Tag Archives: Horror/comedy

CAPSULE: TINY CINEMA (2022)

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Tiny Cinema is currently available for VOD rental or purchase. The Blu-ray releases on Oct. 11, 2022 and is available for pre-order.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paul Ford, Tyler Cornack

COMMENTS: Oh, anthology horror: what are we to do with you? There’s something of a process for writing about long-form narrative films. (There’s also a process for dealing with short films, albeit a semi-tragic one: largely ignore them because of the limited market.) But for me, anthologies present a quandary. The broad, brush-stroke of “Here are some themes and things that happened” clashes with the impulse to write about each of the titles. Tyler Cornack’s assembly of short films (developed, if I read correctly, from some of his even shorter films) rarely bores the viewer—a benefit of flitting from one story the next with due haste—and never quite draws the viewer into the world—a disadvantage of that very same process.

Brief poking around the internet suggests that the closing short, “Daddy’s Home,” was one of every other critics’ least favorite segments. However, this oddity best captured my attention and is clearly the weirdest of this oddball crop of macabre. Sam is on a blind date, and it is going well. So well that the young woman he’s ended up with busts out what he thinks is some casual cocaine. Having snuffed the bump, she informs him that, no, that is not blow, the ashes of her father. This triggers the most unusual curse I’ve ever witnessed. Troubled by this reveal, Sam endures the evening’s remains, and leaves the lady with no promise of ever seeing her again. The next day, the dad jokes begin. “Excuse me, do you have a bookmark?,” “I do have a book, but my name’s not ‘Mark’!,” is but one of the awful-awkward rejoinders he finds himself spouting. As he begins to age rapidly and lose his hair, he decides to visit the home of his blind-date for a showdown whose finale reminded me of a classic sketch involving seduced milkmen.

Other offerings include the smirk-inducing exploration of who the infamous “she” of “that’s what she said” might be; a Nekromantik 2/Re-Animator hybrid which has the welcome touch of showing personal growth in the main character; a liquor store robbery/sexual role-playing ensemble buddy comedy; a time-loop apocalypse tale which has the courage to ask the question, Would you have sex with your future self to save the planet?, and… so on in that vein. To praise this movie with faint damnation, each of the segments would have done better as a short before a film festival feature. Instead, these scattershot ideas are minimally held together by the dead-pan charisma of Paul Ford, whose welcome presence prevented me from tossing this into the Try Again bin.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cornack has found the perfect balance of narrative variety and tonal consistency. For while these stories flirt variously with sci-fi, or horror, or the tropes of mobster or heist flicks, what unifies them – beyond their shared location and the Host’s occasional interventions – is that they are all weird, witty and utterly wrong.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: HEY, STOP STABBING ME! (2003)

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DIRECTED BY: Josh “Worm” Miller

FEATURING: Patrick Casey, Andy “Hippa” Kriss, Maria A. Morales, N. David Prestwood, Sean Hall

PLOT: College graduate Herman moves into a house with a collection of odd roommates where he is challenged by a job with ill-defined purpose, a needy girlfriend, a strange creature who keeps stealing his socks, and the mystery of what happened to his predecessors.

Still from Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! (2003)

COMMENTS: A well-played joke can wash away a multitude of sins. Countless movies over the decades have managed to cast aside lazy plotting or shoddy filmmaking because the audience left the theater laughing. I remain convinced that the success of The Departed can be attributed in large part to Mark Wahlberg’s pitch-perfect delivery of a single snarky retort. So Hey, Stop Stabbing Me!, a movie possessing zero production values but lots of spunk and all-in commitment from a group of plucky amateurs, has one mark which it absolutely must hit. The team behind this movie knows it can’t compete when it comes to the look of the film or the professionalism of the acting. So they go for jokes. And those jokes have got to land.

More often than not, God bless ‘em, they do. Screenwriters Casey and Miller (of late the storytelling masterminds behind the “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchise) adopt the time-honored strategy of throwing jokes of every shape and kind against the wall in hopes that something will stick. All kinds of jokes. The wall is littered with the sheer number of jokes that have been thrown at it. And amazingly, a pretty solid percentage of them hit. The result is a movie that’s certainly not good, but ends up being pretty great.

