Welcome to the darker side of AICN! M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column.
This week in shameless self-promotion news, it was just announced that I have a new comic book coming out in September and it’s something I think fans of this column will be interested in. It’s called GRAVETRANCERS and it’s got amazingly trippy artwork from James Michael Whynot, colors from Dee Cunniff, letters from Jim Campbell and it’s being published by the cool folks at Black Mask Studios. The four issue series comes out in September and tells the tale of Maribel and Anthony who are in search of the grave of their dead father, not knowing that they are stumbling into a graveyard owned by an eccentric clan of grave-robbers who’ve devised a highly-addictive drug made from human remains–and the fresher the corpse, the stronger the dose. What started out as an attempt to reconnect with the past becomes a descent into a psychedelic, neon-colored nightmare—will Maribel and Anthony find their way through the hallucinogens or will they become the next hit? The news broke on Bleeding Cool here. Check out the cover on the right and be sure to tell your comic shops to order plenty of GRAVETRANCERS #1 from September’s Previews item code JUL171455!
I also wanted to give out an open call to advertisers interested in helping to keep this column running. Any inquiries should contact me here!
On with the horror reviews!
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
Retro-review: THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970)
Retro-review: The Paul Naschy Collection - HUMAN BEASTS (1980)
Retro-review: THE UNHOLY (1988)
EVIL BONG 666 (2017)
PRISONER X (2016)
THE BUTCHER POSSESSIONS (2014)
AWAKENING THE ZODIAC (2017)
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO SNUFF (2016)
And finally…Light’s Out: Immortal Gentlemen!
Retro-review: New on a special edition BluRay from Arrow Films/MVD Visual!
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970)aka BIRD OF THE GLASS FEATHERS, POINT OF TERROR, THE GALLERY MURDERS, THE PHANTOM OF TERROR
Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento
Starring Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho, Renato Romano, Giuseppe Castellano, Mario Adorf, Pino Patti, Gildo Di Marco, Rosita Torosh, Omar Bonaro, Fulvio Mingozzi, Werner Peters, Karen Valenti, Carla Mancini, Bruno Erba, Giovanni Di Benedetto, Reggie Nalder, Annamaria Spogli, Maria Tedeschi, & Dario Argento as the gloved hands of the murderer!
Retro-reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
One of Dario Argento’s most famous Giallo mysteries is also one of his best. If you’re looking for a film that encapsulates what Giallo is and how good the subgenre can be, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is the one.
An American wanderer in Italy named Sam (Tony Musante) is walking down an empty street at night and happens to witness an attempted murder through the front window of a gallery. The killer flees before finishing the deed and the victim (a sultry blonde named Monica played by Eva Renzi) reaches for Sam to save her but the glass pane separates them until the police arrive. With his passport taken away by the police until the murder is solved, Sam dons his amateur investigator hat and tries to figure out who is behind a series of brutal murders of young women in Italy—the last of which was thwarted by Sam.
All of the elements of a good Giallo are present and accounted for in THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. There’s a murder witnessed – though in this case it was an attempted murder. There’s a gloved murderer in a trench coat, lots of sharp knives, a couple of red herring shady characters that of course are not the killer, some amateur sleuthing, dim-witted cops, and lots of on-foot chase scenes through dark streets. There is also an overly complicated revelation, some coincidences conveniently happening that causes these revelations, and a lengthy psychological explanation to the motive after it’s all over and done with. If you were to write a textbook on the ingredients of a good Giallo, this one has all of them. But despite all of that and despite the fact that I have seen way too many Giallos in my time, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE succeeds in entertaining due to Argento’s eye for beauty in the presence of the grotesque, his master skills at orchestrating complex action scenes utilizing unique and unconventional small details and mechanics, and the way Argento soaks in the streets of Italy like few others.
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is also a pretty awesome police procedural for its time. Through our dreamy lead, the audience is taken behind the scenes of the police investigation. It’s a boatload of fun seeing the “hi tech” police computers full of lights, buttons, tape reels, and all kinds of needless bells and whistles and the information gleaned from a single glove. It’s also outrageous but precious that the police would basically deputize a witness and let him be lead investigator on the case. The police chief even goes so far as to give the exact location of the victim to Sam so he can go to the home and interrogate her. Add in some fun oddball characters like a stuttering pimp, an affectionate salesman, and an artist who eats cats and you have a whole lot of tiny details that you just don’t get in a normal movie.
