Crash Analysis: HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970)

Big bites out of cheese

Barnabas Collins is awakened once more…

Like the long-running Dark Shadows series in the mid to late sixties, this first feature film of the franchise brings together the bulk of the cast, including Jonathan Frid as the vampire people love to hate.

But the movie also brought out some of the worst of the series. No, it wasn’t the low budget sets or live action flubs – but the melodramatic cheesiness that always made me run away from the show.

Adding to the cheese factor: The old shoot during the day but try and make it look like night time shots, and the cliché ridden sounds of wolves and such – as well as the occasional rolling fog and cobwebs. Okay, I admit, I love the Gothic elements, but they could have been presented in a much more gripping fashion. Instead, the camera angles, lighting and coloring did little to make the scenes “pop.” The problem here may have been director Dan Curtis who started out with the television series in 1968 and had twenty episodes under his belt. He couldn’t seem to break away from the trappings of television to create a memorable feature experience.

There is a multitude of screaming women and men in this feature, though mostly women, and Barnabas certainly does wake up hungry as he pursues Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) in Collinsport, because she looks much like the woman of his dreams. Bites and blood abound, and it seems like everyone is injured and procuring a bandage – usually on the neck, of course – at some point.

Dick Smith, special effects make-up guru and Academy Award winner, did exceptional work when it comes to Barnabas’ appearance at one point (I don’t want to give away exactly what transpired). It was not only excellent for the time, but still holds up.

And Jonathan Frid held up. His Barnabas owned every scene. Too bad the rest of the cast failed to follow his lead, except for the always reliable John Karlen as Willie Loomis.

Dark Shadows fans will love it, and vampire aficionados can check it off their list, but it may not be worth the investment for other horror fanatics.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: GRINDSTONE ROAD (2008)

Your ghost cliché movie

Parents buy a creepy old house that’s haunted and … yawn

I love quality ghost stories and haunted houses – but this isn’t one of them. If you like, however, you can watch the movie and make a drinking game out of predicting what happens next. The problem is that if you may end up with alcohol poisoning.

Fairuza Balk plays Hannah, a mother ravaged by guilt because she got into an accident that left her son in a coma. Maybe as a distraction or maybe to just shake up her life a bit, she’s drawn to an old home in need of renovation. She buys it with her husband, begins to bring the house to life, then she starts to hear voices, see things and one predictable thing happens after another. The only interesting part of this ultra-lackluster and poorly edited farce was that Hannah’s husband (Greg Bryk) is a psychiatrist and constantly responds to his wife’s ghost stories with logic, common sense and the Romulan version of Dr. Spock.

Balk, who is usually reliable, isn’t completely awful, but sometimes her heart didn’t seem to be in it. Melanie Orr’s directing offered nothing new and her attempts at scares were completely ineffective, making the movie appear to be a mid-day television show for an older and safe playing crowd.

This is Paul Germann’s first script and I can only wonder why he went down one well-worn path after another. However, since he’s been on over seventy projects, usually as a sound editor, it’s possible he got a production team of friends to get the movie made. Otherwise, there is nothing here of merit to warrant green lighting the story.

Although I’d never recommend this to anyone, the last ten minutes of the movie are so outrageously laughable, you may want to take a look. Then again, if you are having trouble sleeping, this may be just the medicine you need.

One star for the house.

0.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: HARD RIDE TO HELL (2011)

One big flat tire that will flip your bike and give you major road rash

Friends in an RV are ravaged by the biker gang from hell.

From ROBOCOP to THE NIGHT-FLIER, I’ve always enjoy Miguel Ferrer’s acting. However, with his body of work, I can’t even begin to guess why he would star in such a low grade and awful project such as this.

We’ve seen it all before: A group of young to semi-young somethings, a trip to the middle of nowhere, laughs and booze, then the bad thing (people, ghost, what-have-you) show up, no phone service and the nearest town is lightyears away… You know what I mean. But it’s not that this is just formulaic, it’s very poorly shot and poorly executed.

Now, Penelope Buitenhuis has been directing since 1989 and David Pelletier has been the director of photography on nearly forty-five projects. It’s clear that the budget wasn’t there. However, that’s no excuse for bad camera angles and sterile shots.

The story was also drawn out and plagued with stock characters: the screaming girl, the cool guy you hope makes it, the hesitant hero… Then again, this movie came with three writers, and as we’ve seen far too many times: the more writers, the worse the story. And somewhere along the line, someone decided to amp up the melodrama, while turning a character into one of the worse pseudo-heroes of all time.

Ferrer may not had been his best, but he certainly wasn’t even close to bad. However, the one standout in this ill-fated monstrosity is the work of Brent Stait who was spot-on in every scene. Then again, Stait is one hell of a character actor who has appeared in many a movie and television show, most notably “Andromeda” from 2000-2004. Due to his character and efforts, it’s the only reason I rode along to the end.