The primary vein of comedy pursued here is a completely demented world that everyone absurdly buys into. This is, after all, a movie in which a serial killer systematically offs his roommates and buries them in the backyard, yet his actions go completely unnoticed by everyone around him. It’s the kind of thing that would be perfectly at home on Adult Swim (and the folks at Fox clearly thought the same, as they hired Casey and Miller to script the series “Golan the Insatiable” for their “Animation Domination” slate). But wisely, the writers don’t solely rely on this dissonance. There are so many other jokes to try. Among the other styles of comedy they pursue:

  • Satire – Herman puts his degree in World History to work at a job where he wears a tie while digging holes all day (if only he’d gotten that double major in Comparative Lit like everyone else!)
  • Slapstick – Herman takes it on the chin constantly: abandoned by his family, robbed by a Samaritan, and getting the stuffing beaten out of him on a regular basis, most entertainingly at the hands of an 12-year-old boy.
  • Taboo – Herman’s nymphomaniac girlfriend Carrie has a very dark secret, for which the film slyly lays the groundwork without spoiling its horrible reveal.
  • Sheer Goofiness –  Wuzzel, the mischievous mascot reject who stalks the house in pursuit of socks, drives Herman to literal distraction. Aside from being rambunctious, he’s also a vivid example of the movie leaning into its own weaknesses, looking as he does like a cheap gorilla costume with very visible human hands.
  • Contrast – All this takes place in the extremely nondescript Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington (full disclosure: my wife’s hometown). The surroundings are so bland and inoffensive that these characters pull off the trick of standing out and fitting right in at the same time.

The movie is also surprisingly well made. The use of video is unavoidably cheap, but Miller demonstrates a real visual wit, deploying depth of field, handheld scrappiness, and deft quick-pans to sell the gags. And the story moves at a terrific pace, jumping from set piece to set piece with barely a breath. Even if one joke misses, another is sure to follow.

I fear I’m overselling the end product; Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! was shot for $500 and looks it, created by amateurs and shows it, and treated as ridiculous and feels it. But on its own terms, it’s a genuine achievement, pulling off the feat of being simultaneously incredibly dumb and sneakily smart. Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! gives hope to anybody with an iPhone, good friends, a nutty premise, and a dream.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A genuinely wacky and, at times, seriously funny horror send up that somehow avoids most of the clichés of the countless other SOV horror send ups made over the years, Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! might not win over those who don’t enjoy vintage no-budget endeavors, but then again… it might… this one moves very quickly, using Herman’s endless string of bad luck as a launching pad for all manner of unexpectedly bizarre occurrences, many of which build off of one another very effectively.” – Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

CAPSULE: SKY SHARKS (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Marc Fehse

FEATURING: Eva Habermann, Thomas Morris, Barbara Nedeljakova

PLOT: Receding Arctic icebergs release a horrible, long-buried threat: Nazi super-soldiers and their flying sharks.

COMMENTS: When you make a film like Sky Sharks, you have one honor-bound duty, and one obligation. Marc Fehse—writer, director, producer, editor, costume designer, and possibly the on-site hotdog vendor—fulfills his duty. There are sky sharks. They are sleekly designed, cybernetically enhanced, and perhaps too cute (in that heartless, dead-eyed, borderline prehistoric kind of way) for their purposes. Having fulfilled his duty, the question then becomes: does Mr Fehse provide the obligatory narrative framework to support, however barely, this flock of sharks?

Angelique and Diabla Richter are the daughters of superannuated German scientist and American technologist, Dr. Klaus Richter. Under the auspices of the “Investigation of Ancient War Engine” division of Richter’s pharma-bio-mechatronic consortium, Angelique and Diabla are tasked with investigating the wreckage of Finnish plane that crashed mysteriously over the Arctic. Diabla, a field agent who hates the cold, pursues this lead along with a concurrent discovery by Richter’s Arctic laboratory team: the discovery of massive German submarine.

It is around this point that the film’s difficulties become obvious. We don’t expect too much from actors roped into a project titled “Sky Sharks” that features Nazi immortality serum and zombiesque stormtroopers flying mechanically and genetically enhanced sharks. But one does have standards, and the narrative threads feel knotted here. I’ll charitably interpret this as enthusiasm on the part of the filmmaker: Fehse has crammed just every Nazi motif, occult scheme (including the infamous “Bell” weapon), and even some Vietnam nonsense in the hopes of… In the hopes of…

That may remain a mystery. Not wishing to be a Debbie Downer, I’ll go back to the opening requisite: the sky sharks. I would have loved more of them. I want some miniatures to put around my study. The first thing that comes to mind with just the title is “Sharknado + Nazis = Sky Sharks“; this may be true, I have not seen Sharknado. But tucked here amongst the Z-grade movie violence, nudity, both combined—twice over—and, of course, flying sharks (which can cloak, too, just so you know), Fehse takes some political pot shots at his fatherland. Nazi shark riders use Krupp steel cables during a particularly gris-silly plane scene; and the hemming, hedging, and hawing of the German government representative in the “World Leaders Unite to do Something!” montage is bang-on for that country’s waffling  for the past decade.

