Tag Archives: Direct to video

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WINTERBEAST (1992)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Thies

FEATURING: Tim R. Morgan, Mike Magri, Bob Harlow, Charles Majka

PLOT: On top of a mountain near the remote Wild Goose Lodge, ancient Indian stop-motion demons are stirring.

Still from Winterbeast (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: There are numerous bizarre touches scattered throughout Winterbeast, but there is one scene that earns this scrappy little amateur film an outside shot at our list: an unexpectedly ian masquerade at about the two-thirds mark of the movie, scored to a scratchy phonograph recording of the children’s song “What Can the Matter Be?”

COMMENTS: Begun in 1986 and released (to VHS) in 1992, Winterbeast is a few minutes of fairly competent stop-motion animation padded with about 75 minutes of totally incompetent live-action story. The action features mostly cardboard characters, with the exception of a hard-drinking, girlie-magazine loving NYC reprobate park ranger, and a plaid-jacketed businessman who sounds like Larry “Bud” Melman and does for New England wilderness lodges what Jaws‘ mayor did for public beaches. It’s nowhere near a good movie, but it has a small cult following for a reason: it’s peppered with weirdness.

Some of the weird bits are just the sloppy mistakes you usually find in bare budget films. There is, for example, a moment when a man breaks out a glass pane in a door window, presumably so he can reach inside and undo the lock. But when he strikes it, the door immediately swings open, because it wasn’t locked at all. So why didn’t he just use the door handle in the first place? (Maybe because the door in question doesn’t even have a handle.) With segments filmed over a period of years, there are constant editing boo-boos: shots from the same scene are often poorly matched, using different film stock and sound equipment (and sometimes costuming). Lead Tim R. Morgan’s mustache appears to change length and even color randomly throughout the movie.

These mistakes are likely the result of little care being put into anything except the monster sequences. But other flakes of weirdness are almost inexplicable: when Charlie opens his case of Indian artifacts, there’s one item that’s very out of place (I won’t spoil the surprise, you’ll know it when you see it). There are just plain goofy moments, such as when a character unconsciously copies a pose of a cigar-store Indian statue. (It’s worth shoehorning in here that Winterbeast‘s understanding of Native American ethnography appears to be based on research done at 1980s off-reservation souvenir shops.) And then there’s the previously-referenced musical number, complete with a plastic Halloween pumpkin prop, which is a genuine mini-masterpiece of microbudget surrealism.

Oh, and did we mention the rampaging stop-motion monsters? There’s a tentacled dream demon, an animated tree, a bug-eyed Bigfoot, a dinosaur, a giant chicken, and more. For the most part, they look pretty good—except when the giant models are shown picking up their quickly-made hunk-of-clay human victims, and either decapitating them or—in the case of one hapless, topless victim—smashing them against the side of a building. The creatures are only seen briefly, but the filmmakers obviously believed they could carry the picture, and they just needed to build enough movie around them to showcase these effects.

Remember how much fun 1970s homemade Harryhausen tribute Equinox was? Now imagine if it was done by a crew with half the talent at animation, and a tenth of the talent at every other aspect of filmmaking. Still fun, but in a different way. Realizing that he had created the perfect film, Christopher Thies never wrote or directed another movie after this.

Winterbeast is available as part of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Home Grown Horrors” box set (for the time being, exclusively available here), where it joins fellow apocrypha candidate Beyond Dream’s Door (1989) and the slasher Fatal Exam (1988) in a triple-feature of some of the best cheapo horror movies of the video store boom. It’s loaded with every possible extra feature you could imagine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie may be uneven in terms of the quality of its cinematography but it is so consistently bizarre and filled with enough seriously WTF moments that you can’t help but love it.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (“Homegrown Horrors” box set)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Jay Woelfel

FEATURING: Nick Baldasare, Rick Kesler, Susan Pinsky

PLOT: A young man finds himself trapped in a nightmare, and when he describes it to others, they are dragged into the dream, too.

Still from Beyond Dream's Door (1989)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It’s a long shot, but if you catch this modestly-budgeted but ambitiously-scripted little surreal collegiate horror in the right mood—in a darkened room around midnight, with a joint burning absent-mindedly in the ashtray, maybe even playing on an old VCR with minor tracking issues—you might just find that it gets enough of its hooks in you to drag you into its dream world.

COMMENTS: Why does Julie dream about a red balloon? What is the relationship between the armless janitor, the serial killer, and the red rubber monster? And why trap unassuming student Ben Dobbs in a never-ending nightmare in the first place? Those are just a small sample of the questions Beyond Dream’s Door won’t be answering.