1 out of 5 stars

 

Crash Analysis: FIRST BORN (2007)

If you have trouble sleeping, hit “play”

A first time mother gets delusional over baby.

This feature had the feel of a MOW (movie of the week). Though I doubt Lifetime would run it up the flagpole. Sure, it had atmosphere at times and decent lighting, but twenty minutes could have easily been hacked off the ninety-five minute run time.

As for the movie, this is writer/director Issac Webb’s first feature. Yet, how this slow moving beast of confusion and nothingness got greenlit and made it to the screen is its own mystery.

Now, I don’t need everything tied up neatly in a bow, after all, I’m a big David Lynch fan, but give me some gateway to possible answers for some of the odd occurrences. Please.

Worst still were the characters: Although Elizabeth Shue did her best as whiny mother Laura, she was simply annoying. In short order, any semblance of compassion by the audience for this pouty train wreck of a woman was clearly destroyed by the beginning of act two. The workaholic husband, doing his damnedest to impress his bosses – how droll – also sported his own poutiness in the face of actor Steven Mackinosh (though he somehow manages to secure an entire month off when his wife truly, truly needs help with baby Jessica for real this time). And of course, we had the creepy old babysitter, who… whatever. It’s as if Webb plucked his characters off the shelf at your local and utterly decrepit K-Mart.

Since there was little happening, especially with a group full of solemn and cardboard characters, the climax was extremely clear from the beginning and leaves the audience without any shock and awe – just a yawn. And a big one at that. In fact, suspense was annihilated early on when it became blatantly obvious this was one of those “Is it in her mind?” movies.

Regardless, Webb and the rest did not bring anything new or palpable to the genre. A half-star goes to the Camera and Electrical Department for making this drek look better than it deserves.

0.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: BAD BLOOD (2006)

We’ve seen it all before

A man brings his wife and kids to their ancestral home in a superstitious village… 

As soon as the movie began, it was clear writer Rodrigo Guedes de Carvalho was going to exploit all the trappings of his culture. Roman Catholicism, possession, exorcism, village mentality versus city dweller mode of thinking, spiritualism, ghosts, family and superstition versus reality all come into play. The only problem is that we’ve seen these stories unfold in horrors repeatedly from a slew of other Western, as well as Asian, nations.

He does one thing, however, that is wonderful. The stereotypical villages that tell the city folk they don’t belong – or hate them outright – isn’t necessarily prevalent. Thankfully, with that hackneyed element not in the picture, I was able to indulge.

The acting was fairly strong, especially by Adriano Luz and Sara Carinhas, though Manuela Couto succumbed to be being far too melodramatic. The story maintained a solid pace with exceptional cinematography by Victor Estevão, capturing the atmosphere of the Monteiro homestead as beautifully as he did the lush countryside. Sadly, suspense and scares were sorely lacking and the end came as no shock.

Tag team directors Tiago Guedes and Frederico Serra have definite talent, and I hope they pick a stronger tale for their next outing.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: THE LAST CIRCUS (2010, Spain/France)

Laugh clown kill

A sad clown falls in love with a starlet – and challenges her misogynistic lover in post-war Spain.

The logline above is far too simplistic for this multi-genre and multi-thematic film. Written and directed by Álex de la Iglesia, best known in the US for his 2008 feature THE OXFORD MURDERS, brings us a monster mix of mayhem that spans from the Spanish Civil War to 1973. Sort of like Tim Burton on a lot more acid.

Soft-spoken Javier (Carlos Areces) survives the war to become a sad clown in a low budget circus. In the show, he plays second banana to Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), the happy clown who is ultra-hostile off stage and keeps the other performers walking on edge due to sudden tirades and extreme violence. His lover is the lithe Natalia (Carolina Bang) torn between Sergio’s rage and the safety of Javier. Okay, that sounds like straightforward romance plot number one – but it doesn’t come close. This tale engages war, politics, drama, comedy, horror and romance while exploring themes regarding obsession, response to trauma, politically induced Frankensteinian creations, and the failure of dreams within a fascist state. Fascism, whether it is Franco’s or Sergio’s, is the running thread that holds this wild fantasy together.

Kiko de la Rica is the photographic genius that created one amazingly vivid cinematographic ride that even in the daylight never seems pristine or dreamy enough. The world is always tainted – darkened – by something from the edges as well as within the hearts of the characters, and his skill brings this to light frame after frame.

The acting is absolutely brilliant and riveting, with Areces and de la Torre going toe to toe at every turn. I can only imagine how mind-numbingly drained the performances had left them. Then again, how could any actor in the film not embrace the quirky and enigmatic characters created by Iglesias? None of the characters were run of the mill or plucked off the shelf like so much Hollywood drek.

However, though this falls under the realm of horror, I sincerely doubt many fans of the genre would embrace the movie. This is not because horror aficionados are stupid and only adore slasher films, but this is one of those movies that could easily make someone question the very definition of the genre. And with a multi-faceted feature such as this, horror plays a role, like a character, and does not permeate the tale.

