Monthly Archives: March 2013
Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981)
by Steve Habrat
In the wake of George A. Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead and Lucio Fulci’s surprise smash imitation Zombie, the walking dead became all the rage in Italy during the late 70s and early 80s. While most of these films were made on the cheap and focused heavily on gratuitous violence, there was still a few that managed to be pretty entertaining and stand out from the bunch. Perhaps the most warped of these standouts is exploitation director Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror. Plot-less, artless, and wildly perverted, Burial Ground has climbed the cult classic ranks mostly due to the presence of Peter Bark, a 25-year-old dwarf that is onboard here as a young boy named Michael, who is sexually attracted to his own mother. This relationship certainly trumps every other “eww” factor in the film, but Bianchi has a few more tricks up his sleeve to shock and repulse. Burial Ground wastes absolutely no time jumping into the exploitation action, beginning with a little sex and nudity and then launching itself headfirst into non-stop gut munching. Those searching for a zombie film with a biting social commentary mixed in with the shuffling undead hordes better start looking elsewhere. This sucker is all about grossing you out.
Burial Ground begins with the bearded Professor Ayres snooping around ancient Etruscan catacombs near his home. As he investigates the catacombs, he accidentally sets off a mysterious device that unleashes a horde of shuffling ghouls that proceed to eat him up. A few miles away, three couples, Leslie (Played by Antonella Antinori) and James (Played by Simone Mattioli), Mark (Played by Gianluigi Chirizzi) and Janet (Played by Karin Well), and George (Played by Roberto Caporali) and Evelyn (Played by Mariangela Barbieri), arrive at Ayres’s mansion for a relaxing getaway. Also among the group is Evelyn’s young son Michael (Played by Peter Bark), a creepy little kid with a huge crush on his “mama.” Shortly after the group arrives, they all engage in a little afternoon delight and then they all take to the mansion grounds to do a bit of exploring. While taking in the idyllic scenery, the couples come face to face with the walking dead that have been unleashed by Professor Ayres. Terrified and confused, the group retreats to the mansion and begins boarding up all the windows and doors, but as day turns to night, the zombies reveal that they are not as mindless as the group initially thought and that they are actually very resourceful.
Right from the get-go, it is obvious that Burial Ground is more interested in spilling blood than giving any sort of clear explanation as to how exactly Professor Ayres woke these Etruscan cannibals up or why they are cursed to walk the earth as these monsters. Bianchi asks us to simply accept it and embrace the film for what it is—a cheap exploitation movie. The best part of the entire film is the zombies, which all wear some seriously nasty and detailed make-up. Much like the ghouls of Fulci’s celebrated Zombie, these zombies have worms dangling from empty eye sockets, jagged teeth protruding through their rotten lips, exposed bones, maggots slowly crawling out of gashes, and yellowish blood oozing from gunshots wounds. When they finally catch up to their victims, they rip their stomachs open and pull out a seemingly endless string of entrails. We are then treated to extreme close-ups of the decayed zombies chewing on various body parts as skin-crawling sound effects echo on the soundtrack. Unlike Fulci’s zombies, these undead nightmares don’t just rely on their bony hands and discolored fangs to get to their victims and rip them apart. These ghouls raid the gardening shack and pick up various weapons including axes, pitchforks, knives, and even a scythe to use on their meals. There is one eerie scene that finds the mansion maid sticking her head out of one of the mansion’s windows and getting her head chopped off by some scythe-wielding ghouls, who then all greedily grab for their blood treat. This particular scene is about as terrifying as Burial Ground gets.
What really puts a bullet in the head of Burial Ground is the absolutely atrocious acting from nearly everyone who steps foot in front of the camera. The only two performers who really stick in the viewers mind are Bark as the Oedipal Michael and Barbieri as his sexed-up mother Evelyn. The adult Bark is absolutely hilarious and downright unsettling playing a child that is maybe eleven or twelve years old. He slinks around the mansion and bursts in on his mother and George as they have passionate sex. His mother’s response upon seeing Michael is to leap out of bed and barely cover herself in front of her bug-eyed son as he calls out “mama!” As if Bark wasn’t weird enough, Bianchi then dubs the man-child with a voice that sounds like an adult attempting to sound like a little kid. Over the course of the film, Michael’s relationship with his mother gets more and more bizarre as he reaches up her skirt and tries to expose her breasts during a zombie attack. If those scenes don’t have your jaw on the floor, Bianchi has one final shock for you in the final moments of the film. If ever there was an image that would burn itself into your brain and haunt your dreams for the rest of your life, it is this one. If you’re wondering why the 25-year-old dwarf Bark was cast as a child, Italian law stated that a child could not be cast in a film that featured such graphic content.
