Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Famed genre director John Carpenter has had a critically mixed career. Some of his films were instant classics, while others had to wait a long time to earn that status in the eyes of the world. The Thing was on the rocks for years, before finally achieving its fame. As his career went on this became more common, partly because he's a director on the wane, but also because critics love to rag on an artist late in his game, as an easy target. One such film is Prince of Darkness, which has also come to attain a sizeable cult following...

A small church in the city has held a dark secret for years. Upon the death of its last remaining member, a priest learns of what lies within its walls, and gathers together a scientific research team, made up of college students, and his old friend Professor Birack. Together they analyse a mysterious green canister in the basement, and come to some shocking conclusions. After experiencing some prophetic nightmares, they soon realise the threat this object poses, and what will befall the world if they fail to stop it...

Prince of Darkness is a unique and interesting horror film. It's a low-key and eerie picture, with a palpable sense of doom throughout. From the first scene we get a sense that something is not right, and we follow a bunch of intelligent and proactive characters as they try to make sense of of this nightmare before it's too late.

The movie deals with some very intriguing concepts, mixing science and the supernatural in a really satisfying way. It introduces its audience to things like quantum theory and matter versus antimatter in such a way to make it interesting, and never boring. The ideas of Jesus being an alien and Satan being an anti matter being made up of green liquid is one that could have been goofy or ridiculous in the wrong hands, but here it's fascinating.

Prince of Darkness owes a lot to the works of Nigel Kneale, echoing the same themes of ancient evil waiting to be unleashed, with a scientific look at fantastical and even biblical elements. I think it does a fantastic job bringing these ideas to the (then) present day, and Carpenter once again proves himself to be a devoted fan! And as can be expected from Kneale, he hated the movie, without having seen it of course. A top class writer, but an absolute knobhead! Boy could I rant about him for ages if ya let me.

John Carpenter's direction is stellar as always, with a particular high spot being the creepy low-quality future transmissions. With its unearthly quality and portentous content they are ranked as some of the most unsettling moments in a film already brimming with spookiness. Other highlights are the tense closet attack, and the computer interaction.

While telling an ambitious story, the action in Prince of Darkness is more grounded, set entirely in a single small building. I find this effective, aas it's not trying to do too much, and let its imagination exceed its budget or runtime. I find it does this without sacrificing its ambition either. All too often you'll see a movie that has a great idea, but not the budget to pull it off, so they don't try. Here though this single location really feels important.

The movie gradually becomes a siege movie, perhaps reminiscent of earlier Carpenter works. The climax is an all-out battle, with an assault on all angles, and the main possessed girl trying to bring in something far worse from beyond the veil.

All of this culminates in a very effective ambiguous ending. On one had I have no idea how it makes sense, but hey, it's ambiguous for a reason. Maybe it's not even happening, and really is all a dream this time! One thing's for sure, the trailer certainly does a bizarre job. It not only shows the last scene, it actually shows what happens next! The young hero is attacked by a menacing...title card!

The effects are wonderful. Entirely practical, we've got convincing gore effects, extremely gooey make-up, and some nice props, such as the giant finger at the end. A little plasticky, but still great, and ominous. There are also creative visual uses of liquid physics, from the mysterious liquid when possessing people, to the watery mirrors.

The acting here is nice, with a familiar stable of Carpenter regulars, plus newcomers. Donald Pleasence and Victor Wong work great together, and bring some class to the movie. Young Tom Atkins lookalike Jameson Parker rocks a neat moustache, and is an alright lead. Dennis Dun is nice as the comic relief, and has some strong dramatic moments too. Lisa Blount and Susan Blanchard both excel in their roles, and the remainder of the cast all do well too. Also appearing in a small role is Alice Cooper!

The soundtrack to Prince of Darkness is a subtle and ominous one, with tracks that really set the mood, and get under your skin with very little. John Carpenter scored the movie, together with collaborator Alan Howarth, and once again he proves his musical chops to a tee.

Also of note is a track not in the movie itself, but recorded for the production-The titular Prince of Darkness by Alice Cooper himself. It's a nicely rockin' tune. Totally ill-fitting with the movie itself, so it's understandable it wasn't included directly, even if it is a shame. Between this and The Man with the Golden Gun, Alice has quite a history of movie themes that almost made it!

