February 23, 2017


As a lifelong (aka since 1988) fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I have a lot of love for EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS, better known by its US distribution title POD PEOPLE. Episode 303 is unarguably one of the finest MST3K episodes ever produced. It was the perfect pairing of bad movie with sharp witted comedians. But as the years rolled on, I began to wonder...

Outside of the Godzilla and Gamera films (and a smattering of others), I had never seen a single film used by the MST3K crew outside of the show. Can I really say that I've seen EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS if the only way I've seen it is in an edited, compressed version with people talking over it? Can I really say that I've seen THE UNEARTHLY, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE or CITY LIMITS? I suppose I can. I know plenty of people who will claim to have read certain books when in reality they only listened to the audio book. Is there really that much of a difference? 

So I decided today that I would spend 80 minutes of my life watching EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS without the accompaniment of Joel and the Bots. I would try to push the jokes I know by heart out of my mind. I would give it, for what it's worth, an honest chance. How did that work out for me? Well…

EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS is all about a family and a pop music group under assault by a murderous alien after three poachers destroy the recently crashed alien's egg nest. The only surviving egg ends up in the hands of the family's young son (and budding entomologist), Tommy. The egg eventually hatches and Tommy begins a friendship with the young alien, a curious and relatively harmless little chap Tommy names Trumpy (he looks like ALF with a snout). But Trumpy's mother (or father or whatever) is roaming the forest, obliterating the cast with surprising efficiency, all in search for her (or his or whatever) offspring. How will Tommy's family react when they find out he's been sheltering a potentially dangerous animal? And moreover, who will survive and what will be left of them?

I closed out that paragraph with a quote from the theatrical poster for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Why did I do that? Because I wanted to mention, if only for a sentence, a good horror movie. That way, this review won't be completely negative. Because EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS is NOT a good horror movie. I know, right? I can't believe it either!

That isn't to say that the film is uninteresting. Had I said that, I would be lying. But the reason the film is interesting has nothing to do with the quality of the material on display. It has to do with the fact that EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS is a Frankenstein film. Not literally, mind you, but figuratively. The film was directed by Juan Piquer Simon, a Spanish filmmaker who was, up until this films release in 1983, best known for his double dose of nastiness, SEA DEVILS and PIECES, the latter being one of the finest bits of over-the-top slasher film action ever made. EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS began life as a cheapo sci-fi/horror film about an alien running amok in the woods, only to be forcibly transformed into a more family friendly picture when Spielberg's E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL made a killing at the box office.

You can see the seams everywhere you look. What child would sympathize or identify with our pop music group? They're characters clearly meant to be body count fodder and a few seemed to have been hired for their willingness to wear skimpy outfits and disrobe for the camera. But because this is now a family film, the skimpy clothing becomes blouses and blue jeans in a matter of scenes, and the sole shower scene is nudity free. The aliens rack up quite the body count as the film goes along. But because this is now a family film, all those murder scenes are bloodless. I swear, you can actually hear Juan Piquer Simon audibly gritting his teeth as Tommy's grandfather is casually killed by a slap to the belly by one of the aliens, a scene which probably ended in a gory disembowelment before the studio heads decided to neuter the whole film.

Another casualty of the studio decision was the aliens themselves. I can't imagine Simon was thinking of furry, long nosed creatures, which look a bit like someone hollowed out a plush toy and then stuck a child inside of it before sewing it back up, when he started working on the film. But as this was now a family friendly film, I suppose the sight of Tommy cavorting with some kind of giant, drooling arachnid-looking beast wouldn't have appealed to the kiddies all that much. So Trumpy and his mother (or father or whatever) became non-intimidating, cute little beasties with glowing eyes and the ability to make a room full of junk dance around in the air. The overall adorableness of the monsters kills all suspense and terror before it can even start.

So what then are we left with? Well, not much. We have a cast full of nondescript characters that don't do an awful lot, a duo of villains that threaten a chick with rape before being quickly shown the door, and a whole lot of day-for-night photography rendered even more laughable by the overuse of fog machines. There's also a handful of original, though horrible, ditties that play on the soundtrack (I'm sure you know the words to one of them already, don't you?) and some wholly unconvincing special effects detailing the crash landing of the aliens and their various telekinetic powers.

It's shit, really. But it is pretty far from being intolerable shit. Trumpy the Alien has more personality than Trumpy the 45th President of the United States. The cast contains the always likable Ian Sera and some lovely ladies. The bad dub job lends the film some unintentional hilarity (and at least Tommy sounds like a child, unlike Bob from THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY). But let's be honest, the version featured on MST3K was a helluva lot better, not only because of the hilarious commentary, but because it cut out a decent amount of the films padding. There are long stretches of nothing to be found in EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS and they make an otherwise brief and steadily paced turd feel like its taking forever to hit the water.