The ending of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is ridiculous, but most Giallo endings are. The overly complex way the killer is found, the fact that the killer feels compelled to give their own motivation, and the redundant explanation by the psychologist at the end to drive the point all the way home of the mental illness of the killer are elements present in most Giallo and they are presented here in all their oddball glory. Still, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE stands out among most Giallos because it is done with a talented eye for beauty and Argento’s morbid sense of humor.
This special edition BluRay/DVD from Arrow Films is stocked with cool features such as; an original mono Italian and English soundtracks (lossless on the Blu-ray Disc), English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack, optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack, new audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films, “The Power of Perception” - a new visual essay on the cinema of Dario Argento by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of Devil's Advocates: Suspiria and Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, new analysis of the film by critic Kat Ellinger, new interview with writer/director Dario Argento, new interview with actor Gildo Di Marco (Garullo the pimp), reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp, and a limited edition 60-page booklet illustrated by Matthew Griffin, featuring an appreciation of the film by Michael Mackenzie, and new writing by Howard Hughes and Jack Seabrook.
Retro-review: New this week as part of The Paul Naschy Collection from The Shout Factory!
HUMAN BEASTS (1980)aka THE BEASTS’ CARNIVAL, CANNIBAL KILLERS – THE HUMAN BEAST
Directed by Paul Naschy
Written by Paul Naschy
Starring Paul Naschy, Eiko Nagashima, Lautaro Murúa, Silvia Aguilar, Azucena Hernández, Kogi Maritugu, Roxana Dupre, Pepe Ruiz, Paloma Hurtado, Luis Ciges, Ricardo Palacios, Rafael Hernández, Tito García, Ramón Centenero, Alexia Loreto, Julia Saly, Manuel Pereiro
Retro-reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
The late, great Paul Naschy is a horror icon, but unfortunately, only the die hard fans of horror seem to know of him. Personally, I feel the charismatic former circus strongman was given a raw deal and never had a chance to be the mainstream action and horror superstar he deserved. Still, we have his many movies to look back on and enjoy. The Shout Factory is releasing a collection of his greatest films and I’ll be covering each of them in the upcoming weeks.
HUMAN BEASTS was always one of my favorite Naschy films as he not only writes and directs it, but he also doesn’t play a man cursed with lycanthropy either. IN this one he plays a mercenary named Bruno who double crosses a woman he gets pregnant in Japan and steals a collection of diamonds before leaving her. So he is a monster of sorts, just of the human kind. Bruno gets shot fleeing from the scene and ends up wandering onto the property of a wealthy doctor named Don Simone (Lautaro Murúa). Aided by his two beautiful daughters who immediately take a liking to Bruno, Don Simone also is the proprietor of a pig farm and holds an annual fancy dinner for the upper crust. From the title, I’m sure you know where this is going. While Bruno is on the mend, it becomes pretty apparent that weird happenings are going on behind the scenes at the Simone plantation.
In many ways, HUMAN BEASTS feels like an old school, moralistic TWILIGHT ZONE style tale where someone commits the perfect crime, thinks they got away with it, and then ends up paying for it big time in the end. That’s the basic story structure here and while I probably gave away too much with that assessment, the story does manage to toss in a few really nice twists and turns along the way involving who Bruno should trust and who he should avoid all together. The film is pretty straightforward, with a few gory bits tossed in, a few harrowing dream sequences, and quite a few scenes that are downright nauseating given the context of what is happening, though it seems like everything is completely normal.
Naschy is fantastic in the lead, carrying the entire film and though he does quite a few devious things, he ends up still being someone you root for in the end. HUMAN BEASTS is reminiscent of HANNIBAL, particularly the Mason Verger parts which are the best of that film. It’s hard to watch HUMAN BEASTS without thinking of that film and I’ll bet the filmmakers and Thomas Harris were thinking of this film when coming up with the scenes. The dinner scene is also reminiscent of another foreign classic, LA GRANDE BOUFFE (reviewed here), as the grostesque-ness of gluttony is put on display in graphic fashion as the upper crust dine on the grand feast before them. Still, the film itself ends up being one of Naschy’s best as it doesn’t have to hang its hat on werewolf or any other horror conventions and is simply able to be its own monster.