If it weren’t for the incestuous subplot between Michael and Evelyn, Burial Ground certainly would not have the rabid fan base that it does today. Sure the gore and make-up effects are solid but they alone would never have carried the film off into the land of cult classics. As if the lousy acting and poor plot weren’t enough to bring the film down, Bianchi approaches the project as if he could care less about it. The camera is almost always at a stand still and offering up a poorly lit and grainy medium shot of the action. It is clear that a good majority of the film’s budget went to the zombie make-up and gore effects and you can’t really blame Bianchi for wanting to show them off, but after a while, you get the impression that he is just filling out the runtime. Surprisingly, Bianchi does choose a dark path at the end, but he shoots himself in the foot when he stamps a quote over the final image of the film that is riddled with spelling errors. Overall, Burial Ground tries desperately to play to its audience and there are a few moments that are mildly entertaining, but as far as Italian zombie knock-offs go, you’re better off sticking with a Fulci zombie film.
Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is available on DVD.
Anti-Film School Recommends These Films…
Killing Them Softly (2012)
For the second week in a row, there are some new Blu-rays that just have to be in your growing movie collection. First up, we have Steven Spielberg’s breathtaking Lincoln, a biopic that resists all the trappings of the biopic genre. While it is a must-own for the Academy Award winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis, grab up the four disc set which includes such features as a Making Of documentary, a look at how Daniel Day Lewis jumped into the role of Honest Abe, and a look at the marvelous period detail of the film, to name a few. In addition to Lincoln, we also have the brutal gangster thriller Killing Them Softly, one of the most underrated films of 2012. While the political commentary may have turned most viewers off, this a seriously startling and unforgettable piece of filmmaking that made my list of the 10 best films of 2012 (Lincoln was also on there!). The Blu-ray of Killing Them Softly comes with a handful of deleted scenes and a Making Of documentary. If you wish to read the Anti-Film School review of Lincoln, click here, and if you wish to check out the Killing Them Softly review, click here. If you want to see where each fell on the 10 best films of 2012 list, click here.
-Theater Management (Steve)
Nightmare City (1980)
by Steve Habrat
Way back in 2003, most casual horror fans believed that Danny Boyle had created the running zombie with his 2003 horror gem 28 Days Later. His sprinting ghouls then inspired Zack Snyder, who sped up his undead in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. While these two films made the running zombie popular, it could be argued that zombie godfather George A. Romero did it first in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Yes, you read that correctly. If you think back to the opening sequence of the film, the cemetery zombie that terrorizes poor Johnny and Barbara isn’t afraid to hustle for his meal. While the rest of the ghouls shuffled their way to the farmhouse, that iconic zombie moved at a very fast walk. About thirteen years later, the fast moving zombie appeared once again in the Italian made Nightmare City, another one of the European knock-offs of Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. Much like Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Nightmare City doesn’t actually contain cannibalistic undead. No, these maniacal terrors are suffering from radiation poisoning and they are not simply craving a hearty meal of entrails. They crave blood and they are not afraid of using guns, knives, and clubs to get it. Hell, they even drive a car and fly a plane!
Set in an unnamed European city, a television reporter named Dean Miller (Played by Hugo Stiglitz) arrives at an airport to await the arrival of a scientist he is supposed to interview. While he waits, a mysterious military plane makes an emergency landing and unleashes a slew of radioactive zombies that proceed to shoot and stab the police and military officers waiting outside. Dean manages to escape the slaughter and he makes his way to the local television station to warn anyone who will listen to him. Just as Dean is about to make an announcement, the military steps in and prevents him from spilling too many details about the incident. It doesn’t take long for the ghouls to make their way into the city and begin killing anyone in their path. As the city is overrun, Dean attempts to rescue his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Played by Laura Trotter), who works at the local hospital. Meanwhile, military officials General Murchison (Played by Mel Ferrer) and Major Warren Holmes (Played by Francisco Rabal) scramble to contain the situation and understand what type of threat they are up against.
While there isn’t much of a plot to Nightmare City, director Umberto Lenzi, the man who gave the world the Cannibal Holocaust knock-off Cannibal Ferox, keeps the action and bloodletting rolling at a furious rate. There is maybe five minutes of downtime before that dreaded military plane makes its emergency landing and unleashes those crusty-faced infected. The make-up on these ghouls is less than impressive, as their faces just look horribly scabbed over. There is nothing particularly memorable about any of them and they never wear the grotesque detail that many of the other ghouls of Italian zombie movies wore. Hilariously, all of the ghouls in Nightmare City are male and when they attack their female victims, they feel the need to rip off the women’s shirts for a quick boob flash before they start hacking and slashing. As far as the gore is concerned, the film never matches the jaw-dropping intensity of one of Lucio Fulci’s zombie films. Just because the film never matches the gore of a Fulci film doesn’t mean that Nightmare City is a softie. No, brace yourself for eyeballs being gouged out, blood slurped out of necks, heads getting blown to bits, an arm being yanked off, and even a women’s breast getting sawed clean off.
