March 4th, 2008

NIGHT GALLERY (1969) ***

The Twilight Zone creator, Rod Serling introduced tales of the macabre to a whole new generation of television viewers with this pilot for his hit series.  Although the series didn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor, Night Gallery was still a lot of fun.  Whereas the Zone was in atmospheric black and white, Gallery looked more or less like your average made-for-TV movie.  What this series had that Twilight didn’t was Serling’s acerbic on camera introductions of each story, all of which revolved around an ominous painting.  His prologues were sometimes better than the stories themselves and made Night Gallery a cut above what was on the tube in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  The pilot is mostly notable today because it features the first directing gig for Steven Spielberg, but it still ranks as one of the finer examples of anthology horror ever produced for television. 


Roddy McDowall and Ossie Davis star in the first story, “The Cemetery” (***) about a dying millionaire who does a painting of the cemetery next to his house.  His greedy nephew (McDowall) is after his loot and causes his uncle to get pneumonia and when he dies, McDowall inherits the house.  After his uncle’s death, the painting slowly changes:  First, his uncle’s grave is dug up, then his casket is opened, and then he rises from his grave.  The closer his uncle gets to the house, the crazier McDowall gets, until he accidentally falls down the stairs and breaks his neck. 


The story is predictable, but nevertheless it’s quite entertaining.  McDowall’s performance is easily the best thing about it and it’s fun watching him go over the top while brandishing a hammy southern accent.  Director Boris (The Omega Man) Sagal keeps things moving in an efficient, workmanlike manner and even though the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion, it’s still wholly satisfying.  McDowall gets the best line of the episode when he tells his lawyer, “Take care of the burial.  Put it on the bill!”


The second story, Eyes (*** ½) is directed by Spielberg and it’s about a despicable wealthy blind woman (Joan Crawford) who blackmails her doctor into performing an experimental eye transplant to restore her sight.  The catch is that she’ll only be able to see for twelve hours.  The donor (Tom Bosley from Happy Days) owes money to the Mob and gladly offers up his peepers in exchange for the cash to pay his debts.  The operation is a success but unfortunately for Crawford, she decides to open her eyes during a blackout. 


Supposedly during the making of this segment, the older union crewmembers were indignant to working with the wet behind the ears Spielberg and he had to struggle to get what he wanted, but it doesn’t show in the least.  This tale is filled with directorial touches that would become Spielberg trademarks (the sequence where the lights get turned out on the old biddy is especially stylish) and is anchored by an excellent performance by Crawford.  She may get all the flashy scenes, but it’s Bosley who is given the story’s best line:  “What’s it’s going to be like when it’s midnight all the time and no one’s paid the electric bill?”


Barry (Across 110th Street) Shear’s Escape Route (**), the third and final episode, finds a scarred Nazi war criminal (Richard Kiley) who becomes obsessed with a painting in an art museum.  He visits it daily from open to close and begins to envision himself inside the painting.  When he tries to outrun the authorities, he hides in the museum and wishes himself into the picture.  It sucks for him because the gallery took down that painting and replaced it with a portrait of a concentration camp.


The trick to anthology horror is the placement of the stories.  This segment is more leisurely paced than the others and is a lot less sensational, so it kinda ends things on a down note.  It also doesn’t help that concentration camp horror is a tough thing to effectively portray on television in the 60’s.  If Escape Route had been the first or second story, it might have worked better, but coming after the first two chilling tales, it’s more than a little depressing.  Kiley is good though and gets some great, bitter dialogue like “You must learn to live with a little pain my dear.  It’s what the world is made of, so get used to it!” 


At one point someone says, “Some things are worse than dying!” 


Yeah, this movie. 


There’s been a rash of mutilated bodies turning up in a swampland community and a medical examiner and a wildlife ranger investigate.  Turns out a big game hunter has bioengineered his own breed of gigantic mutant fish, just because he ran out of animals to hunt.  The monster is amphibious and can leap out of the water to chow down on it’s prey and in the end, it blows up real good. 


It sounds stupid.  It is stupid. 


