’s attempt to cash in on the Jaws phenomenon. Martino is one of my favorite Italian directors. I recently finished a zine dedicated to his career. Early on, Martino made some great giallo films: The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark, Your Vice is a  Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, and so on. Soon after he switched to exploitation with films like The Great Alligator, 2019: After the Fall of New York, Island of the Fishmen, Mountain of the Cannibal God, etc. And make no mistake, The Great Alligator is more of an action/exploitation film than it is a horror movie. For starters, it is incredibly racist. The jungle natives are portrayed in a manner pretty typical of Italian exploitation. To Martino’s credit, most of the characters are unlikable savages, whether they are greedy white tourists or loin cloth-clad natives. This, of course, makes the Kruna, the giant crocodile god that begins to massacre everyone in sight, the most likable character. 

The acting is decent and everyone tries to be as serious as possible, despite their often ridiculous dialogue. Martino-regular Claudio Cassinelli is great as the photographer and is a capable leading man, even though the crocodile upstages him for the second half of the film. Bond girl Barbara Bach is lovely as always. Mel Ferrer provides some credibility, though it’s hard to believe he has fallen this low. He and Bach also appeared in Martino’s more ridiculous Island of the Fishmen, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Horror fans take note: Bobby Rhodes of Demons and Demons 2 also appears in a small role, though lacking the stellar dialogue from Demons. “Holy shit, she’s a friend of mine!”

The simple, direct script for The Great Alligator had a lot of contributors. In addition to Sergio Martino and the wonderful Ernesto Gastaldi, Martino’s long time collaborator, credit also go to one of my favorite actors and exploitation writers, George Eastman (also responsible for Porno Holocaust), as well as Cesare Frugoni (Rabid Dogs). There are some unnecessary side plots and extraneous characters, which only makes it more satisfying when they wind up as fodder for Kruna. 

The effects are appalling, but Martino makes the most of the limited budget and beautiful surroundings. The cinematography from Giancarlo Ferrando, another Martino collaborator is lovely. The alligator/crocodile looks like a plastic log most of the time, though he is fortunately not shown very often. In addition to the crocodile’s gleeful scenes of destruction, there is some resort-related humor, namely a disco dancing party and a little girl (Sylvia Collatina from House by the Cemetery) who calls her mother out on having an affair with one of the other guests. 

The Great Alligator comes recommended, simply for being so much fun despite itself. The only thing I genuinely dislike about this film is the insanely repetitive score from Stelvio Cipriani. The first ten minutes, it’s outrageous and kind of likable. The second ten minutes, it’s hilarious. By 30 minutes into the film I wanted to burst into flame. The Great Alligator is not one of Martino’s most accessible films (I mean in terms of availability, not content), but it is out on DVD. I wish someone would release a box set of his giallo films and a second set with his best exploitation efforts, this included. For Martino fans who can get to Ohio in April, he is going to make an appearance at Cinema Wasteland this year!!!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Joe Dante, 1978
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn

"They're eating the guests, sir."

I am a little bit in love with Piranha. Allegedly this is Steven Spielberg’s favorite Jaws rip off and it is undoubtedly the... second best. After Grizzly of course. This Roger Corman produced film was one of the most successful for his New World Pictures label, which he created after retiring from the director’s chair. Good to see his dedication to cheesy B-horror films didn’t wane. 

After two teenagers go missing (they are eaten by piranhas, of course), a young, enthusiastic private investigator, Maggie, is hired to track them down. She coerces a local, the curmudgeonly alcoholic Paul, to be her guide and partner in crime. They soon discover an abandoned military lab with strange mutated fish specimen and a crazy scientist that attacks them. Maggie accidentally drains a pond, unleashing mutant piranha into the river. After the scientist (who she knocked out) comes to, he explains that the deadly fish were a military experiment intended for use in the Vietnam War. Paul and Maggie race against time, the local police and a military team to warn the local summer camp and a new water park before everyone is devoured by piranha. 