Regardless, there’s something for everyone in THE LAST CIRCUS, and if you like freaky films that defy description, you should enjoy this riveting feature.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: APOLLO 18 (2011, USA/Canada)

apollo18posterIn space, no one can hear you if communications are down

The last Apollo mission to the moon ends up as a fight for life, limb and liberty.

Director of photography, José David Montero delivers by bringing us a 1974 mockumentary that truly captures the feel of film for the period.

Yes, this is a “found footage” horror in the likes of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, and CLOVERFIELD, to name a few. Admittedly, I’m one of the few who enjoys found footage and mockumentaries. After all, they usually come with a realistic feel already built in that adds to the suspense, and creates an underlying tension.

APOLLO 18 chronicles the final Apollo mission of astronauts Anderson (Warren Christie), Walker (Lloyd Owen), and Grey (Ryan Robbins). On this mission, however, the trio of next American heroes is doing a little assignment for the Department of Defense and, well… If I tell you, I’ll have to give you a noogie.

But I can say that the acting was strong and the special visual effects, with Wray J. Douglas (of “Stargate” television fame) at the helm, were fairly solid. And although I enjoyed the feel of this picture, something was clearly lacking. Sure, two guys are trapped in a module on the moon and you can’t get anymore claustrophobic than that, but that was expected. Even worse, when they head out on their rover to collect rocks, the claustrophobia becomes skintight. Yet, suspense seemed to be lacking – and that may be because there was much that seemed too easy for the audience to determine. Though the filmmaker did throw us a couple of curves (see spoilers below), director Gonzalo López-Gallego just didn’t deliver the shocks and scares – but relied on old-fashioned smoke and mirrors for the most part. Regardless, my nerves didn’t even begin to rattle.

Although an interesting premise, first time feature writer Brian Miller brought us something I know he’ll want to rewrite and shoot again a few years down the road. And that’s the sad thing about APOLLO 18, it could have been intriguing and awesome. Instead, it was a middle-of-the-road contender.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

It was cool to include a failed Soviet mission, and alien spider things as rocks was a great touch, but they didn’t take these elements far enough. One person who hated the movie joked that nothing could exist on the moon, and that all creatures need sun, oxygen, and water. I guess that guy never heard of extremophiles – creatures living outside of such normal expectations. Hell, who knows what wild things lurk in the depths of the Universe.

What I couldn’t buy was the DOD representative getting involved about why an astronaut had to remain stranded. It was akin to the killer in a bad movie explaining why and how he committed murder before being taken off to jail. But there was a plot hole the size of a black hole: How the hell did the footage get to Earth when the film could not have been recovered since the Soviet and American modules crashed together? Who knows, maybe the two ships melded together in an orbit around the moon only to be picked up later by Apollo 19…

2.5 out of 5 stars

(Photo from Gabosff.)

Crash Analysis: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011)

Greater than 2 less than 1 – and that ain’t remotely bad

A young couple moves into a house with two kids – and then there’s a poltergeist…

The first installment of Oren Peli’s ultra-low budget dramatic horror blew me away. Number two was mid-range and mostly forgettable, but in the third installment, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman delivered in grand comeback fashion.

PA3 focuses on Katie and Kristi Rey’s first brush with the entity that incessantly haunts Katie (Katie Featherston – who will also appear in PA4 later this year). Once again, strange sounds and bizarre occurrences lead to a stream of jolts that keeps the tension at a high level – with some excellent special visual effects that are cool, crafty and comprised of the “boo” factor.

Usually, I can’t stand horror movies with little kids because we know nothing really bad is ever going to happen to the little bastards. But Chloe Csengery (Young Katie) and Jessica Tyler Brown (Young Kristi Rey) did a fine job. The rest of the cast was solid and helped sell the creep factor all the way through.

Sure, some people trashed this movie, and for good reason. The third installment of anything, unless it’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS or, on a lesser scale, RETURN OF THE JEDI, there aren’t many showstoppers when a studio is milking a franchise to death. But this captured the surprise of the first movie quite well. After all, unlike most horrors that are clearly in the realm of fantasy so we can distance ourselves, the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY juggernaut does its damnedest to present everything as genuine – and handheld cameras and their gritty feel certainly add to making that work. And this air of reality may leave many wondering, “What if this could happen to me?” Hence, the troubled nights sleep.

For me, this franchise resonates because it’s exploiting my own childhood fears. And since I’m bringing my past experiences to the screen, I feel every friggin jolt.

As far as averages go, for my money, this is the best horror series – ever. Yes, I know I’ll get a lot of flack for that, but these movies rock my emotional world. Believe me, I’d love to say the HELLRAISER series, but like most franchises, subsequent features become either flat or just bad parodies of the original. For now, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is keeping it real, fervent and surprising, and let’s hope it continues when the latest foray comes to theatres on October 19.

SPOILER ALERT:

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