It begins with an obvious dream sequence: laughing voices on a telephone, a topless girl, blue zombie hands waving in the air like the crowd at Coachella had been dosed with Thorazine. And here comes a spoiler, that isn’t really that much of a spoiler—when Ben seems to wake up from that dream, having apparently dozed off while studying calculus, it turns out that he’s actually inside another dream. The reason that this isn’t much of a spoiler is that this turns out to be the structure of the entire movie: it’s basically one long montage of dream sequences, with perhaps a quarter of the action occurring in the waking world.

Made in the late 80s by recent graduates of the now-defunct Ohio State University film department, Beyond Death’s Door is an authentic student film. A lot of the crew worked for class credit instead of cash money. That fact is reflected in the uninspiring acting—much of it from theater majors rather than seasoned film actors—and the sometimes woeful props. Dream’s Door overcomes those deficiencies with well-paced action that efficiently carries the viewer from one inventive dream to another. The slight plot has Ben, and the professor and teaching assistants who are dragged into his nightmare after unwisely agreeing to read his dream transcripts, trying to defeat a monstrous force, whose ultimate identity and motivation is left up to the audience’s imagination. Experimental film techniques—slo-mo shots of bursting light bulbs with sizzling filaments, faces in funhouse mirrors twisted into Lovecraftian monsters—effectively deliver bizarre shocks while coming in under budget. Recurring dream characters include Ben’s non-existent brother and a topless temptress (added at the distributor’s insistence to inject some cheesecake), along with the monster and the various alter-egos of whatever entity is orchestrating this nightmare. Even some cheesy faux-Poe doggerel, read solemnly over a dream montage, only adds to the odd flavor. While psychological horror fans won’t mistake Beyond Dream’s Door for a masterpiece, it’s a charming underdog of a chiller that well rewards viewers willing to risk becoming trapped inside its 1980s VHS reality.

Beyond Dream’s Door is available as part of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Home Grown Horrors” box set (available here), where it joins the stop-motion monster flick Winterbeast (1992) and the slasher Fatal Exam (1988) in a triple-feature of some of the better cheapo horror movies of the video store boom. The special edition DVD was loaded with extras (including two commentary tracks and the original short film from which Dream’s Door was adapted); Vinegar Syndrome ports all of those over, adding several more featurettes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Wolefel’s] fascinating first feature film, Beyond Dream’s Door, avoids clichés and formulas to bring the stunningly surreal world of nightmares into painful perspective. As a result, instead of the same old craven crap, we are privileged to see one of the late ’80s best independent fright films.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (2006 DVD)

CAPSULE: TAMMY AND THE T-REX (1994)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Walker, Theo Forsett, Terry Kiser, Ellen Dubin

PLOT: Mad scientists transfer Tammy’s boyfriend’s brain into a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Still from Tammy and the T-rex (1994)

COMMENTS: What can you say about a movie called Tammy and the T-Rex that the title doesn’t already tell you? The movie indeed gives us both Tammy (debuting 90s bombshell Denise Richards, whose earnestness as a dino’s gf helps sell this absurdity) and a T-rex (a 13-foot animatronic model capable of rolling its eyes, lowering its eyelids, curling its lip, and clamping its jaws—and not much else).

Obviously, the latter of those two is the star and the film’s raison d’être. Literally so: the movie’s producer funded the film specifically because he had access to the animatronic model for two weeks, and asked writer/director Stewart Raffill to create a screenplay to showcase the prop. All credit goes to Raffill for taking the lemon he was handed here and making reasonably palatable lemonade. Tammy and the T-rex garnered no awards—it didn’t even get a theatrical release—but the energy never flags, and it’s a reasonable way to burn 90 minutes.

Raffill’s checkered resume included the Star Wars spoof The Ice Pirates, the execrable E.T. ripoff/McDonald’s commercial Mac & Me,  and a forgotten sequel to Mannequin; so to say that Tammy and the T-rex is his greatest contribution to film may seem like moderate praise, at best. But the movie fills its “dumb fun” niche admirably. It’s helped by some lucky casting: Richards is joined by fellow then-unknown Paul Walker, making for an attractive couple of young leads. These two play their ridiculous situation relatively straight, while the comic mugging is left to the villainous mad scientists and the gay black sidekick (a stereotype, sure, but a pioneering character in 1994). Terry Kiser (Weekend at Bernies) shows what he can do in a non-corpse role, which is speak in a funny German accent, pose as a chain-smoking surgeon, and deliver lines like “We must remember that he’s going to a far, far better place… Helga, take him to the morgue.” That said, none of his antics are quite as funny as the scene where Tammy plays charades with the T-rex, or when the dinosaur checks a pay phone for quarters. The film is aware of its own cheesiness, but unpretentiously so; it hits the difficult mark of self-mockery that isn’t self-congratulatory, something that more recent spoofs like Sharknado miss badly.