Prince of Darkness was critically savaged on its release, and got an unfairly bad rap. You have to wonder if these high-falutin' critics ever actually watch any of the things they trash. I've seen things worse than they could ever imagine, and I sat through every second! Time has been kind to this film though, and while its reputation isn't as high or mainstream as The Thing, Prince of Darkness has built up a solid fanbase, and will only grow stronger as time goes on...

Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978)

Dr. Hamilton is an esteemed psychologist, suddenly beset by terrifying dreams of Coffin Joe stealing away his wife Tania. His friends and family are concerned, even enlisting the help of Jose Mojica Marins himself to cure the man's affliction. But nothing seems to help, and Hamilton is at risk of being lost to Coffin Joe forever...

The amusingly titled Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind opens abruptly. After a strangely sorta-groovy tune over the opening credits, we are thrown straight into the 'plot', which is an awfully strong word to use for a movie such as this. You see, this is made up predominately of stock footage. Brazilian horror director Jose Mojica Marins was most famous for the Coffin Joe series, and I don't know if he was under contract for a new movie or what, but he came out with this, cobbled together from whatever scraps and recycled bits he could find.

The film is full of crazy imagery living up to the title. A lot of it is stupid, but plenty is creative...but from other movies, so praising Hallucinations for those elements wouldn't be correct. There's next to no dialogue, either. You could mute the film and miss out on nothing but the endless screaming and wailing.

The framing story is interesting in theory, but the film never really makes an attempt to give it any importance. It's just an excuse to string the scenes along. Even the resolution feels sudden and anticlimactic, coming only because they've hit the runtime quota and don't need any more archive footage. Then comes the true ending though, which makes no sense, but is typical of horror films. Even when you've definitively 100% super duper killed the bad guy, there'll always be that last minute twist or tease at the end showing they've survived.

The film has no consistency. Not only the scene will change rapidly, on a dime, but so will the film quality, and even the colour! There's no context for most of the images and scenes we're shown. The most ill-fitting scenes are those that feature Coffin Joe himself being tormented, which doesn't fit with the story here (you'd think seeing them would perk Hamilton up!).

Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind is honestly quite boring. A lot of the scenes are good in their own right (if a bit ridiculous and laughable in places), but only in the context of the original movies. Here, without any of that context, it's just shock for shock's sake, and none of it leaves an impact. I suppose you could compare it to watching a compilation of gory death scenes. You could watch a 5 or 10 minute video of such scenes and enjoy yourself, sure, but stretched to 80 minutes? You'd be reaching for the remote faster than water in a desert!

Turning Coffin Joe into a supernatural omnipotent being seems a bit weird and out-of-character when one of his character's defining characteristics is a hatred of all things supernatural. I also didn't like that he doesn't lose at the end of the movie. He is such a loathsome character that you look forward to seeing the arrogant sonovabitch get taken down.

The acting in the main segment leaves a little to be desired in some areas, while others are just ok.

And lastly, the music, what little there is, is comprised almost entirely of spooky moaning, and it skirts the line of eerie and enigmatic, and just plain annoying.

Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind has a few decent moments, and some were even made for this movie, but overall it's basically just piecemeal scatterings of Marins' previous efforts. If you didn't like them then there's no sense checking this out. And if you do like them, well you're probably not gonna get much out of this...

Quest for the Mighty Sword (1990)

Ator the Invincible was an Italian series 'inspired' by the success of Conan the Barbarian. Starring musclebound Yank Miles O'Keeffe, they've become somewhat (in)famous for their ultra-low production values, and ridiculous moments. It was Joe D'Amato who created the series, but lost interest when a third Conan entry wasn't immediately forthcoming, and one Alfonso Brescia picked up the slack and made the third entry himself, resulting in a strange arthouse-style picture. D'Amato hated this film, perhaps because it was someone else handling his 'baby', or maybe he just thought Brescia did a rubbish job at it. And so he decided to return to the series, to show everyone what was what...

The great king Ator is killed by vengeful gods, and his widow and child (also named Ator) flee for safety. They find refuge with a malicious goblin, who promises to take care of the child and his magical sword. Years later the matured prince Ator is the goblin's slave, and desperately seeks the sword so he may escape. Only then can he embrace his destiny and be a new hero...