So in summary, EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS is still best viewed as Episode 303. Sure, you'll miss out on some profanity (f-bombs in a family friendly film, eh?) and some bickering between the protagonists, but you won't have to make up your own jokes as the film goes along. Win-win, really.

February 18, 2017


Philip Gilbert's 1971 shocker BLOOD AND LACE feels downright prophetic in many ways, anticipating the later breed of cynical exploitation roughies like THE CANDY SNATCHERS and PETS while also prefiguring the slasher films that would come around near the end of the decade. It begins with the familiar face that launched a thousand slasher films, the POV murder set piece. Here we see an unknown killer bludgeon a middle aged prostitute and her John to death with the claw end of a hammer, all before setting the house ablaze. Luckily, the prostitute's daughter, gorgeous 17-year old Ellie, survives the ordeal unharmed.

As she is still considered a minor, Ellie finds herself a ward of the state and is sent to an orphanage run by the domineering Mrs. Deere. Little does Ellie know, her stay at the orphanage isn't going to be a pleasant one. We've already witnessed Mrs. Deere's right hand man, Tom, chase a young man through the woods. The chase ends when Tom cuts the boy's hand off with a cleaver, leaving him to bleed to death in the bushes. This is just how things work at Mrs. Deere's place. First offense, you get slapped around a bit. A second offense might end with you being tied to a pole in the attic and left to starve to death. Trying to run away… well, we know how that ends, don't we? Mrs. Deere can't allow children to run off, can she? That would hurt her bottom line. After all, every kid she takes in comes with a nice stipend from the state.

But Ellie's first few days at the orphanage aren't that bad. She meets a few of the other kids, like Pete, a wormy chump who is always trying to steal food. She is given a roommate, a slightly younger girl named Bunch (seriously). And then there's Walter… Oh, dreamy, dreamy Walter.

Ellie also has a friend of sorts in Detective Carruthers, the man investigating her mother's death. But I'm not too sure Carruthers is the kind of friend Ellie needs. Maybe it's the way he looks at her or the way he describes her as “good breeding stock”. Truth be told, there might not be a single person Ellie is safe to be around. We already know that Tom is a killer, but Mrs. Deere is showing instabilities of her own. She sometimes creeps into the basement to have conversations with someone unseen. Worse, Ellie begins to see a man standing above her bed at night, his face charred, a hammer clutched in his hand. As the walls slowly close in around her, is there anything Ellie can do to escape this nightmare? Or is she destined to end up like all those missing “runaways”, slowly rotting inside Mrs. Deere's meat freezer?

BLOOD AND LACE is probably best described as “comfortable”. I know that might sound like an odd way to describe a movie that contains murder, implied pedophilia, attempted rape and child abuse, but the attitude of the film is far more unoffensive than you might think. Sure, it's sardonic and confrontational at times, but the film somehow manages to skirt around the potential offensiveness of its subject matter by being effortlessly charming and not forgetting its sense of humor along the way. Despite some narrative and thematic similarities, it lacks the cruelness of films like HOUSE OF WHIPCORD and though the violence on display is sometimes graphic, the film doesn't wallow in its bloodshed. It's a good Saturday afternoon kind of horror film, the kind you watch when you want some thrills and chills, but don't want your day ruined by being reminded that the world is a toilet in desperate need of flushing.

The film is good looking with a swift and steady pace, doling out new developments and fresh shocks every ten minutes or so. The casting is absolute perfection. We have Gloria Grahame (of OKLAHOMA and THE BIG HEAT fame), Len Lesser (good ol' Uncle Leo from Seinfeld), Vic Tayback (Mel on the great sitcom Alice), a young Dennis Christopher (probably best known by horror fans as adult Eddie in IT) and most importantly, the lovely Melody Patterson (who looks a bit like a prototype of Naomi Watts) as Ellie. Put simply, these people have personality and as Sam Jackson once said, personality carries great distances. The entire cast is full of life, just a parade of great faces and voices. Even if you're finding the story of BLOOD AND LACE a bit underwhelming, chances are the performances by this first class batch of character actors are going to pull you through.

