Monthly Archives: April 2013

Death Rides a Horse (1967)

Death Rides a Horse #1

by Steve Habrat

Most spaghetti westerns that emerged from Italy between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. Most directors saw the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy or caught a glimpse of Sergio Corbucci’s coffin-dragging gunslinger in Django and they quickly began trying to capitalize on the success of those cowboy epics. They poured in all the familiar ingredients and sometimes they even slopped on a bit more of the red sauce (blood) to cater to the exploitation crowds who ate up these foreign dishes. Yet every once and a great while, a formulaic spaghetti western would gallop along that had just the right amount of attitude to make it a minor and entertaining triumph. One of those formulaic but fun triumphs would be Giulio Petroni’s moody 1967 offering Death Rides a Horse, an odd-couple revenge tale that has a particularly dark opening sequence and an apocalyptic climatic shootout that will most certainly lodge itself in the viewer’s memory. It may not have the epic reach of a film by Corbucci or Leone, but Death Rides a Horse can be lively and menacing enough to lure spaghetti western nuts back for a second and even third viewing if they so desire. I’ve personally seen the film three times and I have to say, it has never lost my interest even if I have seen all of this done before.

As a young boy, the baby faced Bill (played by John Phillip Law) watched as his family was brutally murdered in cold blood by a group of masked bandits. Just before the bandits depart, they light the family’s house on fire and leave Bill to be burned alive. At the last second, another stranger who wears a skull necklace pulls the young Bill from the flames. Fifteen years later, Bill has grown up to be a deadly gunslinger searching for the men responsible for the death of his family. Meanwhile, the aging gunslinger Ryan (played by Lee Van Cleef) has just been released from prison and is searching for the gang that framed him. Ryan’s search leads him to nearby town where he meets Burt Cavanaugh (played by Anthony Dawson), one of the men who framed Ryan and who was also present the night that Bill’s family was murdered. Ryan demands $15,000 dollars from Cavanaugh, but he is reluctant to pay such a large sum of money. Just before Ryan has a chance to kill Cavanaugh, Bill shows up and guns the thug down. Realizing that they are after the same gang, Bill and Ryan begin racing each other to track down the rest of the gang. As they try to stay one step ahead of each other, they begin to realize that they may actually need each other if they want to stay alive.

While much of Death Rides a Horse is riddled with clichés, there are two parts of the film that are really allow it to stand out from the countless other spaghetti westerns released during this time. First is the opening sequence, which has to be one of the most gripping and terrifying scenes in any spaghetti western out there. You will be holding your breath as a group of masked bandits ride up to a small house in the middle of a thunderstorm, burst in on the happy family, gun down the man of the house as he reaches for a rifle, and then savagely rape the women on the dinning room table, all while a terrified and innocent young boy looks on. Then, to put the finishing touch on their heinous work, the bandits light the house on fire and ride away into the night. It is a scene that you would expect to open a really great horror movie rather than a rollicking cowboy picture. Then there is the climatic gunfight set right in the middle of a dust storm. It is ripe with apocalyptic doom as thick sheets of sand billow around and silhouette the gunfighters while they try to put each other six feet under. For as unsettling as the gunfight is, Petroni breaks it up by lacing it with a number of chuckles that have really held up over the years. While both of these set pieces send a chill, they are made even better through Ennio Morricone’s yowling score, which sounds like a terrifying Indian war chant erupting from the surrounding mountains. Good luck getting it out of your head.

Death Rides a Horse #2

In addition to these two sequences and Morricone’s hair-raising score, Death Rides a Horse is also worth the time for the performance from the always-welcome Lee Van Cleef. While he played second fiddle to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he is sneering and scowling front and center here. From the moment we see his aging and graying gunslinger, he shoots his viper-like gaze right through us and he continues to keep us on the edge of our seat with gravelly warnings like “revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold.” For all his toughness, Van Cleef does show a softer side in Death Rides a Horse and it comes through when he is forced to play mentor to the young gunslinger Bill. As far as John Phillip Law’s performance goes, he does okay as Bill but he doesn’t hold us like Van Cleef does. Law is a fine enough actor, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he seems like he is trying too hard to deepen his voice or look like a fierce bad boy (sounds sort of like Lou Castel in A Bullet for the General). You could see other spaghetti western tough guys laughing him out of the saloon if Law dared show up to their poker table. The bond that Van Cleef and Law’s characters form is certainly solid and multi-layered, at times being emotional and at times played for laughs. Law doesn’t miss a chance to bat an eye at Van Cleef’s aging wisdom and Van Cleef doesn’t shy away from chuckling at Law’s naivety.

There isn’t much depth to Death Rides a Horse but there is plenty to keep the viewer entertained and coming back for seconds, especially if they are fans of the Italian westerns. Quentin Tarantino fans will find plenty to like, as the spaghetti western-loving director littered Kill Bill: Volume 1 with numerous references to this particular film. The most obvious will be the use of Morricone’s stomping war-cry score, which is used during the showdown between the Crazy 88 and the Bride in the House of Blue Leaves. They’ll also notice that the flashbacks that Bill suffers from when he spots one of the bandits responsible for the death of his family look suspiciously similar to the flashbacks that Bride suffers from when she stares down one of her old colleagues. Oh, and how about the name “Bill?” I’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own. Overall, almost every single supporting actor blends in with the scenery and the villains are so cookie cutter, they could have been borrowed from any other spaghetti western, but there is enough action, suspense, and charms here for me to give Death Rides a Horse a solid recommendation if you are in the market for some retro action. Just remember that this isn’t Leone or Corbucci territory you’re riding through.

Grade: B-

Death Rides a Horse is available on DVD, but it is very difficult to find a good transfer of the film. It is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.