The CGI monster effects aren’t the worse thing you’ve seen on the Sci-Fi Channel, but that isn’t exactly a glowing compliment.  The gore is more than adequate for this kind of thing as we get to see bloody arm stumps and legs being chomped off and there's a pretty spectacular decapitation complete with high pressured blood spurting too.  The gore can only carry this thing so far though. 


Like in most horror movies, a black guy is the first to die (he gets turned into human chum), but I guess they tried to make up for it by having the hero be black too.  All the acting uniformly sucks.  Not even a token appearance by Stranger Than Paradise’s Richard Edson can salvage this stinker.  There’s also a gratuitous set-up for a sequel that hopefully will never happen in this lifetime. 


This movie proves my theory that no one should ever give a camera to director Mark (Spawn) Dippe, even if you only want him to take a Polaroid of you and your girlfriend on vacation.  Then again, if you ever find yourself watching a movie called Frankenfish on the Sci-Fi Channel, you probably get what you deserve. 


An unkempt fisherman gets the movie’s best line:  “If some strange man stuck his hand in your hole, wouldn’t you bite him?” 




After a worldwide plague, there’s only a small group of moonshine swigging survivors left.  They’re led by George (Airport) Kennedy, live in an underground missile silo and routinely go to the surface to look for other survivors.  When they are out and about, they try not to get eaten by hideously mutated “gargoyles” that populate the desert.  (I thought gargoyles were supposed to have wings, but obviously producer Roger Corman was too cheap to spring for them.)  One day, they find a female wandering around and bring her back down into their compound.  They run some tests on her and discover that she’s pregnant. 


Okay, so now we’re halfway through this flick and I’m about to start dozing off when… BAM the chick goes into labor and a slimy monster jumps out of her uterus!  


I’m awake now. 


The slimy monster gets loose in the compound and grows at an accelerated rate.  When it grows to full size it kinda looks like what Arnold Schwarzenegger would like if you ripped all the skin off his body and sewed it back on inside out.  It goes running around air conditioning ducts, clawing out the throats of all the guys and raping all the women he can get his ugly mitts on.  In the end, a dog whistle is used to combat the creature and hero Andrew Stevens blows everything up using his would-be catchphrase:  “Adios motherfucker!”     


You’ve seen all of this done before, just not with George Kennedy. 


When it comes to plot, pacing, believable characters, and suspense, director Thierry Notz fails miserably.  At least the man knows how to film monster births and mutant rape convincingly. 


This flick is pretty bad, but I have to admit I have a soft spot in my heart for any movie featuring mutants with the libido of Charlie Sheen.  The birth of the monster scene is a classic of it’s kind (it’s kinda like a cross between the chest bursting scene in Alien and the birthing scene in It’s Alive) and utilizes lots of Heinz 57.  It’s definitely worth sitting through this mess to get to it.  Besides the stellar birthing scene, there’s also a great neck wound that spurts open like a pack of grape flavored Gushers.


Roger Corman had been producing Alien rip-offs since the early 80’s, so this was just another day at the office for him.  Andrew Stevens did such a good job hitting his marks that Corman let him write and direct the sequel, which was released the following year. 


Star (Ghoulies 2) Andreeff and Terri (House 4) Treas co-star as potential mutant mating material, but it’s Stevens who gets the best line of the movie when he asks, “When’s the last time you saw a premature fetus move like that?”

MANEATER (2007) *


A man eating Bengal tiger gets loose in a small town and starts swallowing up townsfolk.  Gary Busey of all people plays the sheriff who’s out to stop it.  Of course the tiger happens to be eating people during the town’s “Apple Fest” and the wild eyed mayor will do anything to make it a success; maneating tiger or no.  After a few National Guardsmen get turned into Tiger Chow, a big game hunter arrives to get himself a trophy. 


Yup, it’s another Jaws rip-off, except it’s a Bengal tiger instead of a Great White Shark. 


Even though this was a Sci-Fi Channel Original, there is nothing remotely Sci-Fi about it.  The tiger isn’t some bioengineered freak of nature, just your average refugee from Animal Planet.  The gore is OK, but it mostly consists of the severed limbs (arms, chewed off faces, etc.) the tiger leaves in it’s wake than actual clawing and maulings. 


