Review : Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator, directed by Stuart Gordon and released in 1985, is loosely based on a novella written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1922. The film was distributed by Empire Pictures (the company created by Charles Band before Full Moon). Re-Animator has reached the status of cult classic over the years.

Re-Animator tells the story of Herbert West, a medical student who succeeded in creating a serum which can re-animate dead bodies. In Zurich, he manages to bring his dead professor back to life but there are disgusting side effects as the dosage was too high. Accused of killing the professor, Herbert West moves to New England and enrolls in university to further his studies. When he demonstrates to his roommate, Dan, the power of his discovery, the latter joins him to further test the serum. This leaves the students expelled from school with a trail of re-animated corpses behind them.

Re-animator is the perfect example of a horror comedy done right. The mad scientist premise has been used countless times and, on paper, it sounds a bit ridiculous. Instead of working against it, the film completely embraces it and does exactly what should be done : it goes over the top and delivers a gory experience with plenty of dark humor. I loved the tone of Re-Animator and its unique style. It has a good rhythm and is never boring.

The story being a mix of Frankenstein and zombies, it offers a reflexion on the God complex that is often associated on screen to scientists and doctors and the acceptance of our own mortality. Add to that a high dose of blood and gore and gags, and you get the perfect entertaining cinematic experience. Of course, Re-Animator has its flaws and I could nitpick as I often like to do. I also could list everything that doesn’t make sense. I won’t bother because this film has good acting, a fun story, great practical effects and this is all I wanted !

Finally, I just want to write a few words about what is, in my opinion, the greatest strenght of the film : Jeffrey Combs’ performance as Herbert West. It may be the first time I thought an actor acting over the top was brilliant and made the right choice. He absolutely nails the part of the scientist slowly descending into madness. The rest of the cast does a fine job as well but I do believe Re-Animator would be nothing without Jeffrey Combs.

If you love horror, you are bound to love Re-Animator. I have no clue why it took me so long to watch this classic and I can see myself rewatching it several times in the future. Learn from my mistakes : don’t wait any longer, watch it now!

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Review : Phenomena (1985)

Phenomena, released in 1985, was directed by Dario Argento. I must start this review by stating that I am not very familiar with Dario Argento and his body of work. In fact, Phenomena is the first Argento film I have ever watched. Unfortunately, Phenomena doesn’t entice me to watch more of his films, or at least, not in the very near future.

Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) is the daughter of a famous actor. Her father sends her to a boarding school in Switzerland to offer her the best education possible while he is away working. Jennifer is not an ordinary girl : she has a telepathic connection with insects. Furthermore, there is a killer on the loose targeting the boarding school students. Did I mention we also get to meet an entomologist with a monkey nurse ? Feeling confused ? You should because the plot of this film is a mess.

From what I have read, Argento’s films are often praised for their score. At times, the music becomes an essential component of the unsettling atmosphere in Phenomena, especially when the music suddenly stops thus increasing the tension greatly. Unfortunately, the use of music in the film is extremely odd and the songs never seem right with the scenes they are paired with. Jennifer Connelly is slowly walking in the woods…with heavy metal blasting at full volume. The songs are always inappropriate and it becomes distracting and quite annoying.

I found most of the dialogs poorly written and poorly delivered. Jennifer Connelly gives a stiff and wooden performance and the rest of the cast doesn’t shine either. Donald Pleasance unfortunately isn’t in the film much and his character isn’t given much to do anyway. My favourite character (and the one who gives the best performance) is the monkey. I am not comparing him to the human actors of course, but given how difficult it must be to work with animals on set, his performance is incredible.

For a film featuring a killer targeting students of a boarding school, I never felt a sense of menace. It is almost as if the killings are a tertiary subplot. Phenomena lingers too much and made me lose interest in the plot rapidly to the point where I wasn’t what the film’s main focus was supposed to be. Phenomena doesn’t know what kind of film it’s trying to be : a thriller, a slasher or a supernatural mystery. The result is a bit of a mess.

The final act feels like a completely different movie. The killer is a character we have met earlier in the film but the reveal is a cheat as there were no clues pointing to the killer’s identity. And the killer’s motivation ? A huge WTF moment that comes out of nowhere and makes little sense. But I guess it doesn’t matter because I lost interest long before the third act began. The ending was also weird and is quite a disappointment. I will not spoil which character saves the day but it was definitely the final blow and got a final “WTF” out of me.

