A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: October, 2012

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #31: “The Toxic Avenger” (1984)


For a lad of eight still traumatized by the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys, stumbling on The Toxic Avenger was a real boot in the berries. I totally blame the flick’s “Captain Planet”-esque cartoon spinoff, whose cheap action figures entertained me enough to seek out where it all started. Twenty minutes of crushed craniums and third-degree burns sent me whimpering for my Disney tapes, kick-starting an aversion to all things Troma-borne that sort of continues to this day. Fortunately, I’m able to withstand more of The Toxic Avenger‘s graphic gore these days, but putting up with the shrill counter-culture superhero movie it’s stuck as is another story.

In humble Tromaville, U.S.A., an unlikely defender of the innocent is about to rise. 98-pound weakling Melvin (Mark Torgl) has spent his entire life being pushed around and stepped on, especially by roided-up bullies at the health club where he mops up. But a swan dive out a window and into a vat of radioactive goop ends up transforming him into the Toxic Avenger, a towering monster with a natural instinct for giving bad guys their just desserts (in the most extremely violent ways possible). Now Melvin is powerful enough to clean up his town one scumbag at a time and even land himself a girlfriend (Andree Maranda), while Tromaville’s corrupt city council works overtime to stamp out the disfigured do-gooder once and for all.

Long story short, The Toxic Avenger ain’t my thing. The overacting, the immature jokes, the ultra-phony ultraviolence — just knowing that this is the tip of the iceberg as far as Troma’s catalogue is concerned makes me fifty shades of queasy. But that’s not to say there’s no value to The Toxic Avenger period, or that I don’t get why it’s a cult film that actually deserves the label for once. It wears its underground roots on its sleeve, positioning butt-ugly societal reject Melvin as the hero against the entitled psychos and lowlife bureaucrats who serve as our main villains. This really is a comic book movie for grown-ups, in the sense that you get both a plucky, can-do spirit and insanely violent ends for the baddies. Gouged eyes, torn limbs, deep-fried hands, disembowelment…if you can think of it, this movie delivers it (and with a modest price tag, to boot).

The Toxic Avenger was a godsend for Troma, putting the production house on the map and ushering in a new wave of cheap-o exploitation movies that wouldn’t have it any other way. Toxie has his fans and will keep them for a long time, so I don’t think he’ll shed any tears over not quite winning me over. Though The Toxic Avenger wasn’t as bad as I built it up to be for myself, it’s still just another title to check off the “Movies A.J.’s Friends Bug Him to Watch” list.

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #30: “The Horror Show” (1989)


In the video store’s golden age, your eyes may have graced the cover of House. It was a modest chiller whose box art, tagline (“Ding dong, you’re dead!“), and brilliantly-titled sequel (The Second Story) cemented its genre infamy. But while House IV eventually hit shelves, a third would be conspicuously absent, and with good purpose — it doesn’t exist. For whatever reason, The Horror Show was retitled House III in certain foreign territories, causing the original series producers to skip right to #4 anyway to avoid confusion. Still, despite having no real ties aside from its alias, The Horror Show does share one thing in common with the House franchise, in how the film itself is the least interesting thing about it.

After a rampage that took the lives of over 110 victims, serial killer Max Jenke (Brion James) has finally been brought to justice. Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) was the one who nabbed the sicko, and despite still suffering from nightmares brought on by the spree, he’s first in line to see Max take a seat in the electric chair. But unbeknownst to the law, a visit with Old Sparky is just what Max needed to really open up his bloodlust. All those volts pumping through the madman’s body only free him of his earthly constraints and let him loose on the world as a vengeful ghost. First on his list is Lucas, who can only watch in terror as Max’s spirit tears his world apart and goads him ever closer towards the breaking point.