And there's a damn good chance you WILL be underwhelmed by the story at times. BLOOD AND LACE is all too familiar and some of its shocks have been rendered somewhat moot by decades and decades of higher profile films that played many of the same games. You're likely to guess the identity of the killer from the first scene (even if you'll probably never see the second and third twists of the ending coming) and because of the age of the film, it never commits to either of its two closest sub genres. Had the film been made three or four years later, it would have tumbled down the hole of crass sexploitation, a hole it spends a full half of a film digging. Had it been made around 1979 or so, it would have descended into full blown slasher territory. I can imagine some people growing frustrated with this films commitment issues.


Personally, I find the lack of a clear identity to be one of the films strengths. I like that the film sometimes meanders a bit thematically before ratcheting up the sleaze and intrigue. I like that the slasher elements only creep into the film once the trap surrounding our heroine has been set. When the man with the hammer makes his first appearance, it's already too late for Ellie to make a move. Stay or leave, chances are she will end up dead either way. With decades and decades of horror and exploitation films still fresh in memory, the undeveloped land BLOOD AND LACE inhabits comes complete with not quite recognizable back alleys and boulevards. The film doesn't need to work to subvert your expectations. It just needs to do its thing. We, the audience, are the people with historical hindsight and we, the audience, are the ones expecting the film to behave according to rules that no one had written yet. So when BLOOD AND LACE takes a sharp right, it sometimes feels counter intuitive. It's that element of the film that I enjoy the most. It's like taking a new path to a familiar place. You may end up where you always end up, but the way the trip plays out feels wonderfully different.

February 15, 2017


Italian genre film in the late 70s and early 80s was little more than a fad machine. A film would be released, make some money, and imitators would follow suit. Some fads took a bit longer to burn out than others. By the time 1980 rolled around, the cannibal film was on its last legs, quickly losing ground to that other giant of exploitation anthropophagy, the zombie flick. But there was still some gas left in the tank. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST was released to both acclaim and disgust. It was then, as it is now, the paragon of Gut-Munching Natives vs Civilized White Folk films. It made an impact, reignited (even if only for a brief time) interest in the cannibal film and, as expected, gave birth to a few copycats.

The other film making waves around the same time was Fulci's ZOMBI, a far less salacious, yet every bit as repugnant, shocker that was finding great success outside of Italy. And that brings us to this film, ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, one of the greatest regurgitators ever produced by money hungry hack Italians. Now, when I say “greatest”, I am not referring to its quality. No, I'm referring to the scope of its regurgitation. It has a set-up (and a score) ripped right from EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS, with a beautiful woman discovering that her place of employment, a hospital, is playing host to a cannibalistic weirdo who treats the morgue as his own personal buffet. When the cannibal is caught, he leaps from a window (pay attention to when the dummy hits the pavement; it's one of the best chuckles the film has to offer), muttering the word “Keto” as he dies. Our heroine, Lori, notices a strange marking on the man's body, a symbol belonging to a long lost cannibal tribe.

Heading off to the island of Keto, Lori is joined by Peter, an anthropologist played by Ian McCulloch. That is the first of many ZOMBI references (aka rip-offs) to come. It's temping to think McCulloch is still playing the character of Peter from Fulci's film. They act the same, talk the same, look the same. Just think of ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST as the second chapter in the epic tale of Peter the Schlub. You might get more enjoyment out of it that way.

When we arrive at Keto, the cannibal film references begin in earnest. There's a smattering of SAVAGE TERROR here, some spike trap shenanigans lifted from JUNGLE HOLOCAUST, and later, a full nude body painting scene torn from MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD. All the various cliches and tropes are trotted out and displayed, though thankfully the film contains not a whiff of animal cruelty. In short order, a couple of redshirts are chewed up, Peter's assistant George has his eyeballs gouged out, a reporter named Susan goes missing, and Lori is kidnapped by the cannibals. That just leaves us with Peter and his guide, Molotto (played by yet another actor from ZOMBI, the fantastically named Dakar).

Oh and there are zombies wandering around now, the byproduct of a mad scientist trying to unlock the secrets of eternal life via brain transplantation. While Peter finds himself in the clutches of the crazy Dr. Obrero, Lori is crowned Queen of the Cannibals. These two bizarre strands of bullshit collide when Lori leads her army of flesh eaters to Obereo's laboratories (which are just reused sets from ZOMBI). Will our heroes make it out alive? Do we even care?

So yeah, this movie is garbage. It isn't without its charms though. The gore effects are pretty great, featuring some nifty disembowelment and a sloppy brain transplant. There are some genuinely hilarious, if unintentionally so, moments, like how Peter responds to every death with an annoyed order of “bury him and get moving”. In hindsight, the funniest thing about the movie is the beginning. How exactly did a member of a far off cannibal tribe get a job working at a New York morgue? Who checked his references? I would love to see that man's resume.