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The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

The Devil's Rejects

by Steve Habrat

After Rob Zombie’s cluttered and distracted 2003 horror debut, House of 1000 Corpses, failed to make an impression on critics and (most) audiences, the pressure was on the horror-loving Renaissance man to really step his game up as a filmmaker. In 2005, Zombie followed up the tie-dyed House of 1000 Corpses with The Devil’s Rejects, a grimy, snarling, and absolutely humorless decent into Hell. While many have labeled The Devil’s Rejects a horror film, I really hesitate to slap that label on it, as it never really even attempts to scare the viewer. Instead, it takes a page from the exploitation playbook and just continuously crosses the line and gets right in the viewers face just to watch them recoil in disgust. This film just flat out refuses to play nice, but then again, would you expect anything less from Rob Zombie? As if this tale of murder and revenge wasn’t intense enough, Zombie makes the wise decision to force us to root for the bad guys. That’s right, this time we don’t root for some group of brain dead teenagers or even the revenge driven police officer on a mission from God to prevail over this trio of death. Nope, we are rooting for that vile and downright rotten Firefly clan to blast and stab their way across the dusty Texas plains. It almost becomes a western, with the last of the true outlaws making their final stand in the face of annihilation. It is nearly a stroke of brilliance.

The Devil’s Rejects picks up in May of 1978, a year after the events of House of 1000 Corpses, with Sherriff John Quincy Wydell (Played by William Forsythe), brother of Firefly family victim Lieutenant George Wydell, leading a group of heavily armed police officers right to the Firefly’s front door. After a nasty shootout between the police and the Firefly family, Baby (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis Driftwood (Played by Bill Moseley) manage to escape capture, but Mother Firefly (Played this time by Leslie Easterbrook) isn’t so lucky. Baby and Otis quickly get in touch with their father, Captain Spaulding (Played by Sid Haig), who agrees to meet up with his children so that they can plot their next move. While waiting, Baby and Otis find shelter at a rickety roadside motel and to amuse themselves, they immediately take a traveling band hostage. Spaulding suggests that they flee to a local brothel called Charlie’s Frontier Town, which is overseen by smooth-talking pimp Charlie Altamont (Played by Ken Foree) and his simple assistant Clevon (Played by Michael Berryman), both of which are friendly with Spaulding. Meanwhile, the relentlessly brutal Sherriff Wydell is hot on the group’s trail and he plots a trap that will bring down the rest of the Firefly family once and for all.

There is no doubt that the best part of The Devil’s Rejects is the opening fifteen minutes of the film. Zombie starts things off with a gritty early morning shootout and let me tell you, that shootout is just plain awesome. It is cleanly shot, in your face, and suspenseful from the first shot fired. It certainly proves that Zombie could do all-out action if he really wanted to. After wasting one character and capturing another, Zombie launches into an equally cool opening credit sequence set to The Allman Brothers Band “Midnight Rider” all while the picture keeps freezing to announce cast and crew members. It looks like it was ripped out of the coolest exploitation film from the 70s that you never saw. This opening sequence shows us that Zombie really means business this time around and that he is abandoning the psychedelic approach of House of 1000 Corpses in the Texas sun. From here on out, the film is relentlessly intense, but it never really ever becomes scary. There are sequences of gruesome torture, both mental and physical, but they don’t ever fill us with terror. Instead, they just make us massively uncomfortable, but that is exactly what Zombie wants to do.

The Devil's Rejects #2

Much like House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects is overflowing with colorful creeps to make your skin crawl. Moon Zombie is much better this time around as the giggling Baby, who can be all smiles as she seduces her victims one minute, only to snap into a demon-eyed banshee the next. Moseley is busy channeling Charles Manson as the stringy haired hippie killer Otis Driftwood. He is absolutely fantastic and wildly memorable as the grizzled outlaw who enjoys stuffing his gun barrel down the underwear of one poor woman and carving the face off one of another male victim. Then there is Haig’s Captain Spaulding, who once again manages to steal the entire movie. The first time around, we only saw a few glimpses of how sinister Captain Spaulding could be but here, he is 100% evil. He can be darkly hilarious as he terrifies a small child and he can be surprisingly soft as he howls along with Baby for some tutti fruity ice cream. We also have cult legends Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) as Charlie and Clevon, two shifty pieces of work who enjoy snorting cocaine and bickering about having sex with chickens. Last but certainly not least is William Forsythe as Sheriff Wydell, a stone-cold man of God who may actually be worse than the Firefly clan. He will stop at nothing to trap his victims and when he finally is staring them down, he resorts to some of the nastiest torture out there.

What ultimately turns The Devil’s Rejects into a winner is that Zombie doesn’t appear to be preoccupied with trying to overstuff the film with references to other horror or exploitation films. He is much more subtle this time around with his tips of the cowboy hat. Most of the references here come in the form of cult actors Foree, Berryman, Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000) and even P.J. Soles (Halloween), all of which will have seasoned horror and grindhouse buffs chucking to themselves but never overly distracted. One of my only complaints about the film is the fact that Zombie trimmed the Dr. Satan sequence from the film, something I never thought I’d be complaining about. If you have a copy of the DVD, it is worth checking out this particular deleted scene because it actually grounds the whole Dr. Satan thing in the real world, at least in my humble opinion. Overall, as a tribute to old exploitation thrillers and grindhouse revenge flicks, The Devil’s Rejects is a homerun. It is a twisted and erratic western that can be unbelievably brutal, but never very scary. This is a modern day exploitation classic and a masterpiece for Rob Zombie.