Probably the poorest part of Nightmare City is the stiff performances from nearly everyone involved. Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz tries has hardest to make something of a role that simply asks him to run from one location to the next. His Dean is asked to be a tough guy, but sometimes he looks a bit bored firing a machine gun at a handful of charging ghouls. Despite his faint disinterest, he still manages to give the best performance in Nightmare City. Trotter barely registers as Dean’s terrified wife, basically just throwing herself on the ground and acting helpless. Ferrer does passable job as the no-nonsense General Murchison, but even he just stands around in an underground military bunker and forces himself to look important. Rabal’s Major Holmes is another bore who tries to inject a bit of emotion into his role. The only scene he really seems invested in is a steamy make-out session between him and his artist wife, Shelia (Played by Maria Rosaria Omaggio). Much like Trotter’s helpless Anna, Omaggio’s Shelia is asked to flash her chest and cautiously wander around her massive home.
Despite everything working against Nightmare City, it still manages to be a surprisingly fun European zombie movie. In addition to the poor effects, lousy acting, frail plot, and silly exposition, the film also features the biggest rip-off of an ending you will ever see. Yet you will be willing to forgive all the flaws because Lenzi really goes out of his way to deliver the thrills and he even manages to craft a few moments that are fairly suspenseful. The most stunning is an aerial shot of swarming infected charging through the city. To break up the mild suspense, you’ll get a few solid laughs, especially when Stiglitz lobs a television at charging infected and it blows up like a grenade. In the years since its release, Lenzi has tried to argue that the film actually is making an anti-nuclear message and that it is extremely critical of the military, but it is glaringly obvious that the film is just a low budget exploitation cheapie. Overall, Nightmare City is certainly no Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, City of the Living Dead, or The Beyond, but as far as action packed escapism goes, you can do much, much worse. No one will blame you if you seek this sucker out for a midnight viewing.
Nightmare City is available on DVD.
A Bullet for the General (1966)
by Steve Habrat
While the Italian spaghetti westerns of the mid-60s and 70s dealt with some minor political issues, mostly American capitalism, there was a separate subgenre of the spaghetti western called Zapata westerns that dared to go deeper. Zapata westerns were usually dealing directly with the Mexican Revolution of 1913 and were much more politically charged than the regular spaghetti westerns, which would often set the Mexican Revolution in the background. These Zapata westerns would usually be critical of US foreign policy, the Vietnam War, fascism, capitalism, and were usually made from a Marxist point of view. Perhaps one of the most popular and recognizable Zapata westerns aside from Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker is the 1966 film A Bullet for the General, which was directed by Damiano Damiani. Relentlessly thrilling, refreshingly comical, and unafraid to embrace plenty of action, A Bullet for the General is not only the first Zapata western, but also one of the most fun spaghetti westerns out there. Beautifully shot, sharply written, and carried by unforgettable performances from Gian Maria Volonté, who found stardom through Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, and Klaus Kinski, the man who played the creepiest Dracula the world has ever seen, A Bullet for the General is an epic and sweeping journey with a powerhouse climax. And I can’t forget to mention that it features Kinski dressed in monk’s robes and gleefully tossing grenades. You really don’t get much cooler than that!
A Bullet for the General centers around a group of banditos led by cunning El Chuncho (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), who are tasked with collecting weapons for the revolutionary leader General Elias (Played by Jamie Fernández). Early on, El Chuncho attacks a government munitions train, but the mission gets messy as the soldiers on board begin fighting back against the trigger-happy banditos. During the attack, El Chuncho happens upon a mysterious American traveler named Bill Tate (Played by Lou Castel) who goes out of his way to help out the attacking banditos. El Chuncho and his gang, which also consists of his religious brother El Santo (Played by Klaus Kinski) and beautiful gunslinger Adelita (Played by Martine Beswick), take an immediately liking to Bill and they invite him to join their gang. Naturally, Bill accepts their invitation and is quickly given the nickname “Nino.” Bill is eager to get rich quick and he immediately starts plotting multiple attacks with El Chuncho, but as time passes, El Chuncho gets increasingly interested with the Mexican Revolution and the idea of making a difference. El Chuncho slowly evolves into a vicious freedom fighter, but his relationship with Bill takes a rocky turn after he discovers a gold bullet in Bill’s travel case.
Early on, A Bullet for the General wins over the action crowd with nearly forty minutes of nonstop gun battles, massacres, and rollicking attacks set to an uppity score from Luis Enriquez Bacalov and Ennio Morricone. The opening attack on the government train is about as epic as action scenes can be, with director Damiani using widescreen compositions of bodies falling, banditos charging, and innocent passengers ducking for cover as bullet and wood splinters around them. Damiani and screenwriters Salvatore Laurani and Franco Solinas slow the action down very briefly to allow Bill to join El Chuncho’s gang and then it snaps back into the breakneck action complete with a massive machine gun. Forts are attack, men are executed, and Kinski’s wildly entertaining El Santo screams Bible versus and lobs grenades at scattering soldiers. After all the adrenaline has worn out, Damiani and company begin pumping in the politics, whispering warnings about the United States meddling in the conflicts of other countries and even calling to mind the raging Vietnam War. It also flirts with an anti-capitalist message, especially with the character of Bill looking to fill his pockets off the Mexican Revolution. It is hard to fault A Bullet for the General for trying to send a message and it is interesting to see an outside perspective on these issues, but it begins dragging its feet while doing it, coming almost to slow crawl as it drives its point home. It is definitely an awkward shift after all the gunfire and explosions that set the stage, but Damiani dares to keep these slower moments light and comical.
