Tag Archives: Tom Savini

CAPSULE: FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: George Clooney,  , , , Ernest Liu, Fred Williamson, , Cheech Marin, ,

PLOT: Two vicious criminals take a preacher’s family hostage and head for a rendezvous at a biker bar in Mexico, but it turns out that the establishment is run by the undead.

Still from From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Dusk Till Dawn is really two different movies: it starts out as a gritty killers-on-the-lam flick, then turns into a campy horror film once dusk falls. Unfortunately, the first movie really sucks, and the second one has some great set pieces, but is spotty. And, although the collision of these two sensibilities is somewhat weird (though perhaps a better word is “jarring”), neither movie standing alone is bizarre enough for our tastes.

COMMENTS: As the first serious collaboration between two exploitation enfants terribles Robert Rodriguez (who directs here) and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay and acts), From Dusk Till Dawn was a hugely anticipated project. You can tell by the lineup of talent eager to work with the duo: big-time star Harvey Keitel was joined by up-and-comers George Clooney, Juliette Lewis and Salma Hayek, with a cool comeback appearance by Fred Williamson and an exotic presence in the person of Cheech Marin (who plays three roles, for no particular reason). The triumph of Pulp Fiction was fresh in everyone’s mind, while Rodriguez was still considered of an indie legend for making El Mariachi for $7,000. The thought of these two collaborating on a vampire movie made hip 1990s cineastes salivate.

I have to say that at the time I was disappointed at the results, however, and in the two decades since my opinion of the film has only softened a little bit. It seems that Tarantino, unquestionably a genius director, envisioned Dusk as his big acting break. Casting himself as a sadistic nerd (so he wouldn’t have to stretch—zing!), QT wrote himself a role that dominates the early half of the film. He plays the live-wire with the itchy trigger finger who complcates the plot by killing everyone in sight, much to the exasperation of cooler-headed Clooney. The problem is, Tarantino is whiny-sounding and even whiny-looking, and rather than fearing him as a dangerously unhinged psychopath, you just want to slap him with the back of your hand (perhaps realizing this would be audience’s natural reaction, Tarantino scripted a scene where Clooney knocks him out with one swift backhand to his impossible-to-miss forehead).

Tarantino does do a good job of making you despise his character, but the problem with the film’s (completely unnecessary) first ten minutes is that it sets you up to despise everyone: Tarantino, Clooney, and most of their victims, including a ranger who goes on a rant about “Mongoloids” in the food service industry. The movie gets better when Harvey Keitel enters, and even better when Tarantino leaves. As a preacher of lapsed faith, Keitel is the first decent person to appear in Dusk—why wait until almost 20 minutes have passed to introduce the first likable character? Although almost half the movie is over at this point, things improve greatly once the killers and their hostages reach the”Titty Twister,” a South-of-the-Border den with enough sin stored up behind its Hellfire-spouting portals to put the entire city of Tijuana out of business. Inside, “Santanico Pandemonium” (how much better of a stripper name is that than “Kandy” or “Neveah”?) puts on a dance that’s so hot, she doesn’t even have to take her bikini off to make Tarantino’s eyes glaze over, and soon sexual tension leads to hot vampire action as a brood of bloodsuckers descend to feed on the assembled truckers and bikers. Unfortunately for the vampires, they decided to locate their lair in a bar with wooden chairs whose breakaway legs make for hundreds of perfect stakes, leading to vampire genocide on a massive scale. I would have gone with Naugahyde booths, but then vampires never ask me for decorating tips.