Grade: A-

The Devil’s Rejects is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) #1

by Steve Habrat

When I sit down and reflect back on the horror films that have scared the daylights out of me, there is one gritty and uncompromising masterpiece that really stands out among the others. That particular film would be director Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cannibalistic nightmare The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a horrifying and skin-crawling trip into a rotting and withering Texas wasteland that is just a little too unshakably real. Made for a measly $300,000 dollars and inspired by the brutality of the evening news, the dishonesty of the US government, and real-life serial killer Ed Gein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would go on to become a massively influential slasher movie and give birth to one of horror’s most notorious boogeymen—Leatherface. While the name alone will turn off many squeamish viewers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t your typical exploitation horror film. There isn’t a massive fixation with blood and guts, but there is a burning desire on Hooper’s part to stuff the film with rusted atmosphere and stomach churning anxiety that has been baking in the smoldering Texas sun. You practically expect the film to reek of gasoline fumes, sweat, and decomposing road kill. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre emerged from one of the most unforgiving eras in the history of horror and has remained one of the cruelest genre efforts of the 1970s, right up there with such spine-chilling classics as The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Jaws, and Dawn of the Dead.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with Sally Hardesty (Played by Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Played by Paul A. Partain), Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry (Played by Allen Danzinger), and mutual friends, Kirk (Played by William Vail) and Pam (Played by Teri McMinn), venturing out into the backwoods of Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather after reports of grave robbing and vandalism in the area. After checking on their grandfather’s grave, the group decides to head over to the old abandoned Hardesty farm. Along their way, they pick up a local hitchhiker (Played by Edwin Neal), who claims to live nearby the old Hardesty farm. After cutting both himself and Franklin with a razor, the group kicks the man out of their van and leaves him out in the Texas sun. The group thinks their problems are over, but while exploring the abandoned farm, they discover another secluded home that they believe is also abandoned. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that the home isn’t abandoned at all and one by one they fall victim to a deranged group of cannibals led by the hulking chain saw–wielding Leatherface (Played by Gunnar Hansen).

Hooper kicks off The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with narrator John Larroquette reading from a text crawl that explains what we are about to see is based on true events. We then have a pitch-black screen cut with brief flashes of what appears to be a decomposing corpse. During your first viewing, you won’t be entirely sure, but you will swear that rustling and grunting sound effects that accompany the dark are the sounds of furious digging and scraping. Then a radio report kicks in with news of a local grave robber and the macabre creations that the individual has been leaving in the local cemetery. Hooper then cuts to a close-up of the face of a gooey corpse, pulling his camera back to slowly to reveal the body of the corpse has been tied to a massive headstone. If you look carefully, it almost looks like the corpse is grinning at the viewer. As the camera continues to slowly pan back, Hooper is revealing an amber wasteland and his elevated corpse is warning us that death rules over this nearly abandoned and decrepit part of the great state of Texas. It also seems to be conveying that madness will be the king for the next eighty-four minutes and you are a poor sap at its mercy. With this monument to madness on full display, the radio reporting on strange disappearances and morbid local activity in the background, and Hooper revving up his clank-roar-and-bang score, we are pinned to our seats, stomachs uneasy about what carnage is to come and what redneck monsters this dried up abandonment will spit out. The first time I saw, it nearly paralyzed me with fright.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) #2

After this massively effective opening sequence, it could have been very easy for Hooper to cater to exploitation audiences hungry for plenty of blood and guts, but he keeps a good majority of the violence off the screen and lets our imaginations fill in the nasty stuff. Instead, he continues to pump in the rotting atmosphere of a once delightful small town full of happy memories now gripped by unemployment, hopelessness, and insanity. It is the ultimate American nightmare. Every single character is suspicious or just plain spaced out under the burning sun and every home or farm is sinking away into the cracking landscape. When Hooper lets Leatherface Sawyer out of his house of horrors with his chain saw buzzing, the terror hits highs you never thought possible. He lumbers around the inside of Sawyer household while screeching like a banshee and plopping his victims on meat hooks. When he dashes through the night after scrappy victim Sally, who basically becomes our heroine, it actually feels like Hooper was creeping through the trees and filming an authentic chase between these two (Someone call the authorities!). You may have to lean forward to fully see what is going on, but in a way, the pitch black highlighted with streaks of blue keep your imagination buzzing just like Leatherface’s chain saw. This pitch-black chase reminds the viewer how removed from society these people are, that the Sawyers are the ones that live on the path that is just off the beaten path, far away from modern society.

Since the sets, atmosphere, and monster are all so good, you barely even notice some of the amateur acting that plagues the first portion of the film. The only one of the kids that really stands out is Marilyn Burns as Sally, who must have been without a voice for a month after all the screaming she does in the final twenty minutes. Once you see the horrors she is staring down (I don’t think that is animal meat on her plate), you will not blame her for all the screaming. Then we have Edwin Neal, who plays the kooky hitchhiker who used to work at the local meat packing company. He is just plain crackers as he slices his hand with a razor and then giggles over it. To make things worse, he is the brother of Leatherface, a hulking, mentally challenged killer who likes to wear masks made of human flesh. Hansen plays him with plenty of gusto and he is made all the creepier through the several costume changes he undergoes. He switches from butcher, to housewife, to formal dinner attire and one is creepier than the next. Also on board here is Jim Siedow as the old man who runs the gas station. He seems like a harmless old man at first, but it is soon revealed that he has ties to Leatherface and the hitchhiker. To make things worse, he is cooking up some seriously nasty BBQ in the back of the gas station.

Like most of the other classic horror films of the 1970s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t shy away from making a political statement. Hooper has stated that “the film you are about to see is true” gimmick at the beginning of the film was a response to the lies told by the US government during Watergate and the Vietnam War. You could also view it as a cheap exploitation trick to lure in audience members hungry for some major depravity. Hooper has also said that he was inspired to make the film after repeatedly seeing jaw-dropping violence and graphic coverage on the evening news. There is also plenty of inspiration drawn from Ed Gein, which is especially present in the Sawyer family homestead that is complete with human bones fashioned into furniture and even human skin covering the light over their dinner table. Overall, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most starkly convincing horror films I have ever seen. It is raw, in your face, and unforgettable, begging to be seen again and again to spot the tiny details thrown in by Hooper. But the true terror lies in the idea that there is nothing overly fantastic here. Sometimes, a simple backwoods cannibal wearing human skin as a mask and wielding a chain saw is one of the most terrifying things out there.

