Retrospective: Anaconda (1997)

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Nominated for six Razzie Awards with a lot of scathing reviews of the animatronics involved and Jon Voight bagging two Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, just how tragic was this Action Adventure Horror film called Anaconda

With a fairly decent cast in Voight, J-Lo, Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson, and Danny Trejo, Columbia Pictures were clearly hoping for big things. Anaconda would even go on to generate four more sequels including a cross-over with the croc feature franchise, Lake Placid. In some circles, Anaconda has grown to cult status so what exactly went wrong? And do these negative reviews still hold weight over time?

25 years on, I look back at this creature feature to see if it is still as messy as my first recollection of the movie when it was initially released.

Set in the Amazonian rainforest, a National Geographic film crew set off down the river in search of the Shirishamas tribe, with hopes of documenting them. Along the way, the crew encounter stranded snake hunter Paul Serone (Voight) who convinces them that he can assist them in their quest, but holding ulterior motives. Eventually Serone leads them into the anaconda’s lair and as with these movies, our characters get knocked off one by one. 

Creature features have always been a draw card and ever since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released, the fear of the water and what lurks beneath has been constantly amplified. In this instance Anaconda had tried to leverage a blend of animatronics and cgi to catapult the horror element into new directions. Unfortunately it wasn’t able to leap into the realms of believability throwing the audience out of the picture along the way.
In addition, the screenplay is incredibly formulaic with weak writing in the fold, proving difficult for the cast to manipulate or add any depth too despite their abilities to do so before the camera. 

It doesn’t help that most of the characters are two-dimensional and therefore unable to provide any depth to them for the actors to dive into and explore.
Anaconda is a cheese on toast horror that looks pleasing and will be pleasing to some, but it won’t develop your taste palate, happy to live in the realms of popcorn territory. And with talks of a reboot on the horizon, it sounds like there could be more quests into the anaconda dominion yet to come. Is there life still in this franchise? Time will tell.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Sleepwalkers (1992)

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Sleepwalkers was one of those movies that has immersed itself in my mind and I’m pretty sure formed part of my horror film makeup. It’s probably not surprising really if I divulge a little of my personal journey through horror films. I would have been around 14 years old at the time of its release and already had sunk my impressionable mind into the works of Stephen King and knowing his name was attached to the writing credits for what would have been his first not to be based on any  of his pre-existing works (Not that I knew this at the time). It also starred Madchen Amick, hot off the David Lynch hit tv series Twin Peaks. Lynch was also integral to forming my cinephilia and with Amick’s involvement, I was already hooked. It would also be directed by Mick Garris who has since carved a name for himself in the name of horror on-screen and often using King’s work as source material.
Later, I would understand the importance that Aice Krige would play in movies having already carved a name through Chariots of Fire, Ghost Story, and Barfly. This would be my first encounter with Krige however and it’s fair to say that her role of the matriarchal shapeshifter Mary, a shapeshifting energy vampire, sets the tone for the whole movie.

Along with her son Charles Brady (Brian Krause) feeds off the lifeforce of virgin women and can transform into werecats to feed on their prey, whilst also using their powers of telekinesis and illusion to manipulate those with whom they encounter. Their only weakness are domestic cats, who are resistant to the sleepwalkers magic and can cause fatal wounds.

Madchen Amick takes on the role of Charles’ virginal interest Tanya, who is lured in by his  magnanimous charm. Before long, Tanya realises that there is more to Charles than meets the eye and must fight tooth and nail to survive.

Looking back at the film now, it still holds some allure despite some clearly aged creature effects, and the moment when Charles transforms for the first time is a great counterweight to our first impressions of his character. Throw into the mix a blink and you’ll miss Ron Perlman as Captain Soames and horror maestros Clive Barker, Joe Dante, John Landis, Tobe Hooper and even King himself cropping up at notable points, and you’ve got a lot to get your teeth into. Oh and Mark Hamill also makes an uncredited appearance which brings a smile to this cinema lover’s face. 