HUMAN BEASTS is presented in its complete uncut form, in a Castilian version with English dialog as well as an English Dub, trailers and stills.
A WEREWOLF IN THE AMAZON
Retro-review: New this week on BluRay from Vestron Home Video Classics!
THE UNHOLY (1988)Directed by Camilo Vila
Written by Philip Yordan, Fernando Fonseca
Starring Ben Cross, Hal Holbrook, Ruben Rabasa, Phil Becker, Ned Beatty, Jill Carroll, Nicole Fortier, Peter Frechette, Trevor Howard, William Russ, Susan Bearden, Xavier Barquet, Lari White, Jeff D'Onofrio, Martha Hester, John Boyland, Claudia Robinson, Norma Donaldson, Earleen Carey, Anthony Deans Jr., Laura Pivacco, Ellen Cody, Sandy Queen, Alan Warhaftig
Retro-reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
Drenched in 80’s clichés, THE UNHOLY has a fun over the top performance by Ben Cross and a badly directed, but awesomely practical final effects sequence that makes the film worth every clichéd second.
Staunch and noble priest Father Michael (Ben Cross) is called in to take over a church after the last two priests were murdered. Not knowing what he is getting into, Father Michael agrees to take on the burden when it is offered to him by Archbishop Moseley (Hal Holbrook), but soon regrets it when he agrees to help a virgin waitress at a Satanic worship bar named Millie (Jill Carroll). Millie convinces Father Michael to help her exorcise the demons inside of her, though some temptation is provided by sleazy nightclub owner Luke (William Russ). But after she attempts to seduce Father Michael, he stands his ground and takes on demons from the blackest pits of hell inside the church he has sworn to serve in a dramatic, over the top effects extravaganza.
Structured similarly to (but doesn’t hold a feather to) THE EXORCIST III: LEGION, the film centers around a theme often found in 80’s horror/thrillers—temptation of the holy man. Hollywood loves to tempt the people of the cloth as there have been tons of films where a priest is seduced by some waif or a nun is seduced by a sexy man. That scene in all of them where the one beholden to chastity shakes, quivers, and makes tense fists when the seducer looms in closely is a cliché seen millions of times and it happens here as well. Portrayed as some kind of powerful and magical force, this faith in God ends up being the ultimate power in THE UNHOLY—a power that blasts force bolts through demons and causes the entire church to shake. It’s just funny seeing this cliché play out as it might not have been as clichéd back then, but it sure is now. Add some screeching saxophone, some bad hair, and some even worse clothing and you’ve got pretty much all of the ugliness of the eighties wrapped up in one digestible chunk of a movie.
The thing is though, while the acting is way over the top in pretty much every aspect and the directing is equally melodramatic, final effects sequence in THE UNHOLY is something to marvel at. While it is horrifically lit way too brightly and shot in ways that really do not help make the effects look authentic or convincing, the imagination behind the crawling demon monster with a long sloppy tongue and his little midget minions running around the church and causing all kinds of hellish antics is pretty damn awesome looking. Sure these are dudes in suits. Most likely the main monster is just a grotesque and misshapen version of the old horse costume with a guy in the front and another in the back. But it looks cool with a slimy face, flapping tongue, and swaying udders. Add in a nightmare sequence that echoes the nightmare images from Luis Buñuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU—eye cutting scene and all, and this ending is a winner. I just wish director Camilo Vila knew how to accentuate and not take away from the effects. Instead, long lingering shots of the monster fumbling to walk that are brightly lit undercut any convincibility these effects might have.
This version of THE UNHOLY is fully stocked with special features; an audio commentary with director Camilo Vila, isolated score selections & audio interview with composer Roger Bellon, an audio interview with production designer/co-writer Fernando Fonseca featuring isolated selections from his unused score, "Sins of the Father" featurette with Ben Cross, “Demons in the Flesh: The Monsters of THE UNHOLY” featurette focusing on the effects, "Prayer Offerings" featurette with Fernando Fonseca, an original ending featuring optional audio commentary with producer Mathew Hayden, theatrical trailer, and TV and radio spots, and original storyboard and still galleries.
