Tag Archives: Horror/comedy

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

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL CAPSULE 2021: FRANK & ZED

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DIRECTED BY: Jesse Blanchard

FEATURING: Voices of Jason Ropp, Steve Overton

PLOT: When the king’s line is severed, a demon’s curse comes to pass; meanwhile, Frank and Zed attempt to get through their days without too many pieces falling off.

Still from Frank & Zed (2021)

COMMENTS: Sometimes when you dip your hand into a swirling bucket of goo, you fish out something worth writing home about. Perhaps it’s not a traditionally worthwhile film, but there is plenty of diverting violence, clever visuals, and a suspicious amount of pathos to be found in Jesse Blanchard’s years-in-the-making fantasy puppet horror buddy comedy, Frank & Zed.

The tone is set with a puppet barbershop quartet in the opening short, “Shine.” The quad of dulcet singers croon in mighty harmony before slowly enduring a splat-stick massacre by unseen forces in the audience. The three minutes of chuckles, we are told, took two months to create; Frank & Zed took six… years. The scale of ambition behind this film boggles the mind, as does the occasional depth of feeling elicited by Blanchard and his gang of puppeteers. I was reminded often that effort of this kind translates to the screen in a way that movies made by committee—even those with exponentially larger budgets and a bevy of known actors—do not.

Frank is a (Frankenstein‘s) monster-style workaday minion, created from an unknown number of people and requiring a battery to recharge his heartbeat every day. This process allows for some of the incongruously sweet character interplay between the shambling monster and his differently shambling friend, Zed. Frank may be slowly falling apart, but Zed is in far worse way; we first meet this zombie when Frank chides him for trying to nibble on a piece of his own brain idly plucked from the large hole in his head. Watching gruesome puppet monsters with a near-wordless friendship feels odd, particularly when their interactions pull on the old heart-strings. The scene during which Frank lovingly reattaches Zed’s hand, donating some of his own reinforcing nails in the process, left me almost teary-eyed.

I shall pull no punches here, however. Frank & Zed nearly crumbles apart whenever the titular characters are not on the screen. While the pair is nailed to an adequate plot-frame, I couldn’t help but suspect that Team Blanchard would have done better keeping the film focused on the rickety duo. The Pavarotti-inspired baker was amusing as a victim, but the nearby villagers were (ironically) less fleshed out than Frank and Zed; time amongst them felt like time wasted. The gore that permeated was amusing until it went into overkill. (Possessed death-mice: good; forty minutes of puppet slicing-and-dicing, a bit less so.) Still and all, this was a great kick-off to the Fantasia 2021 festival; I find it unlikely I’ll find a sweeter friendship on display than Frank and Zed’s.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As for the inevitable Muppets comparisons, this is a darkly beautiful Fraggle Rock, a perfect exploration of a weird and wonderful world brought to live by extraordinarily talented puppeteers… But that orgy of blood is where everything gets slippy, and the charm wears thin. It shows the downside of a passion project: that there’s no one around not so personally invested that they can say ‘no.'”–Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle (online festival screening)

CAPSULE: DAY OF THE BEAST (1995)

El día de la bestia

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Santiago Segura, Armando De Razza

PLOT: A priest decides he must become a great sinner as part of a scheme to summon the Devil and stop the Apocalypse; he enlists a death metal fan and a TV occultist to help him.

Still from Day of the Beast (1995)

COMMENTS: Cult favorite Day of the Beast builds its story around a trinity of characters, who become sort of the three anti-wise men at the nativity of the Antichrist. Having discovered the place and date of the Antichrist’s birth (typical of copycat Satan, it’s to be on Christmas Day), priest Angel enacts a plan to draw the devil’s attention by committing as many sins as possible. His apprentice crimes involve him stealing a beggar’s alms and assaulting a helpless mime (an act that shows how poor his grasp of the idea of “evil” really is). Angel knows he needs help to get that real, gnarly aura of wickedness, so he seeks out death metal records to play backwards; impressed with his musical taste, dimwitted and instinctually sinful record clerk Jose Maria agrees to tag along on the apostate’s adventures. Now, the duo need only recruit occultist television charlatan Cavan to teach them the necessary rituals to summon Old Scratch.

Of course, that requires them to convince a reluctant Cavan to join them… and to acquire the blood of a virgin and other items necessary for the ritual. Around the halfway mark, things get truly wild; de la Iglesia picks up the pace, sending his trio through an obstacle course that sees them fending off a matron with a shotgun and hanging off a neon billboard atop a skyscraper. Along the way there are a few genuinely weird scenes: a naked LSD-scarfing grandpa, and a trip to a convenience store where the staff has been dispatched by an anarchist murder cult. But mostly, the film is a series of black comedy hijinks and effective Satanic horror imagery (the devil is depicted both by a real goat and by a man in a goat costume). It’s quite a ride: subversive, but with comic characters you actually like and root for.

This was de la Iglesia’s sophomore feature and is typical of his output: genre pictures with strong characterizations, brutal violence, transgressive imagery, dark humor, and complex, fast-paced plots. They all have a / energy to them that might be best described more as “wild” than “weird.” Perhaps we should consider de la Iglesia’s work “weird-adjacent.” Whatever you call it, it’s well worth checking out.

El día de la bestia  was a big success in Spain, even notching a Best Director Goya (and five other awards, too, although not Best Picture). Unfortunately, other than a successful international film festival run, it did not screen much outside of its native land, and was poorly distributed on home video, not even scoring a region 1 DVD release. Severin rectified this absence in 2021 with a Blu-ray edition of Day of the Beast (along with another rarely-seen de la Iglesia movie, 1997’s Perdita Durango). Along with a newly restored print, the deluxe release contains a feature-length “making of” documentary, interviews with de la Iglesia and select cast and crew, and most substantially, de la Iglesia’s 1990 short film “Mirandas Asesinas,” an antique-looking B&W horror comedy featuring Álex Angulo as a literal-minded psychopath.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… appealingly unrefined, this serving of satanic excess and good-naturedly dumb humor should please young audiences with a taste for off-the-wall cult fare.”–David Rooney, Variety (contemporaneous)