The broad comic tone is like a film without the misanthropy and shock value. It feels like one of the campy, late night B-movies that used to run on cable’s “USA Up All Night” in the 1990s, movies edited for content to produce PG-13 versions of goofy-but-exploitative drive-in features. Which leads directly to the next point: although Tammy plays mostly like a PG-13 creature feature/teen rom-com, it does feature incongruous moments of R-rated gore—heads getting ripped off torsos by tyrannosaurus jaws, that kind of thing. The original film was released in most countries in a “clean” version, while the alternate cut with gore and more swearing played in Europe. The U.S. VHS tape, where most people originally saw the movie, featured the sanitized version. The “gore cut” was thought to be lost until Vinegar Syndrome found and restored an Italian 35mm print. I’m not sure the extra blood and guts adds too much (does making your actors clutch pig intestines to their abdomens ever add too much?), but it is a novelty, and it did provide an excuse to re-release Tammy to film festivals and in a deluxe Blu-ray set. Look for it to run as a second-tier midnight movie when repertory theaters reopen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…ludicrously, brilliantly weird; a ‘bad’ movie that, by embracing its campy tone and demonstrating a slight-but-significant self-awareness, is really anything but.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (festival “gore cut” screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kristie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PARIS IS US (2019)

Paris est à nous

DIRECTED BY: Elisabeth Vogler

FEATURING: Noémie Schmidt, Grégoire Isvarine, Marie Mottet, Lou Castel

PLOT: Anna does not go on her boyfriend’s flight that crashes; back in Paris, she becomes increasingly detached from herself and society.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alhough there are many Canonical titles that, it could be argued, are a bit incomprehensible, they also necessarily have some verve, panache, charming idiosyncrasy, or other stylistic or narrative merit. Paris Is Us is wanting for a purpose to complement its opacity. If you seek aimless ennui worth watching, check out Godard‘s early works instead.

COMMENTS: Two interesting things happened within minutes of each other when I began Paris Is Us. The first was a demonstration of the differences between dubbed dialogue and subtitled dialogue. (For reasons unknown, Netflix defaults to the English-language dub when available for its foreign fare.) The second was my cat hunting my pen as I waited patiently to find something worth writing down. That excitement out of the way (by correcting the audio to play the French-language track and by my cat nestling down to go to sleep next to me), I found myself trapped for the long-haul of a not-particularly-organized (and even less happy) spewing of montage.

Regular readers of my reviews know that this is the “plot” paragraph. There isn’t much more to say beyond the bare-bones description above. (And I’m probably repeating this ruse, now that I think of it.) The few minutes of dialogue in English perhaps skewered the whole viewing experience, as I couldn’t get the whole Frat-bro dialogue out of my mind while the (now) French-speaking twenty-somethings went on ad nauseum about: What if we’re all in a video-game? Isn’t there more to life than money? And can we even do anything about the state of this world that so drives us to European angst? Clattering around these musings were some specific lines that stood out, working at least as spoken in French (I shudder to think of the Frat Bro voice dub), like “I wanted it to create something so I could feel… alive” (in regards to hoping two planes might crash into each other overhead), and “We have something unique. We can’t throw it away” (said in the midst of one of the incessant fights between Anna and Greg).

I admit this is a really lazy review, but I only give the film-makers a qualified apology. Paris Is Us could have been tossed together by any freshman-level film students given cameras and a Parisian backdrop. The first act was long enough to make me dislike the protagonists; the second act stretched one obliquely conveyed tragedy across twenty-odd minutes; and the third act’s only saving grace was the random appearance of the only older character (Lou Castel), an ex-con on his way to visit his daughter’s grave. He has moved on with his life in the face of his double-tragedy, and the young ‘uns in the rest of the movie could do well to learn from his example. The administrator described this as “your oddest gamble” for Oscar week. It was a gamble. I have lost, but you needn’t do so.

Paris Is Us streams exclusively on Netflix (at least for the time being).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ce qui frappe immédiatement dans PARIS EST À NOUS, c’est son incroyable ambition esthétique. L’équipe du film prouve que la configuration de tournage imposée par son économie de moyen n’est absolument pas un frein à la qualité visuelle du métrage, bien au contraire.” –Aurélien, leblogducinema.com1

“…a surreal slog in search of a plot.”–Joel Keller, Decider

CAPSULE: THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Julius Onah

FEATURING: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O’Dowd, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang

PLOT: Scientists orbit the Earth attempting to use a particle accelerator to solve the world’s energy crisis, but accidentally open a portal to a parallel universe.