Grade: A+

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

House of 1000 Corpses #1

by Steve Habrat

Way back in the early 2000s, I can distinctly remember several of my friends whispering about shock rocker Rob Zombie directing a horror film that was so scary, the studio was thinking about shelving the project all together. Being someone who liked Rob Zombie’s music and was a fan of horror movies, I was instantly intrigued by just what the horror-obsessed rocker would come up with. Finally the day came when House of 1000 Corpses was released to the public and believe it or not, I never took a trip to the theater to see the movie. I finally saw House of 1000 Corpses during the summer of 2005, right before I went to see Zombie’s second feature film The Devil’s Rejects. I had read the largely negative reviews of film and I had even talked with a few people that had seen it and simply shrugged their shoulders at it, so when I rented the film, I had insanely low expectations as it began. As the film sped through its brief eighty-eight minute runtime, I found myself actually impressed with several segments of House of 1000 Corpses and chuckling at some of the blatant tips of the hat to other classic horror movies (everything from The Creature from the Black Lagoon to The Munsters to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is in there). It certainly was an inimitable vision from a man who had infinite amounts of potential as a horror/cult filmmaker. It was a blood soaked sampler of all the horror films that Zombie loved, but a number of disjointed moments and cheap jolts kept the film from truly striking fear in the viewer’s heart.

House of 1000 Corpses begins on October 30th, 1977, with four teenagers, Jerry Goldsmith (Played by Chris Hardwick), Bill Hudley (Played by Rainn Wilson), Mary Knowles (Played by Jennifer Jostyn), and Denise Willis (Played by Erin Daniels), traveling the Texas back roads in search of wild roadside attractions and macabre local legends. The group stops off at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen, where the meet the fast-talking Spaulding (Played by Sig Haig) himself. While exploring Spaulding’s funhouse, he sparks the group’s interest in the local legend of Dr. Satan, who is supposedly responsible for the mysterious disappearances of the area. The group suckers Spaulding into giving them directions to the area where Dr. Satan is supposed to reside and while traveling the back roads, they pick up beautiful young hitchhiker Baby (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie), who claims to live nearby. As the group nears Baby’s house, their tire is blown out, forcing them to take shelter at Baby’s rundown farmhouse. Shortly after arriving, the group begins meeting various members of Baby’s family including her mother, Mother Firefly (Played by Karen Black), her half-brothers Rufus (Played by Robert Mukes) and Tiny (Played by Matthew McGrory), her adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Played by Bill Moseley), and her Grampa Hugo Firefly (Played by Dennis Fimple), all of whom are gearing up for creepy Halloween festivities. As the hours pass, the group begins to fear that they may not be permitted to leave the Firefly home alive.

It really won’t take the viewer long to figure out that Zombie has lifted the plot from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and then fed it a heavy dose of LSD. After the acid has kicked in, it feels like Zombie pried its eyes open with the device from A Clockwork Orange and forced it to zone out on endless hours of Universal’s classic monster movies, episodes of The Munsters, forgotten television horror hosts, and stock footage of seedy peep shows and the Manson family. It then spirals into a kaleidoscope of warped images and repulsive shocks that hint at other, better midnight exploitation movies, B-horror cheapies, and real-life serial killers. You could honestly fill a review with all the movies that Zombie pays tribute to. Yet there is something strangely admirable about how Zombie wears these influences on his sleeve. It’s clear that he absolutely loves these movies, he just has a hard time funneling all of these references into one cohesive idea. Instead, he just shoots all over the place, eager to spring redneck funhouse shocks on us while also unleashing a group of underground ghouls that look like they would be more at home on stage with him during a rock show rather than a scruffy horror outing. It really should have been one way or the other.

House of 1000 Corpses #2

What has really lured the cult audiences to House of 1000 Corpses are the eccentric cast of creeps drawn up by Mr. Zombie. By far the best character in the entire film is Haig’s Captain Spaulding, a cackling madman clown who never seems to be at a loss for words. A word to the wise, never get the idea to hold up his flashing little roadside attraction. Another classic character would have to be Moseley’s Otis Driftwood, a foul-mouthed hillbilly maniac who takes charge of every situation and dispatches his victims in the most brutal ways imaginable. Together, Haig and Moseley ride off into the Texas sunset with the entire picture. Karen Black will make you uncomfortable as the dotting Mother Firefly, a woman who stands firm behind her Halloween traditions. Sheri Moon Zombie’s Baby will have you gritting your teeth as she chuckles like a deranged schoolgirl. You can tell that Moon Zombie is pretty inexperienced here and that she has a lot of growing to do as an actress. Meanwhile, Wilson and Hardwick are likable enough as Jerry and Bill, but Hardwick (yes, THAT Chris Hardwick) ends up falling into the amateur category when going up against the infinitely more talented Wilson (yes, THAT Dwight Schrute). Jostyn and Daniels are pretty forgettable as heroines Mary and Denise and weirdly, Zombie asks us to root for Daniels in the final twenty minutes. Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Night of the Living Dead (1990)) also memorably shows up in a small role as Lieutenant George Wydell.

I honestly don’t think that House of 1000 Corpses is a terrible horror movie. It really isn’t. It just isn’t nearly as scary as it was hyped up to be and it tries to pay tribute to way too many horror movies. It almost feels like Zombie feared he would never have the opportunity to make another film so he overstuffs it. The film would honestly have fared better if someone had convinced Zombie to drop the whole Dr. Satan thing and leave the mutant monsters on the cutting room floor. I won’t deny that they look really cool but it just doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film. However, there are enough spirited performances, quotable lines of dialogue, and eerie surprises (that cop-execution sequence really stands out) to balance out the weaker spots. Overall, Zombie has a vivid imagination and it truly is a start for him, but you just can’t shake the feeling that Zombie is much, much better than all of this. Either way, you won’t ever forget entering the House of 1000 Corpses.