A Bullet for the General also benefits from some seriously entertaining and unforgettable performances. Volonté, who made his name playing sadistic gunslingers in Leone’s first two entries in his Dollars trilogy, is an absolutely delight as El Chuncho. His character’s progression is certainly interesting and he throws himself into it with a devil-may-care grin on his face. You just can’t help but love him as he tries to train bumbling peasants to fire a rifle, only to grow more and more frustrated with each passing second. It should also be said that the final image of his character is about as prevailing as they come, as it solidifies his character’s radical shift. Castel is grossly miscast as Bill, who tries to disguise his boyish face with icy glares and short monotone responses that are supposed to make us believe he is a grade-A hardass. Luckily, Volonté picks up his slack and really makes their relationship work. Kinski threatens to steal the show from Volonté as the deeply religious yet bloodthirsty El Santo. Kinski would go on to embrace that wild intensity in Sergio Corbucci’s grim and snowy spaghetti western The Great Silence, but here he embraces macho action star complete with bared chest and headband. Rounding out the players is Beswick, who wows with her natural beauty yet keeps us all in check with her skills with a weapon. She isn’t afraid to ride with the boys, which prevents her character from seeming like just a romantic distraction.
As far as spaghetti westerns go, A Bullet for the General may be one of the most entertaining of the genre. It packs a shocker of an ending and a pretty impressive twist with one of the main characters, one that really takes an emotional toll on the viewer. While you do hate to see the film slow down in the middle, it never misses a beat. It will have you chuckling and also hanging on the deepening relationship between El Chuncho and Bill. My favorite sequence of the entire film was the touching and pivotal moment between Bill, who is struck ill with Malaria, and El Chuncho, who plays doctor and protector while also discovering a dark secret about his friend. Overall, it may not be as well known as it should, but it is hard to wave off A Bullet for the General as a small effort in the spaghetti western genre. It may be stuck in the shadows of such films as the Dollars trilogy, Django, Duck, You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in the West, but it matches the epic scope of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West while keeping the action, the politics, and the character development flowing freely. Perhaps its biggest flaw is the casting of Castel, who just can’t really sell his character, but everything is so good, you’ll overlook it. A Bullet for the General is a groundbreaking film and a must-see for anyone who loves film or westerns.
A Bullet for the General is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)
by Steve Habrat
For those of you out there that just can’t turn down a quirky indie comedy, you have probably heard of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, a philosophical “dramedy” that opts for subtle humor over hearty gross-out guffaws at every turn. Directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, the guys who brought us the surprise hit Cyrus back in 2010, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a reasonably funny but oddly forgettable examination of one’s destiny and the symbols around them that leads them to their destiny. Mind you, it ponders life’s big questions with a giant joint dangling from its mouth. The film is certainly crafted for the art house crowd and the mumblecore fanatics, which is obvious when its oddball characters hit the stage, the familiar xylophone score kicks in, and the handheld camera begins bopping around, yet the film seems desperate to break away from its arty roots and catapult itself into the mainstream. This is especially apparent with the involvement of Jason Segel and Ed Helms, who are game enough for the project, but seem like they were recruited by the filmmakers to lure in fans of raunchier fare like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Hangover. These comedic giants are given plenty of time to shine and rest assured that they do, but they are overpowered by a bone dry subplot involving their widowed mother, who is searching for love after loss, and a severely off-key ending that nearly destroys everything.
Jeff (Played by Jason Segel) is a 30-year-old stoner that still lives in his widowed mother’s basement. He is unemployed, single, and spends the majority of his time searching for his destiny through random occurrences. He also passes time by overanalyzing the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs, which reinforces his bizarre belief system. One day, Jeff receives a phone call, which is just a wrong number, from someone asking for “Kevin.” Jeff immediately takes this as a sign and he begins searching for someone or something named “Kevin.” While on an errand for his mother, Sharon (Played by Susan Sarandon), Jeff spots a man wearing a jersey that reads “Kevin.” As he pursues this man, Jeff ends up bumping into his cocky older brother, Pat (Played by Ed Helms), who is struggling with his failing marriage. As Jeff and Pat bicker over their rocky relationship, the two spot Pat’s wife, Linda (Played by Judy Greer), with another man. Naturally, Jeff and Pat come to the conclusion that Linda is having an affair and decide to follow her. What their journey ultimately leads them to will change both of their lives forever. Meanwhile, the heartbroken and lonely Sharon finds herself getting strange messages from an office admirer.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home benefits from being grounded in the real world, a staple of these mumblecore films that have become increasing popular over the past few years. The Duplass brothers emphasize this realism with shaky hand held camerawork that finds them zooming in slightly to catch growing frustration on Linda’s face as Pat informs her that he blew all their money on a Porche or Pat’s deflating enthusiasm as Linda lays into him (Trust me when I say they use this little trick in nearly every scenen). After a while, I just found myself getting irritated with this camera technique and wished the brothers would drop it entirely. Then we have the down-to-earth characters, which are dealing with shockingly ordinary and relatable problems. Jeff is a lovable and free spirited stoner who really just needs a bit of a push to get his life together. He is withdrawn and does tend to be a socially awkward, but you get the impression that this is because he really doesn’t venture far from the comfort of his basement dwelling. His mother makes hollow threats to kick him out if he doesn’t waltz himself to the store and pick up a tube of wood glue, but as we get to know Sharon through her day, it is doubtful she will kick the dazed stoner to the curb. His dazed existence seems to be a paradise when compared to his brother’s life, which is spent barely recognizing her. When Linda lashes out at Pat, he sulks to the nearest Hooters to sip a few drinks and ramble on about his problems to whoever will pay attention to him. At times, Pat’s life seems to be more of a mess than he perpetually baked and lost brother.
