Monday, 22 September 2014

NIGHT OF THE COMET - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Thom Eberhardt, Starring: Robert Beltran, Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney. Sci-Fi / Horror, US, 1984, 95mins, cert 15.

Released in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Video on 22nd September 2014.

It’s 1984 in the Valley. A spectacular once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, namely a close encounter with a passing comet, has the population gearing up for a night of unprecedented star-gazing celebration. Unfortunately the aforementioned comet brings with it a rather nasty surprise in that everyone who gazes upon it or is exposed to it is either instantly disintegrated into red dust, or turns into a flesh-eating zombie. Cinema usherette Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) can thank her lucky stars then that instead of witnessing the celestial light-show first-hand she chose instead to spend the night with the projectionist – in the projection booth of the local fleapit – which just happens to be steel-encased...Her cheerleading sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) also manages to miss the cataclysmic event having run away from home after a bust-up with bitchy step-mom.

This is a film so quintessentially 80’s it should almost have been sealed in a time-capsule the moment it was completed and deposited for safe keeping in a vault with instructions only to open at a set time in the distant future. The 80’s iconography literally drips off the screen and the incessant synth and sax pop soundtrack almost makes your ears bleed. 

This film escaped me upon its initial release, an oversight I blame almost entirely on the subdued uninspiring original poster art which really didn’t do it any favours. Not that it’s an easy film to sell mind you. It has a LAST MAN ON EARTH science-fiction premise and a couple of half-hearted zombie attacks (the best of which is a fleeting dream-sequence) but neither can be said to deliver any real substance on either front. It’s mainly a likeable cheesy B-movie with a refreshingly likable couple of leading ladies in big-haired Catherine Mary Stewart and gum-chewing Keli Maroney.


Upping the cheese factor to fondue levels we have Latindio Robert Beltran (best known as ‘Commander Chakotay’ from STAR TREK: VOYAGER) as ‘Hector’ who also manages to escape immediate dustification by spending the night in his truck engaged in a bout of horizontal salsa with a lonely hitch-hiker.

It’s a film I’d suggest you need to meet at least half-way (if not more) in order to fully appreciate it. There’s some nice gags sprinkled in with the comet dust such as the Jean Harlow Clark Gable RED DUST film poster (see what they did there?) on the door in the projection booth. The projectionist is waxing lyrically about a pristine print of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE in 3D to a buddy on the phone. (Ironically, given that celluloid as a cinematic medium is now virtually extinct in 2014; a similar discovery today would arguably elicit an even greater excitement than that imagined in 1984).

The scenes of deserted downtown L.A. (shot through a red filter which would once have sent videocassette players into colour-bleed meltdown) are nicely atmospheric; an impromptu fashion parade in a shopping mall encapsulates an unadulterated moment of escapism against the backdrop of (total bummer) near extinction. I also loved the exchange between Samantha and her stepmom Doris who trade face-slaps before gold ole’ Doris floors her step-daughter with a hook to the jaw.

Arrow’s Blu-ray does a reasonable job of bringing this low-budget grainy feature into the HD light. The extras are copious: 3 separate audio commentaries; interviews with Kelli Maroney, Catherine Mary Stewart, Robert Beltran, Mary Woronov and special make-up effects creator David B. Miller. The obligatory trailer comes along as standard, plus there’s a reversible sleeve and an illustrated collector’s booklet.


***(out of 5*)

Saturday, 6 September 2014

SHE

Directed by Chelsey Burdon and Mark Vessey, Starring: Fiona Dourif, Phillip James.
Horror, Short, UK, 2014, 15mins.  

‘She’ (Fiona Dourif) is living with ‘He’ (Phillip James). Trapped in a sterile, loveless (and wordless) living hell of a relationship, ‘He’ perpetrates one final act of violation upon ‘She’ which will ultimately lead to her crafting and executing a bloody and brutal vengeance.