Grade: C+

House of 1000 Corpses is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Anti-Film School Recommends This Film…

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained

Hey readers,

After what felt like an eternity (just slightly under four months, actually), Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Django Unchained is finally available on Blu-ray and DVD. If you didn’t see my Top 10 Films of 2012 list, then you didn’t know that this ultra-violent and ultra-entertaining spaghetti western was my pick for the best film of last year. Funny, action packed, stunningly well-written, and unflinching, Django Unchained also features some of the best performances from last year (wait until you see Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio). The Blu-ray isn’t particularly bursting with features, however, there is a documentary called Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses & Stunts of Django Unchained, a look at the costume designs from Sharen Davis, and a feature called Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained. If you’re a fan of cinema or a Tarantino nut, you might want to high tail it over to Best Buy to pick up their special edition that comes in some nifty packaging that will look mighty cool next to your Tarantino XX collection. So, if you wish to read the Anti-Film School review of Django Unchained, click here, and if you’re curious why I picked it as the best film of 2012, click here.

-Theater Management (Steve)

Django Unchained Blu Ray

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Death Race 2000 1

by Steve Habrat

One of the better cult films to be produced by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman would have to be the 1975 dystopian satire Death Race 2000, an ever colorful grindhouse thriller that appears to have no shortage of eye-grabbing characters, gory death scenes, and black humor. Amazingly well spoken for this type of sleazy genre pic, Death Race 2000 is clearly a drive-in cheapie fueled by razor sharp satire, but it also gets by on the spirited lead performances from David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, both who seem to be having the time of their lives as the rival racers. Maybe the charms come from the DIY approach that hovers over the entire project, from the cars that look like they had painted styrofoam additions super glued on to them, to the red candle wax blood that erupts from heads mowed over by smoking tires, to the hilarious backdrops that look like giant billboards painted up to look like a futuristic city. It all feels like it was made in a week and if you’re familiar with how Corman liked to work, you probably wouldn’t doubt it. Under director Paul Bartel, the cheap production design is never allowed to overshadow the white-knuckle action, thrills, and wit that rocket at you at about 150 miles-per-hour. However, the film does a tailspin in the final five minutes, with a blowout ending that just doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the movie. It has been said that the filmmakers weren’t sure how to conclude the film and it sure is obvious once you see how they warp everything up.

In the year 2000, the United States has been destroyed by a financial collapse and is ruled over by a Bipartisan Party, which has unified church and state. It has become the United Provinces; a fascist police state ruled over by the mysterious “Mr. President” (Played by Sandy McCallum). The public is kept entertained by the brutal Transcontinental Road Race, a gladiatorial battle that finds five colorful racers battling to score points by running down innocent civilians with their spruced-up race cars. The star of this show is the fan-favorite Frankenstein (Played by David Carradine), the government’s champion that is part man and part machine due to the horrific wrecks from past races. As the nation gears up for the 20th race, Frankenstein finds himself stuck with a new navigator, Annie Smith (Played by Simone Griffeth), who he is immediately suspicious of. As the three-day race commences, Frankenstein finds himself pitted against his jealous rival, “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Played by Sylvester Stallone), who will do whatever it takes to beat the fan favorite. In addition to competing against “Machine Gun” Joe, three other racers, Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Played by Martin Kove), Matilda the Hun (Played by Roberta Collins), and “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Played by Mary Woronov), are all out to dethrone Frankenstein. As the race gets underway, the five racers find themselves attacked by a mysterious rebel group led by Thomasina Paine (Played by Harriet Medin), who are determined to put an end to the savage race once and for all.

Death Race 2000 begins with a montage of jingoism, as marching bands and fans clad in red, white, and blue congregate for the massive race set to The Star Spangled Banner. It seems harmless enough until Bartel slips in an image of a man waving a swastika flag in support of Matilda the Hun. From there on out, Death Race 2000 is a rubber-burning satire on America’s fixation with violent entertainment and the media that enthusiastically sells it. The announcers happily explain the point system directly to the viewer; smiling as they explain how many points a rundown infant is worth compared to a pancaked man or woman. Things get even more twisted as the widow of the first victim of the race is brought onto live television, simultaneously sobbing and laughing as she is rewarded with a lavish vacation, all because her husband was the first to be gruesomely rundown in the street. It is not hard to see that Death Race 2000 is skewering the media’s love of all things blood and guts, all as Frankenstein reminds us that it is all about giving the fans what they want. Bartel does lighten the mood with a few scenes of black humor, mostly coming from Stallone’s “Machine Gun” Joe and his constant frustration with both Frankenstein and his busty navigator Myra (Played by Louisa Moritz). The highlight scene comes when an innocent fan (who is minding his own business) mistakes the cocky “Machine Gun” Joe for Frankenstein. Joe retaliates by chasing the man down a river and flattening him. Now THAT is some black humor.

Death Race 2000 #2

While the action and satire are both finely tuned, Death Race 2000 achieves its cult classic status through must-see (and when I say must-see, I mean it) performances from Carradine and Stallone. Carradine rocks as the partly mechanical man Frankenstein, who dons a leather mask and zooms from coast to coast in an alligator race car complete with massive fangs. You can tell that Carradine is having an absolutely blast strutting around in his black leather outfit that is complete with a cape that he enjoys twirling around. He is the ultimate man of mystery, at least to his die-hard fans. You’ll thrill as he is always one step ahead of his plotting rival “Machine Gun” Joe, a mush-mouthed brute bitter over living in Frankenstein’s shadow. Outside of Rocky, this is probably the best Stallone has ever been (Okay, he was decent in Rambo). He just looks so outrageous speeding down a winding country road in a car with two tommy guns and a giant knife mounted on the front. He nabs most of the black laughs while bickering with his bombshell navigator Myra, who acts like a giant space cadet. As far as Frankenstein’s navigator Annie Smith is concerned, she is mostly there to get naked and seduce him behind closed doors, but wait for a surprising twist with her character near the end of the film. Another stand out is the deliciously evil Matilda the Hun, who is absolutely wicked as she shouts about the master race while tormenting her fellow racers. And I can’t forget Don Steele as the massively annoying announcer Junior Brace, who just beams over carnage of the race, and Joyce Jameson as the obsequious television personality Grace Pander.