Having seen his Nazis, sharks, and breasts covered in (fresh) blood, and have no doubt that for so long as Marc Fehse can live to beg, borrow, or steal, he will make another film. It will be with jaundiced eye, but I shall give that film, whatever it turns out to be, a fair hearing. To the rest of you, well, perhaps some ancient Nazi weapons are best left buried in the ice.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Perhaps due to its dependence on fundraising from fans, Sky Sharks feels like a film made by committee – and not a very well disciplined committee at that.” -Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DAVE MADE A MAZE (2017)

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DIRECTED BY: Bill Watterson

FEATURING: Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Nick Thune, Adam Busch, James Urbaniak

PLOT: Annie returns home to find her apartment’s living room dominated by a cardboard construct inside which her boyfriend claims to be trapped.

COMMENTS: There is an easy route I could take for this review, but I’m going to put that pathway aside. For now. When we are first introduced to the titular maze, we probably feel just like Annie, who has returned home after a weekend away to find an unwieldy, idiotic edifice taking up far too much space right in the middle of her front room. Seemingly a mere construct of refrigerator boxes with other cardboard accoutrements, it’s a pointless structure, held together by tape, glue, and self-indulgence. The titular man-child inside greets her warmly, sounding a bit muffled and further away than the waist-high craft project should allow. She is nonplussed, and her impatience is immediate. My own impatience was on a hair-trigger, as a hipster party comprised of millennial stereotypes assembled around this monument to immaturity. I joined Annie in pushing aside my agitation as she and the revelers entered the maze to rescue Dave.

Whatever might be (rightly) said in criticism of the pretentious entities in the movie’s “real world,” there was a growing case of wonder creep as they explored the maze-world’s corridors and themed chambers. As Dave’s longtime buddy Gordon observes, the compound must have the traps littered throughout, you see, because “it’s a labyrinth, if it didn’t, it would just be a series of articulated hallways.” In one of the many cute/creative touches, all bodily harm to the victims of these traps (including ‘roid-quirky Jane and Greg approval-junkie Brynn) is conveyed through bursts of blood-red yarn as the traps slice their bodies. One chamber features cardboard-rendered stalactites; another a pit guarded by violent paper cranes; and one toys mischievously with perspective as the cameraman in the distance lifts a large cup that appeared to be resting on a front table. Leaning heavily into the metaphor (which despite its flimsy construction, turns out to be rather robust), there is also the requisite Minotaur stalking the visitors, and Dave.

Oh, Dave (and Dave). I was so primed to hate you both. To hate you and your stupid maze. But ultimately I felt a reluctant respect for this petulant hero for having finally followed through with something. And by the film’s end, I even found two characters I actually liked: the much put-upon Gordon who, though pretentious like the rest, turned out to be one of those ever-reliable types, bravely luring the Minotaur from the survivors once a plot is hatched to escape the arts-and-crafts abattoir. And then there’s Harry, the documentarian friend (for as you know, all true hipsters have a buddy who makes documentaries). Having dabbled briefly in filmmaking myself back many years ago, I understood his dueling urges to both capture what exists and to surreptitiously bend reality to his inclinations. Dave achieves what Harry and the rest of the Scooby gang could not: transposing a deep-seated sense of doubt and angst into a tangible challenge to physically overcome. As a movie, Dave Made a Maze kind of works; as therapy made manifest, Dave grasps a widespread anxiety by the horns and shows that the only way out is to get to the heart of the matter.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Weird’ is one word for it, and it certainly applies. But so does ‘creative,’ ‘inventive,’ ‘compelling’ and, finally, ‘good’… a burst of creativity that seems like a low-rent version of ‘Synecdoche, New York,’ a fever dream of a movie and one of my all-time favorites. If you’re looking for something different – and mean it when you say so — ‘Dave Made a Maze’ is a joy.”–Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SHRUNKEN HEADS (1994)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING:  Aeryk Egan, Bo Sharon, Darris Love, Meg Foster, Julius Harris, Rebecca Herbst, A.J. Damato

PLOT:  In New York, three boys are murdered by gangsters and then resurrected as shrunken heads by a local Haitian voodoo practitioner.