It is Krige however as mentioned who really comes to life as Mary and the lead antagonist of the film, with her incestous needs and devilish desires lights up every scene that she is in.
For this, Sleepwalkers is well worth a revisit.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Basket Case (1982)

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Looking back at this 80s cult horror forty years after its release, I am initially struck by its oddity. It is precisely the strangeness of the film that developed a cult following and makes it stand out from other slasher genre films of its time.

Basket Case blends itself right into the centre of the exploitation scene in which Director Frank Henenlotter would proudly own the label and go on to direct another two further instalments in the franchise.

Shot on 16mm and with a tight budget, part of the films appeal comes from its raw approach to filmmaking from which is inspired by the seedier side of Manhattan, combined with the special effects from the antagonist, Belial, a deformed conjoined twin with sexual and deviant manifestations. The puppet is displayed mostly through stop-animation which adds to the disjointed final product.

The premise of the movie would add to the struggle to connect, following Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), a man out of his element in New York for the first time, having travelled there with a wicker basket containing his twin who can communicate with him telepathically. Dwayne checks into a cheap motel and from here on in, a killing spree begins.
Dwayne is provoked into assisting Belial in his murderous activities, escorting him in a journey of revenge, but when he meets and falls for Sharon (Terri Susan Smith) a love triangle ensues with fatal consequences,

The result has Basket Case hosting a unique position at a time when experimental horror filmmaking was at its highest. These low-budget movies would find pride of place in the home entertainment circuit and along with the slogan “This is the sickest movie ever made!”, its status in the genre would morph into success and be welcomed to wallow in all its sick and warped glory. 

While it may not be appealing to many, there are a select few that would lap up the grotesque and stylised generated from the boldness of the creativity involved that would appreciate Basket Case for this alone. 

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Night’s End (2022)

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Once again I find myself struggling to connect with the latest Exclusive and Original offerings from horror streaming platform, Shudder.
Last year I saw high calibre movies, Violation, The Dark and the Wicked, Skull, and The Boy Behind The Door really resonated with me and featured in my Top 13 Horror movies of 2021.
All of which marks a difficult run of events for Shudder this year to continue to raise the bar. Not that it has been without moments of quality thanks to the cracking home invasion movie, For the Sake of Vicious. I highly recommend this if you haven’t yet caught Reese Eveneshen and Gabriel Carrer’s movie.

March has proven a different obstacle though I’m afraid to say as Night’s End is hampered by its own ambitions through a low-budget, tightly constrained story, made through COVID times. I feel like I could be over-critical due to my expectations, as I equally want to applaud the efforts from director Jennifer Reeder who helmed the V/H/S ‘94 segment Holy Hell. The problem is that through capturing the isolation, loneliness and desperation that the protagonist Ken Barber (Geno Walker) endures at a time that he is at his lowest ebb, losing his job, and his family, it also highlights the areas that fall south in various departments, namely the evidently weak plotline and the cheap visual effects.

It’s a shame as there is a subject here that is ripe to explore in depth. Ken’s issue as a father who is on the brink of despair, at his lowest, to shed light on a social dilemma where depression and alcoholism can lead the most decent person to ruin. For it is clear that Ken has a good heart, and for whatever reason has folded under the pressures that life can take. This stigma that he now has to bear also leads those closest to him to question his sanity when certain paranormal events unfold.

It takes a wicked turn into unbelievability though when Ken starts to get online recognition through social media following and in particular an online paranormal debunker Dark Corners (Daniel Kyri). The hammy performance from spiritual medium Colin Albertson (Lawrence Grimm) also shifts the audience out of the realm of credibility. In addition, the presentation of communication by each of the characters through Ken’s computer (cyberspace) makes the world disjointed. 

What Night’s End does boast however is a great performance (as always) from Michael Shannon as Ken’s ex-wife’s partner. A key supporter of Ken’s paranormal investigations and constantly delivering a high level of engagement on screen. 