The reason Piranha succeeds so thoroughly is because of the obvious enthusiasm behind the project. All of the actors seem delighted to be on set and are a joy to watch. 
Heather Menzies (SSSSSSS) and Bradford Dillman have good chemistry and are likable, though I can’t help but feel that Menzies could have been replaced by P.J. Soles. Menzies is sufficiently sassy and heroic, so I am probably just saying that out of my need for more Soles-helmed movies. There are a lot of great side characters and perfect casting across the board. Dick Miller (Gremlins among many other Corman films) is the asshole businessman who hilariously keeps everyone in the water just to make sure he turns a profit. The lovely, though somewhat aged Barbara Steele makes a welcome appearance as a military science. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is great as the paranoid scientist, though he has too little screen time. He did get one of the best death scenes, though. Paul Bartel, director of one of my favorite films, Death Race 2000, plays the uptight head of the summer camp and is one of my favorite characters. 

Director Joe Dante does a marvelous job, as always. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he’s responsible for some of the best genre films of the ‘80s: The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, shut up, I like it), Gremlins (1984), The ‘Burbs (1989), etc. The effects from Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett are simple and effective, mostly relying on some corn syrup and food coloring, prosthetics, murky water and fast camera action. The gore is believable and some of it is pretty gruesome, including eaten feet, a bitten off nipple, and several chewed up corpses. The rapid fire fish attacks are perfect. You see enough of the piranhas to believe you are seeing more than you really are, but they are never given the time to look silly. Except maybe that walking piranha in the lab, but he’s endearing in a Gremlins sort of way. The underwater photography is murky and believable. The great thing with water-related violence is that you don’t need to show much other than blood in the water to be effective.  

“Come on, I would have thought you could take a man’s pants off quicker than that!”

Piranha is funny and suspenseful. It’s one of the best ‘70s summer horror films and if you haven’t seen it, it comes highly recommended. The script is light-hearted, witty and simple. The characters are irritating in an endearing sort of way and the bad dialogue is bad in a way that makes you want to celebrate. Dante includes some in-jokes and references to Jaws, such as Menzies introduction while she’s playing a Jaws arcade game. There are explosions, car chases, Menzies knocks several people unconscious, there is some unfortunate water skiing and a mild amount of nudity. In terms of subtext, there are hints at the evils of consumerism and the war in Vietnam, though Dante is careful not to beat us over the head with any political message. The score from Pino Donaggio (who would work with Dante again on The Howling) is wonderful. 

There’s a wonderful Shout Factory release on DVD or Blu-ray with a ton of special features. The commentary with Dante is a must, plus a making-of, trailers, stills galleries, bloops, behind the scenes, etc. Because Piranha was so beloved, it spawned several sequels. The first and best is Piranha 2: The Spawning, director James Cameron’s first film. Piranha was bizarrely remake for Showtime in 1995. In 2010 the film was remade again, however loosely, as Piranha 3D and followed up with Piranha 3DD in 2012. The latter two have more of a slasher movie feel and focus more on sex and nudity. Though incredibly stupid, Piranha 3D was actually entertaining. I couldn’t bring myself to see Piranha 3DD.


Michael Anderson, 1977
Starring: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Bo Derek, Robert Carradine

"As parents they are exemplary, better than many human beings. And like human beings, they have a profound instinct... for vengeance."

I never thought I would write these words, but I think animals attack month is really exhausting me. And Orca is just... well, like Tentacles, White Buffalo, and The Swarm, it’s an attempt by a major studio to cash in on the success of Jaws by churning out an absurd script, dumping money into A-list actors who simply seem bewildered about the film they’re in, and using a combination of questionable creature effects. Orca rises slightly above the fold because of its insane and somewhat complicated premise. 

A sea captain is trying to make money by capturing a great white shark. This goes awry and he is almost killed, but is rescued by a killer whale. Nolan, the captain, becomes obsessed with capturing a killer whale instead. That’s gratitude for you. In a gruesome scene, he accidentally captures a pregnant female, who tries to kill herself, miscarries, and then dies. The enraged, grief stricken male orca vows bloody revenge on Nolan and his crew and, soon, a small coastal village. The village wants Nolan to hunt and kill the whale, but a whale expert, Dr. Bedford, gets involves and educates Nolan, encouraging him to leave the animal alone. And because science wasn’t enough, a local Native American gets involved and explains the spiritual and instinctual reasons for leaving the whale unmolested. The whale causes massive amounts of destruction, forcing Nolan to confront the mammoth, (justifiably) angry animal. 

