Friday, 12 August 2016

Natural Horror - An Introduction



Eco-Horror, Natural Horror, Animals Gone Rogue, Animals Invading the Human Sphere (thanks Jenn), unquestionably it’s a genre which goes by almost as many names as it has found inventive ways to turn pretty much any animal into nightmare fuel.

While you might be mistaken for assuming that this sub-genre came out of the hysteria of the 1950’s where cinema from the time can be seen reflecting the fear of communist invasion or nuclear testing aswell as its share of movies such as “The Giant Gilia Monster”, “They” or “Tarantula” as radiation turned everyday animals into monster sized versions of themselves giving an already paranoid public something else to worry about. However the roots of the sub-genre run suprisingly deep as back in 1905 H.G Wells gave us the first animal lead offensive with “Empire of the Ants” in which the more organised society of insects would replace man as the true rulers of earth, a vision later accompanied by Arthur Machen’s “The Terror: A Fantasy” in 1917 as everything from cows to Butterfly joined in the offensive against mankind.

While the early entries into the genre where largely b-movie fare the Alfred Hitchcock classic “The Birds” hinted that the genre could be capable of classier fare aswell as moments of genuine horror and suspense such as the classic scene of Tippi Hedren sitting out the school while an ever increasing flock (or perhaps more fittingly a murder) of crows gather on the childrens climbing frame behind her as she unwittingly enjoys a smoke. Hitchcock teasing out the impending chaos he soon intends to unleash. Hitchcock himself terrified of Birds perhaps tapping into his own fears to really nail the tone of the film which while perhaps light on actual gore and violence still remains one of his most effective films. However despite its success it didn’t as you would have expected spawn a host of imitators outside of the abysmal 1994 direct to TV sequel “The Birds 2: Land’s End” which had nothing to do with the original film with director Rick Rosenthal opting to be listed under Alan Smithee than be associated with it.

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With the arrival of the 70’s the natural horror movies really gained a foothold while at the same time largely following the theme of someone being responsible for the animals striking back with “Willard” kicking the decade off as Bruce Davidson trained a pack of rats to attack his bullish boss played by Ernest Borgnine. This theme of bad people finding ever more inventive ways of pissing off the local wildlife population would continue throughout the decade as “Squirm” saw a town of scuzzy rednecks found their comeuppance via a mass of worms driven into a feeding frenzy via a downed powerline while the would be rapist Roger gets a face full of worms, returning later to holla the memorable line “Now you get to be the worm face!”.

While most of these titles would restrain themselves to one member of the animal kingdom there are of course a handful of titles which really ran with the idea of nature revolting such as “Frogs” which despite the title saw polluting industrialist Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) and his family finding their home under siege by the local frog population who somehow manage to not only recruit a variety of snakes, turtles, spiders, Alligators leeches and birds to their cause but also show a strange ability to recognise those not responsible for endangering their homeland. On a similar tact is the Ozploitation entry “Long Weekend” in which a hideous couple find themselves being targeted by nature itself which is shown as a constantly lurking presence looking to claim back the land stolen by man with director Colin Eggleston throwing in a number of nice touches such as the scream of ants being killed or a seemingly abandoned neighbouring camp shown being reclaimed by the surrounding forests. Equally noteworthy for throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at the screen but much later is the 1984 Italian production “Wild Beasts” which sees a zoo’s worth of animals being driven into an insane frenzy when PCP finds its way into the water supply. Far from subtle it does however contain numerous standout moments for its animal attacks including a woman having her head squashed by an Elephant while another takes out a jumbo jet and this isn’t even taking in an ending which seemingly belongs to another film entirely.

Unquestionably though the most inspirational title in the sub-genre is Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Jaws” which for those who have actually read Peter Benchley’s novel will be able to confirm is nothing like the books which focused more on the town’s residents than the killer shark which for the most part is more of a background threat. Spielberg instead turned the novel into perfect summer popcorn fare as the residents of Amity Island suddenly find themselves on the menu of a gigantic great white shark. Here the savagery of nature is boiled down to the fact that all the shark wants to do is “Eat, keep moving and make little sharks” the simplicity of the situation ensuring that the plot can move quickly while Spielberg through test screenings tweaked the film’s jump scares to perfection with the sight of a severed head popping out from a hole in a hull still making audiences jump after numerous viewings. Peter Benchley meanwhile would following the shark hunting frenzy which followed the release of the film dedicate his life to shark conservation while still finding time to in the novels which followed to find new horrors in the depth to scare us with as he followed up “Jaws” with the giant squid “Beast” and man-shark hybrid “Creature” both which would later show up as Made for TV movies.