Death Race 2000 may toss around a few heavy ideas, but it never fails to remember its audience. Being an exploitation movie, Death Race 2000 provides tons of gratuitous nudity and violence, which is interesting because the film appears to be wagging its finger at violence for entertainment. There are plenty of gruesome deaths, which are all accompanied by the trademark 70s candle wax blood. In between these nasty moments, there are plenty of adrenaline pumping chases, fistfights, and even a nifty sequence that finds Carradine’s Frankenstein trying to outrun a rebel fighter plane unleashing bullets and bombs. Death Race 2000 also can’t resist stripping almost all the ladies of their clothing, especially Moritz and Griffeth, which will please most of the male viewers. Overall, Death Race 2000 could have been a victim of its own cut-rate production, but the less-is-more approach really allows the film to come alive. It may botch it in the final moments with an unlikely and frankly unsatisfying climax, but it is something you will ultimately forgive because the other seventy-five minutes are just so cool. Come for the nonstop action and stay for the seriously awesome performances from Carradine and Stallone.

Grade: B+

Death Race 2000 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Army of Darkness (1992)

Army of Darkness 1

by Steve Habrat

In 1987, director Sam Raimi remade his 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead, dropping the simple stone-faced terror that turned the original into such a hit and planting the tongue of the series firmly into its bloody cheek. This slapstick remake, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, would go on to become even more wildly popular than the terrifying ’81 original. Personally, I’ve never cared for Evil Dead II nearly as much as the original film and I was never convinced the film struck the proper balance of Three Stooges comedy and hair-raising terror. Hey, that’s just me! In 1992, Raimi and his ever-game star Bruce Campbell brought the series to a close with the even sillier Army of Darkness, a medieval epic that, at least to this guy, was infinitely more entertaining than Evil Dead II (I can just hear some of you horror fans now). Dropping almost all of the scares and embracing more action and adventure, Army of Darkness wins the viewer over almost instantly with its ever-quotable one-liners and its never-ending string of comic book gags. Yet while Army of Darkness does keep your eyes glued to the pulpy thrills, the jokes and the plot end up getting stretched to the breaking point, causing this brief eighty minute romp to wear out its welcome near the climax. Luckily, Raimi has the good sense to wrap everything up before Army of Darkness really falls to pieces.

After briefly flashing back to the events of Evil Dead II, which concluded with Ash (Played by Bruce Campbell) getting sucked into a portal opened by the Book of the Dead and spit out in medieval England. After tumbling out of the sky, Ash is immediately confronted by Lord Arthur (Played by Marcus Gilbert) and his men, who instantly accuse Ash of working with Duke Henry (Played by Richard Grove), Arthur’s sworn enemy. Ash is taken, along with the captured Henry, to a nearby castle where he is forced into a pit, which houses a snarling Deadite waiting to rip souls to pieces. Ash dispatches the ghoul and in return, he wins the trust of the terrified villagers, the beautiful Sheila (Played by Embeth Davidtz) and the castle’s Wiseman (Played by Ian Abercrombie), who bargains that if Ash is to venture into the haunted countryside and retrieve the mysterious Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, he can return to present day. Ash reluctantly accepts the offer, but after goofing the magic words he was supposed to say upon retrieving the book, he inadvertently awakens an army of the dead. To make matters worse, this army is led by a demonic twin of Ash. After Sheila is captured by a flying Deadite, Ash decides to align himself with the medieval soldiers and destroy the advancing demonic army.

Leaving most of the toe-curling thrills and chills in that legendary cabin, Army of Darkness quickly opts for Three Stooges style humor and heaping doses of fantasy action. For those who love blood and guts, the only carnage to be found is at the beginning, when one poor sap is shoved into the pit with a Deadite and a geyser of gore sprays into the heavens. It is absolutely hilarious and almost like Raimi is purging all of the gore from his system before launching headfirst into seventy minutes of solid belly laughs and action. Most of the time, it feels like Army of Darkness is poking fun at the action genre, from the tough-as-nails hero Ash and his bottomless pit of one-liners (“Give me some sugar, baby!” “Name’s Ash. Housewares.”), to the gratuitous explosions that rain down on the final showdown. Never once does it feel as if Raimi is taking all the action and adventure too seriously and he launches it at us at breakneck speeds. While this certainly keeps Army of Darkness very interesting, it also exhausts the film by the grand finale. It appeared that Raimi was moving at such a furious rate that he almost wore himself out and lost his grip on the entire project. Luckily, Mr. Campbell and his glorious lantern jaw comes to the rescue.

Army of Darkness 2

The true success of Army of Darkness rests on the chain saw of Mr. Bruce Campbell, who seems to be having an absolute blast jumping and throwing himself around like a madman. Right from the get-go, Campbell’s Ash chews right through Raimi’s dialogue and he does it with plenty of fiery confidence. Just wait for the scene where he has to recite the magic words before retrieving the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (cinema buffs will remember those magic words from The Day the Earth Stood Still). When he isn’t muttering a classic one-liner (trust me, it is LOADED with them), he is busy socking, slapping, and poking himself in the face or busy battling a handful of feisty miniature versions of himself. His enthusiasm for the role is infectious and it is an absolute blast watching him throw himself into every scene with such gusto. In a way, it is almost a shame he is so good because every other actor or actress in the film is caught in his shadow. As for everyone else, Gilbert and Grove are largely forgettable as Lord Arthur and Duke Henry. Davidtz is just a pretty face until she gets to unleash her dark side near the end of the film, but most of her sinister vibe comes from the prosthetics applied to her face. Abercrombie checks in a fine performance as the Wiseman who believes that Ash is the savior that they have been waiting for. Keep an eye out for George A. Romero alum Patricia Tallman as an evil witch, Sam Raimi’s brother Ted in a number of different roles, and Bridget Fonda as Ash’s gal Linda.