New on DVD/BluRay from Full Moon Features!
EVIL BONG 666 (2017)Directed by Charles Band
Written by Charles Band & Brockton McKinney (original story), Kent Roudebush (script)
Starring Mindy Robinson, Diana Prince, Jessica Morris, Tonya Kay, Robin Sydney, Sonny Carl Davis, Megan Sage, Orson Chaplin, Riley Mae, Tom Devlin, Kylie Sky, Nihilist Gelo, The Don, Samantha McGee, Claire Hudgins, Juliana Acosta, Bob Ramos, Jonathan Katz, Adam Noble Roberts, Caleb Hurst, Ruben De La Hoya, Brooks Davis, Marc Pearce, Alan Maxson, & Michelle Mais as EB the Evil Bong!
Find out more about this film here, @fullmoonfeatures, and on Facebook here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
I’ve come to admire the tenacity and spirit of the EVIL BONG films. While I can attest that the series simply isn’t for me, I acknowledge that pot humor is something that makes certain folks guffaw. All of the EVIL BONG’s have been made on the cheap, with limited sets, slow as molasses pacing, bad picture and directing quality, horrific acting, and base level humor. But not only does Full Moon keep making them, but they actually pay attention to the continuity from one film to the next, which by today’s standards where everything must be their own unique snowflake island, is quite admirable.
In this hour and five minute long “film,” a new owner Lucy Furr (played by the smoking hot Mindy Robinson) opens up the familiar smoke shop haunted by EB the Evil Bong herself. After a seemingly endless introduction where a few plot points are relayed from the last installment, we get into the story where Lucy vies to make her way to her Valhalla, Sexy Hell. Through some totally bitchin’ weed smoking, a portal to Sexy Hell is opened where we meet Beezle, a demon ruling that particular dimension. Meanwhile, Killjoy (the antagonist of his own never-ending Full Moon movie series) exiles his clown daughter into the real world and she ends up in the Smoke Shop, along with the Gingerdead Man and old fart stoner dude Rabbit (Sonny Carl Davis). In order to close the portal to Sexy Hell, Rabbit and the Evil Bong work together to create Ginger Weed who, armed with a Bongzooka, unleashes doobie apocalypse on Beezlebub, Lucy, and the Gingerdead Man to…ahhh fuck, is anyone still reading this?
Long story short, which is too late for those interested in this type of film, EVIL BONG 666 is more of the same. I actually liked this one a bit better as the addition of Mindy Robinson who plays Lucy Furr is actually quite personable and has some decent comedic timing. Sexy Hell takes place all in front of a green screen and the rest of the film takes place in the same smoke shop the last five installments of this series takes place in. This one is less of a product endorsement tape than the last few Full Moon films and there is sort of a story going on, but there’s a lot of meandering in order to get to it. Expect boobs, bongs, and bad CG. But if you chortled at EVIL BONG 666 through a misty haze, then prepare to chortle again. For those who require a slightly more highbrow sense of humor at play, I’d advise you to skip it.
New on DVD, digital download, and On Demand from RLJ Entertainment!
PRISONER X (2016)Directed by Gaurav Seth
Written by Robert Reed (novel), Gaurav Seth
Starring Michelle Nolden, Julian Richings, Damon Runyan, Romano Orzari, Nigel Bennett, Andrew Lichti-Lee, Jessica Greco, Alex Harrouch, Gianpaolo Venuta, Dru Viergever, Vladimir Jon Cubrt, Jim Codrington, Stewart Arnott, Shawn C. Orr
Find out more about this film here, @prisonerxmovie, and on Facebook here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
PRISONER X should be seen as a perfect example of how to do a high stakes, big budget story with a smaller budget. This political, low fi sci fi film is ripe with ideas, yet keeps things grounded and real.