The Prognosis:

A bold and promising premise to be explored in a confined environment and deliver a tough subject is ultimately let down by the lack of cohesion and budget constraints to pull off the vision.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Broadcast Signal Intrusion (2021)

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The My Super Psycho Sweet 16 TV movie trilogy aside, Director Jacob Gentry has been slowly carving out credible genre movies that have been entertaining the On Demand platform audiences. His latest outing, Broadcast Signal Intrusion has tapped into the mainstream with its eerie psychological elements that has been likened to the works of Cronenberg the elder, notably Videodrome as both movies deal with underground conspiracies and the infiltration of what is now an aged medium, the video tape. The similarities end there however, as all due respect to Gentry, he ain’t Cronenberg and lacks the in-depth intelligence that the directing auteur brings to his work and the study of the human mind and the physical degradation/rehabilitation of our species with that of another entity.

Gentry is able to play a little on the psyche though, with this slow burner investigation into these mysterious and sinister pirate broadcasts that have infiltrated transmission stations. The trouble I found though is that the eerie and strange was set far better in Channel Zero’s Candle Cove. The masked presence in the videos does shock but fails to go deeper with the scares and flatlines with every other appearance. The 90s setting also helps to set the mood and provide an ample backdrop to the narrative, which sees video archivist James (Harry Shum Jr. – Crazy Rich Asians) driven by obsession to unearth the mystery behind these dissemations. 

James himself, plagued by his past, seems set on this Sisyphus-like pursuit and is damned by the consequences. He is heeded numerous times by those he encounters along the way but is hellbent in ploughing ahead regardless.

There are some choice decisions that James makes along the way that does make the audience question why he is so insistent in finding the truth and some of the reason behind this is provided to a degree but like the plot, it’s thinly veiled and lacks substance. This is in essence, the movie’s achilles heel; not enough smoke to hide the plots and twists of intrigue. And thus it falls short and struggles to keep our attention.

The Prognosis:

There is promise here from Director Jacob Gentry, but the psychological horror is left wanting, content to skim across the surface without delving to the darkest depths.
There is enough to play with the senses only to be let down by a fairly straight forward conclusion followed by an odd twist component.

  • Saul Muerte

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is available to own or rent from AppleTV, Microsoft Store and Google Play in Australia & NZ from March 30.

Retrospective: The Black Castle (1952)

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In the following year to Universal’s The Strange Door, the production house would release the last real gothic horror story in their canon, The Black Castle. It would pull out all the stops in another melodramatic tale, harbouring the talents of Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr to steer the film both from a financial and credibility perspective.

The movie didn’t come without its problems however with original director Joseph Pevney stepping aside due his lack of faith in the script to make way for art director Nathan Juran to take the helm for what would be his first time in the director’s chair. Juran would go on to direct The Deadly Mantis; Attack of the 50ft Woman; and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad among his credits. For his initial feature though, he would openly admit that he was guided by the on screen talent to provide their valuable knowledge in the films making.

The plot for The Black Castle is admittedly minimalistic and in that sense, one can understand Pevney’s reservations. It also has similar themes to The Strange Door around imprisonment and escape from an evil antagonist, this time in the guise of Count Von Bruno (Stephen McNally).

The movie has been treated kindly by notable reviewers retrospectively, most notably because of its high quality in most of the production elements, and the cast are strong enough to ground the film. For me, the film doesn’t hold enough appeal to make it an iconic one.
Cinephiles will appreciate it for its cinematic value at the decline of Universal horror which is warranted, but others may struggle to connect to the films narrative.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The Strange Door (1951)

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As Universal creaked into the early 50s, they were taking giant strides towards a new sub-genre sparked by the space race that was capturing the Nation’s zeitgeist. The creatures that the production house had built its name upon had now shifted into more comedic terrain with Abbott and Costello. There was still some room for gothic horror though and The Strange Door based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel, The Sire de Maletroit’s Door would pit veterans Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff alongside one another in a last ditch effort to draw the crowds.