Quest for the Mighty Sword is by far the worst entry in the Ator series. The first two are charming, while the third was odd and a little boring, but not bad. Quest however feels like a totally different beast. There is little in common with the first two, any previous continuity (in a series already known for spotty and footloose canon) is thrown out completely/with the dishwater.

The whole movie is a bit unpleasant, really! With no warning, the movie opens with Ator's violent death, then his wife intends to commit suicide because she's a widow (beg yer pardon?!), before being sold into prostitution, and young Ator has to grow up with an abusive goblin. The first act of this movie is an endurance test, and only when he escapes can you move on to the fun stuff.

Quest for the Mighty Sword is set in quite a misanthropic world, and a bit weird too. The movie opens with the gods demanding Ator give back his magic sword, and when he doesn't, they effortlessly murder him. It's strange that the deities of this world are so evil, and doubly strange that they're never really taken to task or punished. Everyone just collectively shrugs their shoulders, like 'What'cha gonna do'.

Quest for the Mighty Sword has leaden pacing. The first half hour has some very brief set up, then we're stuck in a cave with an asshole goblin. The next half hour consists of Ator running around, and getting in a single fight, before freeing his mother. Only in the last 30 minutes does he finally begin his quest properly, and take the battle to the villains. The film's chronology is a bit all over the place until a certain point, causing a fair amount of confusion.

The climax is a bit unsatisfying in that regard too. For all the talk of these villainous gods, the main baddie of the film is just a brief scuffle with some random dude, and anything grander is forgotten. The movie sets up so much, then culminates with such a big let-down. We coulda had Ator fight the gods themselves, but instead he fights a dumb old prince with no personal boundaries and a desperate need for skin cream. The movie then just peters out, and teases a sequel that mercifully never happened.

Ultimately this is all pretty frustrating when this is the fourth entry in the series (third if you listen to Joe D'Amato). We should be beyond the point of an origin story, especially when Ator has a different bloody origin in every movie!

The characters are bland. Ator is a pretty basic hero. Nothing special, but not terrible either. His main sidekick/girlfriend Dejamira is bland. A prisoner of the gods, she is freed by Ator, and is finally her own woman...Except she can't fight worth a damn (when she even fights at all), screams uselessly, and can't tell people anything. Comic relief Skiold is pretty decent, and makes for a good ally. Though his fate is a needless bummer, especially since it's so late in the game, and from such a weak opponent.

The villains are disappointingly weak. The so-called invincible robot is destroyed with one strike in under 30 seconds, the malevolent sorceress(?) just pouts and walks off, even though I thought she'd succeeded. Then the main baddie Gunther just decides to commit suicide at the end, meaning Ator didn't even have to lift a finger to defeat him. Probably the best villain by default is the mean goblin who dominates the first act.

The acting ranges from the competent to weak, with accents are all over the place too, with some English accents, and some distractingly modern U.S. ones. Eric Allan Kramer is one of the better performers, but as Ator he is no Miles O'Keeffe. I find him a much better actor in other things. Margaret Lenzey is amusingly bad here, decent there. Donald O'Brien is an over-the-top and grungy looking villain, while Laura Gemser is fine but sadly doesn't get to do a whole lot to do. Dina Morrone delivers an alright performance, and is a real trooper for what she has to do here (it has to be seen to be believed!). There's also Marissa Mell, in an unremarkable role.

The direction is fine, which is no surprise given D'Amato's experience, but the whole film looks unappealing. Not only are the visuals a mix of bland or unappealing brown, it often feels like there's been vaseline smeared all over the camera. The action is barely satisfactory, and consists of people being hit with a prop sword and falling down. No blood or grue, with few exceptions.

The effects are the best part of the film. They are cheesy and clunky, but fun and bizarre. There's a two-headed robot, and a Godzilla-esque dragon that kinda looks like it's melting. Lastly, the most distinctive thing about Quest for the Mighty Sword is its use of recycled props from the infamous Troll 2! Laura Gemser's now iconic goblin masks are designed well, if not convincingly, and they work quite well in this fantasy setting. Always nice seeing the Italians being enterprising.

The music here is mixed. Some tracks are great, suitably sweeping and heroic. Others come across more as goofy, and impossible to take seriously. It also spoils the ending, which I'm pretty sure is supposed to be an ominous cliffhanger, but plays an uninterrupted gentle melody the whole time.