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With “Jaws” being such a monster hit, it was of little surprise that a wave of imitators would soon start flooding cinemas such as “Mako: Jaws of Death”, “Up From The Depths” and “Barracuda” many not coming close to Spielberg’s film which itself would be followed up three years by the arguably superior “Jaws 2” which also included a scene of a mauled Orca in what could be assumed was a nod to “Orca: The Killer Whale” which saw the titular whale taking out a shark with the dead orca of “Jaws 2” being seen perhaps as a way to re-establish exactly who was the number one predator. Equally of note is the Joe Dante directorial debut and Roger Corman backed “Piranha” which despite having a budget which only stretched to a few plastic fish and bubbling red water still proved to be strangely effective, while its sequel “Piranha 2: The Spawning” featuring flying Piranha is probably more noteworthy for providing the launch pad for James Cameron’s career even if Corman would fire him before the production completed.

By the late 70’s studios began to look to the woods for their next big thrill picking up the path paved by a spate of Bigfoot movies in the early 70’s with “Grizzly” promising “Fourteen feet of gut crunching terror” and while later ripped off by the less than stellar “Claws” and perhaps to an extent “The Prophecy” which gave us its mutant cousin. At the same time its sequel “Grizzly 2: The Predator” shot in 1983 was never completed with its unfinished working print often being rediscovered by cult film fans intrigued by what could have been. Director William Girdler’s keen to follow up the success of “Grizzly” would take a second crack at natural horror with “Day of the Animals” a film often cited as its sequel though would fail to find the same success.

The 80’s saw the the sub-genre enter into a decline in popularity with the few noteworthy titles such as “White Dog” and “Cujo” taking great lengths to disassociate themselves from the idea of nature in revolt almost as if their directors saw it as being a negative thing to even risk being included with the films which had come before no doubt due to the saturation of films the previous decade had produced. That being said the “Jaws” franchise saw a further two entries being added with the forgettable “Jaws 3D” and the truly nonsensical “Jaws: The Revenge” despite the series very clearly going quickly belly up. In the years which followed this final entry numerous rumoured came and went about a reboot aswell as a prequel focusing on the character of “Quint” all which never got out of the planning stage. However in 1995 cult favourite Bruno Mattei, the Italian director who’d previously given us his own version of “Terminator 2” with “Bruno Matei’s Terminator 2” which suprisingly ripped off “Aliens” than its name shake franchise. His fifth unofficial entry “Jaws 5: Cruel Jaws” not only inserting itself into a franchise but also more brazenly used footage from the franchise aswell as “Deep Blood” and “Great White”.

Outside of a handful of b-grade direct to DVD features the 90’s were still a barren landscape for natural horror until 1999, which not only proved to be the best movie year ever but also gave us two heavy hitters released almost back to back as we got the Giant croc romp “Lake Placid” aswell as giving us Samuel L. Jackson’s most memorable film moment in “Deep Blue Sea” as he joined a group of scientists attempting to escape from the genetically modified sharks they’d created. Sadly despite making shark movies scary again, the much mooted sequel which would see the sharks being placed into a flooded town never got past the pre-production stage. What these films did however would be to breathe new life into the seemingly forgotten genre as they embraced their b-movie hookiness and aimed to be nothing deeper than popcorn fodder for the summer release schedule.

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By 00’s and with the shame of the direct to DVD market suddenly vanishing as studios rushed offdirect to DVD sequels or the likes of “American Pie” and “Van Wilder”, this new market would be fully embraced by companies such as “The Asylum” who saw the natural horror movie as the perfect template to rush out films whose audience could easily be brought in on the strength of the animals being featured, outlandish titles such as “Snakes On A Train” or “Shark Swarm” and who could easily be created via bargain basement CGI for minimal costs while providing the “SyFy Channel” with plenty of filler for their schedule.

Despite the questionable quality of many of these productions they have unquestionably gained their following as can be seen by the fact that we now have four “Sharknado” movies. At the same time these studios finding constantly more outlandish premises to nail their films on such as “Sharktopus” and “ Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus” ensuring that the genre for the moment atleast is set to remain firmly in z-grade territory.

Starting Point – Five Natural Horror Essentials

 
Phase IV – Cosmic rays mysteriously cause ants to evolve and develop a hive mind, leading a pair of scientists to set up a lab to study the ants in the Arizona desert who threaten to take over the local area.

The sole film to be directed by Saul Bass the acclaimed designer of countless film posters and title sequences and a curiosity to say the least, as here he teams up with wildlife photographer Ken Middleham who previously handled the insect sequence for the documentary “The Hellstrom Chronicles” to create a truly unique film and not only because he was using real ants!

