(As published in the October 2013 issue of The Scene Newspaper)
With that most hallowed of all dark days waiting at the close of this given month, I feel a bit more than passingly obliged to banter on in favor of a few fitting nuggets of sinister cinema. In the often deplored and very cult-specific realm of the horrific branch of the motion picture art form, finding a treasure of any notable measure can often times prove to be a might challenging. This days seem fatally infected with many, many examples of the largely sad trend of remakes/reboots that predominately serve to rape away the valuable memories lovingly held in regards to many of the classics which founded in many of us the enduring adoration of this particular genre in the first damn place. Even the rehashes done with irrefutable technical skill (i.e. Evil Dead, which sports its' fair share of impressive, stand alone images) leave a lasting stain of being completely unnecessary and occupying precious space far better suited for something at least attempting to share ideas of the fresh and self-contained variety (like Edgar Wright's The World's End, perhaps?).
So, to do my part in keeping with this cause, I give you, fair reader, a pairing of 'from scratch' horror flicks that should assist you in your quest for all things spooky this Halloween.
'Frankenstein's Army' plants its' ragged, low budget feet down on East German soil at the tail portion of W.W.II and follows a ramshackle company of Russian troops trudging across some truly lifeless terrain hoping almost in vein for any semblance of a connect with their lost fellow comrades. One member of this war party, Dimitri (Alexander Mercury) has been charged by the big man himself, Stalin, with exposing footage of the battalion in action as material for use in a future propaganda project back in the homeland. Before too very long, the men come in contact with a ransacked little hamlet that actually houses a madman's abhorrent laboratory fitted up for the most inexplicable and corrosively far reaching experiments to ever be realized by mortal man.
It seems a skittish, weather beaten character calling himself Viktor (Karel Roden) has established a foundation here for which he can foster many of the twisted, breakthrough malformations of protean beings that have been swimming in the fetid reaches of his deviant mind. This certain flavor of freakish mad scientist has rapidly assembled a gallery of motley confections that marry, by odd and often rather random design, elements of both living organic (mostly human) structures with a wide array of tools, devices and rusty industrial leftovers. How the increasingly weary and unbalanced soldiers manage to address and survive (or not) this less than welcome dilemma fills out the majority of the film's scant run time. The creature creations themselves are basically the prime sell point for this bent little picture (hell, several of their nasty, deformed mugs adorn the film's poster art) and I have to slap the credit in the appropriate direction, many of the mad lab rat's patched together 'children' are a might impressive. Sporting nappy metallic limbs and various, violently misappropriated bodily structures, the creatures (or 'Zombots' as the picture dubs them) are rendered to on screen life as something between a steampunk convention where every participant suffered a brutal gang rape and a long lost Hellraiser sequel as imagined by a seriously sociopathic black metal band. These hybrid beasts see the most action in Frankenstein's Army's closing segment, as the fiendish Viktor, having laid waste to the bulk of the outfit's numbers, guides the erstwhile documentarian on a personal journey through the damnable particulars of his vivid form of genius. Keep an eye out for the creepy little teddy bear woman, she's something special.
The director of this whole odd scenario, a competent Dutchman by the name of Richard Raaphorst has managed to carve together a worthy and effective piece of rampant monster cinema. Nothing to be embarrassed of here, tight and mostly to the point (though at the expense of a good deal of genuine character development, oh well), this Frankenstein's Army achieves what it set out to do, throw its audience into a dark pit full of blood crazed monstrosities that come at the screen from every direction. Sure, the film may sometimes look a tad suspect (notably some uber murky nighttime imagery) and one can't really be faulted for a lack of emotional investment when certain main characters expire, but Karel Roden chews it up quite nice as the good ol' awful doctor (who alleges a blood tie to the Dr. Frankenstein of horror fiction lore) and again I must point to the monsters, that's really what it's all about...right?
Frankenstein's Army arrives care a company out of Chicago called Dark Sky Films. Now these folks have long been good to the horror film, having helped spread the magic of gems like the immortal Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, House of the Devil, The Hatchet trilogy and the works of Jim VanBebber (The Manson Family, Deadbeat at Dawn). For this new entry in their esteemed catalog, Dark Sky has issued the film on both DVD and Blu Ray with a just over half an hour making of bonus piece that introduces any interested parties to the cast, crew and, of course, the ranks of Frankenstein's Army as FX aces and the director himself detail their fabrication. Catch it at local rental joints everywhere or go to the source- darkskyfilms.com
Coming from a blatantly different pedigree and boasting a separate set of conceptual and aesthetic goals is The Lords of Salem. This film marks the return to magnificently twisted filmmaking form for one Rob Zombie. Lords gives forth ample, legitimate evidence once and for final that this Zombie fella is actually blessed with the ability to grow apart from the hectic shock and awe approach he's become known for that frequently pummels the viewer with the profane and colorful ultra violent stylization that did work at times earlier on in his career (The Devil's Rejects) but came to wear thin and grow a bit tiresome (Halloween II, that lame Superbeasto cartoon).
This time up, Zombie has both slowed things down to a notable degree and learned how to craft a story around less obvious traits and ideas in relation to his chosen genre of operation. The basic outlay this time around involves the uneventful daily routines of Heidi Hawthorne (Rob's always present spouse Sheri Moon) a Salem area local and disc jockey by trade who shares her dank, under lit apartment with her faithful pooch. One evening, after a typically loose cannon stint at the radio station where she is so gainfully employed (a stint which incorporates a cheeky interview session with an all too clueless 'black metal' musician at one point) our gal is given a right odd form of promotional swag. Seems some enigmatic recording entity known sparingly and cryptically as The Lords has made a point to pass along an oddly packaged slab of wax (think something along the lines of the wicked Necronomicon Bruce Campell's iconic 'Ash' character regularly fell prey to) containing some truly entrancing sounds. Proceeding with a patient, steady pace director Zombie charts the gradual regression from the psyche on out that this disheveled, dread-locked protagonist must now endure as this mystery vinyl has apparently seeded something seriously volatile deep within her.