The Horror Show is less of a stand-alone thriller than it is a glorifed test reel. It’s got the feel of a promissory note, a guarantee that, with a little extra coin, the filmmakers can totally do it better. Thus, The Horror Show doesn’t have the most consistent tone on the books, veering from the damned dark (i.e. a rape that leads to an icky pregnancy scene) to trying to set up Max as the next wisecracking slasher villain to challenge Freddy Krueger’s reign. Max is one unsavory dude, boosted by James’s effective performance (he’s said to have chosen this role as his all-time favorite), and a whole array of solid practical effects slaps his demented mug on everything from a roast turkey to an infant. But as a whole, The Horror Show finds itself spinning its wheels an awful lot, gaining little traction and regurgitating its same schtick over and over. It boils down to 90 minutes of James snickering and Lance Henriksen being Lance Henriksen, with nothing to keep you engaged otherwise, save for the odd hallucination sequence.

Yet another cinematic curio that’s ultimately no big deal, The Horror Show is neither a diamond in the rough or a deservedly-buried blight upon the genre. It really is just a dime-a-dozen ’80s slasher, although one that isn’t as epically-moronic as Wes Craven’s similarly-themed Shocker from the same year. Worse time-wasters have come and gone, but methinks The Horror Show is one obscurity that the cult circuit should just let be for now.

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #29: “Witchboard” (1986)

Just as his Night of the Demons cribbed a lot from The Evil Dead, Kevin Tenney’s Witchboard seeks to ape The Exorcist on a more limited budget. As ambitions go, it’s not unreasonable, especially when it’s rare that B-movie directors approach their material with as straight of a face as Tenney adopts here. But Witchboard‘s characters are so serious and high-strung, it becomes comical to the point that you’ve no clue when the movie is providing levity for its dark premise and when it’s refusing to acknowledge its own silliness.

Our story is that of young Linda (Tawny Kitaen), whose latest party is winding to a close as the film begins. With the guests and the liquor dwindling at an equal pace, her ex Brandon (Stephen Nichols) decides to liven things up by whipping out his trusty Ouija board and hitting up some souls from the great beyond. Linda’s current beau Jim (Todd Allen) thinks it’s all a load of hooey, but it’s the God’s honest truth to Brandon, who notices some peculiar changes after accidentally leaving his board behind. It appears that Linda has been using the Ouija by herself to contact the spirit of a little boy who’s developed a fascination with her…one so extreme that anyone who comes between the two soon meets a grisly fate.

I can respect that Witchboard aims to base itself on psychological terror over effects-driven theatrics. It plays its possession angle nice and gradual, with a tendency to dial down on the demonic flourishes that most thrillers of its ilk end up awash in. Witchboard has a lot of good going for it, but it’s all for naught when every actor comes off so hilariously intense. The fact that almost all the characters instantly accept Ouijas as legit spiritual gateways raised my eyebrows as is, and that Tenney never effectively sells that belief is a problem when he uses it as the source of the flick’s proceeding tension. When Brandon hollers at Jim for mocking the Ouija or spazzes out due to some soap opera-y romantic subplot, all you can do is sit back, guffaw, and watch the movie whiz its potential to genuinely disturb viewers down its leg.

I’m glad Tenney would loosen up and go wild with the camp in Night of the Demons, because his delusions of Witchboard being high-end horror with low-grade ingredients don’t do the film any favors. Some traces of inherent creepiness are touched upon, but they’re drowned out by the rampant overacting and the sneaking suspicion that Tenney is making up a lot of the supernatural rules as he goes along. Queue up Witchboard for a mock-a-thon with your closest comrades; just don’t expect your perception of the paranormal to be as shaken as the flick wants it to be.

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #28: “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” (1988)

Elvira is famous for essentially the same reason that Kim Kardashian is: she just kinda exists. Obviously, the creation of actress Cassandra Peterson has more going for her (not being a morally-bankrupt, publicity-happy hose beast is a start), but her rockin’ bod is really the only factor that drove her to pop culture notoriety. Being born halfway through the ’80s meant I missed out on what made “characters” like her, Mr. T, and Pee-Wee into celebrities in the first place, but the one-note farce Elvira, Mistress of the Dark sure wasn’t the ideal direction for someone like her to take her increased — umm — “exposure.”