A man solely known as Romano (Romano Orzari) is found in India attempting to smuggle uranium out of the country. When interviews and examined, it seems he has heightened intelligence, small nanobites coursing through his body, and claims to be from the future. Taken into government custody, he is interviewed and befriended by Fisher (Damon Runyan) and his superior Jefferson (Julian Richings). But when Fisher asks a former colleague Carmen (Michelle Holden) to help him break Romano, he ends up killing himself before she arrives, leaving Carmen alone in trying to break Romano and get crucial information that could stop the world from nuclear destruction.
The beauty of PRISONER X is that it is able to fool the viewer into believing that this is a world spanning action adventure while never really leaving the bunker with which Romano is being held. There are discussions of world events held and a few TV clips, flashbacks, and dreams that occur outside of the bunker, but for the most part, it all takes place in a few rooms decked out to be an underground military compound. Many scenes rely on long discourses and back and forthings, but because the writing is so tense and the acting so sharp, you feel like this story is broader and more epic than it really is.
Unfolding like an excellent episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PRISONER X is masterfully crafted with a hell of a whallop for an ending. While the film lags a bit in the middle, for the most part the story moves at an intriguing clip as Carmen does her best to outwit this Lechter-esque character who seems to have all the cards despite being kept under lock and key the entire time. I really liked the way this film was put together and if you weren’t paying attention, this film feels so much more expansive than it really is. It’s this convincing illusion of being so much bigger a film that makes PRISONER X such a solid little political sci fi nightmare scenario that really does deliver hard and powerful in suspense and tension.
New on DVD from MVD Visual!
THE BUTCHER POSSESSIONS (2014)aka THE BECKONING, BECKONING THE BUTCHER
Directed by Dale Trott
Written by Dale Trott
Starring Damien E. Lipp, Stephanie Mauro, Sophie Wright, Tristan Barr, Tilly Legge, Lliam Murphy, Janet Watson Kruse, Peter Flaherty
Find out more about this film @beckoningthebutcher, and on Facebook here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
I know there’s an oversaturation of found footage films out there, but if one is done right—it gets to me. That’s why I kind of developed this checklist I go down in lieu of giving a regular review as the authenticity of the found footage always makes for a much more interesting and entertaining experience for me. There are also a few mistakes a lot of found footagers make that could make the entire genre better if avoided in my opinion. All of that is mapped out in the questions below. Here’s how the newly released Australian found footager THE BUTCHER POSSESSIONS stacks up.
What’s it about?
A quintet of youngsters looking to test a curse they found on the deep web called “Beckoning the Butcher” go out to a remote farmhouse in Australia to see if the curse is real. After performing the ritual, crazy shit begins to happen and one by one, each kid succumbs to the legendary Butcher. The film is made in a documentary style format where directed segments with relatives and investigators on the case talk to the camera about what transpired accompanies the actual footage of what went on that night.
Are the actors successfully acting like they aren’t acting?
For the most part, the acting is pretty convincing. That doesn’t mean that the actors aren’t annoying as they screw around and make jokes throughout the entire first half of this film. Still, they play the part of annoying kids convincingly and once shit starts getting real they respond pretty realistically as well. There are no lulls or pregnant pauses in the dialog where the actors are trying to think of things to say. Everything feels very natural.
Does the footage found seem authentic and untouched by additional production (which means there is no omniscient editor making multiple edits between cameras or an invisible orchestra providing music)?
Since this is presented in a documentary format, the switching between one of the two cameras is made more feasible as are the occasional synth sounds that accompany some of the scarier scenes. For the most part, the musical intrusions take place in the interview portions with a few exceptions to highlight some of the strange occurrences that happen in the footage. Either way, it’s not that distracting.
Why don’t they just drop the camera and get the hell out of there?
For the most part, the kids are trapped in this location. At first, after the crazy shit begins, the kids write it off and just go to bed, but when one goes missing, they not only find that the car to get them the hell out of there isn’t working properly, but also they seem to be trapped in some kind of space/time loop a la BLAIR WITCH that refuses to let them leave. The cameras are used as a means to see in the darkness as well as provide light, but the lead investigator is an attention hog thinking solely of his Youtube channel, so he keeps the cameras rolling for that reason as well.
Is there an up-nose BLAIR WITCH confessional or a REC-drag away from the camera?