Overall, there is nothing remarkable about Quest for the Mighty Sword. It's not terrible, not even entertainingly so for the most part. It's just all-round mediocre. It feels nothing like an Ator film, and is a sad conclusion for the series. It may not have been the best of franchises, and god knows the previous entry was weird enough, but this really signals a total and unflattering end. Maybe someday we'll get more Ator films, but only if we're lucky...

Hard Rock Zombies (1985)

Indie rock band Holy Moses is going from gig to gig, having fun, when they are warned away from the town of Grand Guignol by teenager Cassie. They take it as a strange invitation, and encounter a frosty reception. The band are taken in by a seemingly hospitable family, but soon end up on the chopping block when it turns out they're in the den of a family of deranged serial killers. At their funeral, Cassie plays their demo tape of a mysterious resurrection song, and suddenly the rocking dead rise, ready to take revenge on this town...

Hard Rock Zombies has gotten quite a cult following, which is unsurprising when you see the film. It's not well made or a good movie in the same sense as something like, let's say, The Shawshank Redemption, but it's definitely worth a watch-Many watches! There's an argument to be made that it's trying to be bad, and this could strip the movie of enjoyment, and in some ways I agree. Some moments land, others don't. But for the most part it's a fun movie, with more than enough to keep you entertained.

The plot here gets off to a nice start, with the music tying in in a nice way. As it goes on it gets thinner and thinner, and trying to dissect the how's and why's is pretty fruitless. Like why are Jesse and the band good zombies, but all the people they kill just the regular kind? And it is a bit weird that the whole zombie invasion of the town is the fault of the heroes (though at least they take care of it but good in the end!).

Where the movie gets weird is first in its general concept, which it lives up to in spades. It's refreshing to see a high concept title being brought to life so honestly. There are also werewolves, incest, killer dwarves, and nazis, led by a certain familiar face...! Then there's the love story, which has to be seen to be believed! It's a mix of normal and sweet, mixed together with potentially eyebrow raising elements.

I can't praise the soundtrack enough. There are various songs throughout the movie, all of them good, from the opening concert, to the love song (which skirts the line between heartwarming and creepy). Shake it Out, Baby is a great mix of contemporary 80s rock, while also sounding like a great 60s throwback. It has a classic timeless feel in a way. Na Na Na is a simple fun track. The instrumental that plays during the revenge is a cool electronic piece, and feels straight out of a video game (I mean that in the best way possible!).

Street Angel is a pretty standard rock song, coming in fairly late. The undead revival song has a few different variations throughout, with the main one recited at the end being a badass theme that really sells the premise. And lastly, Cassie is another great. It's a sweet tune, with a ballad-y feel. I honestly think Shake it Out, Baby and Cassie could have been legit bonafide hits if they were ever given a chance on the chart!

The acting in Hard Rock Zombies is pretty over-the-top, and some performances work better than others. E.J. Curcio and Jessica Coe are good in their roles, having nice chemistry (questionable love story aside). Ted Wells as band manager Ron is fun and probably one of my favourite parts of the movie. He's a great straight man, and he's able to deliver hilarious lines like "They're gonna tie her up and let all the ghouls screw her to death! Is that what you want? Ghouls you created screwing her to death?" in total seriousness, without cracking up!
Apparently Ted Wells was a 'serious actor' and so was not pleased to be working on a movie called Hard Rock Zombies. I really hope that he thinks differently now, because

Other performances are weaker, and you can tell a lot of the cast were probably amateurs, many with just this one film to their name. I'd say no-one does terribly, or at least, not without trying. I particularly enjoyed the extras we see in one scene! You can tell the locals in the Na Na Na number were actual townspeople with genuine reactions, and it's cool to see. Especially when compared to the hostile and insular characters in the movie.

The effects are designed by industry legend John Carl Buechler, and they're neat! Cheaper than his usual designs, but often convincing, or at least creative. We get a good variety of violence and make-up, with decapitations, stabbings, and other creative demises. Most of it's implied, but what we do get is enjoyable enough. Standouts include the zombie eating himself (that last shot is great!), and the zombie make-up is good, especially for the main band.

Hard Rock Zombies isn't for everyone, but for those who enjoy cheesiness, schlock, 'so bad they're good' movies, or appreciate such things with sincerity, this is the movie for you! It's a great way to spend an afternoon, and if nothing else you'll get to hear some nice tunes. And really, isn't that the greatest victory a movie like Hard Rock Zombies could walk away with?...