Our tale begins with Elvira doing what she started out doing, serving as a late-night TV hostess for Z-grade horror flicks. But after refusing the advances of her perverted new boss, the black-clad movie maven finds herself out of a job and $50 grand short of starting up her dream gig in Las Vegas. As fate would have it, Elvira learns around the same time that her recently-deceased great aunt has left her a sweet piece of property in Massachusetts that would solve all of her financial woes. But while Elvira clashes with the Bible-thumping locals, her great uncle Vincent (W. Morgan Sheppard) plots to steal away his sister’s spellbook, whose incantations and conjurings would give him enough power to be one epic pain in his grand niece’s sizable fanny.

Elvira doesn’t have much purpose beyond showing its star’s eagerness to induce puberty in all applicable viewers. I don’t mean that to trash Peterson herself, who I’m sure is a lovely woman and puts great energy into delivering her alter ego’s corny one-liners. I even understand how her “snarky Morticia Addams” schtick earned her a cult following, but Elvira the movie demonstrates how the girl with the gams and gags was best suited for the late, late show. Though the humor is consistently exaggerated and self-referential, only about a third of it ends up in laughter; the rest is comprised of terrible puns and double entendres that incite one groan after the next. Everyone seems to be having a ball, but the digs at the uptight, Footloose-ian townsfolk and constant attention-drawing to Elvira’s sexuality grow old fast (to say nothing of how it doesn’t make you care what happens when she’s literally burned at the stake in the climax).

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is no detriment to comedy as we know it, but it’s a one-joke horse that sure takes a beating throughout its 90+ minutes. If all you seek is to gaze upon Peterson’s amazing form, then a trip to Google Images will be a more constructive use of your time than braving this feature-length vanity project. The scant smiles you get and the ample curves you soak in are nice, but it isn’t worth sitting through Elvira to experience them for all the beehive wigs in Hollywood.

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #27: “The Doctor and the Devils” (1985)

Paying the price for progress is a horror trope that’s as ancient as black cats and cobwebs. These kinds of stories usually adopt the form of Frankenstein-style cautionary tales about futzing around in God’s domain and whatnot, with science breaking down barriers that morality and religion would rather see preserved. The Doctor and the Devils, the penultimate feature directed by Hammer/Amicus stalwart Freddie Francis, grounds itself in more historical context than speculative fantasy, but it makes similar points all the same. Man only has so many limits to which he’ll go in the name of discovering what makes himself tick, and it’s a journey Francis effectively covers with all the gory details intact.

It’s 19th century England, and Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton) finds himself working in a closed-minded industry. He’s driven to the breaking point not only by the outdated beliefs of his colleagues but by his inability to get proper cadavers on which to experiment. Thus, Rock has turned to more unsavory means to supply the bodies he needs, namely paying off grave-robbers who are more than glad to drop a corpse at his doorstep for a few soverigns. Enter Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Broom (Stephen Rea), two enterprising lowlifes who decide to get in on the action themselves and take things one step beyond. They like their pay, alright, and in order to ensure that they never want for booze ever again, the pair take it upon themselves to assist their “customers” to much, much earlier graves.

It was hard getting through The Doctor and the Devils without one of my favorite vintage horror treats, 1945’s The Body Snatcher, coming to mind. Not that Francis didn’t do a fine job himself, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much better the other movie fared at checking off just about everything on this one’s to-do list. Putting skills that earned him two Oscar wins as a cinematographer to work, Francis gives the film a fantastically dirty look, providing an ideal hellhole from which the likes of Fallon and Broom would squirm. He’s also assembled one fine ensemble of actors, all of whom bring their own mixtures of camp and bravado to their respective roles. But it’s when things get particularly emotional and heated that the plot’s transparency starts to show. While Dalton’s Rock is intriguing and ethically questionable (turning a blind eye to Fallon and Broom’s crimes, so long as science is advanced), we’re left with a disappointing simple overview of his moral gray area when a more enriching exploration was called for.

While watching The Doctor and the Devils, you get the feeling that it could’ve gone further, but that’s not to detract from everything else the film accomplishes. It looks great, it’s acted well, and considering the subject matter, it deftly balances its more serious and exploitative sides. Francis’ career as a director would end on a bummer of a note afterwards with a nondescript B-movie, but at least The Doctor and the Devils came first to show us that one of Britain’s most prolific horror filmmakers still had one more genuine chiller in him.