SHE’s world premiere took place in August this year at the prestigious FrightFest in London where it was officially selected as part of the short film showcase strand.

This is a deceptively simple short film which, upon initial viewing, you’d be forgiven for only taking away from it the final graphic imagery. But there is much more lurking beneath the surface than just its unflinching Grand Guignol climax. 

Fiona Dourif’s portrayal of ‘She’ is nothing short of mesmerising. Her face is a hypnotic canvas of subtly-shifting nuances conveying the inner turmoil of a woman battling feelings of fear and loathing followed ultimately by the transformation brought about by empowerment.

Phillip James reigns in the outward signs of hatred and brutality lurking within his character and this cold emotionless pays off as we find ourselves tip-toeing warily around him in parallel to Dourif.

SHE is a meticulously designed and executed piece of filmmaking. Symmetry is prevalent throughout: the anniversary dining table settings; the twin stork figurines on the sideboard and the reflection of Dourif’s face when it’s pressed against the shiny kitchen work surface, framed by a knife blade. The uncluttered clinical furnishings reflect the sterility of the couple’s relationship. Rather disconcertingly however there is an old-fashioned gramophone player deliberately juxtaposed against this modernity. It provides a background of crackly nostalgic old (romantic) songs which act as an aural counterpoint to the decidedly unromantic events unfolding at the dinner table. It also features in a striking camera sequence where the camera slowly zooms in on a piece of flesh before the screen dissolves to black and then as the darkness fades away the camera resurfaces  coming out of the gramophone’s horn. This sequence, enhanced superbly by the sound design reminded me of a sequence in David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET involving a dissolve into a severed ear.

Speaking of severed matters, one has to praise Paul While’s prosthetic work for providing a genuinely unforgettable and gleefully disturbing sequence which tops all other examples of this effect to date within the genre and which secures SHE a guaranteed place in the annals of extreme cinema.

Joint directors Chelsey Burdon and Mark Vessey pulled off an extraordinary coup in securing Fiona Dourif for their low-budget (£7k); Kickstarter-funded and shot in 2 days project. Clearly Fiona and the film’s Kickstarter supporters had faith in them, and having now delivered SHE, it should be clear to all who view it that this faith was entirely justified.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Friday, 5 September 2014

INVASION OF THE SCREAM QUEENS

Directed by Donald Farmer, Starring: Brinke Stevens, Michelle Bauer, Mary Woronov.
Documentary, US, 1991, 82mins, cert Exempt.


Released in the UK on DVD on 15th September 2014 by Wienerworld

Originally made back in 1991 and released on video, Donald Farmer, director (at the time) of such straight-to-video titles such as CANNIBAL HOOKERS and VAMPIRE COP, rounded up a bunch of actresses currently working in the horror/ exploitation B-movie market and interviewed each one about their experiences working in the genre.

This documentary is a time capsule. Upon opening it transports you back to when the home video market was booming, when distributors were constantly looking for product to fill the video rental store shelves and punters were eager to feed their voracious VCRs. Director Donald Farmer knew this from his experiences in securing distribution deals for his films and so he called upon some of the ‘scream queens’ he had personally worked with at the time - together with a few more he could secure to talk on camera without stretching his modest budget - and cobbled together this cheap looking hodgepodge compilation of uneven interviews.

Today the term ‘scream queen’ would apply to contemporary actresses such as the inimitable Danielle Harris, but in Donald Farmer’s time capsule we’re in 1991, and his limited frame of reference tends to largely feature the ladies working for schlock-meisters such as Fred Olen Ray (e.g. HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS, EVIL TOONS, THE TOMB) and David DeCoteau (e.g. CREEPOZOIDS, SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA, NIGHTMARE SISTERS). Regarding the actresses featured, Farmer himself states in his brief intro to this re-release: “...some of them are still working, some of them are not; some of them have disappeared off the face of the earth”.

