Thursday 31 January 2008

Tori spells it out

Reading this interview with Tori Spelling, I felt more than a little compelled to seek out all her woman-in-peril TV movies and watch them on a 24-hour loop. It’s wonderful that she seems so proud of them... but then who wouldn’t be with titles like Co-ed Call Girl and Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? As Tori herself admits, however, it takes a lot to top her 2005 stalker-thriller Hush. Sample dialogue? “He killed my mother... He killed my cat!” Genius.

Monday 28 January 2008

Dead of Winter

It’s always a bit of a shock when you just love a film that everyone else just hates. What on earth did you see in it? Are you perhaps too easily pleased? Might you, in fact, be... wrong?

If the film we’re talking about is one that everyone else truly hates, then at least there’s the “extreme reactions” defence – i.e. the movie obviously provokes strong reactions in people, and you happen to be one of the lucky few who respond to its director’s deeply personal vision. What really is disconcerting, however, is when you love a film that most other people seem to find simply bland and mediocre. Which seems to be the case with the 1987 thriller Dead of Winter, as you’ll see if you read the associated reviews over at the IMDb.

It’s the story of Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen), a somewhat-struggling actress invited to an upstate mansion after a successful audition for the mysterious Mr Murray (Roddy McDowall). Apparently, she’s needed to replace another actress who’s walked off the set of an independent thriller, leaving the crew in the lurch. The reason Katie’s perfect for the role is because of her close physical resemblance to the movie’s temperamental former star. With a bit of luck, she can step in, finish the shoot, and save the project completely.

Or at least that’s what she’s been told... Of course, Mr Murray and his movie producer friend, Dr Lewis (Jan Rubes), have ulterior motives for bringing her to the manor. And Katie’s about to find out that it’s never a good idea to show up at a spooky old house, dressed up as a missing woman in the middle of a vicious snowstorm...

So what’s everyone else got against Dead of Winter? Well, okay, it’s not the most fast-paced of films, and you’ll probably figure out what’s going on a while before Katie does. Likewise, you’ll probably end up screaming at her to just run! or at least put a frickin’ coat on! before deciding to wander out into the blizzard for the sixth time. In any case, I can think of at least three good reasons why I love this movie:

REASON 1: I’m getting old. As a horror-loving kid growing up in the eighties, I subsisted on a steady diet of late-night TV movies about women trapped in remote mansions on dark and stormy nights. Obviously, most of these had been doing the rounds since the 1970s – but, hey, this was before satellite channels existed and I wasn’t allowed to rent video nasties, so I had to get my horror fix somewhere! Dead of Winter is basically a late-eighties take on the genre, made on a decent budget by a fairly heavyweight director (Arthur Penn). I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an update as such (in fact, it’s pretty old-fashioned even when compared to some of the 70s TV stuff) but what can I say? Other than: I’m getting old.

REASON 2: It’s set in a lovely big house – or, to put it another way, I’m getting old. Yes, you reach a certain age and, well, believe me, you just enjoy looking at lovely big houses and nice dresses and shit. I think that’s why old people are always watching costume dramas. And the house in Dead of Winter has a log fire and some stuffed polar bears and – oooh – a player piano (one that’s hooked up to a character’s heart monitor, no less!). Like The Exorcist and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle – two other horror films set in lovely big houses – Dead of Winter cleverly uses the geography of its location to scare you. An hour in, you’ll know exactly where every staircase leads, where the best hiding places are, and whereabouts you’re likely to get caught while trying to sneak to safety. Naturally, Dead of Winter pays off with a hair-raising climactic chase from the bottom of the house right up to the dark and cobwebby realms of the attic. Eek!

REASON 3: I fucking love Roddy McDowall – or, to put it another way, Yes, okay, I’m getting old. I think I’ve already mentioned my love for the man. I’d watch anything he’s in. Why? Is it the clipped British tones? The sinister sparkle in his eye? Or the fact that he seemed to be somewhere in his late-fifties for more than four decades? What I wouldn’t give to look like Roddy when I’m a prissy fiftysomething. Which won’t be long if I carry on acting like this.