While the Duplass brothers do a fine job making us root for the dysfunctional duo, it is their journey that really hits a few snags. The first problem comes from the subplot involving their mother and her office admirer. While it is sweet enough and it is easy to see what the directors are trying to do with it, this portion of the film just seems to be slowing the entire film down almost to a crawl. I found myself drifting out of this subplot entirely and then rolling my eyes at the quirky twist that the brothers throw in when the reveal the admirer. The other problem comes at the end of the film, which finds all the characters being brought together through a traffic jam and nasty accident. To be honest, the entire finale seems like it may have been borrowed from another film and just stuck on in the final days of production. It just seems absolutely ludicrous and far fetched. In addition to these lousy plot points, I was also unmoved by Saradon’s character, who spends most of her scenes jumping out of her cubicle chair to glance around the office to spot her admirer. Saradon’s presence seems to be a total waste and you get the impression that she may be coming to the exact same conclusion.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is never a bad movie. No, in fact it can actually be quite charming and strangely comforting, yet the way the Duplass brothers balance out the emotion and the laughs is strained. It is hard to hold it against them, mostly because they are still growing as filmmakers, but you’d think the involvement of Jason Reitman (Director of Juno, Up in the Air), who is on board as a producer, would have helped considering he has tackled some serious subject matter with a crooked smirk. Unfortunately, most of the film falls right in the middle, with some scenes working better than others and some not working at all. For you comedy junkies, the film is worth your time for the stellar performances from Segel and Helms, but it certainly finds them scaled back from their usual selves, something that might turn some viewers off the film. Overall, Jeff, Who Lives at Home tries to keep itself warm, light, and accessible, but it also wants to be a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of life. Sadly, everything begins to clash, nothing gels, and the film leaves your memory the second you have walked away from it.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Anti-Film School Recommends This Film…
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Yesterday, Kathryn Bigelow’s arresting thriller Zero Dark Thirty was released on Blu-ray and if you have yet to see this firecracker of a film, you need to go out right now and pick it up. Seriously, it is collection worthy. Zero Dark Thirty was easily one of the best films of 2012 and is the type of epic film that rewards with each new viewing. The Blu-ray features a look at the making of the film, a look at how the cast trained for their roles, and a look at Jessica Chastain’s role as the tough-as-nails Maya. If you wish to see where Zero Dark Thirty fell in my top 10 films of 2012, click here to find out, and if you wish to read my review of the film, click here. So, it is that time again to whip out those credit cards and add a kick ass movie to your movie collection!
-Theater Manager (Steve)
Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
by Steve Habrat
Before Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci became known as the “Godfather of Gore,” the grindhouse/horror legend dabbled in a number of non-horror film genres. In the late 1950s and 60s, he directed a handful of comedies and then set his sights on thrillers and gialli in the early 1970s. In the mid to late 60s and early 70s, Italy was enamored with spaghetti westerns and it comes as no surprise that Mr. Fulci decided to contribute a few westerns of his own to the booming subgenre. Near the end of the spaghetti western craze, Fulci released Four of the Apocalypse, a surprisingly sensitive but brutal trip into the Wild West that plays by its own set of rules. Lacking a strong, silent hero going to war with a pack of snarling gunslingers, Four of the Apocalypse is heavy with character development and shockingly light on gunplay. If you’re a fan of Fulci’s gory later work, rest assured that Four of the Apocalypse has plenty of the blood and torture that many of his fans expect, but you will also be surprised to find that you get attached to the four main characters before you are blindsided by the pitch-black tragedy that looms over the second half of the film. It really proves to those who wrote off Fulci as a horror hack that the “Godfather of Gore” is capable of making films with some serious substance.