The premise is a slight tale about revenge, mischaracterisation and ultimately love in the face of adversity and is presented more as a melodrama than horror. Laughton also does his best to chew up the scenery and lapping up every moment as Alain de Maletroit, s msn consumed by grief and jealousy over the death of his brother Edmund’s wife. Alain imprisons Edmund (Paul Cavanagh) and raises his niece, Bianche (Sally Forrest) as though she were his child. This is through some warped connection to his sister-in -law that he longs to hold onto.

Everything is a whim or a game for Alain though, spoilt by his riches and living the life of a megalomaniac, content in ruining the lives of others to please his cruel desires.

Part of his trickery involves ensnaring a wayward thief, Denis (Richard Stapley) and convince him to marry Bianche, and then arrange for him to be murdered on the eve of their wdding night. True to the machiavellian style that the film is modelled on however, Alain doesn’t account for Denis and Bianche to actually fall in love. Nor does he foresee that his longtime dogsbody Voltan (Karloff) would have a change of heart and join focus with the lovebound duo in freeing the imprisoned Edmond and foil Alain’s plans.

While The Strange Door was well received at the time, upon recent viewing, you can’t help but notice that it is missing that special je ne sais quoi that was reminiscent in their earlier movies despite having stellar performers in Laughton and Karloff in the cast. 

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: The Bunker Game (2022)

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Some games are not for everyone.

While I may not have been the most athletic kid growing up, I did enjoy taking part in games. Be it in physical sports or the tabletop board games.

For their latest Exclusive and Original features, Shudder have launched Italian director Roberto Zazzara’s film The Bunker Game onto their platform.

The premise is that a Live Action Role Playing Game set around the rise of the Third Reich buried underground and living the life of the Nazi’s regime. When the games’ creator disappears, the line between game and reality blends and the players are forced into a battle for survival.

The idea of a live action role-playing game seems ripe for a bloody scene. By playing with the idea of realism the game and the horror element is heightened but the problem comes from no clear understanding of what the rules of this game may be. Is it set in the now, or a warped future where the Reich have sneaked underground with the means of a new uprising? Or is this world merely the stuff of some rich man’s playground?
By throwing into the mix, a paranormal element that could be behind everything, then we start to get into really murky and convoluted territory.

This isn’t the only real issue however, as both characters and the performances therein are borderline dry. There’s two-dimensions and then there’s flatline. The writers couldn’t do much more in order to shirk their audience away from the content. The narrative is like wading through treacle, but unfortunately nothing sticks so that by the films conclusion we’re beyond caring about whatever they may have concocted to draw the movie to a close.

The Prognosis:

Unfortunately, March hasn’t been too kind for horror streaming platform Shudder. So far the exclusive and original content has been underwhelming.
In the case of The Bunker Game, it simply struggles to hold your interest and falls on so many crucial elements along the way.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: X (2022)

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Last week I joined up with fellow Surgeon Myles Davies to watch Ti West’s latest turn behind the camera with his seventies inspired horror slasher flick, X.

A couple of days later, my colleague fired up the following tweet to cast his judgement before the world.

But what prompted this response from our slasher surgeon guru?

What compelled him to go Cujo frothing crazy?

Was he merely spouting foreign tongue, possessed by Satan’s work?

Or was there a method to the madness and perhaps people should sit up and take note of his prophecy?

Well, let’s throw the beast onto the mortician’s slab and dissect the film to get to the heart of it.

It’s been about six years since West sat in the directors chair for a feature length movie, and his subject of choice is a love song to the late sixties and early seventies with the infusion of sex and slasher horror.

There are obvious nods to the porno scene that had infiltrated the movie Plex with films such as Debbie Does Dallas, opening to dorr for adventurous and risky filmmakers to make their mark with cheap, low budget, guerrilla style approach to the medium.

Similarly the slasher scene was starting to raise its head, notably through The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper and from which West draws the bulk of his inspiration from.