Anyway, despite the longish build-up, I think the thrills in Dead of Winter are pretty nicely timed: a few nasty shocks precede a couple of violent outbursts and, before you know it, the bodies are piling up and the chase is on... Good job I brought my walking stick then.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday 26 January 2008

Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge

Folks just don’t know a good title when they see one. Take this DVD cover for instance:

Eric’s Revenge? No, really... Eric’s Revenge?

The “revenge” part I can handle. But couple it with the word “Eric” and I stop thinking of horror movies and start thinking of the school geek peeing on your packed lunch because you called him “nerd-face” on the bus.

No, this film’s proper onscreen title is Phantom of the Mall, which is entirely better and seems to me to strike the right note between junky and creepy, much like the film it describes. Why they didn’t just go with that title for the DVD cover I’ll never know. (Okay... technically the onscreen title is Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge, but can we just put that subtitle behind us and move on?)

Welcome to the Midwood Mall. By my calculations, it’s THE Coolest Mall In The World! Don’t believe me? Well, take a look at this... It’s got a resident pianist:

And Pauly Shore works on the frozen yoghurt counter:

And there’s a shop that sells bombs, which may or may not come in handy for a plot-point later on:

And the changing rooms have no curtains:

And Morgan Fairchild is the mayor and declares it officially open:

And there’s about 60,000 miles of dark, dingy tunnels running around it – even though it’s brand new! And who should be occupying these crumbling recesses? Well, none other than Eric Matthews, the kid from Boy Meets World Phantom of the Mall himself.

Y’see, Eric used to live on the site of the mall, back when it was all houses. But then some nasty property developers came along and – one suspicious fire and an Extreme Makeover later – it was “bye-bye boring domiciles” and “hello shopping paradise”. And Eric hasn’t been seen since his house burnt to the ground with him apparently trapped inside.

One girl who shouldn’t be happy with the situation is Eric’s former girlfriend, Melody Austin (Kari Whitman). But it’s been a year and – you know how it is – a girl has to move on, and soon she’s, like, totally getting a job as a waitress at the new mall and everything. Yay!

Someone’s not happy, however, and he’s killing members of staff with alarming frequency, whilst poignantly wearing a mask made from a cracked mannequin’s face. One victim is forced forehead-first through a fan; another meets a cobra in the john; and yet another finds himself sucked into that scary bit at the top of the escalator where the metal teeth munch down on the steps. No wonder Phantom of the Mall boasts “special effects from the man responsible for The Kindred” (yes, that’s a direct quote from the back of the box). Except there aren’t really any special effects. But still, the deaths are plentiful and imaginatively conceived.

The box also promises “extremes which propel this story beyond reality and into fantasy realms of chilling horror and explosive action in this multi-million dollar production”. While I’m not sure about that, I will say that this multi-million dollar production is really good fun. I enjoyed it more than the perfunctory killer-robots thriller, Chopping Mall (1986), and just maybe even more than that other, classier mall-set slasher, The Initiation (1984). Part of this probably comes from the fact that, unlike those other films, much of Phantom of the Mall occurs while the mall is actually open, which means there’s loads of transfixing time-capsule footage of late-eighties retail culture. (What do you mean you don’t watch horror films for that?) The shops, the clothes, the extras... the moment when Morgan Fairchild is impaled on a scale model of the mall... Oops, sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away. Don’t want to spoil anything.

Oops! Anyway, Phantom of the Mall is highly entertaining if you don’t mind the rather bloodless kills and lack of surprises – which it makes up for, in any case, by always having something going on and never trying to be anything other than trashy fun. I only wish I could’ve seen it at the mall on a Saturday night back in 1989. Now that would’ve been rad.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday 20 January 2008

The ultimate power of evil...

My UK pre-cert video of the recently-reviewed Incubus came with a cover I haven't seen anywhere else online, so here it is in all its VideoTapeCenter glory:

(Click the image for a closer look, and sorry about the missing chunk... I was hungry, alright?)

I don't think it's as powerful as the other UK VHS cover, found here at It's Only A Movie, but the eyeball close-up (an image that bookends the film) is an interesting choice.

Friday 18 January 2008


Incubus is a film that works better the less you know about it. In fact, it’d be best for the story if you didn’t even know it involves an incubus. But, unless you’re illiterate, that’s probably not the case. And, if you are illiterate, I suggest you go and find someone to read the rest of this review aloud to you.