Pig Hunt – A group of friends on the hunt for a mythical three thousand pound boar known as “The Ripper” find more trouble than they could imagine and not only from the giant pig! True this might start of as a giant pig movie in the same spirit as “Razorback” but here we also get crazed rednecks, a pig worshiping cult and naked hippy chicks in what is a truly crazy ride of genre mashing goodness.

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Orca: The Killer Whale – Sharing a plot almost as random as “Jaws: The Revenge” as Richard Harris’s sea captain finds himself being stalked by the angry mate of the Orca he accidently kills.
While perhaps another film in a long line of “Jaws” knock offs this is still an enjoyable effort and one which has more than a few memorable moments including Bo Derek having her leg torn off by the titular Orca, which proves as intimidating a foe as any shark, especially with all the attacks being largely true to nature than any kind of “Free Willy” style attacks.

Deep Rising –A film which Roger Ebert proclaimed should have been titled “Eat The Titanic” as a luxury cruise ship is targeted by a group of thieves only to soon find themselves on the dinner menu for a monstrous squid like creature who is represented for the most part by creeping tentacles before giving us it’s big reveal at the finale. This is a fun ride from start to finish while teasing out a sequel which sadly was never to be. However packed with colourful characters and more than few surprises even for the hardened horror fan this is well worth giving a look.

Alligator – A truly bonkers movie which sees a tiny pet alligator flushed down the toilet turning into a monstrous sewer dweller that soon makes its way to the surface to feast on the local population.
Taking numerous ques from “Jaws” including a scene in a pool scene which is essentially a reworking of a scene from the “Jaws” climax. This film is a blast once it gets going including a wedding massacre which is worth checking it out for alone.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Prehistoric Women



Title:  Prehistoric Women
Director: Michael Carreras
Released: 1967
Starring: Michael Latimer, Robert Raglan, Edina Ronay, Martine Beswick

Plot: When jungle guide David (Latimer) is captured by a tribe of natives who plan to sacrifice him to their white rhino god, only to soon find himself sent back in time a prehistoric age and caught between two warring tribes.


Review: One of the more overlooked films which made up Hammer Horror’s brief jaunt into caveman movies with this film originally intended to be the A-picture on a double bill with “The Old Dark House” only for studio head (and the director’s father) James Carreras to view it as being below Hammer’s standards and instead used the film as the support feature for a double with “The Devil Rides Out”. This of course should hardly have surprised any involved in the production seeing how it reused a lot of the sets and costumes from “One Million Years B.C.” while being shot quickly over four weeks.

A disposable bit of titillating fluff at best, this film lacks from the start any of the charms of Hammer’s other “cave girl” movies such as “One Million Years B.C.” or “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” which the release of this film was sandwiched between. At the same time Michael Latimer bland lead lacks any of the Doug McClure charm whose own caveman battling antics in “At The Earth’s Core” or “Land That Time Forgot” this film could be mistaken for attempting to imitate only fall largely flat for the most part.

The plot once we get into the prehistoric world despite a strong setup however soon descends into a blondes versus brunettes storyline as our warring tribes of fur bikini clad ladies face off in this timeline were the brunettes have enslaved the blondes while being led by their beautiful Queen Kari (Beswick) who has enlisted the help of a rival tribe known as “The Devils” who favour wearing papier-mâché animal skull masks and what appears to be half a gorilla costume. Kari offering her slaves to “The Devils” as brides / sacrifices in return for their continued protection.  This ceremony in particular is fantastic to watch as outside of yet more obvious titillation the selected girl is then forced to sit on top of the stuffed rhino which is being worshiped by the tribe in a perhaps unintentionally funny sequence.

Unsurprisingly David is soon picked for mating by Queen Kari only to eventually spurn her efforts when he discovers how cruel her regime is. The other men in the film meanwhile are kept confirmed to the mines and its unclear if Kari’s tribe actually have any male members seeing how like their blonde counterparts they are made up entirely of attractive model types with director Carreras clearly looking to tap into that same market that had been so thrilled by Raquel Welch’s definitive fur bikini antics in “One Million Years B.C.”.

Martine Beswick is probably one of the more memorable aspects of the film as we makes up for her less than believable whip skills with a smouldering shark like beauty, making it more of a shame she doesn’t have a better leading man to play off against. Edina Ronay meanwhile is a likeable enough love interest who performance rests more on how good she looks than her performance which is only just alittle more animated than Latimer while also having the advantage of playing a cave girl so she doesn’t have to emote much.