The great (and often intoxicated) Richard Harris is one of the chief reasons to see Orca. In addition to doing almost all his own stunts, he has a Moby Dick-like arc to his character, where he relates to the whale because his wife and child were also killed (by a drunk driver, not another lunatic seaman). Plus it’s Richard Harris. I could probably watch him read the dictionary and not get bored. The beautiful Charlotte Rampling does her best to be serious as the sensitive whale expert, Dr. Bedford, though there’s not a lot she can do to save the role. Will Sampson (The White Buffalo, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) appears as an unfortunately stereotypical Native American, Dr. Bedford’s counterpart. The lovely Bo Derek makes her film debut here and impressively thrashed around with a broken leg in one memorable scene. All the actors really do their best, but they can’t fight past absurd, laughable dialogue and a silly premise. 

Though some rubber whales were used as props, most shots of the titular orca are of a trained killer whale from the San Francisco aquarium. Sadly, this meant that a lot of the shots are split and the whale does not seem to be convincingly part of the action. If you can get past this, some of the attack scenes are pretty impressive and the early scene of the female orca miscarrying and trying to kill herself is rather brutal. If Orca succeeds at anything, it does manage to convincingly anthropomorphicize the whale to the extent that he feels like a character. As a result his revenge is very satisfying. 

Oddly, there is a beautiful score from Ennio Morricone, which deserves to be heard even if you don’t want to see the film. It certainly provides an added element of gravity and pathos to what is unavoidably a ridiculous film. Director Michael Anderson (Around The World In 80 DaysShake Hands With The Devil, Logan’s Run) does his best and I think most of the blame has to go to producer Dino De Laurtentiis, ruiner of so many things. After that King Kong remake, someone should have put a stop to his animals attack films. Though he hired Sergio Leone collaborators Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati to write Orca, not even they could save it. Though one has to wonder exactly how De Laurentiis made that pitch. 

Orca is available as a basic DVD from Paramount. I don’t know if I can recommend it, but if you enjoyed Tentacles, you should probably watch it. This movie really, really wants to take itself seriously and is quite enthusiastic, which inadvertently results in more laughs. You could do a lot worse as far as aquatic horror is concerned. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

HORROR EUROPA with Mark Gatiss

John Das, 2012
Starring: Mark Gatiss

The absolutely wonderful Mark Gatiss - one of my favorite people working in film, television, theater, radio, and more - followed up his three-part 2010 horror documentary for the BBC, A History of Horror, with the 90 minute Horror Europa. Where A History of Horror focused on British and American genre films, Horror Europa explores European horror, beginning with German cinema in the '20s through the ‘70s, essentially ending with John Carpenter’s Halloween, when European tastes and traditions came to the U.S.

I haven’t seen A History of Horror, but it was very well reviewed and I absolutely loved Horror Europa. It comes highly recommended and will be of interest to horror connoisseurs and newbies alike. Gatiss is mesmerizing: intelligent, articulate, well-dressed, handsome and thankfully dispels all notions that horror nerds have to be overweight, un-showered, unsuccessful and live in their parents’ basements. While I hate to disrespect my fellow horror fans, I think it's time to appreciate horror as a more multifaceted environment. Gatiss brings class and credibility to this. He begins with German Expressionism and moves through Belgium, post-war France, Italy in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Franco-era Spain and more. Gatiss discusses and analyzes a wide range of films including The Man Who Laughs, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Les Diabolique, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, La residencia, Eyes Without a Face, Deep Red, Who Can Kill a Child? and many, many more. 

Gatiss doesn’t just talk about the films and show clips. He goes on a journey around Europe, visiting locations in eight different countries where the films in question were shot, and interviews personalities associated with the films when possible, such as Dario Argento, Edith Scob, Harry Kümel, etc. Gatiss also provides historical context and theorizes the impact political climates - such as WWI and WII, fascist Spain and a more prosperous Italy - had on the films. He inserts humor and personality and helps show that these films, despite their long history being shunned by academics and art house cinephiles, are living, breathing embodiments of the cultures in which they were created. 