To me, the fact that Army of Darkness isn’t simultaneously trying to be funny and scary is why it works better than Evil Dead II. I understand that many will not agree with me, but I just never thought that Evil Dead II was as funny or scary as it thought it was (I was left longing for the slow build and straight faced terror of the original). Army of Darkness is well aware that it is just a roller coaster ride and it makes absolutely no apologies about it. There are small tastes of the horror that Raimi unleashed in 1981, but for the most part, this is strictly an action comedy ripped from the pages of a comic book you have never heard of. And while the medieval action does wear thin, Raimi picks it up for one last boomstick blast of demonic action in the aisles of present day S-Mart. Overall, as a gonzo send-up of the action and fantasy genre, Army of Darkness is about as giddy and playful as they come. The action may start to slip from Raimi’s grasp, but this is Campbell’s show from the first frame all the way to the last. He may very well be the grooviest action hero of all time, and his shotgun never runs out of ammo. Gotta problem with that?

Grade: B

Army of Darkness is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Evil Dead (2013)

Evil Dead (2013)

by Steve Habrat

I think that most horror fans would agree that Sam Raimi’s 1981 ultra-low budget horror film The Evil Dead stands as one of the scariest and most influential efforts within the horror genre. The very idea of trying to remake the film for modern audiences was absolutely blasphemous. For years, Hollywood threatened to dig out the Book of the Dead and even Raimi himself hinted that he might return to that dingy cabin in the woods for more groovy mayhem, but it seemed like just a bunch of fluff. After years of rumors, horror fans finally have director Fede Alvarez’s ultra-gruesome reimagining Evil Dead, and it arrives in theaters with an overwhelming amount of hype, a giddy blessing from the makers of the original film (Raimi, original star Bruce Campbell, and original producer Robert G. Tapert all serve as producers here), and a tagline proudly declaring it as “the most terrifying film you will ever experience.” That is a pretty bold claim! Well folks, this reimagining (the filmmakers are adamant that it ISN’T a remake) is far from the scariest film you will ever experience. Hell, it doesn’t even come close to reaching the levels of terror that Raimi reached back in ‘81. However, you should be warned that Alvarez’s Evil Dead is without question the most brutal, violent, shocking, and repulsive mainstream movie you will see. Once that howling demon charged out of the woods and the blood started flowing out of that cabin, I absolutely could not believe that this film earned an R-rating. Get your barf bags ready!

Evil Dead introduces us to Mia (Played by Jane Levy), a drug addict trying to go cold-turkey with the help of her estranged brother, David (Played by Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend, Natalie (Played by Elizabeth Blackmore), nurse Olivia (Played by Jessica Lucas), and childhood friend Eric (Played by Lou Taylor Pucci). Desperate to make sure that Mia doesn’t fall back into her nasty habit, the group decides to take her to an isolated cabin in the woods, a place where the friends spent much of their childhood. Shortly after arriving at the dilapidated cabin, Mia begins complaining of a horrible odor coming from somewhere within the cabin. After a bit of searching and snooping, the group stumbles upon the macabre basement, where they find a slew of dead cats and a strange book wrapped in a trash bag and barbed wire. Naturally, curiosity gets the best of the group and they decide to read a couple of passages despite the countless warnings scribbled on the pages. Soon, Mia begins suffering from bizarre hallucinations that the group waves off as just another symptom of withdraw. However, after a violent attack with a shot gun and a hair-raising warning that they are all going to die, the group begins to suspect that there may be supernatural forces emerging from the woods.

Alvarez certainly scores points with attempting something new with a familiar formula. He could have easily just served up a bunch of dimwitted teenagers retreating to a cabin for a weekend of drinking and hooking up, but he opts for something more mature and that certainly toys with the audience, at least early on. During the early hallucinations, you can’t help but suspect that maybe this is all just in Mia’s head, but Alvarez hits the breaks on this when Eric mumbles passages from that dreaded book. From that point on, all the emphasis is put on the blood, guts, and gore and Evil Dead delivers it all while wielding an assortment of power tools and, yes, that legendary boomstick. Your stomach will do a somersault as one character slices off her own face, you’ll cringe as nails are shot from a nail gun into another characters arm (and face and leg), you’ll cover your eyes as one character yaks bloody vomit all over another character’s face, and then, in the ultimate gross-out moment, a character pulls a syringe needle from just underneath their eyeball. Just when you are convinced Evil Dead can’t get anymore gruesome, the grand finale finds the lone hero facing off against a yellow-eyed demon with nothing but a chainsaw, all while gooey blood rains from the blackened sky. It is the blood-dipped cherry on the top of this gore sundae.

Evil Dead (2013)

While Evil Dead excels in the effects department, it takes a dip when it comes to the acting. Alvarez appears to be under the impression that audiences will be flocking to his Evil Dead simply for the extreme gore, but he forgets that what made the original film so memorable was the acting, especially from Bruce Campbell. None of the actors or actresses in this Evil Dead come close to giving the performance that Campbell did, but two of the five really stand out. Levy does a fine job as the drug-addict Mia, and she does make you chew on your nails when she is overtaken by the growling poltergeist. She snaps her head around and goes wild-eyed while howling, “you’re all going to die tonight!” In between Levy’s frenzied blasts, Pucci is busy with being hilariously terrified and appalled the entire time. In this humorless and heavy affair, his Eric manages to make us chuckle (his reaction to the self-mutilation in front of him is absolutely priceless). While Levy and Pucci are busy stealing the show, Fernandez and Lucas look like they are trying way too hard to be serious, but there is a nifty little fake out with Fernandez’s character near the end of the film. Blackmore’s Olivia is completely underdeveloped and almost forgotten until Alvarez needs her to start hacking, chopping, and shooting both herself and her chums.