COMMENTS:  In most suburbs during the 90’s, the video rental store was positioned precisely between a doughnut shop (laden with youths with hair parted down the middle playing “Area 51”) and a pizza place that sold greasy bags of bread sticks for $2.50.  Florescent lit and staffed by geeks who knew more about Windows 95 short cuts than personal hygiene, this type of independent video shop had a chemical smell from the profusion of plastics, but was air-conditioned and filled with R-rated flicks.  Hoping to poach a glimpse of babes in thongs on movie posters or barely-covered breasts on the covers of VHS tapes, the neighborhood boys, sweaty and short on quarters thanks to Tekken 2, stumbled upon tapes like Shrunken Heads.

Appealing to the preteen amygdala, Shrunken Heads initially frisks about like a typical teen drama, with young gents in stripes and khakis battling bullies, but it’s suddenly recast into a skittish horror film with hokey voodoo components. Watching it is like compulsive carbohydrate bingeing; one stops asking questions and simply indulges. It was most likely intended for the 10-12 year olds, Netscape hackers, AOL chatters and comic book store patrons of its time, but in 2021 it holds appeal to VHS collectors and horror enthusiasts alike.

The plot is uninteresting and filled with daffy material.  Meg Foster plays androgynous gangster Big Moe with a cigar, hat and trench coat. Sporting an exaggerated NYC accent, she hangs with crimped groupies and a warehouse full of cigarette smoking goons who play pool, and ends up crossing paths with some humdrum kids. One has asthma, one’s got red hair, and one is soft for neighborhood Sally (Rebecca Herbst, the only girl not in spandex), who looks great and truly holds it down, even though the script gives her no reason to. The boys slip up and get capped by big Moe’s thugs over a petty gripe, but luckily Mr. Sumatra (a Haitian voodoo priest played by Julius Harris) summons them from the dead in the form of shrunken heads so they can exact their revenge.

shrunken heads (1995) rebecca herbst
Pictured: Rebecca Herbst demonstrating proper use of denim over stripes.

The volatile story is made more chaotic by the tacky musical score which sounds more appropriate to 90’s cable television programming or afternoon soaps like “All My Children” than a horror film. The vivacious opening theme by Danny Elfman might be the film’s sensory highlight, but the remedying sounds of Casio tones that follow provide a soundtrack that’s exquisitely outré, a pariah to pair with the outlandish gag culture. These treasures don’t come free; there’s ample boredom to be endured, script-wise.

Even though half-baked bits of dialogue like “Bear witness as my life was so cruelly torn from me in the prime of my youth” remain forgettable, the movie’s cast retains its charm. Harris provides focus to glide through some of the preposterous scenes, such as when he drops a dead cat into a melting pot and the boys’ gasping heads are floating in glop. Beaming with demoniac glee, he looks to be relishing his own performance. Meg Foster is spunky as a lesbian gangster, especially when she pinches the face of a male henchmen or waves a lit cigar around. Rebecca Herbst seems to be the most grounded, hardly freaking out over dead friends coming back to life.

Benefiting from its kooky cast, Shrunken Heads grows even odder with aleatory makeup and dexterous effects. The kinetic scenes where the heads fly around New York City help enrich the boring script, and there’s also some mangy voodoo sets with dead goats and chickens. Further perked by snappy vocal effects from the re-animated heads, everything leads to a suitable climax featuring a punctual highway pursuit and frosty lightning effects. These ingredients make Shrunken Heads a passable success—although the experience can get knotted by juvenile regressions such as flatulent zombies, which makes other Full Moon releases like Arcade and Meridian look earnest in comparison. Heads still holds up, perhaps even coming in low-budget specialist Full Moon’s top ten.

Quality voodoo-themed films are scarce lately (excepting Bertrand Bonello’s outstanding Zombi Child), but in the realm of VHS tapes, every Weekend at Bernie’s 2 begets a charming dud like Shrunken Heads. The voodoo genre is adept at both intriguing viewers and snagging them in its foibles. Shrunken Heads is unique and a somewhat weird experience; there probably won’t be anything like it produced again. With its balmy voodoo plot, it flaunts a rare sense of laxity absent in the present day obsession with algorithmic, safe media. To thoroughly imbibe its fluky complexion, see it on grainy VHS while under the influence of a mild sedative.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange god awful movie, but one that affords itself some nostalgic value so while it is a waste of talent and resources, it’s not totally a waste of time.”–Felix J. Vasquez, Cinema Crazed