My only real complaint is that I wish we had gotten three hour long episodes, as with A History of Horror. On a more minor note, there are a few random modern films thrown in, namely the works of Guillermo del Toro. I understand that he is a major horror personality, is knowledgable, has made a number of successful films and is a pleasing interview subject, but I would prefer to see him in a sequel to Horror Europa focusing on recent genre efforts. Plus... he is not European. He’s from Mexico, a country with a rich and exciting horror history of its own and worthy of more attention. 

In addition to writing and presenting Horror Europa, Gatiss has also written a number of Doctor Who scripts and novels, the Lucifer Box series of novels, a biography of the director James Whale and They Came From Outer Space!: Alien Encounters In The Movies. He has acted in Doctor Who, Sherlock, Jekyll, and Psychoville, among many other things, as well as being a founding member of The League of Gentlemen and the co-creator of Sherlock with his friend and Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat. He wrote and acted in Crooked House, one of the BBC’s traditional Christmas ghost stories and wrote Horror Europa. The list goes on. He is an ideal figure for both A History of Horror and Horror Europa, as he grew up with and still maintains an obvious love of horror films. 

Though Horror Europa isn’t available on DVD, check it out on Youtube. It aired this past October for Halloween on the BBC4. According to Gatiss, Horror Europa is not the end of his documentary series on horror films and he would like to do more. 

Blixa Bargeld Cooks Risotto

Blixa Bargeld, of Einstürzende Neubauten and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, is one of my favorite musicians and artists. He has a limited film career, appearing most famously in Wim Wenders' Der Himmel Über Berlin (as himself, performing in the Bad Seeds), a number of music videos and - randomly - as the shrieking-screaming-growling vocal effects for the Mummy in Stephen Sommers' action remake of The Mummy from 1999.

This video of him cooking risotto is one of the most romantic things I have ever seen.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Ovido G. Assonitis, 1977
Starring: John Huston, Shelley Winters, Henry Fonda, Bo Hopkins

“This isn’t candy, it’s passion.”

Tentacles is yet another Jaws rip off, except this time with a giant, rage-filled octopus tearing up a small, coastal town in the middle of summer regatta season. The menacing  cephalopod snatches a baby off the shore immediately after opening credits, then spends the next hundred minutes ravaging swimmers, scuba divers and sailing enthusiasts alike, as well as some of the characters’ wives and children. A journalist, his nosy sisters, and a killer whale trainer try to help the local police get to the bottom of things. It seems some unsanctioned radio signal tests done by a local businessman are to blame and have set the killer octopus on its path of fury. Astoundingly, the whale trainer convinces his beloved orcas to hunt down and decimate the tentacled terror. 

Tentacles, despite the promising title and premise, is terrible, but almost in a fascinating way. Like the following year’s killer bee movie and one of my favorite animals attack films of all time, The Swarm, Tentacles has a cast of A-list actors, a lengthy running time (though The Swarm outdoes it by 55 minutes), enough plot holes to sink a ship, atrocious dialogue, and an antagonist we almost never see. Though it can’t hold up to the charms of The Swarm (what can?), for some reason I begrudgingly like Tentacles. Honestly it is worth watching just to see an aged, chubby Shelley Winters, costumed in everything from a horrid dressing gown to the world’s largest sombrero. And she does have some choice dialogue. 

Most of the other actors seem bored. Though there are some fun scenes, the film is slow and talky, with Winters either rambling on, or Huston interviewing people and talking on the phone. A lot. At least he tries to chew scenery with gusto, though for a character who begins as the protagonist, he is quickly no where to be found. And Henry Fonda, cast in this film for no reason I can discern, seems unsure how he found himself on the set. There are many unnecessary side characters, weird dubbing and the most out of place score imaginable. It was composed by Stelvio Cipriani, also responsible for Nightmare City (a score I actually like) and the almost psychotically annoying score for Sergio Martino’s The Great Alligator

The octopus, though little seen, looks pretty good and I prefer the murky, shot-with-miniatures and guy-underwater-holding-a-tentacle approach next to bad CGI any day. The killer whales vs. giant octopus ending is particularly wonderful and has some catastrophically awful dialogue and music. Parts of it are vague and boring, so don’t be afraid to use your imagination. The music will help with that. 