So, just what is an incubus, you ask, and can I use the name for my five-piece alternative rock band? Well, no, it’s already taken, sorry. In any case, an incubus is a sort of sexual demon that preys on women, raping them in the night and causing them to give birth to... well, who knows? Things never actually get that far in Incubus, but let me tell you, they go quite far enough for a 1981 slasher/horror film, thank you very much.

John Cassevetes plays Sam Cordell, a widowed doctor living in the small town of Galen with his teenage daughter, Jenny (Erin Noble). Our first sight of the good doctor finds him smirking to himself as he catches a glimpse of Jenny stepping naked out of the shower... Odd! But, fear not, this potentially disturbing subplot never really goes anywhere, since Sam is soon too busy investigating the film’s definitely disturbing main plot involving a string of rapes and murders around town.

It seems that young women are being attacked by a particularly vicious sexual predator whose assaults are so violent that the victims sometimes die from their injuries, while their male companions are killed outright. Further investigation reveals that some of the victims were subjected to “dry intercourse” (i.e. no semen present) while, in other cases, so much semen was found it looks like the woman was raped by a whole group of men. Cue some pretty gruesome rape-kit banter like “there was so much sperm in her that even the haemorrhaging couldn’t get rid of it”.

Things get weirder when Sam notices that the sperm samples he’s collected from the victims are red (a microscope shot shows that the squiggling spermatozoa have everything but horns and a pointy tail). Meanwhile, Jenny’s boyfriend Tim has been having strange dreams, the frequency of which seem to coincide with the attacks. Could he be the killer? Or is an even more dangerous supernatural force at work? Is it perhaps the rock band Incubus? Oops, sorry, I mean: Is it perhaps an incubus?

The answers don’t come early in Incubus, and I found this brooding sense of mystery one of the film’s most successful elements. If you watch it for cheap laughs, you’ll probably find some, but you’ll likely also find the pace boring. If, however, you take the time to be drawn into its sinister atmosphere, you’ll find it’s a serious, genuinely menacing story, very much in tune with director John Hough’s previous ghostly mood-pieces, The Watcher in the Woods and The Legend of Hell House.

And based on that alone, I loved it. You can count the number of sombre slasher movies on one hand and yet, when the genre takes itself seriously, it can be quite disturbing indeed, as it is here. (The same year’s The Prowler is another good example, while 1982’s Pranks is a nasty one I don’t get along with so well.) The attack sequences in Incubus are genuinely frightening: one simply involves something nasty seen through the crack beneath a bedroom door; others take place in an appropriately gothic museum and – in a scene that even out-creeps the similar one in He Knows You’re Alone – a cinema bathroom.

So suspend your disbelief – you’re worth it! And so is Incubus.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday 13 January 2008

The Psychic

It’s safe to say I’m disappointed with Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic. It probably didn’t help that I bought the DVD full-price, but I’d enjoyed Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (my last Fulci viewing experience) so much that going in blind seemed like a risk worth taking. Instead, all it really ended up taking was 97 minutes of my time... Time I could’ve spent recycling energy emissions or sweeping up my carbon footprints or something. Because I care. You hear that, Mr Fulci? You betcha by golly wow, I do. So the next time you make a crappy movie, just remember the effect it could be having on the environment.

Anyway, the reason The Psychic didn’t really work for me is because it’s a movie that hangs almost entirely on a twist. And, if you figure out where it’s heading early on, there’s not much else – other than a talky police investigation – to keep you particularly intrigued. Added to this, its characters take so long to understand the meaning of basic plot points that it’s often a case of frustration rather than suspense, while the twist itself is telegraphed almost from the start.

But what a start it is! Little Virginia is at school in Florence when her mother decides to commit suicide (it’s never explained why) by throwing herself off a cliff in England. Being as psychic as the title suggests, Virginia manages to “witness” the event through her mystical mind’s eye, and is treated to some gruesome close-ups of her mother’s face smashing graphically against the rocks on the way down. Luckily, Mom seems to have morphed into a mannequin by this stage – but still... surely no kid deserves to be subjected to any kind of Fulci gore effect before the age of twelve.