Four of the Apocalypse picks up in Salt Flat, Utah, with a big time gambler named Stubby Preston (Played by Fabio Testi) arriving in town looking to make some money. Shortly after arriving, Stubby has a run-in with the Sheriff and he winds up thrown in jail with a beautiful prostitute, Bunny (Played by Lynne Frederick), the town drunk, Clem (Played by Michael J. Pollard), and the local loony, Bud (Played by Harry Baird). That very evening, a group of masked bandits attack Salt Flat and leave the town a bloody mess. The next morning, Stubby cuts a deal with the sheriff and the four soon find themselves traveling to the next town, which is 200 miles away. As they make their way down the dusty trail, the colorful group gets to know each other and Stubby begins taking a liking to Bunny, who also happens to be pregnant. The lighthearted trip is soon interrupted by a mysterious bandito that calls himself Chaco (Played by Tomas Milian), who wishes to join and travel with the group. Chaco claims that he is an expert hunter and that he can defend the rag-tag group from raiders and bandits. All seems well at first, but Chaco soon reveals himself to be a sadistic bandit that leaves the group for dead. With no food or water and one of their group severely wounded, Stubby vows to track down and kill Chaco for what he has done.
While the spaghetti western was known for delivering plenty of shoot-em-up action, Four of the Apocalypse shies away from the relentless violence that made the genre so popular. While a gun is fired here and there, the only real action comes from the beginning of the film, with the masked bandits turning Salt Flat into a war zone. This early scene has plenty of Fulci’s signature gore, with holes blown through the bellies of drunken cowboys and gunslingers hung from buildings. It is actually a fairly creepy sequence, especially since the bandits seem to be attacking for no reason and they are sporting white masks with eyeholes torn into them. From there on out, Fulci leaves most of the gunplay behind and focuses on the sunny relationship between our four likable travelers. The downside to this opening explosive action is that the pacing is thrown off and the film seems to come to a screeching halt when the group hits the road. While the all-out action is pulled back, Fulci does darken the whole affair when Chaco rides into the frame. Chaco is certainly a captivating character, but with him comes torture, rape, and death, all of which shatter the innocence of the group. Things really get grim when cannibalism rears its ugly head in one of the darkest moments of the entire film.
Four of the Apocalypse also features some truly exceptional and memorable performances from nearly everyone involved. Fabio Testi really casts a spell as Stubby, the handsome and outgoing gambler that everyone seems to be familiar with (Even Chaco has heard of him!). A clean-cut guy who can’t say no to a good shave, Stubby is far from the conventional spaghetti western hero. When he mingles with a group of hardened outlaws near the end of the film, he is glaringly out of place but we can see that he may be considering going down the path that these men have chosen. Then we have Frederick’s Bunny, the beautiful prostitute who strikes up a romance with Stubby. Despite her line of work and her growing baby bump, she retains a youthful innocence that is rare when it comes to spaghetti western prostitutes. Pollard’s Clem is a pitiful soul, one who is a slave to the bottle and will literally do anything for a swig of whiskey. Fulci really focuses on his sad eyes, which easily pierce your heart. Baird’s sweet but simple Bud was probably the most sympathetic and naive character as he rambles on about speaking with ghosts in a graveyard. Yet the one that stands high above all these characters is Milian, who is absolutely unforgettable as the unpredictable Chaco. As sadistic as they come, Chaco is like a gun slinging Charles Manson, one who manipulates and violates with the aid of peyote.
What I absolutely loved about Four of the Apocalypse is that it really seemed to be playing by its own set of rules. The final confrontation between Stubby and Chaco is subtle and minimal yet strangely poignant and satisfying. You’ll also find yourself hanging on the hope and tragedy that blossoms out of Stubby and Bunny’s arrival in the town of outlaws, all of whom melt over the arrival of Bunny’s child. You will find yourself wishing that Fulci had paced his film better and that he would have pulled the distracting folk score from the film and replaced it with a jangly Ennio Morricone track. Over the years, Four of the Apocalypse has become sort of a midnight movie for some of the violence peppered throughout, but the film never seems overly interested in exploiting the bloodier moments, something that is very rare for Fulci. Overall, Four of the Apocalypse is an absorbing and emotional journey across a bleak and hopeless landscape. There are a few dry spots to be found but end result is a wildly disturbing character study that allows the film to set itself apart from the other films of this subgenre.
Four of the Apocalypse is available on DVD.
Basket Case (1982)
by Steve Habrat
If you want a prime example of guerilla filmmaking at its most bizarre, then you need to get your hot little hands on a 1982 film called Basket Case. Shot on a shoestring budget (director Frank Henenlotter actually shows his film’s budget in one specific scene of the film) in the grimy streets of early 80s New York City (it appears that 42nd Street is shown in the opening of the film), Basket Case is a seriously wrapped exploitation horror comedy. There is plenty of blood, guts, gore, and ear splitting groaning and screaming from our deformed Siamese twin Belial, sleazy settings to make you want to shower after watching it, and the most outrageous rape/sex scene you are ever likely to see. There is also plenty of black humor to keep you snickering to yourself, especially when Belial goes on one of his noisy rampages. Yet even at a scant hour and a half, the weird comic charms begin to wear themselves out and Basket Case just settles down in just plain weird and seedy territory with a particularly dark climax. The film has quite the passionate cult following and many even consider it a horror classic, which I think is going a bit far, due to the film’s reluctance to fully commit itself fully to serious scares. Every tense moment is broken up by a wink when it should have played itself straight to really creep you out.