In the States, ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST was renamed to DR. BUTCHER, M.D. (MEDICAL DEVIATE), a much more interesting and catchy title. It's also much more appropriate. There isn't much of a zombie holocaust in ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST. There's maybe a dozen of the suckers walking around and they never even get to kill anyone. All the bloody work is left to the cannibals and Dr. Obrero. That's more than a little disappointing as the film could have really used a more satisfyingly absurd conclusion. I mean, we have two damn groups of flesh eaters running around, but we never even get a real final confrontation. One group runs in, manhandles the other for a minute or two, and that's about it.

And that's the biggest problem with ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST. It never gets as absurd as you think it's going to get. It's all a big cop out. They should have just stuck to one rip-off at a time. Putting zombies and cannibals in one film makes no sense, commercially or otherwise. It's like going to a restaurant and ordering the ham steak with a side of Canadian bacon. You're just getting more damn ham. And sure, the film manages a few decent bits as it chugs along (for example, it's always nice to see Alexandra Delli Colli in a movie where she isn't being toe fucked or raped, and the murder scenes really do pack a queasy punch), but it really is just the proverbial Boulevard of Broken Dreams, moments of joy that lead to long stretches of regret and emptiness. There really isn't anything much to see here, folks. Move along, move along.

February 11, 2017


Anyone doubting the influence of giallo films on the North American slasher need look no further than HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, a 1981 Canadian shocker that takes the majority of its cues from the giallo playbook. The film is essentially a whodunit with the feel of something like THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK, a giallo with a similar narrative thrust in that it focuses mainly on one young woman whose grasp on reality is so shaky that she may or may not be responsible for bloody murder. While the comparison with that particular giallo film ends there, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME shares several giallo elements, like the black gloved killer, the heaps of red herrings, an over-complicated twist ending, and a motive built on ridiculous circumstance and shaky psychology. If you're a fan of Italian stalk and slash murder mysteries, you'll feel right at home here. 

The film follows Virginia, a young woman with some serious emotional problems after suffering brain damage in a car accident that also killed her drunk, belligerent mother. Virginia has undergone experimental brain therapy for her injuries. She has also been seeing a shrink to help her cope with her repressed memories and emotional scars. Virginia spends most of her time hanging out with a group of rich kids at her University (they're referred to collectively as “The Ten”, a not-so-subtle hint at the films potential body count). They're basically wealthy layabouts, spending all their time at a local tavern, attending sporting events and engaging in fleeting romances.

But something unfortunately nasty is about to befall The Ten. One by one, they're picked off by an unknown killer. As the disappearances mount, so does Virginia's stress level. Coupled with the slowly returning memories of the fatal car accident, it's all a bit too much for our poor Final Girl (that's not even remotely a spoiler, by the way; there's a reason she's named Virginia, after all). She begins hallucinating and losing time. Worse, she begins to think that maybe she is the one responsible for all the disappearances. Is Virginia really the killer? Maybe it's Steve, the loose cannon with the warped sense of humor? Or maybe it's Arthur, the quiet weirdo with the taxidermy hobby? Could it be Virginia's shrink, the esteemed Dr. Faraday, an older man with a slightly odd obsession with his young patient? 

Do you kids at home know?

The solution to the puzzle definitely comes out of left field, culminating in a Scooby-Doo styled ridiculous unmasking of the killer. In a way, the ending is perfect for this type of film (and to be fair, gialli are also known for their head scratching reveals). Simply put, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME doesn't make a lick of logical sense. Its a film wrapped in a cocoon of psycho-babble and pseudo-psychology, and no matter how forcefully the film states its tripe, none of it ever feels like a satisfactory explanation for the goings on in the narrative. It's also one of those films that tries to hint at its final revelation through back story exposition and flashbacks, but they're so muddled and vague that you couldn't reasonably put those pieces together without a hefty dose of hindsight. For more than half its running time, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME feels like its just making it up as it goes along, peppering in exposition here and there in a desperate attempt to have it all make sense, and when it reaches its finale, all that's left to do is go out as absurdly as possible.

But the other half of the film ditches the psycho-babble for far less serious minded slasher entertainment. Its this half of the film that works best, with enough twists and turns, semi relatable characters and spilled blood to warrant a viewing. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME was directed by J. Lee Thompson, the man responsible for such great films as CAPE FEAR (the original), THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and BEFORE WINTER COMES, and his directorial skill shines through the otherwise pedestrian material. There's a good deal of visual ingenuity on display here and Thompson keeps the movie pressing forward, even when the gooey psycho-nonsense threatens to derail it.