I clearly did not enjoy my first entry into Dario Argento’s filmography. The film is a mess, most of it makes little sense, the use of music is atrocious and the performances are not very good. I cannot say it’s a horrible movie, because it’s not and there is indeed good cinematography and a good atmosphere. Ultimately, and though I will wait to watch a few more of his films to have a definite opinion, I think Argento’s work isn’t for me.

Review : Maniac Cop (1988)

Maniac Cop is a slasher directed by William Lustig (director of the original Maniac eight years earlier). The film stars Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon and Tom *motherfucking* Atkins.

The story takes place in New York City where a maniac dressed in a police uniform is killing innocent people. Jack, a police officer, is arrested after his wife is found dead, leaving behind a journal in which she expresses her fear that Jack might be the maniac cop. It is up to him and a fellow officer to catch the real killer to put an end to the rampage and clear his name.

Maniac Cop has a simple yet great premise. Unfortunately, the film abandons ideas as soon as they are introduced. The result is an entertaining slasher but not a memorable one. The film’s cult status might be largely due to Bruce Campbell’s and Tom Atkins’ fans because Maniac Cop is pretty tamed for a 80’s slasher. It is not particularly bloody and the murders are not graphic. Furthermore, our main villain is not nearly scary enough (if more efforts had been put into the make-up, the film would have benefited greatly and been scarier).

Though the film never takes full advantage of its promising story, it is never boring. There is enough intrigue and the characters are likable enough to keep you wanting to get to the bottom of it. Don’t expect any fascinating pay-off because this is not what Maniac Cop has to offer.

In the end, Maniac Cop is more of a cop drama than a proper horror movie. It uses New York City as a playground and a reassuring figure (police officers) as an antagonist. The film is well-made, simple with a certain charm to it and definitely deserves your attention.

Review : Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood (1973)

Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood, directed by Christopher Speech, was released in 1973 and is the director’s only film. The film was thought to be lost for a long time until it was released on DVD in 2003. Since then, it has been restored and released by Arrow Video on the American Horror Project Vol. 1 boxset (which is how I watched it).

The Norris family arrive at an old, dilapidated carnival, looking for their son. Bad things begin happening and it seems to be attributed to the proprietors of the carnival. The entire thing appears to be a front, for some strange, cannibalistic, underground cult, who feast on the flesh of the visitors (source : Wikipedia)

Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood is a weird film, but not in a good way. Every aspect of the film lacks logic, from the story itself to the editing. The editing is probably the worst aspect of the film since most of the scenes make no sense given the way they are put together. For instance, characters are running around the amusement park at night, chased by ghouls (or are they zombies ? who knows !). After a rough cut which made me feel like the scene was abruptly cut right in the middle, it is daylight and another character is putting out a fire, with no transition from the previous scene.

The storytelling is poorly done and makes no sense and the story itself is poorly written. Though the family is supposed to have come to the amusement park to look for their missing son, they never do so. Another issue I have is characters who never fight back. It does look like they’re willing to let the ghouls kill them…which obviously makes no sense ! As expected from an exploitation film from the seventies, the acting is not very good but is decent enough not to put you off. There is one particular character who is laughable though, because he is portrayed in a ridiculous manner.

If that wasn’t enough, Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood has mediocre photography. I love movies which take place in somewhat original locations such as a mall, a factory or…an amusement park (which does seem like the perfect location for a horror movie). Unfortunately, the director never takes full advantage of the opportunities offered by the set designs. Whether a scene takes place in a tunnel or a spiral staircase, the camera is set in the most basic and easiest spot. 

I am understanding when it comes to special effects and make-up because there is so much filmmakers can do with a limited budget. However, Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood has poor writing, poor photography, poor editing and is overall a poorly made film. Obviously, I don’t recommend watching it…except if, like me, you are digging through Arrow Video’s American Horror Project Vol. 1 boxset.