Basket Case introduces us to the socially awkward Duane Bradley (Played by Kevin Van Hentenryck), who arrives in New York City with a handful of cash, some clothing, and a wicker basket under his arm. Duane checks in to the seedy Hotel Broslin, where he locks himself away in one of the rooms and studies over a mysterious file of medical papers. It turns out that that Duane was born with a grotesque Simaese twin named Belial growing out of his. When Duane was just a boy, his father was repulsed by Belial and recruited a few doctors to remove and discard Belial. When Duane woke up from his operation, he rescued Belial and vowed revenge on the doctors that separated them. All grown up and out for blood, Duane unleashes Belial, a deformed monster with claws and fangs, from his wicker basket to tear the doctors limb from limb. Their plot hits a snag when Duane meets a pretty receptionist named Sharon (Played by Terri Susan Smith), who he begins falling in love with him. Naturally, Duane’s feelings for Sharon enrage Belial and begin tearing the brothers apart. Meanwhile, the nosy guests of Hotel Broslin begin to suspect there is something strange about Duane and his wicker basket and they begin snooping around.
Even though Basket Case was not made with much, there is still plenty of dedication from the tiny cast and crew. The film itself is about as grainy as they come, giving it an almost documentary-like sense of realism even if the subject matter is the epitome of silly. Some of the early scenes of New York City are pretty interesting; especially the opening sequence that finds Duane wandering one of the neon strips of grindhouses, adult video stores, rundown bars, and twitchy junkies. Even the hotel that Duane calls temporary home was a real hotel, but certainly not one you would ever want to stay in. Your skin crawls at the very thought of what pests might be crawling all over you when you turned off the lights. Then there is the nightmare sequence, which finds a nude Duane running through the seemingly deserted streets of a city that claims to never sleep. Even though the film was made in the late 70s/early 80s, you still get nervous for the cast and crew, fearing that a junkie or mugger may leap out of the shadows that are claiming the streets. This nightmare scene is probably the scariest moment of the entire film, the only one that doesn’t seem to be chuckling at itself.
Then we have the acting, both from the cast of unknowns and from the little puppet Belial. Van Hentenryck does a fine job at being both a clueless sweetheart and a deranged psychopath. He shares some great moments with Smith’s Sharon, who genuine falls for his oddball charms, and Josephine (Played by Dorothy Storngin), a prostitute with a heart of gold who picks him up when he is at his lowest. Smith isn’t really given too much to do as the love interest, but she gets a memorable moment at the end when she finally comes face to face with Belial in the most discomfited way possible. Storngin is great as Josephine, barely flinching when Duane shares his dark past with her. Another standout is Robert Vogel as Anthony, the sweaty, no-nonsense manager of Hotel Broslin who is constantly scratching his head over the strange noises that ring out from Duane’s room. Then we have Belial, the blob-like monster that crawls around and claws his victims to shreds. For a puppet, he has plenty of personality and he can sometimes be weirdly cute when he throws his temper tantrums or hides in the toilet. Even though he is the bloodthirsty monster, he may be the most likable and sympathetic character in the entire film. When his relationship with Duane becomes strained in the final stretch, you wouldn’t mind giving the little guy a hug even if he may bite your face off.
While there are plenty of moments in Basket Case that are a good deal of fun, there are some moments that the viewer is left wishing the film would stop winking at them and keep a straight face. It doesn’t completely ruin the film, but I felt that it was definitely holding the film back from reaching its full potential. You do have to give Henenlotter credit for the way he slowly builds up Belial’s reveal, giving us little hints at what may be in that wicker basket until finally springing him on us. Just wait for the hilarious opening scene where Duane feeds Belial a bag of hamburgers. For you gorehounds out there, Basket Case has plenty of the red stuff to keep you happy, but don’t expect anything too elaborate. Overall, Basket Case is another shining example of less-is-more horror, something that Hollywood and the mainstream just doesn’t seem to understand these days. It does stand head and shoulders above most of the horror films you see today and it is a great film to show to your friends simply to see their reactions. You also have to admire the touching and tragic relationship between the brothers at the core of the film. While I don’t consider it the classic some horror and exploitation fans do, Basket Case is still a solid midnight movie.
Basket Case is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
It’s intermission time, folks!