To help solve the mounting puzzle and lend a more rational perspective on the none too clear cut progression of the narrative, Zombie gives us Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), an aging free spirit type and author of a scholarly book on the subject of the Salem witch trials who guests on Heidi's radio gig to push his work. Francis has a nose for the occult underpinnings in and about his town and his interest gains a boost when he meets Heidi whom he later discovers is of direct descent along the family tree from Jonathen Hawthorne, a man of faith who sought to foil the satanic plottings of a coven of witches back in the late 17th century. Francis may normally bide his time with his weed toking painter, lady love Alice (Maria Conchita Alonso) but his fixation on brooding witch rites in Salem and their possible link with Heidi proves to be a stronger draw.
Worlds duth collide as witches both modern and ancient weave maximum hallucinatory hold over Heidi, morphing her take on what passes for real and tangible. Zombie infuses this melding of demonic worship and vicious personal torment into a spiral of inventive madness that dips into an influential well, mixing the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Dario Argento, Nicolas Roeg and even the multi-layered hyper surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky. I wouldn't startle me to discover that Bobby boy here immersed himself in a marathon run of shit like Don't Look Now, Suspiria, Santa Sangre and definitely The Shining (which, to be fair, is a film Zombie has directly sited as having a direct hand in the genesis of this project).
The Lords of Salem engages more by way of its intricate textures and creative renderings of potentially cheap, exploitation level ideas. The witches, ghouls, phantasms and less clearly defined apparitions that populate the nightmare unreal creeping its way into the formal landscape of Zombie's New England based, small town locale emerge as quite remarkable, working to realize the ongoing concept of a somewhat damaged (Heidi is also revealed to be a struggling former drug addict) woman's mental abduction by a superior force beyond the natural and serving a timeless agenda. Meg (They Live) Foster heads up the mostly rotting, naked coven of old school witches who lead the charge to turn the modern world over to their beloved, evil master and the film sports the expected genre friendly supporting bits and cameos by Dee Wallace, Ken Foree, Sid Haig and Michael Berryman. Several subplots/segments of the film ended up falling short of the final cut however, this lead to the abandonment of a film-within-a-film, Frankenstein vs The Witchfinder which involved Udo Kier, Clint (Ron's brother) Howard and the chick from that ugly 1978 rape-revenge 'classic' I Spit on Your Grave, Camille Keaton.
Sad news indeed, even sadder is the fact that none of this cut footage has been included on the Anchor Bay DVD/Blu Ray combo that so recently hit retail stores and rental joints. Only a handy, dandy audio commentary from the informative Rob Z himself is included. Strange turn of events as many of the previous Zombie directorial efforts have come stuffed with bonus goodies, especially in the extra footage department. These bastards had better not be planning a deluxe package for release somewhere further down the road, that would be a bit of an unforgivable scam. Still, I say give these Lords a chance, they do well by October standards. anchorbayentertainment.com
Screaming in High Heels (The Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen Era).
Charming, retro-centric essay dwelling on a time and place in the annals of indie schlock cinema where a pretty gal with marginal, non-aesthetic talents could carve out a dependable niche for herself without having to submit to the narrow, scumbag confines of the porn industry. Beginning at the cusp of the blossoming home video tape boom of the early 1980s, able babes like Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer and Brinke Stevens (the trio profiled here) became staples of a prolific run of bargain level, boobs, bloodshed and rubber beast laden sub-genre spectacles. Fully vested in their careers founded on exuberant sexual chemistry at play in some of the most openly tacky product yet to emerge on the market (an inordinate amount of witch came care the production houses of Charles Band and Roger Corman), said ladies none the less managed to grow upward in stout popularity and eventually drew upon themselves the precise classification of 'Scream Queens'.
Filmmaker and obvious fan boy Jason Paul Collum investigates this small scale but utterly notable bubble of popular culture trivia by way of a meshing of in the now interviews with the three key Queens (whom time has not been entirely polite to) as well as multiple movers and shakers in this cost conscious dungeon of an industry like directors David DeCoteau and Fred Olen Ray and jack of many trades; writer, director, actor, F/X man Kenneth J. Hall. Along the way we are treated to the expected homegrown origin stories and copious clips from a vast VHS library of washed out looking examples of no budget greatness including Dr. Alien, 'Murder Weapon', 'Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama', 'Night of the Demons' and 'Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers'.
The girls employed their weird, skintastic form of celebrity to network both entertainment (at third rate nerd conventions doling out autographs) and political arenas (some even met Reagan, how conservative) and occasionally touch the edge of the mainstream (Linnea's buck naked cemetery stint in 'Return of the Living Dead' immortalized her in the eyes of the Fangoria demographic). Sadly, both the pains of mortal time and the rise of higher quality tastes on the home video front took its toll on the 'Scream Queen' juggernaut and the ladies largely faded from sight. In the end, what we're left with is a fond memento of a bygone time when the value of a VHS deck actually held weight in the lower ranks of the motion picture medium, when locally owned rental operations thrived on the unending output of a relentless army of driven showmen and 'give it to 'em fast, sleazy and dirt cheap' cinema was the treasure of the (mostly awkward male dominated) market. Recommended to those who still cling to those VHS classics that came in boxes with artwork that probably cost twice as much as the film inside. You can acquire Screaming in High Heels at breakingglasspictures.com