While there are no drag-aways, there is an attempt at an up-nose confessional, but it is quickly interrupted by one of the others in a rather nice moment that recognizes how cliché and self-centered that type of thing is in that situation.
Does anything actually happen? Is the lead in too long and the payoff too short?
The film really has very little in terms of drag-time. Whenever things get slow; we get an interview with the investigating officer or the surviving brother or the psychic investigator. Once the action starts it is pretty much on the go right up until the end. The lead in is pretty succinct and the action occurs pretty early by about the 35 minute mark, so there is very little time that feels wasted. As far as shit happening—yes, it feels like things actually occur rather than a ton of time wasted wandering around in the dark and screaming character names.
Does the film add anything to the subgenre and is it worth watching?
The filmmakers behind THE BUTCHER POSSESSIONS definitely saw and took notes while watching the excellent LAKE MUNGO, another shockumentary style found footager that wastes no time and really delivers. While the similarities are plenty (there is one scene that is structured almost exactly when a blurred image that occurs only for a second is paused upon and talked about by the investigators), this is a solid little entry in the found footage subgenre. If you’re a critic of all things found footage, this won’t convert you, but as a fan of these types of films, this one kept me entertained all the way through. I jumped quite a bit and was enthralled with the idiotic actions of the kids who purposefully evoke a curse upon themselves and wonder why they are clawing their faces off. THE BUTCHER POSSESSIONS does all the right things in order to make a sound and effective little hand held horror.
New this week on DVD and Digital HD Platforms including iTunes, Amazon and Google Play from Candy Factory Films!
WICHITA (2016)aka MANIFESTO
Directed by Justyn Ah Chong, Matthew D. Ward
Written by Matthew D. Ward
Starring Trevor Peterson, Persia White, Caitlin Gerard, Demetri Goritsas, Christopher Robles, Melinda Lee, Sondra Blake, Adam Carr, Jennifer Christopher, Lenny Citrano, Max Kasch, Clifford Morts, Stephen Cervantes
Find out more about this film here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
Being a writer myself, I always find myself endeared to stories about the perils of writing. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment or maybe it’s cathartic seeing others go through some of the same madness I go through at finding that spark of inspiration or just battling for the right word to use. WICHITA is all about the pressures of writing and though it veers more in the thriller with comedic elements category, things get pretty dark in this tale as most stories about writing tend to do.
With his hit children’s TV series hitting a lull in ratings, show creator Jeb (Trevor Peterson) is given the ultimatum to come up with 30 hip and trendy scripts in 30 days and is sent to a writing retreat in Wichita by his studio. With him is two of the show’s writers and three voice cast of the main characters. While things start out fine and dandy, all of dark secrets of those on the retreat begin to emerge. Most importantly, it appears Jeb is having a mental break and is slowly succumbing to the pressure and veering into madness.
Descent into madness stories hinge on the believability of the slow procession into darkness. If there is one broad leap, it becomes unbelievable and it’s up to the writing and the pacing to be pitch perfect. And in WICHITA that descent is pretty believable. Writer/director Matthew D. Ward and his co-director Justyn Ah Chong do a pretty great job of inching up the pressure on Jeb as the story goes on. Toss in a little twisted childhood trauma that Jeb revisits when he is voted off the island mid-film, and it’s believable that Jeb is one push away from completely snapping into crazy town. Peterson is also convincing in the role as a somewhat reclusive, yet well intentioned guy trying to lead this group but simply lacking the skills to do so. This is the perfect scenario for crazy shit to happen and it does.
The surefire way to break up a team is toss them into a team building exercise and this film proves it in spades. There’s a lot of subtle humor going on here. It’s not “slap your momma and call her Suzy” humor, but there are quite a few moments at the beginning that will cause a titter or two. But when things get murdery, the tone continues to illustrate the pressures of the struggling writer in a way that I empathized with. The scenes where Jeb gives in to the madness aren’t necessarily overly graphic or gory, but the feeling of unease of a man pushed to the edge of sanity is definitely palpable in this one. If you are interested in the writing process, this is one to look out for. It is just shy of batshit crazy, but WICHITA does illustrate a steady and subtle slip into madness rather well.
Currently in select theaters and On Demand from Vertical Entertainment!