Williamson and Savini are a treat as a pair of badasses and natural vampire killers. Savini has a crotch gun and kickboxing moves, Williamson has a cigar and the fact that he’s freakin’ Fred Williamson. Unlike Tarantino’s pedophile rapist, they are both exactly the type of characters that a fun B-movie romp needs. It’s great to see the undead meet their doom at the hands of stereotypical macho men—much more fun than it was too see innocent people tormented by a believable sex pervert in the movie’s opening reels. If From Dusk Till Dawn had started soon after Keitel made the scene and progressed more quickly to the Titty Twister, the movie could have earned a recommendation.  As it is, it’s a curious failure that has been surprisingly overrated by people who remember the vampire-stabbing fun of the pre-dawn finale, but forget the  incongruous and unpleasant pre-dusk sequences.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A deliriously trashy, exuberantly vulgar, lavishly appointed exploitation picture, this weird combo of roadkill movie and martial-arts vampire gorefest is made to order for the stimulation of teenage boys.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE THEATRE BIZARRE (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Karim Hussain, , ,

FEATURING: , André Hennicke, Peg Poett, Virginia Newcomb, Enola Penny, Amanda Marquardt, Jeremy Gladen, Liberty Larson, Christopher Sachs, Nicole Fabbri

PLOT: In a dilapidated old theater, a macabre human puppet hosts six Grand Guignol-style tales of terror.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Theater Bizarre is similar to other portmanteau horror anthologies, but speeds past them into the realm of the weird with colorful eccentric characters and bizarre story situations.

Still from The Theater Bizarre (2011)

COMMENTS: First-rate makeup, eerie sets and props, and racy, gory stories with unpredictable endings make The Theatre Bizarre a real standout in the genre of horror anthologies. When an emboldened patron of the dramatic arts (Virginia Newcomb) spots an open door to a decrepit told theater down a questionable back street, her curiosity gets the better of her. She enters, takes a seat, and is treated to a series of six sinister stories of sexual obsession and madness, hosted by an uncanny animated human puppet (Udo Kier). Attempting to cultivate his patron’s fear, the puppet presents each demented segment like a circus ringmaster exhibiting a freak show of abominations, with each tale more horribly harrowing and outrageous than the last.

When they meet “The Mother of Toads,” an unwary student of anthropology and his fiancee touring the French countryside are lured into the lair of changeling witch with an offer to peruse rare books. Suffering from an unusual condition, she has an ulterior motive and a strange design in store for both of them. The inquisitive pair are in for the cultural shock of a lifetime.

The psychological tension of unrequited love goes through the roof in “I Love You,” and reality bends and warps when a smothering but inadequate lover plunges beyond the bounds of reason when confronted by the prospect of a breakup.

In “Wet Dreams,” George Romero’s zombie movie makeup artist Tom Savini (who also directs) plays a Freudian psychologist and marriage counselor who turns the tables on a philandering client when he helps a couple step to the other side of the mirror to realize their darkest fantasies.

“The Accident” relates the story of a little girl learning the harsh realities of death after witnessing the aftermath of fatal traffic accident. This serious effort is neither macabre nor racy, and stands out from the other stories in The Theatre Bizarre for its dreamlike filming style and quiet contemplative atmosphere.

“Vision Stains” introduces a psychotic “experience junkie” who kills other women, drains the vitreous fluid from their eyes and injects it into her own to steal their memories. But when she chooses an “exceptional” victim, she takes a ride straight to hell.

Their addiction to elaborate confections cements an uneasy alliance between an oddball beatnik couple in “Sweets”. The glutenous duo’s precarious hold on their shaky union is challenged to the extreme when they join an exclusive club for twisted food perverts whose appetites are esoteric in the extreme.

As a whole, The Theatre Bizarre is a bit uneven. Its segments are diverse and feature unique directorial and writing styles, but each terror tale is memorable, colorful and over-the-top without being campy or silly. The Theatre Bizarre is a portmanteau-style anthology in the tradition of Creepshow or Tales From The Crypt; but with its adult themes and abundant nudity, it’s definitely not a children’s movie. Lurid, salacious, chilling, and bloody as hell, The Theatre Bizarre is the most memorable horror anthology I have seen to date.