Review : The Burning (1981) / Madman (1982)

The Burning and Madman have one major common element : both films are based on the story of Cropsey, an urban legend about a boogeyman, popular at summer camps in New Jersey. Both slashers were in production at the same time and some elements of Madman were altered due to the similarities with The Burning, which would be released earlier. For instance, the name of the killer was changed to Madman Marz while the killer in The Burning is named Cropsy, like in the original material (minus a letter). While the production aspect of both films is interesting, let’s see which one is the best of the two, using seven points of comparison to determine each film’s strengths and weaknesses !

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The Burning is a very enjoyable slasher. While it has similarities with Friday The 13th, I didn’t feel like I was watching a rip-off at any time during the film. When an ill-advised prank misfires, summer camp caretaker Cropsy is committed to hospital with hideous burns. Released after five years, hospital officials warn him not to blame the young campers who caused his disfigurement. But no sooner is Cropsy back on the streets than he’s headed back to camp with a rusty pair of shears in hand, determined to exact his bloody revenge (Source : Arrow Video). The strength of The Burning is its characters which are portrayed in a very realistic manner and are very likable therefore the viewer is affected by their demise (and is not rooting for the killer like in the majority of slashers). I also want to note that the acting from the entire cast was very solid. The practical effects are good but Cropsy’s make-up is extremely disappointing, especially being the work of Tom Savini. I’ll go as far as stating that it does look very bad. Despite taking place in the most unoriginal of places (a summer camp), the director manages to show different locations and all are put to good use (especially the lake and the barn). The Burning is simply a great slasher which should not be regarded as a simple Friday rip-off. I highly recommend it and will conclude by (probably) shocking many readers : I enjoyed The Burning more than the first Friday The 13Th film.

Madman is a typical slasher but there is one major factor that renders it worth watching : it has good cinematography. Gather around the campfire, and hearthe tale of Madman Marz – an ill-tempered farmer who, one dark night, chopped up his wife and two children into pieces. When the locals learned of his heinous crimes, they exacted revenge – sinking an axe into his head and hanging him from a nearby tree. But the next day, Marz’s body was gone…Thus the camp counsellor finishes his tale, closing with the warning never to say Marz’s name above a whisper, lest the hideously-deformed farmer comes looking for them. Naturally, the first thing that one of the young campers does is calls out Marz’s name – precipitating a terrifying night of murder, mayhem and sexy Jacuzzi vignettes (Source : Arrow Video). The film takes place at night and the result is great. Madman is very well-shot, has a nice blue lighting throughout…and has the right amount of gore to satisfy any slasher enthusiast ! It has a good variety of kills and a very nice score. But while it has tension, it does feel slow-paced and some shots are longer than they should be. The acting was very bad, there is no character development (they are barely introduced) and the actor portraying Marz didn’t do a good job, in my opinion. Madman is a good entertaining slasher but has too many weaknesses.

While Madman has good cinematography, a good score and better kills, The Burning is still more entertaining with its lot of good characters and smart use of a typical slasher location.

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Review : Dead End Drive-In (1986)

Dead End Drive-In, one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films, is an ozploitation film from 1986, directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith. Forget what you think about exploitation films, this one has substance ! But before diving into the review, I just need to point out how brilliant it is that an exploitation film, targeted at drive-in audiences, takes place…in a drive-in !

In a near future, violent gangs have taken over Australian cities and are causing havoc. To solve this issue, the authorities have decided to lure the delinquents into drive-in cinemas, turning places of entertainment into concentration camps. A couple, Crabs and Carmen, are one of those youngsters, trapped inside a drive-in. While Carmen seems to adjust to her new life, Crabs can only think about escaping.

 

Dead End Drive-In was a big surprise. Often marketed as an action-packed ozploitation film, it is actually devoid of action for the majority of the film as it focuses on its social commentary. The film draws an alarming portrait of society in the 80’s as it touches on subjects such as the environment, government policy, crime and much more. Its message is made even stronger by the fact that the filmmaker, while creating a very original environment, still anchors its story into reality. Set in the not-so-distant future, the way society and crime are depicted in the first act of the film does feel realistic. It also heavily contrasts with the main location in the film : the city is shown at night, everything appears dark and gritty, while the drive-in is a colorful environment.