Still from The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When we first heard of The Cloverfield Paradox, it never occurred to us to consider it as a weird movie, given the straight sci-fi nature of the series’ two previous installments. But quotes like “might get a bit weird” and “it’s just sort of…..weird” from average-Joe reviewers out there put it on our radar screen. And by gum, they were right: it is “a bit” and “sort of” weird. But unfortunately, it’s not worth watching for fans of weird films, and will only appeal to the most dedicated remaining fans of the Cloverfield franchise, while driving many away from the series.

COMMENTS: I’m a fan of producer J.J. Abrams’ concept of making each movie set in the Cloverfield universe in a different style (I really want to see what they’ll do with the romantic comedy Cloverfield, I Love You), but the “confusing sci-fi B-movie with dodgy quantum science” genre was a bad choice for this third entry. The Cloverfield Paradox is so bad that it looks like a potential franchise-killer. Greenlighting this script is a hard-to-justify choice after the series just hit an unexpected peak with its second movie, the Twilight Zone-y thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane.

On The Cloverfield Paradox‘s parallel universe version of CNN, a talking head author warns of the dangers of mankind’s desperate space-based attempt to solve its debilitating energy crisis: “Every time they test [the particle accelerator] they risk tearing open the membrane of space-time, smashing together multiple dimensions, shattering reality…” As is always the case in bad B-movies, the wild-eyed guy with the off-the-wall jargon-laced theory he pulled out of his ass is (surprise) actually correct. Paradox‘s plot is bonkers, in a bad way. It adopts a mumbo-jumbo parallel universe theory in which anything can happen; there’s no rule book to follow, so the screenwriters are free to be as lazy as they want to, in pursuit of cheap special effects payoffs. In particular, one bizarre bit involving Chris O’Dowd’s arm beggars belief. I won’t spoil it (although other reviewers have detailed it to make a point about how absurd this movie’s plotting is) except to say that something  similar could easily have fit into “Twin Peaks: The Return.” The problem, of course, is that Paradox is not “Twin Peaks” in space (which would be admittedly cool). “Twin Peaks” exists in a self-contained surreal universe where suspension of disbelief is not a relevant consideration. Paradox expects us to take its revelations seriously, as (perhaps crucial) canon in an extended universe.

Aside from its off-the-rails plot, the rest of the film isn’t much better. Despite having a couple of accomplished actors in the sprawling cast (O’Dowd and Debicki), the characters are given nothing very interesting to do. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as a reluctant communications officer with a tragic past, does her best to generate some sympathy in a lost cause. The rest of the satellite crew make little impact, but the worst offender is the lone Chinese member, who is given minimal dialogue for one simple reason: she can’t speak English. How hard can it be to find a Chinese actress who speaks a little broken English, even phonetically? Can the other crew members actually see her subtitles when she speaks? Given the singular importance of this mission to all of mankind, why waste a precious slot on a crew member who can only communicate with her trilingual German boyfriend?

A minor quibble, perhaps, but a movie made up of nothing but a series of minor quibbles quickly grows old. Another example: the ship’s onboard gravity generator saves the filmmakers from having to deal with cool-looking but expensive zero-G realities, but is explained away with a hand-wave. A few cool moments, like the discovery of a woman in the walls and some independently moving eyeballs, can’t salvage the general feeling that the movie is punching way above its weight class, and getting pummeled in the process. Watch Paradox long enough, and you’re sure to say “I have no idea what’s going on.” A fine reaction for a movie, but not the effect Julius Onah was going for.

Paradox was adapted from a script called The God Particle and retrofitted for the Cloverfield universe. Although a similar gamble paid off in 10 Cloverfield Lane, this outing suggests that a new strategy of producing films actually designed to fit into the series is warranted. The producers decided not to waste everyone’s time with a theatrical release, instead dumping Paradox onto Netflix as a surprise release after Super Bowl LII. A fourth Cloverfield movie is planned, but to succeed, it will need to find a way to overcome this Paradox.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The filmmaking is incredibly bland, the story can’t figure out if it’s having fun with the weirdness or not, and the tie in to Cloverfield is gimmicky, leaving you with way more questions than answers.”–Joey Magidson, Hollywood News (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Jack Sholder

FEATURING: Andrew Divoff, Holly Fields, Chris Weber

PLOT: In a direct-to-video sequel (the first of three) an ancient evil genie (djinn) breaks free of his prison again, tries to conquer Earth with his rule-bound goal of unleashing all djinn onto humanity again, and gets shut down by a panicked, but barely resourceful, female protagonist again.