So what we have is a tale of two films. We have a thoroughly unconvincing psychological thriller about a woman whose guilt and trauma might have given rise to a murderous fugue state, and we have a simple and reductive slasher film about a group of kids being crushed, slashed, stabbed and otherwise manhandled by someone with serious impulse control issues. The former is undeniably the weaker affair, a statement I have to issue with a sad heart as there is far more interesting material to be mined from psychosis and guilt than there will ever be from simplistic slasher action. But damn it, the slasher action on display here is good enough for me to recommend HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, albeit with reservations that should be obvious by now. It's a decent enough time waster, but sadly, that's all it is.

February 7, 2017


THE MUTILATOR is a movie with two directors but zero brain cells. It began its life with the far less catchy title of FALL BREAK, only to re-titled THE MUTILATOR by its distributors. I have to wonder if that stuck in the craw of its directors. After all, they probably paid good money for the horrible Fall Break song that plays over the opening credits. The biggest failure of the film isn't that it offers up zero chills or thrills. No, its biggest failure, its most glaring and egregious flaw, is that it's boring. So very, very boring.

So what's this film all about? Well, it's about Ed Jr., or as I like to call him, Little Ed. Little Ed is estranged from his father, Big Ed (not a joke, that is how he is referred to in the film). When Little Ed was literally Little Ed, he accidentally shot his mother to death while attempting to clean his trophy hunter father's hunting rifles. This has understandably led to a bit of awkward separation between the two. So imagine Little Ed's surprise when he receives a phone call from his father asking him to head up to the family condo on the beach and close it up for the winter. Little Ed complies with his father's wishes, taking along with him a gaggle of friends. Little do they know that Big Ed is lurking around the property with a big, sharp war ax, just chomping at the bit to cut his son to ribbons.

And after 45 minutes of watching a group of lousy characters drink beer, sit on the floor and walk around the property, Big Ed finally gets down to business, drowning, pitchforking, chainsawing, and all around mutilating our cast of dullards and dip shits.

The film plays it straight, by the way. I kept expecting some last minute twist to happen, like finding out that Little Ed and Big Ed were in cahoots the whole time. That would make sense here, because although Big Ed is a certifiable lunatic that keeps a framed photo of a man he accidentally murdered via ski boat on a mantle piece (and yes, the picture is of the man's bloody corpse), Little Ed is every bit as weird as his dad. Little Ed, with a smile on his face, regales his friends with all kinds of gruesome boyhood memories, including the time he watched his dad slice open a pregnant shark, its little babies flopping all over the floor. I have to wonder, given Little Ed's behavior in the early part of the film, if that plot twist wasn't in the works from the start but dropped as revisions went along.

The acting isn't any good, but its difficult to perform well in a film that is total shit. They're barely even characters anyway, with no real sense of camaraderie or chemistry between them. I know friends often take the piss out of one another, but having Little Ed's best friend tell him “hey, if you hear anyone downstairs, don't shoot. It's just me” comes off as a bit insensitive, don't you think? The film is filled with idiotic lines like that, my favorite being when Little Ed's girlfriend wakes him up in the middle of the night. She's discovered that everyone is missing, a development she explains to Little Ed by saying “All the kids are missing”, which is odd as she's the exact same age as her missing friends. Let me just say this, when Ben Moore, world famous actor from TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! and SHE FREAK, delivers the most convincing performance in your film, you may have made a total turd.

There's also a smattering of weird comedic bits that don't work and a final act that looks like it was filmed in a bowling ball. I could barely tell what the hell was going on as Little Ed and Big Ed had their climactic tussle inside a garage, a tussle that would have had some kind of dramatic oomph to it had the film bothered to give Little Ed time to see that the guy trying to kill him was his father. Sure, the kills are gnarly and suitably gory (effects legends Mark Shostrom and Anthony Showe provided the goods here), but if I only wanted to watch people being fake killed for 90 minutes I would have just watched FACES OF DEATH. It would have been nice to have at least one character worth rooting for or at least one plot development that was interesting, but all THE MUTILATOR wanted to give me was a needlessly tasteless scene of a woman having a giant hook rammed into her vagina.

And maybe that's enough for you, Dear Reader, but not me. No, not at all. I needed something more than that. For 90 or so minutes, I was bored stiff by THE MUTILATOR.