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #26: “Manhattan Baby” (1982)

Lucio Fulci is sure making it hard to stick to my whole “give movies a chance” philosophy. I’d love to walk away impressed from one of the Italian filmmaker’s cult shockers, but not being a fan of the loosey-goosey adherence to logic he shared with his contemporaries never fails to budge in the way. I knew this going into 1982’s Manhattan Baby, but even by those standards, the flick still has its head crammed up its incoherent hindquarters.

George Hacker (Christopher Connelly) went to Egypt, and all he got was a lousy case of blindness. Playing Indiana Jones and violating the sanctity of an ancient tomb may have robbed his sight, but his little daughter Susie (Brigitta Boccoli) isn’t going home empty-handed. An old crone pawns onto the tyke an ornate trinket that proceeds to wreak multiple forms of havoc when her family returns to New York City. Snakes are summoned from thin air, people around them vanish, and gateways leading to spots all over the globe pop up in the closet. It’s clear that Susie’s pendant is the vessel of some eons-old evil, one whose stranglehold George attempts to loosen before it completely takes her over, body and soul.

Hypnotic as Fulci’s “anything goes” approach to horror may be for some, in Manhattan Baby‘s case, it only serves to cheat the audience out of a creepy good time. Just cobbling together a paragraph’s worth of plot represents more effort than Fulci exhibited in the name of giving the film any form. Yes, style over story is how it usually went for him, Argento, Bava, and such, but Manhattan Baby reaches maddeningly cryptic heights. The narrative seems stuck on shuffle mode, often with no rhyme or reason behind what you’re seeing. What exactly is that sinister force lurking within Susie’s necklace? Beats me. What does it want, and why does it need Susie to achieve it? No clue. How come characters randomly drop out and dead animals return to life, yet no one ever mentions them? Your guess is as good as mine. The only sure thing about Manhattan Baby is that all its light shows, gore effects, and “Egyptian Mythology for Dummies” lessons didn’t make me more concerned for a little girl who was apparently possessed (good luck getting an explanation out of this flick).

I hate to throw in the towel on a certain breed of movie because of a few bad examples, but Manhattan Baby might be the last time I kick it with Mr. Fulci for a while. I’m plumb out of patience for any genre director who plops us before their slideshows of the damned and wants us to be grateful for the privilege, and though I trust Fulci has his gems, I’m in no great hurry to seek them out just yet. Manhattan Baby is bad news, and neither its amusing dubbing or zombie birds can brighten up its outlook.

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #25: “The Lair of the White Worm” (1988)


It’s unfortunate that Bram Stoker is something of a third-stringer when it comes to horror authors whose work is brought to film. Stephen King and Poe adaptations get the royal treatment, while Stoker’s name gets attached to more Shadowbuilders and Legend of the Mummys than those productions worthy of bearing the Dracula moniker. But if you’re going to drag the man’s literary terrors kicking and screaming to the cinema, then it helps to have a madman like Ken Russell in your corner. The recently-departed Russell sure cranked up the sex, sin, and all-around depravity for The Lair of the White Worm, whose out-there eye candy may skew silly but always grips you by the short ‘n’ curlies.

On the former site of an English convent, a strange discovery has been unearthed. Scottish archaeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) just finished digging up the fossilized skull of some unknown creature, which quickly piques the neighboring village’s interest. For centuries, a legend about a huge snake has been floating around, which James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant), a noble whose ancestor is said to have slain the beast, attributes to superstition. But it’s no joke to Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a seemingly immortal seductress whose god is of a slithery sort and craves a nice virgin sacrifice or two to regain his power.