AWAKENING THE ZODIAC (2017)aka Z
Directed by Jonathan Wright
Written by Jonathan Wright, Mike Horrigan, Jennifer Archer
Starring Shane West, Leslie Bibb, Matt Craven, Stephen McHattie, Nicholas Campbell, Kenneth Welsh, Jason Hook, John Bregar, Eva Link, Jennie Esnard, Douglas Kidd, Sandra Wilson, Renato Vettore
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
I’m a big fan of films about the Zodiac. David Fincher’s epic movie seemed to be the end all be all on the subject as it did a fantastic job of not only presenting the material, but also showing how it affected the lives of those investigating the case. Still, when I heard about AWAKENING THE ZODIAC, I knew though it would never stand up to Fincher’s ZODIAC, it had a premise that sounded fun. And the film turned out to be just that. It’s not the best, mind you. It’s flawed in many ways, but still, as a fan of the subject, it kept me entertained all the way through until the end despite some dumb plot movements and character decisions.
Set in the present day, Mick (Shane West) and Zoe (Leslie Bibb) Branson are a couple steeped in financial struggles. While Zoe works her tail off, Mick takes chances with their money by buying unclaimed storage lockers in hopes for riches inside. One such locker comes up and it has a box full of old film reels that happen to have murders that look to have been committed by the Zodiac Killer on them. Partnering with a pawn shop owner (Matt Craven), the trio tries to crack the mysterious code of the Zodiac given this new information and end up finding him. But the Zodiac knows someone is on to him and is ready to fight back and keep his secret hidden.
So this is serial killer fiction that focuses mainly on the amateur sleuthing of these down on their luck dreamers looking for a quick buck. Because their plight is a bit less than noble, I did find it a bit difficult to empathize with Mick and Zoe as they simply want to cash in so life won’t be as hard. It’s understandable, but giving the characters bone-head moves doesn’t help that. Any time a situation gets somewhat dangerous and dire, Mick is ready to fight. Numerous times he charges in with little thought and ends up paying for it and while this is a consistent character trait that I can appreciate from actor Shane West, one would think he would realize that charging in blindly would not be the way to go after it ends up biting you in the ass over and over. Bibb is also hard to follow. Sometimes she plays the cautious one as Zoe, forcing Mick to think things through before charging forward. That is, until the story calls for Zoe to throw caution to the wind and follow Mick’s more impulsive behavior and it goes completely against what we know about the character. Because the film lets the story guide the characters instead of vice versa, it really is hard to get a bead on them and by the end, it just becomes way too transparent to see the screenwriter at the keyboard tapping away rather than characters acting out their character traits.
Another little thing that annoyed the hell out of me is the inclusion of one particular character actor name in the credits. Any genre watcher will recognize this actor and I haven’t mentioned him in this review which means he is the Zodiac. So when this character hadn’t shown up midway through the film, you were certain of who was going to play the Zodiac in the last reel. I wish the film would have pulled a SE7EN and left the actor’s name out of the opening credits. I know it’s a small detail, but still it makes for a more suspenseful film and the surprise of a recognizable face would have made the reveal a tad more interesting.
There is a lot in AWAKENING THE ZODIAC that I liked. The investigation portion where Craven’s character tries to crack the code, the flashback where the Zodiac murders a couple, even the final moments had some flair to it, though the climax does go over the top with a flipping van, a character who receives an assload of physical punishment yet is able to save the day, and a gunshot that is just a bit too accurate given the circumstances. I liked the ominous note the film ends on and while the portions I liked are done better in ZODIAC, AWAKENING THE ZODIAC proved to be boppy enough to get me all the way through it. The film definitely has a strong concept, but doesn’t really live up the potential of that concept. I was hoping for more. AWAKENING THE ZODIAC is not essential viewing for Zodiac-followers, but I liked the way it fictionally continued the story. I know a skosh more than a “meh” review is not that convincing to make you watch it, but that’s all I’ve got for this one.
New this week in select theaters Indican Pictures!