Tentacles was directed by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis, who regularly worked with American International Pictures. That explains why this is an American-Italian co-production, has an international cast and the trademark dubbing. Assonitis also directed Beyond the Door (1974) and Piranha II (1981), though he was uncredited on the latter. He produced one of my favorite killer snake films, Curse II: The Bite (1988), which is not in fact a sequel to The Curse (1987). He either has the best or worst surname, but I can’t decide.

Assonitis also worked with John Huston and Shelley Winters (and Mel Ferrer, Sam Peckinpah, Glenn Ford and Lance Henriksen) as a producer on The Visitor (1979), which I am now dying to see. According to IMDB, “The soul of a young girl with telekinetic powers becomes the prize in a fight between the forces of God and the Devil.” Wouldn’t you know an uncredited Franco Nero plays Jesus Christ. 

Anyway - clearing my head of that delightful vision - if you want to subject yourself to Tentacles, MGM’s wonderful Midnite Movies series released this as a double feature with Empire of the Ants (also 1977). Really, almost everything about this movie is bad, so watch at your own risk. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Jeff Bleckner, 1996
Starring: William Petersen, Karen Sillas, Charles Martin Smith, Ronald Guttman

This 1996 made-for-TV movie is the second exception (Deep Blue Sea was the first) to my “no movies made after 1990” rule for animals attack month. I can’t really explain why The Beast beat out such ridiculous fare as Anaconda or Snakes on a Plane, because - make no mistake - it is not a good film. At all. And yet it came out during that still-magical period (middle school through high school) when I would watch any kind of deplorable crap that was remotely horror-themed and really enjoy it. If memory serves me correctly, The Beast was one of those dependable Sci-Fi channel repeats, back when they spelled their name correctly and didn’t churn out awful TV films littered with the cheapest and worst CGI known to man. 

A yachting couple disappear and their empty lifeboat is found by Whip Dalton, a local fisherman somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. There is a strange claw in the side of the boat and he sends it to a nearby marine biologist, Dr. Talley, to be analyzed. Talley realizes it’s from the tentacle of a Giant squid and comes to convince Dalton something must be done. A squid is killed by another local, but to Talley and Dalton’s horror, it turns out to be a baby Giant squid. Dalton, Talley and a number of others go on an expedition to hunt the squid with cyanide darts. They are sabotaged by a member of their crew who wants to capture the squid alive. Predictably, the enraged animal decimates the boat and several crew members. After confronting the Giant squid with an axe, because that’s plausible, Dalton is forced to blow it up. Surprise. 

The Beast is another adaptation of Peter Benchley’s ocean horror films, all of which pale in comparison to the cinematic marvel that is Jaws. Even though it was written by Benchley himself, The Beast is basically a lazy Jaws rip off with a giant squid instead of a giant shark and less likable characters. There will never be another Quint, despite William Peterson’s best efforts. Oh yes, this is a William Peterson vehicle, after his appearance in William Friedkin’s wonderful To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and his starring role in Manhunter (1986), but before his highly successful run on CSI (2000 - 2011). 

There’s some decent acting from a pretty solid cast, including Peterson, who chews scenery with gusto,  Ronald Guttman (The Hunt for Red October), Karen Silas (Female Perversions, What Happened Was...), Charles Martin Smith (The Untouchables, American Graffiti), etc. There are also predictably good production values, but unfortunately this will never be anything more than average. The three hour running time draws out the pace and suspense as much as possible. Director Jeff Bleckner has done a lot of television work (Boston Legal, Private Practice, Castle) and was probably not the ideal candidate for a horror action miniseries about a giant squid, but he does a serviceable job here. He also has a fantastic mustache