West is clearly a man who knows his field though with suitable nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho, Kubrick’s The Shining, and even early 80s horror flick Alligator

X follows a group of young filmmakers intent on making an adult movie that could launch them to stardom; whether it was through escapism, to be famous, or for the money. Leading the stakes with that certain X factor is Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), a stripper and pornographic film actress. Joining her on their filming expedition is her boyfriend and producer Wayne (Martin Henderson), fellow actors Bobby Lynne (Brittany Snow), and Jackson Hole (Kid Cudi), Director RJ (Owen Capbell), and his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenny Ortega). 

Their choice of location happens to be a farmhouse in Texas (of course) and much like its inspiration, there’s more than meets the eye from its occupants, but not necessarily how you would expect… an elderly couple. Pearl (also Goth) is unwilling to let go of her sexuality just because of her age; and Howard (Stephen Ure) who will stop at nothing to satisfy her needs, but time may not be on his side. 

There is a fine line between pleasure and pain, and all it takes is one simple flip to turn our intrepid pioneers in filmmaking to be pushed into a world where they may not return from. Once the characters and setting take hold, West then lets loose with a slasher frenzy of delight, painting his celluloid brush with the artistic style and grace that the genre lends its name from, dabbing from a palette of iconic horror visuals to stimulate the audience with.

X is more than a homage to films of yester-year though as West immediately lures us in with the style from the era, both visually and auditorily, scintillating the senses. As he subjects us to the charm of the movie, West then pulls us in further with rich characterisation, who on face value appear to be stereotypes of the decade, but beneath the surface are more than their appearance depicts.
In fact, West’s masterstroke is in forcing the viewer to look beneath the surface of these characters, delving deep into their personalities and forcing their true selves to the fore.
The biggest component that Wast dapples with is the social stigma that age has on society, and how sex can diminish when time plays its part on us all. Does age damage the psyche? When we are left with our souls, and our body begins to fail us, what makes us worthy then when we aren’t able to let go of our sensuality?

The Prognosis:

So what is the conclusion?
Is this as Myles states, a potential contender for horror film of the year?

Ti West serves up a beautifully shot movie that sparks nostalgia and awakening to the slasher genre. The performances, especially from Mia Goth in her dual role are an absolute delight.
And the slow burn tension that flicks with humour and horror is perfectly balanced throughout the film. Plus the use of age and fear of ageism in the wake of losing one’s sexuality as the central theme is a bold but rewarding one.

West has always proved to be a quiet achiever from the mumblegore movement, but deserves more praise for his efforts.

X has just elevated his profile further and with the promise of turning the movie into a trilogy and a prequel called Pearl due later in the year, West could very well have made the best horror film of the year. Stay tuned 2022.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: The Seed (2021)

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A few weeks ago the horror streaming platform Shudder released The Seed as part of their Exclusive and Original content.

The film sees Sam Walker in the director’s chair for the first time overseeing a feature length movie, and is centred in the Mojave desert where 3 girls are settling in for a weekend retreat. Their plans however, would  be disrupted due to a bizarre alien invasion.

The choice of location may seem a strange choice but is packed with promise for it’s remoteness and ripe with tapping into dealing with a crisis when isolated from society.

What surprised me though is that The Seed gets swamped in vacuousness, both in narrative and character depth. There is simply nothing here for the audience to grab hold of.

The girls in question are some of the most frustrating characters I’ve seen on screen in some time with no redeeming features whatsoever, particularly from Deidrie (Lucy Martin) and Heather (Sophie Vavaseur).

These so called friends are so self-consumed (which I get is the point) that any grace we would have for their predicament dies along with their performances. Any vein attempt to dilute their negative energy with our lead protagonist Charlotte (Chelsea Edge) who at least has some sense and is in touch with reality, is lost in the mirth of pained scripting choices.

What is does boast is some creditability in the effects department, creating some suitably gross visual creature effects in the alien life forms design. If this is anything to go by there is still potential from Sam Walker to produce something worthy, but we’re too bogged down by it’s obvious weaknesses for this area alone to warrant any high praise.

The Prognosis:

Quite simply, this movie is dull and lifeless

The characters propel you from the narrative and there is little care to hold your attention beyond some fairly decent visuals.