It should be noted that anyone expecting some papier-mâché / stop motion dinosaur fun will find themselves sadly disappointed as the budget here clearly only stretched to one leopard and a stuffed rhino on casters which is essentially wheeled in the general direction of the cast.  The real action coming at the finale as the recently liberated male slaves uprise and battle the devils in the very obvious soundstage jungle in a fight which it’s hard to actually tell if they are winning or not. Still we get a few creative kills including a girl fight which ends with one of them being pushed into a spit aswell as a fun goring by a rhino.

While this might not be the most painful of viewings it’s disposable at best and all the more surprising that it came from Hammer, even if they were essentially just cashing in on an accidental trend here this is no doubt the sort of film that the teenage me would have loved. Yes there are moments of fun randomness throughout its just you can find the same things elsewhere and no doubt done better.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Black Sheep



Title:  Black Sheep
Director: Jonathan King
Released: 2006
Starring: Nathan Meister, Danielle Mason, Peter Feeney, Tammy Davis, Glenis Levestam, Tandi Wright, Oliver Driver

Plot: Henry (Meister) has an overwhelming fear of sheep thanks to a childhood pranks played by his older brother Angus (Feeney). Now returning to his family farm with the intention of selling his share, he is soon forced to confront his fears when his brother’s secret experiments on the sheep causes them to turn into vicious killers.


Review: Greeted with some excitement on its initial release as it drew favourable comparisions to the early work of fellow New Zealand gorefather Peter Jackson much less the fact it was a film about killer sheep something which like Wales there’s certainly an abundance of making them essentially the perfect creature of terror for this debut feature.

Establishing its comedic tone early on this mixture of comedy and splatter is unquestionably the right way to go for a film with this daft a premise with director Jonathan King filling the film with numerous outlandish or cartoonish characters including a group of morally devoid scientists and Henry’s cad of an older brother who in the fifteen years since Henry was left traumatised by him hasn’t exactly gotten any better and possibly worse the intervening years which have passed.  Henry meanwhile is a neurotic mess, completely overwhelmed by his fears so that even the mere sight of sheep can throw him in a blind panic.

Once more though it’s the fault of the environmental activists that this chaos gets unleashed as like “28 Days Later” eco warriors Grant (Driver) and Experience (Mason) trigger the outbreak of killer sheep when they steal one of the mutated lambs which soon infecting the rest of the local sheep population. Worse still when said lamb bites Grant he runs off into the woods only to return as a mutant man-sheep reminisant of the monster from “Godmonster of the Indian Flats”

Surprisingly though for a film with such an outlandish plot this film is something of a slow burn with the sheep related antics while frequently inventive are keep as a lurking threat until really the final quarter when the film really becomes something special with King raining down gore and splatter with the same kind of grotesque inventiveness that Peter Jackson wowed us with early in his career with the likes of “Bad Taste” and “Braindead” (or “Dead Alive” for you folks in the states). This however is not to say the film is a bore until then as the film frequently finds inventive situations for King to put the group in such as a sheep randomly appearing in a land rover the group are trying to escape in while in motion and which also shows us how well a sheep can drive a car.

Our main group consisting of Henry, Experience and Henry’s best friend and farm hand Tucker (Davis) are all likeable to be around as they try to make their way through the mutant sheep hordes while King avoids any kind of romantic connection between the group instead keeping them as a group thrown together and now trying to just make it through the chaos that is escalating around them. The only downside being Mrs. Mac (Levestam) who is such a fun character it’s frustrating that she only really comes into play towards the end of the film when we get to see her elderly badass side leaving you want so much more than we ultimately get.   

The creature effects though are unquestionably the star of the show here with special effects all being done by Weta Workshops who memorably worked on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and its certainly an advantage to see practical effects being used over CGI even for the larger mutant creatures such as the Were-Sheep version of Grant which took four people to operate. While certainly far from the easiest way to shoot the film it more than pays off in the presence that the film has compared to so many other creature features being churned by the likes of the Syfi channel and their seemingly never ending steam of shark movies that they seem to put out on a weekly basis.

Still as mentioned before the real standout moments of the film come in the final quarter as a presentation is turned into a blood drenched massacre, including one victim trying to fight a mutant sheep with his own recently chewed off leg. We also get to see one of the sheep monsters being run into by a runaway plane as King really shows his creativity in his splatter. At the same time the gore here is very much on the cartoonish and OTT side of things rather than anything coming to grotesque realism perfectly suiting the tone of the film. The end finale coming close to rivalling the carnage of “Braindead” even if no one is welding a petrol mower.