Twenty or so years later, Virginia is a happily married interior designer played by Jennifer O’Neill (whose previous credits, Futz! and Whiffs, make me want to reach for the Febreze). One day, whilst driving Freudian-style through a series of dark tunnels, Virginia experiences another vision – this one culminating in a woman being bricked up behind a wall. And wouldn’t you just know it? When she decides to renovate a house owned by her husband, something about one of the rooms – and, more specifically, one of the walls – looks a little familiar. A few hard whacks with a pickaxe later and Virginia is face-to-face with, not only some expensive property damage, but also a human skeleton that’s been long-hidden behind the bricks...

So far, so spooky, but it’s here that “spooky” turns to the aforementioned “talky”, and the next hour consists of Virginia laboriously piecing together some tenuous clues that eventually (and I really do mean eventually) lead her to the identity of the homicidal bricker-upper. Of course, this being a Fulci flick, there’s also a lot of close-ups of eyes. A lot. Don’t play any sort of drinking game that involves taking a swig whenever there’s a shot of someone’s staring eyes, or you’re likely to die from alcohol poisoning. That’s if the boredom doesn’t get you first.

Fulci can pull off a great climax – just look at the amazing extended chase that tops off Lizard in a Woman’s Skin or the fever-dream frenzy of The House by the Cemetery’s finale. Here, however, while you could reasonably argue the case for a suspenseful thirty-minute climax, in reality it’s taken at such a slow pace, it’s no wonder it takes half an hour to play out. The final scene is pretty tense, though, I’ll give you that.

Ultimately, then, The Psychic isn’t a patch on Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. It mightn’t be a fair comparison (and I don’t know why I’m so intent on it, other than the fact that they’ve both received recent DVD releases) but for me it bears out. Simply put, if you want thrills, mystery and the unique kind of cinemadness Fulci excels in, stick firmly with the Lizard.

Rating: 2/5

Thursday 10 January 2008

The Killer Next Door

I always felt sorry for poor Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, sharing a neighbourhood with the interminable Fred Savage. In 2001’s The Killer Next Door, she has an even worse problem... The two creeps who’ve moved into the big old house beside her aren’t just annoying – it seems they also want to kill her.

While we’re at it, then, shouldn’t that title be The KILLERS Next Door? They do after all come as a pair, and one of them is Tobin Bell, the self-righteous serial killer of the Saw movies. But it’s a moot point, anyway, since this low-budget thriller is known as Good Neighbor in the States, although that’s actually an even less accurate title... Sheesh!

But back to poor Winnie – or Molly Wright as she’s called in this film (Danica McKellar if you want to know her real name). Molly is a student of – something – at Somewhere University... That’s not important. What you do need to know is that she lives in a dorm house with sassy friend Rhea (Christine Horn). And by “sassy”, I mean “constantly drunk and a bit of a slut”. Molly, on the other hand, is a straight-A goody-goody who’s escaped her abusive mom and just wants to get stuck into some studying so she can rise above it all and maybe get a part in Wonder Years: The College Years.

There’s just two things that might get in the way of her sitcom dreams. Firstly, she spots one of her neighbours carrying what looks like a dead body out of the house and – oops – now she’s a murder witness whose own life may be in danger. Secondly, damn, the girl’s got a dirty mouth! “What about protect and serve, motherfucker?” she spits at the police officer investigating her Neighbourhood Watch allegations. Then, when Rhea suggests calling her mom for her, Molly fires back: “Why don’t you go and fuck yourself!” Language like that just isn’t going to endear her to fans of whimsical TV drama.

It doesn’t endear her to the local cops, either, and no matter how many times Molly contacts them about her psycho-neighbours, the lack of hard evidence leaves her looking like a hysterical, foul-mouthed motherfucker. Her only hope is recently-demoted homicide detective Paul Davidson (Billy Dee Williams) who’s been investigating missing persons in the area. Two separate cases have both led him into her neighbourhood recently... but will his tracks lead to Molly before the killers decide to finish her off for good?

The Killer Next Door works on a small scale, but at least it works. I saw shades of Fright Night in Molly’s fascination with – and fear of – the mysterious older neighbour and his young accomplice. As in that film, whenever Molly finds herself next-door (or the neighbours pop round uninvited) the tension’s pretty high, and some of the action is quite nasty as verbal threats eventually lead to physical violence.