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO SNUFF (2016)Directed by Mitchell Altieri
Written by Cory Knauf, Adam Weis, Mitchell Altieri
Starring Joey Kern, Luke Edwards, Bree Williamson, Brad Greenquist, Perry Laylon Ojeda, Carter MacIntyre, Caroline Adnams, Kimberley Crossman, Tasmin Einhorn, Alfonso Faustino, Sara Fletcher, Tao Jensen, Ana Lorenzana, Kara Luiz, Alexa Niemi, Candace Pittman, Keith Roenke, Milynn Sarley, Chelle Sherrill, Vera Teixeira, Katie Wilbert, Jadine Wong
Find out more about this film here
Reviewed by M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
A pitch black comedic tone and some fine performances by the three leads makes A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO SNUFF the last call on torture porn…and I mean that in a good way!
Struggling to get noticed and famous in Hollywood, brothers Dresden (Joey Kern) and Anthony (Luke Edwards) are just about the give up the ghost and move back home to their parents’ basement and give in that the good life just isn’t in their future. But when they find out about a horror film contest with a large paycheck, they come up with a plan to make as close to an honest to gosh snuff film as possible by actually kidnapping a young actress and take her to edge of death so they can get the best and most realistic performance out of her. After a hilarious round of auditions where Dresden belittles pretty much every actress who comes in, both are blown away by a young beauty named Jennifer (Bree Williamson). But after kidnapping her and threatening her a bit in a secluded warehouse, the tides are turned and the predators become the prey as Jennifer turns out to be much more than the brothers bargained for.
While the Butcher Brothers have made a name for themselves for intense horrors like THE HAMILTONS, THE VIOLENT KIND, and HOLY GHOST PEOPLE (all excellent horror films in their own right), they do a fantastic job of lightening the tone for comedy, but keeping that dark taste for blood still on the menu. What works are the comedic beats in this film as it is much more of a comedy with horror elements than an out and out horror comedy. In many ways, the film feels like a Cohen Brothers film where the perfect crime is plotted, but the execution goes horribly, horribly wrong. And it’s all because of the bonehead moves of the two bungling brothers played by Kern and Edwards. Appearing shirtless for the first third of the movie, the two actors remind me of performances in another Joey Kern film, THE SASQUATCH GANG (reviewed here), as Kern sort of reprises his role as the shirtless loser who lives with a family who never wears shirts as well. Seeing these two lovable losers try their damnedest to take on this formidable foe in Williamson is tightly choreographed and absolutely fun comedy of errors.
Kern is fantastic as the more twisted and misguided of the two brothers. He’s more starved for fame and, as we find out later, he has a history of being a little unhinged. Seeing Edwards, the nicer and more innocent of the two brothers, try to reel Kern in is what causes the most laughs. While Edwards plays the straight man, he gets to shine every now and then as he begins to get into making this film as well. The scene where Edwards reacts to the Obama mask Kern buys him for a disguise is one of the most priceless moments of the whole movie. And while the antics of the two brothers are great, Bree Williamson really does steal the show. She has charisma for days and while she is drop dead gorgeous, it’s her “no fucks given” attitude that really makes her star shine. She is definitely a talent to watch.
While I have grown rather sick of torture porn, this film kind of uses all of the tropes and turns them on their ass, making it all feel fun and fresh. There is very little gore, though there is a pretty gnarly scene where Dresden waterboards Jennifer with dog’s blood that pushes the boundaries of what I can put up with. But for the most part, the gore is done at a comedic level. Each time the film begins to get too serious, one of the three main characters says or does something so over the top that it redeems itself. So even if torture porn is something you’re completely over with, this film accomplishes the impossible and made the tired subgenre of horror almost interesting again. If I never see a “strapped to a chair and tortured” film again, I’ll be happy as A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO SNUFF points out how ridiculous it all is and manages to tell a pretty capable morality tale and a rock solid comedy at the same time.
And finally…here’s another old timey radio play from the cracked mind of Arch Obler. This episode of LIGHT’S OUT is called IMMORTAL GENTLEMEN! It…is…later…than…you think!
See ya next week, folks!
Ambush Bug is M. L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 15 years & AICN HORROR for 5. Follow Mark on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller and on his new website collecting posts for AICN HORROR as well as all of the most recent updates on his various comic book projects on MLMillerWrites.com.
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