A fun little creature feature and one which certainly doesn’t take itself seriously, while at the same time not constantly winking to the audience like so many similar films such as those churned out by “The Asylum” only making this so much more of a welcome rarity.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Ghostheads



Title:  Ghostheads
Director: Brendan Mertens
Released: 2016

Plot: Documentary exploring the fandom of “Ghostbusters” who refer to themselves as “Ghostheads” while dressing up as Ghostbuster team members.


Review: As of late two topics seemingly have been firm favourites with documentary film makers. The first being the “unmaking of a movie” as seen with the likes of “Jodorowsky'sDune” or “Lost Soul the Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau”. The other subject being “Fanbases” a subject which a quick scan of Netflix will reveal a healthy collection of these films opening up a whole world of fanbases for things you never knew had such a following such as “Bronies” (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) or “Star Woids” (Star Wars) with the quality of said films with their easy to make format varying greatly for such as anyone whose seen the abysmal “Jedi Junkies” will no doubt attest to especially when it seemed like more of a showcase for Star Wars fan films than the fans themselves.

Needless to say the timing for this film couldn’t really be better what with the recent release of the “Ghostbusters” reboot (of sorts) whose gender swap format has been greeted with much venom by certain groups who believe that their beloved original trilogy (the video game being Aykroyd’s attempt to give the world his long mooted “Ghostbusters Go To Hell”) be somehow tainted by this latest film despite its existing very much as its own entity. Still for those twelve fans outside of my local cinema its been quite amazing to see people still so passionate about these films, much less the fact he found another eleven people to protest with him.

The debut film for director Brendan Mertens, its an impressive list of interview subjects which he has assembled for this film with key players such as Dan Aykroyd, Ivan Reitman and Ernie Hudson all weighing in with their thoughts on the original films while Paul Feig is on hand to solely represent the new film. The main focus here though is on the various chapters of “Ghostheads”, fans who while they might dress up as Ghostbusters making their own jumpsuits and Proton packs, they still use their own names rather than cosplaying as a favourite character from the films.

Sadly the depth of his fans barely scrapes the surface of this sub-culture as we meet members from only a handful of these chapters who while they are unquestionably fans don’t exactly provide anything different between their testimonies outside of the customisations they’ve made to their own Ghostbuster equipment or pieces in their collection. Only occasionally amongst these sections spent with the Ghostheads represented here do we get something particularly interesting such as the girl who beat Alcoholism by watching Ghostbusters 1 + 2 back to back each day and whose excitement at being proposed to by fake trailer for the new film is touching to watch.

Due to keeping the focus solely on the Ghostheads the documentary feels like it limits itself compared to similar Fandom documentaries with the subjects being interviewed often feeling like they are just recycling the same stories of childhood nostalgia and viewings shared with loved family members.  The required convention gathering scenes for these documentaries feeling like missed opportunities as we stay with the same subjects who don’t really interact with any other members of the fandom outside of friendly greetings. This of course feels like a wasted opportunity to branch out from his chosen subjects and potentially find out what it is about these films which has keep them still so relevant and beloved all these year later, a question which still feels  very much unanswered by the end of the film.

Sure this documentary has its share of moments which will raise a smile or two as it taps into your own fanboy side, but I can’t help but feel that this would have been more effective as a DVD extra than attempted to be launched as its own film, especially when it doesn’t dig deep enough into the fandom to be effective. Instead what we get is more of an introduction to this lesser known fandom while perhaps at the same time leaving you wanting to don your own photon pack and hunt down a local Ghostheads chapter. At the least now we can say we know what Ray Parker Jr. has as his ringtone.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey



Title: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
Director: Constance A. Marks
Released: 2012

Plot: Documentary about Kevin Clash the man best known as being the puppeteer behind Elmo, following him from his early years as an aspiring puppeteer from Baltimore, to eventually meeting legendry puppet maker Kermit Love and Muppets creator Jim Henson and finally in what would possibly be the most significant moment of his career, finding a way to bring Elmo to life.


Review: Recently my son William has become obsessed with Elmo causing him to try and hug the TV when he is on, which ironically it was also this same time that they decided to not show any more episodes of  “Elmo’s World”, leaving me stuck with the same two episodes I had taped for him on the SKY+ box now on seemingly constant repeat.

Still the appeal of the fuzzy red monster is a powerful thing, as a few years back there were riots and people queuing outside of toy stores all trying get their hands on a “tickle me Elmo”, while “Sesame Street” also failed to get picked up by nearly every Network until one Network head caught her Granddaughter trying to hug Elmo through the TV screen though perhaps even she wouldn’t predict what a monster hit the show would go on to become.  So perhaps it was the desire to try and figure out the appeal of Elmo, especially when the Muppets universe is filled with so many memorable and colourful characters, what is it that makes him so special, all answers I was hoping to find with this documentary.