All of the directors have done prior work in horror cinema: Richard Stanley (Dust Devil, Hardware), Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock, Life is Hot in Cracktown), Tom Savini (the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead), Douglas Buck (Cutting Moments), David Gregory (Plague Town), Karim Hussain (Subconscious Cruelty), and Jeremy Kasten (The Attic Expeditions, Wizard of Gore).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These elements may be shocking and even bizarre. But, like a lot of midnight-movie provocations, they soon turn predictable.”–Mark Jenkins, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SEA OF DUST (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Scott Bunt

FEATURING: Troy Holland, Sarah Dauber, , Ingrid Pitt

PLOT: Prester John, a mythological crusader king, possesses the bodies of 19th century

Still from Sea of Dust

Germans to manifest his sadistic religious ideology in this world.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSea of Dust is a tough case: it’s definitely weird, but at the same time it’s neither polished enough to be counted as one of the best weird movies of all time, nor bad enough to earn the so bad it’s weird designation that could get it on to the List through the back door.  The movie is worth a cautious recommendation for those who can overlook its ample flaws—bad acting, stilted dialogue, and an anti-religion message delivered with just a tad more subtlety than Religulous—and just want to soak in the b-movie weirdness of the “WTF?” third act.

COMMENTS:  Much of the time, Sea of Dust is like a Hammer Studios period movie acted by community theater thespians, with the addition of spurting gore effects supplied by exploding-head maestro Tom Savini.  As you watch the introduction where a rich landowner rejects a young medical student’s pleas for the hand of his daughter, your first thought will probably be “poorly acted and scripted.” That’s a shame, because the film gets better as the weirdness builds in later reels, and you may find yourself drawn into the movie if you can overlook the acting and dialogue and make it through the first half.  In the actors’ defense, it’s hard to sound convincing when you’re asked to deliver lines like “I really do apologize, I’ve never tried to kill someone before.  It’s very unlike me, I wouldn’t want you to think I behave like this all the time” just the way a 19th century German peasant girl who just been possessed by the spirit of a mythological crusader king would.  (An even more challenging line delivery comes when the hero is washed up unconscious on a beach and awakened by a fisherman who inserts a wicked hook attached to a staff through his chin and drags him a few feet through the surf: mildly perturbed, he whines, “Was that really necessary? You poked a hole in me!”)  If these descriptions make it sound like Sea of Dust is the work of incompetents, the look of the film belies that impression: the photography, lighting, costuming (lots of waistcoats and bodices), believable period sets, and editing are all strictly pro.  Even the special effects, while obviously cheap, are effective: there are multiple gore effects (an exploding head, a pitchfork through the head), and there’s a fluid sequence where a steadicam rushes through forests and into other dimensions where a beautiful siren awaits, and another one where the camera enters a maggot-ridden brain through a puncture wound in the head.  Even more importantly, for our purposes, there’s a lot of imaginative weirdness in the movie’s second half to recommend it.  We get multiple flagellations, two finger-sucking scenes, a crucified Tom Savini with dilated pupils, surgery on a hollow Ingrid Pitt, a cat-woman “harpy” in a black latex bodysuit who urinates on torture victims, and an ending that involves dreams inside of dreams and should leave the viewer well confused about who has triumphed.  At any rate, you have to give Sea of Dust credit: the film is overambitious, which is almost always a better thing than being underambitious.  A movie’s reach should exceed its grasp.

The film’s villain, Prester John, was a “real” legendary king during the Crusades; he was said to rule a Christian kingdom to the east of the Holy Land.  In writer/director Bunt’s vision he is a blatantly fictional creation of the kings of Europe during the crusades to lure volunteers into the wars.  In the film, people’s belief in Prester John causes him to take on a real existence, though he can only effect this world by possessing the souls of others.  Belief in Prester acts like a zombie virus in the affected villagers, but what’s unexplained is why the king would have a Sadean worldview, proclaiming pain is “the most delicious sensation” and perverting the Christian message into one that seeks to maximize suffering and therefore views inflicting cruelty as a holy act.  No orthodox Christians appear to oppose the evil; the good guys are rational Enlightenment scientists, men of medicine.  It’s not exactly what you would call a subtle or fair-minded allegory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film’s budgetary drawbacks and Bunt’s inexperience actually work in SEA OF DUST’s favor. The quick shifts in tone and occasional awkward transitions contribute to the movie’s dream-logic quality, adding a surface layer of Lovecraftian surrealism.”–Mike Watt, Fangoria (DVD)