First up is Michelle Bauer, who ‘graduated’ from making videos for the Playboy channel to making B-movies such as DeCoteau’s NIGHTMARE SISTERS, a film which, in Michelle’s own words, includes: “...the longest bathtub scene in the world...It runs about ten minutes, and it’s the three of us [Michelle, Brinke Stevens, Linnea Quigley], stark naked; with one bar of soap and lots of sound effects...”

The second of this hot-tub trinity, Brinke Stevens (who gained a masters degree in marine biology before hot-tubing) describes herself as having been a very weird kid: “I looked like a werewolf, dark features, little pointy teeth (which they later filed-off) and very thick eyebrows”.

Unfortunately the third bath-babe, Linnea Quigley, doesn’t appear in the documentary. The clues as to why this might be are provided by the only onscreen male interviewee, director David DeCoteau, who rather cryptically states that he doesn’t work with Linnea anymore for various reasons, and that: “I guess we’re both up scaling our careers...” Glancing through their respective IMDb credits they’ve certainly worked together again since and in fact David’s latest film: 3 SCREAM QUEENS (due for release on 31st October 2014) stars none other than Linnea, alongside both Michelle and Brinke. Wonder how that career “up scaling” worked out for the both of them...?

And so a parade of lesser known, (and a few completely unknown, at least to this reviewer) B-movie actresses sit in front of Farmer’s static camera and talk about their experiences in direct-to-video fodder ranging from the obscure to the very obscure, with the occasional more well-known title (e.g. THE HILLS HAVE EYES 1977, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD) thrown into the mix.

But then suddenly, in the midst of all these straight-to-video 80’s ‘starlets’ – like a mirage in an oasis of dreck -we suddenly get the refreshing inclusion of the statuesque Bond and Hammer actress Martine Beswick regaling us with her on-set battle not to consent to full-frontal nudity during the filming of DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE. 

Mary Woronov’s onscreen time is largely devoted to her paintings, not quite what viewers of this DVD (or presumably renters of the original tape) are or were really interested in. She does however provide an interesting introduction into how she wound up in the sexploitation film LOVE ME MY WAY with a young Lynn Lowry (of whom I’d wished Farmer could’ve also included in the documentary seeing as she features in both a clip from LOVE ME and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD).

Original not so subtle VHS artwork
And of course it would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that the documentary itself had been sourced from a VHS master which provides copious amounts of (genuine) tracking snow, sound crackling and occasional picture black-out. The actual video film clips are as blurred and near non-discernible as I remember them from the 80’s. This does however provide an authenticity to the material, and a reminder of the context in which these films would have originally been viewed in the home.

INVASION OF THE SCREAM QUEENS is clearly not an all embracing in-depth study of the ‘scream queen’ phenomenon. (The 2011 documentary SCREAMING IN HIGH HEELS: THE RISE & FALL OF THE SCREAM QUEEN ERA for example provides a retrospective angle on the horny-trinity of Bauer, Stevens and Quigley).  

It’s not even particularly well-made, for example there is neither an opening title sequence, nor any end credits, and some of the interviews are frankly bizarre both in terms of content and in execution. At times it feels as if you are watching a porn film audition rather than a B-movie documentary – such is the apparent emphasis on sex and nudity in the on-screen interviews. But, nevertheless, it does illustrate a specific time in B-Movie / exploitation / horror history, and for that alone it’s of mild nostalgic interest to those of us who grew up watching these dodgy videos, but who today can view our B-movies and stuff like it on HD remastered Blu-rays.

P.S. Despite the cover promising otherwise, there is absolutely no sign of Camille Keaton, nor any reference to I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE in the documentary.  

Extras:  Interview with Director Donald Farmer (which appears to repeat itself thereby doubling its running time). Deleted Interviews, Photo Gallery and an excerpt from the out of print book featuring the section on Linnea Quigley (which is so faintly reproduced you’ll have to take a magnifying glass to the screen to read). 

Paul Worts

**