I’d bet that plenty of folks out there spent a lot of time trying to prove that The Lair of the White Worm is for real. It’s one of those movies, where you flip through the cable channels, catch a flash of a familiar face doing something funky, then can never find out what the thing is called for the life of you. So, yep, The Lair of the White Worm exists, and it’s as kooky as you remember. At its core is a new supernatural mythos culled from familiar ingredients, giving us a reptilian vampire cult whose figurehead is a massive creature that’d be comfy playing bridge with Cthulhu. Russell really runs with the risque imagery — which mostly consists of a nearly nude Donohoe slinking about in fangs and blue body paint — and keeps viewers on their toes in the process. On the downside, he also veers into unavoidably laughable territory when he tries merging all the weirdness with a traditional, monster-busting adventure story. It’s funny to see Capaldi warding off snakemen in full Scotsman attire (bagpipes and all), but the humor gets to a point of making us scratch our heads more than it lets us in on the joke.

The Lair of the White Worm has some naughty little thrills worth hitting up, due in great part to Donohoe putting on a perfectly predatory performance. The story’s various pieces just don’t fit together entirely well, and the AWFUL, music video-y hallucinations that like popping up unannounced yank you out of the atmosphere lickety split. I wouldn’t bestow on it as high an honor as Fangoria did when the magazine placed Donohoe’s mug on the cover of their “101 Best Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen” book, but let it not be said that White Worm has no clue how to exploit its WTF factor.

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #24: “Evil Dead Trap” (1988)


I don’t know whether Evil Dead Trap is more notorious for its graphic content or for confusing the shit out of horror fans. Despite the title and a few Raimiesque camera swoops, this Japanese shocker hasn’t a thing to do with Deadites, and I’m cool with that. This movie has its hands full botching an intriguing premise and chucking in twist after moronic twist as is, without having to rip off a legit classic on top of it all. Evil Dead Trap exemplifies the dark side of crazy, wherein every randomized stab at titillation or emotional scarring is met with an increasingly embittered series of sighs.

Miyuki Ono plays Nami, a late-night cable host whose glamour is a few steps above anyone on RFD-TV. Part of her show involves asking viewers to send in their home movies, an offer one sicko takes her up on in the form a snuff video. Convinced the girl getting slashed and sliced on film is the real deal, Nami takes a van full of colleagues with her on a hunt for the tape’s origins. Their investigation takes them to an abandoned factory, where some souls unlucky enough to get chopped, speared, and axed by the various booby traps laying about learn that there is indeed a killer lurking around. But the terror isn’t over, as forgone final girl Nami hasn’t yet learned the disturbing truth behind why she was lured out to Jigsaw’s funhouse in the first place.

Some movies that aren’t anything more than excuses to transplant a director’s insane imagination to celluloid can leave you breathless. You watch 1977’s House, Mystics in Bali, or, hell, even Spookies and enthusiastically gush about their strangeness to your friends, dashing off a laundry list of reasons why you totally have to see this, you guys! But Evil Dead Trap is a rare breed, where you mull over every bizarre pit stop and get nothing out of it but a migraine and a wasted Netflix rental. The aim here is to start weird and get even more off-the-wall from there, but where Evil Dead Trap begins and where it ends don’t even belong in the same movie. I don’t know how director Toshiharu Ikeda expected to tie in a Saw precursor (elaborate traps, industrial setting, etc.) with what can only be called a teleporting pyrokinetic fetus, and with a plot this slim yet exhaustively complicated, I don’t think he did either.

My frustration with Evil Dead Trap extends beyond Ikeda’s escalating desperation in trying to keep his freak show afloat. I could dwell on the dispensable supporting players and how our empty-headed bint of a protagonist wouldn’t know danger if it shook her hand, but there’s only so much room on the interweb to spare. A gnarly darling of the Asia shock scene once upon a time, Evil Dead Trap has found its tired self supplanted by more clever flicks that know how to marry cuckoo visuals with some semblance of story and logic.

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #23: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait” (1988)


I don’t like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Okay, maybe that’s putting it a little strong. The film definitely has its effective moments, and considering the string of rotten failures that succeeded it, no wonder it’s seen as director Tobe Hooper’s crowning achievement. But despite having watched it about three or four times, it’s always been more of a screechy annoyance than a pulse-pounding plunge into Hell’s dunk tank. Still, its impact on horror is undeniable, and from what a few key actors have to say in the reunion documentary The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait, the experience of filming it was every bit as unpleasant as what emerged onscreen.