Kevin Clash might not be aswell known as some of the puppeteers, especially when it comes to the Jim Henderson Workshop which includes such legends as Frank Oz, Bill Barretta and Carroll Spinney amongst it’s ranks, yet he is arguably just as important, especially seeing how he is the creative force behind Sesame St working as producer, director aswell being the head trainer for other puppeteers, let alone the man responsible for one the biggest cash cows of the Muppet franchise, while perhaps at the same time  sacrificing other parts of his life for his love of puppets and it’s his story the documentary sets out to tell.

For someone who has achieved so much Kevin Clash comes across surprisingly humble especially considering how much he has achieved throughout his career, yet he still comes across like a guy who still can’t believe that he is getting to do the job he does, while at the same time clearly having a passion for his art, which this documentary frequently shows it is a lot more than funny voices and exaggerated movements, as he is  shown demonstrating a fierce attention to even the most minute of details somthing especially seen during his training session held with the French cast of Sesame Street, while later scenes show that he is equally passionate with training the next generation of puppeteers when he takes a break from his busy schedule to meet with a young puppeteer.
Starting with Clash as a young boy, being inspired by the puppets he saw on TV, to the point were he ransacked his parents closest for a fur coat which would soon become his first creation, with his talent soon landing his parts on “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster” while gaining a mentor in Kermit Love.

Luckily for director Constance Marks, Clashes life it would seem has been extensively documented on film so rather than the usual collection of snapshots of her subject’s early years, we get to bare witness to Clash learning his craft and seeing the development as the years pass, with a video camera seemingly always on hand for all of his key moments from performing for the kids his mother looked after with only a bed sheet hung over a washing line as backdrop to his first meeting with Kermit Love, while the extensive amount of footage here frequently provides a deeper insight into the backstage workings of not only the making of Sesame St but also the Muppet movies aswell, with Clash unknown to myself before watching this documentary has worked on nearly all of them with cult classic “The Dark Crystal” getting particular focus as a missed opportunity which Clash elaborates on his regret at missing due to his filming commitments on “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster” both of which would ironically be axed shortly after and his excitement at getting a second shot at working with Jim Henderson on the equally cult “Labyrinth”.

Narration of Clash’s story is given to Whoopi Goldberg though apart from appearing throughout the early scenes, this commentary mysterious disappears until almost the end, making me wonder why they even bothered to include it in the first place, especially when Clash seems more than happy to tell his own story. Meanwhile the soundtrack feels frequently to be trying to retch the emotion from the audience, giving things at time a real false sense of sentimentality, while director Marks is happy to cut out parts of Clash’s life such as his ex-wife who only gets mention in passing by Clash, with her focus seemingly more on his journey as a puppeteer than anything resembling a full picture of his life.

While Clash might be the star of the show, his story is frequently focused on how it intertwines with the lives of the most famous puppeteers with Jim Henderson, Frank Oz and Kermit Love’s stories frequently appearing alongside Clash’s and how they worked to further what the Muppets had established while how Clash came to become Elmo’s sole puppeteer seems almost accidental, seeing how it was only after one frustrated puppeteer challenged him to make the puppet’s character work, that the Elmo we now love was born, with rare stock footage showing the caveman Esq. persona had before, showing just how one lucky break can really change a persons fortunes.

Obviously recorded prior to Clash's legal issues and eventual retirement from playing the character, the documentary really focuses on him during the height of his career and while for latecomers to the film it might seem incomplete as a result of this, it does however still provide a full portrait of the man behind the puppet which honestly is what most will watch this one far, rather than his personal life.

The problem that this documentary suffers from though is that Clash is not the most interesting of documentary subjects, with Marks seemingly being so determined to cut around any darker parts of Clash’s life outside of the sudden death of Jim Henderson, you can’t help but feel that the documentary would have worked better had it focused on Henderson’s Workshop as a whole rather than focusing on just one puppeteer, even though he undeniably an important and highly talented member of the company, but as a documentary subject it would have worked as an hour long special, but as a feature it feels far too ponderous in places, even though it does provide at times a fascinating insight into what it takes to truly be a master puppeteer, aswell as going some way to explain the world’s obsession with an adorable furry red monster named Elmo.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Dark Age



Title: Dark Age
Director: Arch Nicholson
Released: 1987
Starring: John Jarratt, Nikki Coghill, Max Phipps, Burnham Burnham, David Gulpilil, Ray Meagher, Jeff Ashby, Paul Bertram, Ron Blanchard, Gerry Duggan, Ken Radley

Plot: When a giant crocodile starts feeding on the local population, park ranger Steve (Jarratt) must work with a pair of Aborigine guides Oondabund (Burnham) and Adjaral (Gulphilil) to track down the beast.


