January 10th, 2008

RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (2007) ***

Well, Hollywood remakes of horror classics have been the norm for quite some time now, so it’s not surprising that we should be getting a glut of Straight-to-DVD SEQUELS to remakes of horror classics.  Surprisingly, Return to House on Haunted Hill delivers the goods and is a worthy sequel to the 1999 remake.  It also happens to be the best Straight-to-DVD sequel of the year.

 

The plot has two opposing teams of treasure hunters going inside the titular haunted mansion/mental institution searching for a priceless idol where they are murdered one by one by the restless souls of murdered inmates.  We learn that the idol is the “source” of the house’s evil and the spunky wet T-shirt wearing heroine (sister of one of the remake’s cast members) sets out to destroy it.

 

The film runs a scant 81 minutes (more like 71 without all the credits) and someone ends up dying horribly every 8 minutes or so, so what’s not to like?  The kills are all suitably juicy (one GOOD thing about foregoing a theatrical release is that the film can be as gory as it wants without worrying about the MPAA taking their scissors to it) and we get some gut ripping, people being bent in half, an impressive “facelift”, a body getting pulled apart, some great messy brain surgery, a head squashed via dropping refrigerator, and total cremation.  

 

Return to House on Haunted Hill benefits from a Scream style sense of humor (one character says, “You’re not seriously suggesting that we split up in a haunted house are you?”) and has a few visual lifts from other films (like the Raiders of the Lost Ark scene where the heroine removes the idol from it’s cradle) that add to the fun.  The film also contains a clever twist on the old “naked ghost seducing a victim” routine by having not one, but TWO sexy naked ghosts seducing a LESBIAN for a change. 

 

Say what you will about Return to House on Haunted Hill’s shortcomings, at least it’ll win the GLAAD award for sexual equality among it’s victims.  The NAACP won’t be too thrilled with the picture though as predictably, the only black guy in the cast is the first to die.

 

The film also features for my money the best zombies in a swimming pool scene since Poltergeist.

 

The only names in the cast that I recognized were Cerina Vincent from Cabin Fever and of course the inimitable Jeffrey Combs (the sole returning cast member), but most everybody did a credible job especially when it came time to die gruesomely. 

 

The best dialogue exchange comes after someone’s body’s been liquefied and the slimy villain asks, “Where’s Norris?” and the heroine replies, “I think you’re standing in him.”

FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (2007) ** ½

The title may crib from Night of the Living Dead, but this flick’s REAL inspiration is obvious:  Snakes on a Plane.  Basically it’s Zombies on a Plane, without the benefit of Samuel L. Jackson. 

 

All the disaster movie clichés and characters are here:  there’s a nun, the annoying couple on vacation, the prisoner being transferred by a square jawed cop, the horny stewardesses, the pilot on his last flight before retiring, a black athlete (the novelty here is that he’s a Tiger Woods clone), the sweaty scientists, the Mile High Clubbers, the eccentric passenger who’s the only person that can fly the plane after all the pilots have been eaten, and of course, the supply of dangerous biohazard materials sitting in the cargo hold.  Of course one person turns into a zombie, bites another and another, until the plane is overrun by flesh eating ghouls and the few survivors have to fight them off and figure out how to land the plane.

 

Despite the novel setting, nothing else is really done with the concept and Flight of the Living Dead offers very few surprises.  The film reeks of missed opportunities (There’s no annoying salesman from Cleveland telling his life story, no bratty kids, and NO air sick bags!) but I guess when you’re given a tenth of the budget Snakes on a Plane had, you do what you can. 

 

The zombies in the film are fast moving, screeching, wild eyed 28 Days Later clones and aren’t particularly interesting, scary, or cool.  The kills are a mixed bag to say the least as the film relies heavily on the standard issue neck biting, but we do get to see a few severed legs and decapitated heads.  There is one neat scene where a zombie gets sucked into the engine and an excellent umbrella through the mouth death that’s almost worth the price of admission.  The film also contains a first in a zombie movie:  a toothless granny zombie, so I guess that’s something. 

 

The cast doesn’t feature a lot of big names, but is sprinkled throughout with a lot of familiar faces such as Erick (Daredevil) Alvari, Raymond (Walk Hard:  The Dewey Cox Story) Barry, Dale (Pet Sematary) Midkiff and Brian (Cobra) Thompson; none of whom are particularly given a whole lot to do.  The only cast member who really gets to shine is Kevin J. (Deep Rising) O’Connor as the weasel of a prisoner with a knack for survival. 

 

Flight of the Living Dead doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but there are a lot worse ways to spend 90 minutes.  Had the filmmakers been able to milk this concept for all it’s worth, it may have been a minor classic.  It’s no Snakes on a Plane, but it’s a mildly amusing, if instantly forgettable addition to the zombie genre.

 

THE LOST CITY (1935) *

A scientist (Kane Richmond) tries to figure out what is causing a rash of unexplained natural disasters around the globe and deduces that the epicenter of the incidents is coming from the unexplored jungles of Africa. There, William “Stage” Boyd is using his high-tech “brain destroyer” to turn the natives into mindless brutes. It turns out that the electrical fallout from his experiments is what’s causing the worldwide anomalies so Richmond goes to Africa to investigate. Shortly after arriving, he’s attacked by Boyd’s musclebound slaves and is brought to his “Lost City”. Boyd wants to turn Richmond’s mind into grape jelly, but after SEVERAL close calls, he and his comrades escape into the jungle where they have to deal with angry natives, greedy Arabs, hungry tigers, and a group of spider worshippers. The zenith of the zaniness comes when we learn that the “good” doctor has the ability to turn black people white, and here’s the kicker folks… the natives LINE UP for it.

Now we know where Michael Jackson was during those years between the Bad and Black or White albums.

Whether you catch this in it’s original 12 chapter serial format, or in one of it’s many condensed versions, The Lost City remains hilariously dated and filled with tons of racist sentiment. It doesn’t help that it’s boring as all get out either (especially if you watch all twelve chapters in one sitting as I did). The action is pretty slack, even for a low budget 30’s serial and the cliffhangers themselves are fairly weak.

Richmond makes for a bland hero, but it’s fun to watch Boyd go way over the top as the hopelessly uptight villain who dresses like a Flash Gordon extra. Too bad he disappears about halfway through. Roy Rogers’ sidekick George “Gabby” Hayes also turns up in a supporting role as Boyd’s rival, who also wants to make an army of automaton Africans. Easily the best thing about The Lost City is the cool, complex, electrical equipment that was provided by Kenneth Strickfaden, the man who created all the electric gadgetry for Frankenstein.

The Lost City as a whole is a ho-hum and forgettable experience, but what ISN’T forgettable is the hateful, racist dialogue such as “I have big news! White men are coming this way!”, “That sounds like a white girl’s voice!”, “I’ll control his brain, even if I have to make him a white giant!”, “A white man? You’re yellow!”

AKA: The Lost City of the Ligurians.