It may be hard to believe, but Alvarez’s Evil Dead is absolutely dazzling to look at. Some scenes look washed out while others are plunged into complete darkness. The film is thick with a grimy and grungy atmosphere that is made all the more surreal through peculiar camera angles and an oddly beautiful score from Roque Banos. When things erupt, Banos cues what sounds like a toxic alarm to announce the snarling ghouls and I must say, it is an effective and icky tool. For a film with so much going for it, it is frustrating to find Alvarez falling back on the same old jump scares and loud music blasts to nab a jolt. As much as I hate to say it, this tactic just seemed cheap and lazy when layered over the rich production. Overall, even though it isn’t as scary as it promised and at times feels completely unnecessary, Evil Dead gets the job done when it comes to nauseating its audience and it does it style. It is an absolutely blast spotting references to the original film and there are more than a few moments that will go down in the horror history books. Make sure you stick around through the end credits for a surprise that will have horror fans everywhere erupting in applause.

Grade: B+

Book Review: You and Me against the World

You and Me against the World

by Steve Habrat

I must confess that I have never written a book review before. Sure, I’ve raved about certain books to friends and rolled my eyes in disgust at others as I flipped past the last page, but I’ve never attempted to give an in-depth review of one. Books have always acted as my escapist entertainment because of my fascination with film. However, a few months ago, I was asked by Raymond Esposito, the gentleman behind You and Me against the World (and who also contributed a wonderful Halloween feature post to Anti-Film School), about possibly reviewing the first book in his Creepers Saga. Honored that he valued my opinion, I quickly agreed to give it a read and I dove right in to his vision of the zombie apocalypse. I must say, as a massive zombie fan, I truly enjoyed and was consistently impressed with this non-stop thrill ride. As I dove deeper and deeper in, it became clear that Mr. Esposito was staying true to the formula that really makes the great zombie stories work. He was placing extremely likable characters in front of his hordes of undead and then unleashing the most terrifying monster of all on his protagonists–fellow man.

On his last day as an oncologist, Dr. Russell Thorn is barely moved by the overwhelming number of individuals showing up in the ER for severe flu-like symptoms. Shortly into his shift, Dr. Thorn is called in to observe a patient that is spewing black bile and suffering from hypothermia despite the boiling Florida heat outside. It doesn’t take long for the patient to pass away, but to the horror of the hospital staff, the patient doesn’t remain dead. It wakes up with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. With the hospital descending into chaos, Dr. Thorn and two young nurses, Susan and Rosa, make an escape from the panic only to be greeted by more cannibalistic terror out in the Florida sun. With nowhere to go and the streets crawling with undead ghouls, the small group makes their way to Dr. Thorn’s home to wait the situation out. After a few days of observing from an upstairs window, Dr. Thorn realizes that the roaming ghouls don’t particularly like the chilly evenings and that they appear to be showing hints of intelligence. To make things worse, it appears as if the zombies know that Dr. Thorn and the two nurses are hiding inside the home. After a very close encounter with a horde of ghouls, the small group is saved by a heavily armed band of young warriors led by the reluctant Devin. Running out of options, Dr. Thorn agrees to join the group and they begin plotting a way to distance themselves from the swarming infected, but as the group will soon learn, there are things lurking out there in the chaos that are worse than the undead.

I was told that You and Me against the World was very cinematic, and I have to agree with this description, but I would also say that Mr. Esposito’s scope is about as epic as it can be, analyzing the zombie apocalypse from nearly every single destructive angle. I’d go so far to say that he comes dangerously close to matching what Max Brooks achieved in his globe-trotting zombie epic World War Z  (hell, you could probably make the books into a double feature of sorts). There are nuclear meltdowns, war, bombings, car crashes, and more all chillingly tucked in amongst Esposito’s beefy character development. He envisions a world that is charred, scarred, and crawling with galloping cannibals his character’s dub “creepers,” who charge their prey while drooling black bile and burrowing underground when the sun goes down to stay warm. Yet Mr. Esposito isn’t content with his virus simply infecting humans. Oh no, things really take a creepy and fun turn when we are introduced to zombie kitties and in a giddy tribute to George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead.

In addition to all of the action that Mr. Esposito infuses into his zombie epic, he also presents a staggering number of protagonists for the reader to root for. It is a pretty big group and at first I feared that there may be one hero too many in You and Me against the World, but this is where Mr. Esposito truly shines. He gives each character their own mini introduction and then as the story progresses, allows us to see how each of these characters is connected to the other. While it is up to the reader to pick their favorite among the massive group, my two personal favorites were the baseball bat-wielding Austin and the deadly blue-eyed mute Goldie. And while Mr. Esposito makes all of his protagonists likable, he doesn’t forget to add a handful of vile baddies to the bunch. I don’t want to spoil too much of the fun, but his crazed cult leader is just so much fun to hate, especially when he is threatening to feed a group of terrified children to a ravenous “creeper.”

For zombie fanatics, You and Me against the World is a must for your bookshelf. Make sure you place it between your Walking Dead comics and your copy of the Zombie Survival Guide. It features numerous nods to Romero’s original Dead trilogy (Night, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead) as well several little tips of the hat to Richard Matheson and his classic vampire tale I Am Legend. Overall, Mr. Esposito dreams up a tense, gory, and fresh spin on the zombie genre while barely stopping to take a breath. He puts the reader through the ringer with white-knuckle suspense and leaves us all wanting to see what comes next in the massive and wildly creative trilogy.

 

If you wish to purchase a copy of Raymond Esposito’s You and Me against the World, click here. If you wish to read Mr. Esposito’s Halloween guest piece, click here.

Favorite Evil Dead Film… GO!

Evil Dead