Much of the menace comes from having Tobin Bell as one of the killers. Shorn of the masks, puppets and props associated with him in Saw, the guy is still scary, whether it’s his evil expression:

...or hairy back:

What doesn’t work? Well, you won’t forget this is low-budget. And, as we all know, low budgets buy clich├ęs – so here we get courageous nuns, eccentric pimps, tired cops, jocky boyfriends and alcoholic mothers. Even the “disappearing body” trick gets a look-in, with the added absurdity that the killers deliberately leave the body somewhere with the intention of scaring Molly – despite the fact that lack of evidence is the only thing holding her back.

It’s not great cinema, then, but it’s not bad either. Playing Molly, Danica McKellar isn’t the best actress, but let’s not forget she managed to make us believe it was possible to be attracted to Fred Savage in The Wonder Years. Do I smell an Oscar?

Rating: 3/5

Sunday 6 January 2008

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Well, it’s the new year here at Anchorwoman In Peril! – in the same way I expect it might be new year everywhere else. So, without further ado, Happy Two-Thousand-Oh-Eight! And, yes, I’m aware I didn’t actually get round to wishing any of you a happy Christmas, so here’s a belated greeting for that one too: Merry Christmas! Ho ho ho!

Actually, make that how how how! As in: how did I manage to make it through thirty Christmasessesses without ever watching the fabulous Christmas movie I settled down with this year? And, by “fabulous Christmas movie”, I refer of course to the fabulous Christmas movie that is 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night... Did I mention it’s fabulous?

In previous years, I’ll admit I’ve found myself alarmingly loyal in the yuletide movie stakes to my two perennial favourites, namely Scrooged and The Muppet Christmas Carol. But Silent Night, Deadly Night offers pleasures above and beyond those two. There’s all the festive fun of The Muppet Christmas Carol mixed with the, well, frankly rather nasty tone of Scrooged – plus, oh, a deranged, Santa-suit-wearing psychopath murdering promiscuous teens with cries of “naughty!”. Is there anything you’d rather see at Christmas time than that? How about a deaf priest dressed as Santa being accidentally shot in front of a group of orphaned children? Ker-ching, I say! Throw another humbug on the fire! Or whatever.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is so outrageous in its portrayal of holiday hell that your own struggles with family visits and burnt turkey will seem like stocking fillers in comparison. We’re introduced to Billy, a little boy who hates Christmas so much that he traumatizes his kiddie friends with drawings of decapitated reindeer and punches a Santa Claus off his stool when asked to sit on the man’s knee. Why this hatred of all things Kringle? Well, a few years ago when Billy’s family were driving home for Christmas (just like Chris Rea) their car was stopped by an armed robber in a Santa suit (unlike Chris Rea) who proceeded to shoot his dad dead. Then this Santa-from-hell ripped off Mommy’s blouse, attempted to rape her and, as if that wasn’t enough, slashed her throat. Talk about your road to hell! Yes, it seems safe to say that Billy has issues with Christmas. And I have some with Chris Rea.

Billy and his baby brother end up in an orphanage, where things don’t really get a whole lot better. Mother Superior isn’t what you’d call sympathetic to Billy’s plight, and it’s drummed into him from an early age that sex is bad and punishment is good. Obviously, things don’t bode well for Billy’s transition into adulthood: when he’s forced into a Santa suit for his Christmas job at Ira’s Toy Store, something in the strapping 18-year-old just snaps. And we’re not talking brandy snaps, either. It’s a full-scale psychosexual bad-Santa meltdown – and you wouldn’t want to be on the not-so-cheery fellow’s naughty list in this little town...

If all that sounds a little mean-spirited and nasty, well... it is! But Silent Night, Deadly Night clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously. I’ve heard that John Waters is a fan of that other Christmas slasher Christmas Evil, but wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there’s a soft spot in his heart for this festival of bad taste too. From the imaginatively conceived slayings (including impalement by antlers and strangulation avec Christmas lights) to the nightmares before Christmas endured by just about every child character in the film, there isn’t a festive motif that isn’t thoroughly trashed by the movie. And, as for the medley of freaky songs, let’s just say that “Santa’s Watching, Santa’s Waiting” is a creepy highlight. Not to mention delightfully catchy.

Only 351 days to go until I can watch it again!

Rating: 4/5