In the summer of 1973, Gunnar Hansen, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, and John Dugan joined the cast of an independent movie being shot on the cheap in rural Texas. What they didn’t know was how gut-curdling and grueling the process of shooting the damn thing would be, not to mention the great success it would be in the years to come. That film was, of course, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, starring Neal as a self-mutilating hitchhiker, Siedow as a shifty general store proprietor, Dugan as a senior citizen with a bloodlust, and Hansen as the grand daddy of power tool-wielding madmen, Leatherface. It was a production that would render each of the men veritable horror gods, though as they explain in a one-hour series of sit-down discussions, it also very nearly cost some of them their minds.

If you’re curious as to why A Family Portrait leaves Hooper, Marilyn Burns, or any other Chainsaw vets out of its interviewees, look again at the title. The doco really is a family affair, in that it’s the actors portraying Chainsaw‘s clan of endearing nutbags who get to be the center of attention. It’s one thing to hear the director talk about nailing down financing, but having the bad guys discuss the toll playing their roles had on their minds and careers unveils a whole other fascinating level. As a guy who’s fairly sharp on his horror history, not a lot of what’s dished about in A Family Portrait is news to me, though it’s still cool hearing all these stories come straight from the killers’ mouths. Each of them appear to be nice, well-adjusted gents, which makes moments such as when Hansen describes losing himself during the notorious dinner scene’s 26-hour shoot all the more sobering.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait is as informal as the movie that spawned it. It’s very brief, shot on video, and not edited with any particular direction in mind. I’d love to see an epic, Never Sleep Again-style retrospective on the entire Chainsaw franchise, but til that day comes, A Family Portrait does a fine enough job giving fans the buzz behind the buzz.

A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #22: “Demons 2” (1986)


Well, it’s been a little while since we last visited that wonderland of absurd storytelling and gore known as Italian horror, so how about we check in and see what’s cooking? Not seeking to have my brain matter grind itself into paste trying to figure out what the hell’s going on, I settled on 1986’s Demons 2 as tonight’s selection. It follows in the same spirit as its cult predecessor from the previous year, featuring a fair dose of nonsensical plotting but, for the most part, casting more attention on employing its gooey practical effects as creatively as possible.

Having set legions of the drooling possessed on a movie theater in Demons, where does director Lamberto Bava head for Round 2? Why, television, of course. It’s odd enough that most of the people living in a high-rise apartment complex are watching the same cheesy horror flick on their sets, so that one of the demons in said movie proceeds to hop into our world is no stretch. The growling ghoul quickly feasts on a birthday shindig, transforming his victims into more mosnters that break out into a floor-by-floor feeding frenzy. But as the demonic horde begins to outnumber the living, two surviving tenants (David Knight and Nancy Brilli) struggle to escape and spare their unborn kid from having to face hell on earth.

Demons 2 zeroes in on the classic “zombie siege” formula and doesn’t stray an inch until the final credits have commenced. It’s basic and completely comfortable being so, although the ratio of scenes one regards with a repulsed awe and those that incite impatience is a bit too close for my liking. The unquestionable highlight here is the stomach-churning effects work, which ups the ante from the last film’s simple demon make-up to include possessed tykes, gremlin-like creatures, and a monstrous pooch that sports a Xenomorphic second mouth. It’s a gory good show, but the dire lack of anything resembling a plot comes back to haunt the movie in the worst way. Endless shots of roaring demons bloat the running time, superfluous characters are focused on to no end, and I’m pretty sure we don’t even catch the names of our protagonists until well over an hour into their ordeal.

Bloodhounds will get what they want out of Demons 2; there’s just a daunting amount of filler to sift through beforehand. I don’t take issue with it sticking so close to what’s worked for dozens of other “zombie/infected/etc. on the loose” pictures, but seeing it so often twiddle its thumbs while squeezing every last drop from its gallery of grotesque visuals gets to be a bore. Still, if narrative is of no consequence, then Demons 2 is the right revolting brew for you.