This is a pretty standard miniseries in the sense that it’s not terrible, but not that great either. It’s fairly lazy and lacks in the suspense department, but there are a few rollicking action sequences with Peterson fending off the little seen squid. The Beast an amusing way to pass the time for anyone who loves Jaws rip offs or giant squids. I really love it, but I can’t recommend it. If you’re feeling brave, pick up the two-disc, uncut version from Shout Factory. It may be long, but it is better than the badly cut print first released on DVD. You want to see the optimal amount of squid, don’t you? And speaking of the actual giant squid, Architeuthis, there is finally a bit of deep sea footage of the real thing

Friday, January 18, 2013


Renny Harlin, 1999
Starring: LL Cool J, Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport

When I decided to do a themed animals attack month, I set my limit to the year 1990, so that I could avoid all the horrible SyFy films made in the past 20 years, among certain other things. With two exceptions. The first is Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, surely one of the greatest shark attack movies ever made. On the surface -- based on poster art, advertisements, and so on -- it seems like another lousy, run-of-the-mill Jaws rip off. But it is easily one of the most entertaining horror films to come out of the late ‘90s and if you have a bad opinion of it, you owe it to yourself to watch it one more time, perhaps with some altered expectations. 

On an underwater, part-submarine research facility, Aquatica, scientists are studying sharks to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. One of the lead scientists, Dr. Susan McAlester, secretly and illegally mutates a group of Mako sharks to get more brain tissue, which in turn makes the sharks larger, faster, and more intelligent. One of the center’s financial backers, Russell Franklin, comes to check out the facility after a shark escapes and attacks local boaters. But during his visit the sharks become more dangerous and unpredictable, killing several Aquatica staff members. To make matters worse, an enormous storm moves in and prevents them from leaving the facility and forces them inevitably towards a showdown of man vs. super shark. 

Director Renny Harlin is known for his delightful action films, such as Die Hard 2 (1990) and the unappreciated The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), though genre fans will know him for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) and the awful Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). He was the perfect choice for Deep Blue Sea. The great thing about this film is that it doesn’t try to be anything more than an action movie with giant killer sharks. There are a lot of explosions and some fantastic attack scenes, and all the main characters wind up trapped in a fiery aquarium research facility of death, one that is collapsing down around them even as it gives the sharks free range. The film also manages to subvert many of our expectations during the second half. The characters are almost all established from stock types, but the movie repeatedly puts them in comical or surprising situations that I wouldn’t want to spoil. 

As is typical with late ‘90s horror attempting to be A instead of B-movies, this has a relatively famous cast. Thomas Jane had one of his early leading roles here as the disgruntled shark tamer and does a reasonable job with the lousy dialogue he is given. His counterpart, Saffron Burrows, who plays the lead scientist, is terrible in comparison. Actually, I think everyone in this film is better than she is. She's a somewhat accomplished actress, both on stage and screen, so maybe she was just miscast. Her character is certainly unlikable, a stone-cold bitch whose drive to cure Alzheimer’s puts the lives of everyone at risk. 

Michael Rapaport and Stellan Skarsgård are both good in supporting roles, though the two real reasons to watch this movie are Samuel L. Jackson and LL Cool J. Laugh, if you will, but LL makes the most of some dumb lines and is surprisingly compelling as the superstitious, religious facility cook with a pet parrot. Samuel L. Jackson’s role in this film is an absolute work of art, but again, I don’t want to spoil it. 

The worst thing about Deep Blue Sea is the CGI. Some of the effects -- such as the real and mechanical sharks -- are decent, but the CGI sharks and attacks are just appalling. Maybe they were state of the art in 1999, but I remember cringing when I saw the film during its theatrical run. The digital doubles of the actors are particularly bad. But this is a movie made in 1999 about mutated killer sharks. All you need to focus on is its almost defiant refusal to take itself seriously and have as much fun as possible. It’s silly, fast paced, and blithely ignores any and all plot holes, distracting the audience with surprise shark attacks as often as possible. It comes highly recommended. There’s a DVD and a Blu-ray. Both share the same supplements: a commentary with Renny Harlin and Samuel L. Jackson, featurettes, a trailer, and deleted scenes.