The main appeal of the film is, of course, its setting. It is such a fun and original concept to use a drive-in cinema in such a way. I was particularly impressed by the set design as it is both dull and colorful. The vibrant colors contrast with the concrete and the result is a brilliant mixture which emphasizes the gap between the government and those young criminals. Nothing looks more amazing than drive-in neon lights, especially to a non-american such as myself, who has never experienced watching a film in a drive-in cinema (we never had those here).

The characters are, for the most part, over-the-top in their behavior and personalities. The main character, Crabs, is a very endearing young man, who seems to thrive in adversity. Always teased for being weak by his family, he stands up for himself in this new contained environment. However, I found his girlfriend, Carmen, far less interesting. She seems to adjust a bit too quickly to this unexpected situation whereas Crabs is easier to identify with since he is as confused as the viewer by all this.

Dead End Drive-In is famous for its final car stunt and it does live up to its reputation. The final act is where the action scenes take place and it does not disappoint. Without spoiling the ending, I thought it concluded the film perfectly. Overall, Dead End Drive-In was an excellent surprise. Anticipating a mindless low-budget action fest, I was pleasantly taken aback by an intelligent, well-made and well designed film with a heavy focus on its social message. An excerpt from a definition of the term “ozploitation” reads : “ […] presenting the Australian landscape and environment as an almost spiritually malign force that alienates white Australians and frustrates both their personal ambitions and activities and their attempts to subdue it.” (source : Wikipedia). This perfectly applies to Dead End Drive-In, making it the perfect ozploitation experience.

Arrow Video is releasing Dead End Drive-In on September 19th, 2016 in a gorgeous amaray edition (if you are a regular reader of this website, you know a dedicated article about the packaging is coming very soon). The 2K restoration looks great, it is sharp yet the grain is still visible (if an exploitation film is not grainy, it is not true to its nature, in my opinion).There are not many special features included in this edition but they are very interesting, particularly the documentary by Brian Trenchard-Smith (the director) on Australian stunt performers.

Review : Matinee (1993)

Matinee, directed by the great Joe Dante, was released in 1993 and yet, it is a time capsule that will take you back to the sixties ! This love letter to B-movies is an absolute pleasure to watch for any cinephile who loves this particular aspect of cinema.

Gene lives with his mother and little brother in the Key West military base while his father, a navy officer, is at sea. The Cuba Missile Crisis is at its peak but while adults are in absolute panic, Gene only has one thing on his mind : go to the movies to watch Lawrence Woolsey’s latest horror film : Mant.

The opening sequence immerses you right away. It shows the trailer for Mant, the movie our main character wants to see. Lawrence Woolsey, the producer, presents the feature as a cheap version of Alfred Hitchcock. Mant, the film within the film, is in the pure tradition of B-movies from the 1950’s and references the genre several times. The poster is heavily inspired by the poster of Them!, a sci-fi movie from 1954 about…ants ! It is very entertaining to get to see excerpts of Mant throughout Matinee. It seems to be an alternate version of The Fly (1958) as shown, among other details, with the black fabric on the man/creature’s head. All those details about Mant just enhance the feeling that you are watching a film directed by someone who is as passionate as you also probably are.

Setting the film during the missile crisis emphasizes one of the film’s most important message and one that is very dear to my cinephile’s heart : movies can, at least for a short while, make you forget about the worries of the real world. Such an endearing message ! But Matinee has multiple facets : it is a comedy, a drama, a charming coming-of-age story, a portrait of society in the early 1960’s. However, it never feels like a melting pot of random elements : every aspect is essential to the story.

As mentionned above, Matinee also focuses on cinema and this is definitely the most appeling side of the film. There are details throughout to please every horror aficionado : it is set during the Halloween season so there are decorations everywhere, Gene is seen reading horror magazines on several occasions and…his last name is Loomis ! It is also interesting to get a glimpse at several aspects of the independant film industry : movie marketing, promotion, gimmicks etc… I also loved how Joe Dante captures the magic of cinema from the spectator’s point of view. In a world prior to the internet, you can’t help but feel Gene’s anticipation to see this new horror film.
To conclude, Matinee is a beautiful coming-of-age story that every film fanatic should see. Good directing, good acting, lovable characters, references to horror classics… the film has all the ingredients to put you in a good mood as you can’t help but nod when a character talks about what’s so great about cinema