You’d think the casting of someone like Busey would elevate this shitfest somewhat, but he sleepwalks through the movie and displays none of his patented craziness you’d come to expect from him.  He’s given very little to work with and gets nothing memorable to do.  That means it’s up to a Bible thumping mama to get the movie’s best line:  “You got Job and I got a job!”

MOSQUITO (1995) **


A spaceship crash lands in the forest and a swarm of mosquitoes feast on the carcasses of the aliens and grow to massive size.  The enormous insects soon take to sucking the blood out of a bunch of rowdy campers, and we’re not talking just a few drops, we’re talking gallons.  We’re talking about draining people until there’s only a dried up husk left.  In the end, the survivors board up an abandoned house and pretty soon we got Night of the Living Mosquitoes. 


The stop motion effects aren’t great but they sure as heck beat the cruddy CGI effects you see nowadays on the Sci-Fi Channel.  The POV shots of the stalking mosquitoes are also better than expected and the carnage the big ass bloodsuckers wreck is also fairly decent.  In one scene a guy gets swarmed by a bunch of them and when they suck his blood out, it causes his eyeballs to pop out Total Recall style and explode.  The film’s standout scene though is when a mosquito impales a naked chick on the ass with it’s proboscis!  


The cast is game.  Former Stooges bassist Ron Asheton is the comic relief park ranger, Josh Becker (the director of Running Time, a personal favorite) plays a camper, and Gunnar (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hansen plays a backstabbing thief.  In one scene, he holds a chainsaw and remarks, “I haven’t held one of these in twenty years!”  But it’s the cut rate Isaac Hayes impersonator who gets the movie’s best line:  “You’re living in science fact!” 


Mosquito works in fits and starts and while it has moments of occasional invention, for the most part it’s just another giant killer insect movie. I’ve sat through worse giant killer insect movies, that’s for sure.  It’s no Ticks, but it’ll do in a pinch I guess.  At least the explanation of how the mosquitoes got so big is rather novel and doesn’t involve some sort of half assed government bioengineering experiment.  Or a mad scientist.  Or toxic waste.  Or atomic energy. 


AKA:  Blood Fever.  AKA:  Night Swarm.

THE CAR (1977) * ½

So there’s a deadly, demonic, driverless car driving around a small desert town turning jaywalkers into pancakes and filling potholes with brain matter.  It runs down bicyclists, hitchhikers, cops and even a marching band.  Since everyone knows that possessed cars can’t enter hallowed ground, the townsfolk camp out in a local graveyard so they don’t get turned into roadkill while sheriff James Brolin and Small Desert Town, USA’s finest (including John Marley from Deathdream and Ronny Cox from Robocop) track the car down and try to give it a parking ticket. 


Some of the scenes of the car stalking it’s prey are pretty intense (especially the opening sequence) and feature negative POV shots of the evil auto.  Unfortunately you got to sit through a lot of inane lovey dovey bullshit featuring Brolin trying to get his daughters to warm up to his new girlfriend (Kathleen Lloyd from It Lives Again), tons of boring police procedure malarkey and plenty of Indian mumbo jumbo before you get to the good stuff. 


I’ve seen plenty of “You have got to be kidding me” moments in films, but the scene where the killer car is corralled by three cowboys on horseback has got to take the cake.  Somebody was clearly huffing paint fumes before they sat down to write THAT scene. 


The car itself is far and away the best thing about the movie.  It was created by George Barris, the man who made the Batmobile for the Batman TV series and exudes a real sense of menace.  It’s a shame director Elliot (A Man Called Horse) Silverstein couldn’t make everything else that doesn’t revolve around people getting run over very interesting.  If there had been a more capable director in the driver’s seat, the film could’ve been worthwhile, but as it is, The Car deserves to be put up on block and sold for parts.  The film is hokey as all get out and starts and sputters more than a broken down Pinto, but any movie that opens with a quote from Anton La Vey can’t be all that bad. 


Brolin is OK in the lead, but all his charisma is in his moustache.  He would later go on to face the ultimate terror when he married Barbara Streisand.  Lloyd is pretty hilarious when she taunts the car by calling it a “psycho idiot horse’s ass!”, but it’s R.G. (Predator) Armstrong who gets the movie’s best line:  “I’m going to shove that horn so far up your ass you’ll be farting music for a year!”


AKA:  Deathmobile