Still from Wishmaster 2: The Evil Within (1999)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a color-by-numbers horror flick intended to thrill, but not challenge, lite-beer-chugging mall rats. It is so shrink-wrapped and pre-fabbed that if it were a microwavable meal the ingredients would begin with “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” Someday, the imaginative horror factory that is the enterprise may demand our attention on the List. But it is not this day, and this is certainly not the movie.

COMMENTS: The whole Wishmaster franchise is the kind of premise that a first-year creative writing student at community college would pounce on with joy, and an experienced fantasy writer would know not to touch with a ten-foot-pole. An evil genie (djinn—gesundheit!) is unleashed on the world with the power to grant humans wishes, but subject to his own malicious interpretations of the wording. Besides a few exceptions (he can’t destroy himself, or re-arrange the fabric of space-time), he has unlimited powers. Think of the potential! And that’s exactly the problem with these kinds of premises: no matter what you do to actualize that potential, it will never live up to what you COULD have done. It’s like having God as a character in your story: whatever the payoff, God ends up being a wimpy letdown, unless you play it for laughs with a lampshade upon this very limitation. Moral of the story: don’t bite off more than you can chew, i.e., by adding God, or nearly God-like, antagonists.

But since when did more ambition than capability ever slow franchise originator Wes Craven down? So, djinn are a race of evil angels starting from the dawn of creation, and the boss djinn, when freed, has the goal of unleashing all his kind to rule humanity. The catch is, to do so he has to grant three wishes for the unlucky human who releases him from his bottle/lamp/(or in this case) ruby red gem. Numerous legalistic restrictions apply, because God may have been reckless in creating these things, but he had some good lawyers to back Him up. It says right here in the D&D manual that the djinn may take the soul of any human he grants a wish to (more play-toys for his dungeon), and he may interpret the wish in whatever outlandishly gruesome way he pleases, no taksey-backsies. As you might guess, careless mumbling around an evil djinn never leads to a happy outcome, and the people in the Wishmaster universe make a (short) career out of saying the stupidest possible things and instantly getting punished for it. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” Continue reading CAPSULE: WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)

288. REFLECTIONS OF EVIL (2002)

Weirdest!

“At this point I had realized that Damon’s film was like a Zen riddle. The more you tried to understand it with rational thought, the more its true meaning eluded you. I’d learned just to sit back and enjoy the experience.”–Thad Vassmer, “The Making of Reflections of Evil

DIRECTED BY: Damon Packard

FEATURING: Damon Packard, Nicole Vanderhoff

PLOT: Bob is a grossly overweight man trying to make a living peddling watches on the streets of present-day L.A. In flashback, we learn that his sister Julie died of an overdose in the 1970s. Julie’s spirit seeks out Bob with an important message from beyond the grave, which she eventually delivers to him at Universal Studios theme park.

Still from Reflections of Evil (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • Packard self-funded the film with an inheritance he received—one source estimated it at $500,000. He spent everything on the film and was broke immediately afterwards.
  • Packard sent out over 20,000 original DVDs he paid to have pressed for free, sending many to celebrities. He published some of their reactions on the movie’s now-defunct official website.
  • Reflections of Evil encountered serious distribution problems because of its unlicensed use of copyrighted material (such as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wooden Ships”). Packard recut the film in 2004 to avoid these issues (we review a different cut here).
  • Per the end credits, Universal Studios “permanently banned” Packard (presumably due to his guerilla shooting on their property).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bob’s massive, angry face seems to fill about every third or fourth frame. You’d be safe picking any one of the many warped camera tricks Packard uses to make his own bloated visage appear even more grotesque.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Young Spielberg’s death set; the Golden Guru; Schindler’s List: The Ride

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hiding behind the generic title Reflections of Evil (presumably chosen because Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid was already taken) is one of the most personal and peculiar movies ever made: a  homemade mélange of bizarre editing, black helicopters, vintage 1970s commercials, angry L.A. street people, barking dogs, a barking watch salesman, a ghost in a see-through nightgown, and so much more. Repetitive, abrasive, grotesque, and intermittently brilliant, Reflections will shatter your mind, leaving you wondering whether you’ve just watched the magnum opus of a crude genius or the manifesto of a genuine madman.


Trailer for Reflections of Evil

COMMENTS: Although there is a loose story to Reflections of Evil, if Continue reading 288. REFLECTIONS OF EVIL (2002)