Mark of the Devil (1970)
by Steve Habrat
If you’re someone who enjoys entering the sleazy land of blood, guts, and gore, certainly you’ve heard of the West German film Mark of the Devil, a film that was advertised as “positively the most horrifying film ever made.” Released in 1970 to cash in on the success of the 1968 Vincent Price classic Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil never even comes close to living up to its famous tagline. No, in fact there is barely a scare to be found in this stomach-churning tale of the European “witch-hunts” in the 18th century. Mark of the Devil does however live up to its reputation of being extremely violent, with prolonged scenes of torture that will make every grindhouse cinema fan beam. One would hope it would live up to its gory reputation, as Mark of the Devil is the only film to be (hilariously) rated “V” for violence (Personally, I think an X-rating is still more hardcore than a V-rating). A gimmicky rating apparently wasn’t enough, as Mark of the Devil also came with barf bags for the weaker stomached audience members, much like Lucio Fulci’s 1979 gross out Zombie. Despite all these wild taglines and marketing gimmicks, Mark of the Devil really isn’t that strong of a film. Sure the torture scenes are sickening enough, but a minor exploration of religious hypocrisy, a dreary ending, and a captivating performance from young genre-favorite Udo Kier are really the only postives this film has to offer. Well, there is also the famous tongue yanking sequence that will make you yelp.
Set in 18th century Austria, a vicious witch-hunter called Albino (Played by Reggie Nelder) has been abusing his power and terrorizing the small town he has been assigned to. After raping a caravan of nuns, the grand inquisitor Lord Cumberland (Played by Herbet Lom) and his young apprentice, Count Christian von Meruh (Played by Udo Kier), come to the town to relieve Albino of his duties. Shortly after their arrival, Christian falls in love with a beautiful girl named Vanessa (Played by Olivera Katarina), who has been accused of being a witch by Albino after she resists his sexual advances. It isn’t long before Lord Cumberland reveals himself to be worse than Albino, who has also continued to terrorize the locals, but after Christian catches his mentor brutally murdering someone, his faith is shaken and he begins trying to break away from Lord Cumberland. As more and more innocent people are accused of witchcraft, Christian begins devising a way to save Vanessa from horrific torture and death. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are plotting to rise up and fight back against Lord Cumerberland and his bloodthirsty gang of witch-hunters.
Throughout Mark of the Devil, there are moments where the film flirts with the gothic flair of an early Hammer Studios production. You wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee emerged from the shadows to consult with Kier, Nelder, or Lom. Unfortunately, director Michael Armstrong never uses the gothic doom to his advantage and instead becomes overly focused on rushing from one torture sequence to another. Sure, they are gruesome enough and I’m sure that at the time, several audience members may have had to put those barf bags to work, but the torture sequences don’t milk any emotion from the viewer. There are a number of secondary characters that are suddenly introduced simply so that they can be stripped of their clothing and whipped, branded, and raped. Trust me, folks, it doesn’t stop there! There is also beheadings, tar and featherings, torture racks, Chinese water torture, people burned at the stake, and even that graphic tongue yanking. The special effects have held up and certainly could run with what we have today, but there were times were the sadism crossed the line into tedious territory.
For hardcore horror fans, it may be worth seeking out Mark of the Devil for some of the familiar faces that drop by to cause bloody mayhem. Kier will easily be the most recognizable face, and probably the most pleasant one (at least for the female viewers) next to Katrina’s. The young Kier certainly does a good job, but there are moments where he seems to be taking the project entirely too seriously. There is really no dramatic break from his mentor and in the final moments, he is asked to become a macho hero in the thick of a hectic mob. Katrina’s role begins to reek of a simple damsel-in-distress, but she puts her all into it. You will also get the sneaking suspicion that Armstrong enjoys showing off her curves. Then there is the vile Nelder and Lom, both of who do a solid job at making you dislike them. Nelder hisses and snarls his way through Albino, a man who just loves stomping through the town’s streets and accusing everyone he sees of being a witch. He is about as nasty as they come and frankly, I would have loved to have seen more from him. Then there is Lom, the impotent grand inquisitor who manages to be worse than Albino. He constantly explains that he is doing the Lord’s work, but his delusions have blinded him to the fact that he is the true monster, one that slips away to terrorize another day.
Mark of the Devil does threaten to explore religious hypocrisy, especially with the character of Lord Cumberland, but this exploration is far from complex and it certainly is never elaborated on. Cumberland claims to be a man of God, but then turns around and murders or rapes anyone who dares challenge him. Some man of God! Yet it becomes increasingly clear that Armstrong isn’t really interested in trying to make the viewer think, he just wants them to cheer along as one-dimensional characters are reduced to quivering bloody pulps. Bursting forth from the sea of blood and filth is a beautiful score conducted by Michael Holm, a soothing tune that could very well have inspired the Riz Ortolani’s hypnotic score for the grindhouse shocker Cannibal Holocaust. You can’t help but think the music was conducted for another film but somehow ended up in here. Overall, on a very basic level, Mark of the Devil is entertaining enough, but too often it is dull, repetitive, or just plain goofy. The poor dubbing alone will keep you giggling and some of the overacting, especially from the background characters, is flat out painful to watch. Mark of the Devil is immensely popular among grindhouse fanatics, but it failed to win this exploitation fan over.
Mark of the Devil is available on DVD.