Review: Probably one of the more elusive films I have track down as of late, having first caught by interest when it was featured on the essential Ozploitation documentary “Not Quite Hollywood” which served to provide a shopping list of titles as it did expose the until then little recognised sub-genre of cult cinema. Of course its nothing compared to its native Austrailia which didn’t get to see the film untill 14 years after its release thanks to Avco Embassy who held the Australian distribution rights going bust and even then it was down to Quentin Tarantino once again doing his part for film preservation held a screening of the film in 2011.

Entering into the film I was pretty much expecting another fun crocodile movie in the vein of “Lake Placid” or “Alligator” but what I got here was something actually a little different as what starts off essentially as a scene by scene remake of “Jaws” only to then goes off in a completely different direction for its final twenty minutes as director Arch Nicholson throws us an ecological curveball. Infact its rather uncanny when the film is examined closer just how much it matches up as John Jarratt’s park ranger is essentially a transposed Sheriff Brody while Hooper is represented for the most part by Aborigine elder Oondabund who sees the croc as being the mythic croc “Numunwari” and as part of his peoples beliefs belives that the creature has to be saved rather than destroyed which is exactly what local hunter / poacher Jackson and his band of lowlifes have planned.

Jackson here essentially fills the Quint role as the blue collar thug who cares only about making his living hunting the local crocodile population while also to blame for the monster croc showing up in the first place when him and his buddies piss it off during a failed hunting expedition. Outside of the fact that him and his gang are constantly drinking, to the point where there is no scenes in this film where one of these isn’t at any time seen holding a beer, he also becomes obsessed with an Captain Ahab style desire for hunting “Numunwari” after it chews him arm off following his misguided attempt to kill the creature with an axe and while standing precariously in a boat no less and which ends pretty much how you’d expect. But for that one moment it looks pretty badass if still totally ridiculous at the same time.

John Jarratt now no doubt best known for his turn as the psycho Mick Taylor in the “Wolf Creek” films here is almost unrecognisable as he plays the dashing Shrieff Brody esq lead here who constantly tries to walk the tightrope between his loyalty to his boss who is concerned it will affect tourist developments while equally noteworthy for being played by legendry soap actor Ray Meagher from “Home and Away” and keeping the local Aborigine popularity happy. At the same time he also has to deal with his feeling for his ex Cathy who he is forced to work alongside and inevitably they get back together with Nicholson randomly deciding that their sex scene should be dumped in the middle of a chase scene as one moment we get an old man being chased by some local thugs and the next we have the argument foreplay between Cathy and Steve which soon leads to a gratuitous sex scene before we are then flung back into the chase. It’s almost as if Nicolson suddenly remembered that he hadn’t finished the scene and randomly tossed its conclusion in not knowing any other way to work it in and no doubt hoping that we were all too distracted by Nikki Coghill’s boobs to really care. The same could be also said for the final act car chase which not only sees Oondabund sitting on the front bonnet of a speeding truck like a old man hood ornament but him also being launched through the air when said truck crashes with him still on the bonnet in a scene which I had to rewatch a few times as I couldn’t figure out if it was the actor or a dummy being launched through the air. Still this being an Ozploitation movie it would be kind of disappointing if we did get random nudity and car chases being the backbone of the genre that they are.

The final act on a whole though is pretty random seeing how we essentially have a great ending only for the film to carry on for another twenty minutes which I would argue should have been cut had this extra time not contained so many great moments which loosely justify its inclusion here. At the same time I like the idea of the group trying to save the croc and relocate it rather than being another film in which they have to kill the monster animal with Nicolson including arguments for the crocodile following its nature than any kind of desire to hunt people.

When it comes to the crocodile while its always great to see a practical effect, even if it is a rubbery looking croc, let alone one which moves oh so slowly, making it all the more surprisingly that it can catch anyone had it not been for its ability to randomly pop out from any body of water it chooses including one memorable moment where it’s supposed to be tied to the front of the boat only to suddenly appear at the back of the boat. Nicolson even gives us his version of the beach attack from “Jaws” in probably one of the better known scenes from the film and also one of the most violent scene as the croc chomps down on a small child in a scene which is actually surprisingly shocking to watch. While the attack scenes are certainly a lot better than anything we’ve seen from recent croc attack movies with their heavy use of CGI and sudden cuts, it’s still a pretty gore light film outside of some bubbling red water and the occasional lost limb but still satisfying to watch none the less.