Dead Heat (1988)

If you ever left Re-Animator, feeling that it was a good movie, but were disappointed that it wasn't enough like a buddy-cop action movie, then Dead Heat is the movie for you! Pull up a chair and I'll tell you all about it...

Roger Mortis and Doug Bigelow are two beat cops, working the streets of San Francisco when they're engaged in a bizarre shootout. No matter how many times the robbers get shot, they just won't go down. After some explosive persuasion, the duo put an end to the heist and begin an investigation into where these people came from. This takes them to a mysterious facility, where everything seems above board, until Roger digs a little deeper, and is caught in a lethal trap. His friends find a strange device that resurrects him, and now they must race against time to solve the case before Roger's body decays permanently...

Dead Heat is a surprising time! I had never heard of it back when I bought the DVD, and didn't know what to expect. What I got was some high concept horror meets buddy cop comedy, that never pulls its punches. It gets to business very quickly, and introduces lots of crazy elements, while still remaining a police story at heart. Roger may be dying (again), but that won't stop him from solving his last case before he goes.

The movie can get a little overzealous at times (how many police officers died in that opening shootout?!), and the endless zombie shootouts can get a little tiring by the end, but at least the usually fun tone alleviates this slightly.

We have a likeable cast here, who all complement each-other well. They fit fairly common buddy cop roles (including a briefly appearing grumpy black chief), but they also move beyond that, showing that the movie isn't just wasting its time retelling obvious cliches and nothing else.

The characters are thankfully quick to adapt to the science fiction elements that gradually surround them. I really like an early moment when the leads are speculating on these unstoppable robbers. Roger suggests it could be PCP, but then the movie actually debunks that myth, with Doug flat out saying "But against bullets, Rog? Nah man, it's bullshit."

Aside from being funny in general, Dead Heat is also extremely quotable!
Said after another undead shootout: "Remember the good old days when guns killed people?!"
Doug on revenge: "I'll personally rip his heart out with my bare hands, Roger, hold the heart in the palm of my hand, and we'll watch it stop beating together."-"That's good, Doug. But let's find him first."
"Mind if we ask you a whole lotta questions?"
"Hey, you're hurt!"-"Lady, I'm fuckin' dead."
And the great "Welcome to zombieland, Doug."

Where Dead Heat starts to fall down is the plot! The setup is a great one, and it's very seamless for such a mix of genres. But the first problem some might have is that the movie gets a bit too downbeat after a while. Too much death and misery, not enough laughs. I wouldn't say it ever gets overbearing or depressing, but it's still a bit of a bummer. Especially after what happens to Dough. And with him dies the comic relief, because god knows straight man Roger's not the life of the party.

More damning are the plot holes! They are numerous and impossible to ignore. Why were goons sent to kill Randi? Why'd she have that tape in her purse? How come she's XX when there's at least 4 different reasons that's impossible? Just what is the villain's game? Who wrote the number in the crypt? And do the baddies have a longer resurrection process or don't they?? These are so numerous and egregious that they actively spoil one's enjoyment of the plot. One could be overlooked, but half a dozen? And that major? It's hard to have fun and get invested when the story doesn't feel focused or thought-out, and fights your attempts to figure it out. A zombie cop film should not be this confusing!

The acting in Dead Heat is all good! Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo are great leads. Lots of fun, with good chemistry. Lindsay Frost is nice as Randi, as is Claire Kirkconnell (who sadly phases out of the movie halfway through). The villains are a real special attraction here, played by Darren McGavin, Keye Luke, and Vincent Price! A shame they never really share the screen as a trio until the end, but ah well, if it means the movie's not crowded, I can deal with that.

My only issue with the casting is that they cast VP as a dead man. That is, a character who's already dead before the movie began. Obviously you want as much Vincent as you want  so to cast him as the already deceased victim of the villain's conspiracy, which means the movie has to bend over backwards to bring him back, hampering the plot in the process. I wish they'd have just cast him in a different role, or changed the script.

The effects are another highlight, with cool zombie make-up, great (and plentiful) violence, a few monsters and strange creatures, and some impressive set design. The gunplay is all handled very well, and with experience.

Overall, despite its issues Dead Heat is a fun time! Brisk, rewatchable, crazy, and does not skimp on the gore, it's a ball, and well worth checking out...