Despite his background mainly being in TV Nicholson here crafts a film which is strangely intriguing as I’m sure there is a great film which could be if you can cut through the frequently plodding plotting and rubbery looking croc. While it might equally be as noteworthy as other films in this category it’s still miles ahead of more recent efforts.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Clueless



Title:  Clueless
Director: Amy Heckerling
Released: 1995
Starring: Alica Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Donald Faison, Elisa Donovan, Breckin Meyer, Jeremy Sisto, Dan Hedaya, Wallace Shawn, Twink Caplan, Justin Walker

Plot: Cher (Silverstone) is a wealthy, popular and superficial high-school student in Beverly Hills who along with her best friend Dionne hold court over the school. However when she discovers a new found happiness in doing good deeds for others, she decides to take the unhip new girl Tai (Murphy) under her wing.


Review: Another modernised reworking of a classic piece of fiction an honour while largely reserved for Shakespeare plays has also worked memorably for other classics as memorably seen with “Les Liaison Dangereuses” which became the wonderful “Cruel Intentions”. Here though it’s the turn of Jane Austen’s  18th century matchmaker “Emma” which director Amy Heckerling used as the basis for her script when Paramount asked her to write a film for teenagers and having read it as a teenager decided to create this modernised version of the classic novel.

While on the surface it might seem like any other disposable teen comedy of the 90’s there is something about this film which has meant that fifteen+ years later I still find myself as obsessed with it as I was back when I first saw it in the late 90’s and writing that now, boy does that make me feel old. Still while the fashions, soundtrack selection and pretty much every aspect of this film might reek of the era there is something still kind of timeless about this film as it’s world of wealthy high school students in Beverly Hills often feels like it’s part of its own fantastical little world than any kind of representation of a realistic high school. So hence students are shown constantly talking on brick sized mobile phones or bandaged from whatever plastic surgery they’ve just undergone, while teachers make minimal efforts to try and teach them while clearly knowing that their money will carry them much further than their education.

Despite her status as Queen Bee, Cher is surprisingly not the bitch you’d expect her to be as she bumbles her way through life with a generally good natured attitude. At the same time while she clearly sees certain student groups as being below her own, she just lets them be rather than launching any kind of spiteful attack on them, clearly believing that everyone has their place and that’s usually beneath her own group. In a way its only further reinforced by her bringing Tai into her social group and giving her a makeover as part of her efforts to mould her in her own image rather than just accept her for her skater / grunge styling.

The plot itself is pretty lightweight but boosted by natural comedy and the situations which Cher finds herself being drawn into as she plays matchmaker and embarks on her on quest to find the right guy which includes a failed hook up with the too hip for school Christian whose lack of interest in her is implied (but never confirmed) is down to him being gay in a surprisingly forward thinking moment especially for a film from this period.  On the whole its quick pacing means that it never overstays its welcome even though Cher and Dionne valley girl slack heavy dialogue could ohh so easily have made this a grating experience and the end while once in play is predictable it never feels like the film is trying to force anything.

True the film is unquestionably 90’s in its styling and appearance, which perhaps for myself growing up in the 90’s means that it carries for myself a lot of nostalgic gloss, especially from having watched and enjoyed it back then, so its comforting to see it surprisingly as one of the few films which still stands up and one which has arguable got better as its original audience return to it as older viewers uncovering the wealth of subtle jokes which are weaved into the film. It’s only the more of a shame that this would be the high water mark for director Heckerling’s career which also included the equally legendry 80’s school flick “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” with her follow up and possible attempt to direct a defining high school comedy in every decade falling flat with 2000’s “Loser” which in many ways felt like an attempt to cash in on the success of “American Pie” which is arguably the closest challenger to “Clueless” even if it lacked the subtlety of Heckerling’s film.

At the same time one of the main strength’s here is in its casting with perhaps none of the cast outside of Alicia Silverstone being especially well known and making it all the more amusing to see how many first appearances which can be clocked here with perhaps only Greg Araki’s “Nowhere” coming this close to its soothslayer esq casting. Silverstone owns the part of Cher, while Stacey Dash provides the perfect support for her to bounce dialogue off making sader that she never really had another role which came close to matching this one though she would be one of the few members of the cast who reprised their role for the spin off TV Series.  The most sad of all is off course Britney Murphy who whenever I see her especially in iconic roles like this and “Sin City” it just makes me wish that I had appreciated her all the more when she was alive as her performance here really hinted at some of the untapped potential she ultimately never got to show off outside of a few sporadic roles.

While this certainly might not be the deepest of films, especially as it wears its materialism proudly on its sleeve, this Beverly Hills high school fantasy has enough heart to carry it though and more than enough laughs to make it easy to understand why its become such a cult film all these years later.  
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