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Monday, March 19, 2018

Unnatural (2016) – Review

Man versus nature is a very popular genre, generating quite a few films ranging from such classics as Jaws to simply fun films like Lake Placid, but then we have the subgenre that deals with man and science mucking around and creating aberrations that will literally bite humanity in the ass. In 1978 director Joe Dante gave us the delightful horror flick Piranha, where scientist altered those razor teethed little buggers resulting in the death toll at a local summer camp to take a sudden steep incline, and now fast forward to 2016 and director Hank Braxton gives us Unnatural (aka Maneater) a film that gives us a story from that same subgenre but with production values that would make the average Roger Corman film look big budgeted.


This version of the poster belongs with a much better film.

What kind of monster movie can you make with just $3 million dollars? Well aside from some independent found footage movies there are not too many examples of good films with that low of a budget, certainly not ones that are filmed in the harsh climes of Alaska and whose plot centers around a genetically altered polar bear, and thus this film is pretty hamstrung from the get-go. If we take the way-back machine to the year 1975 we see that Universal and Steven Spielberg spent around $7 million dollars to get their killer shark movie into theaters, which in today’s dollars would be about $32 million, and despite the mechanical shark never working properly, and shooting at sea being a nightmare Spielberg never foresaw, the talent behind and in front of the camera led to the creation one of the greatest movies ever made. This would not be the case with Braxton’s Unnatural as this insanely low budgeted film, saddled with a terrible script and some of the worst supporting actors ever gathered, was doomed from the outset.


Movie Mathematics: The lower the budget the more skin must be shown.

The plot of Unnatural, and I’m using the term “plot” very loosely here, is that a supposedly benevolent corporation run by Victor Clobirch (Ray Wise) is working to ensure that animals of our world will survive the ravages of global warming, and just how will the Clobirch Corporation ensure the safety of mankind and prevent the extinction of the endangered wildlife?


“If you guessed genetic manipulation you get a cookie.”

As this is an on-the-cheap movie about a rouge genetically altered polar eating a bunch of people you may also guess correctly that we are not going to be burdened with a lot of scientific explanations dealing with the whys and wherefores of this polar bear’s particular modifications, and you’d be right again. This movie is more interested in giving us endless pov shots from the “bear” as it chases people across the snow landscape than it is about crafting even the remotest plausible story. Now if we look back at the 1999 film Bats, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as a sheriff facing off against a colony of genetically altered bats, Phillips asked why the scientist (played wonderfully by Bob Gunton) had altered bats so that they would be smarter, larger and more violent than normal bats, and the response he got was, “I’m a scientist, that’s what we do!” That hilarious and meta moment allowed the film to forgo any need to explain the ridiculous “science” of the movie, while in the case of Unnatural I’m assuming they didn’t even have the budget to be self-aware.


“This plot is so thin I can’t even see it through a microscope.”

And just who is on the menu for this creature feature? Two barely named scientists are brutally murdered by the bear while their cohort Dr. Hanna Lindval (Sherilyn Fenn) escapes the snowbound lab in one of the company trucks, only to crash into a snowbank a little while later. This is so she can eventually stumble across the other group of soon to be entrees at a local lodge. Black Rabbit Lodge is owned and operator by Martin Nakos (James Remar), who is assisted by a couple Athabaskan friends (Gregory Cruz and Q'orianka Kilcher) and a ham radio operator named Buffalo (Graham Greene), and visiting the lodge out of season is fashion photographer Brooking (Ron Carlson), two models (Ivana Korab and Allegra Carpenter) and his camera assistant (Stephanie Hodes). We don’t get much characterization out of any of these people; Nakos is the gruff and easy going boss while Brooking is a racist and overall dick, while the rest of the cast barely get anytime to make an impact before they are eaten.


“Can something come and eat me now so I can get out of this picture?”

Running at just over 85 minutes one can’t expect much character development but when your plot is this thin you’re in big trouble, so in most case the filmmakers would then rely on their kickass monster to comes in to save the day.  Sadly that is far from the case here as the monster on display is subpar at the best of times, and what is truly surprising is that the creature was created by effects house Amalgamated Dynamics who had worked on such films as Tremors, Jumanji, and the 2017 version of Stephen King’s It, yet in this film we get a lame polar bear puppet head, one gives the word puppet a bad name, and then there are the occasional moments of some dude in a bear suit that are seriously embarrassing and practically rival the crappy bear costume that appeared on The Secrets of Isis.


Dark and blurry is about the only way you see this thing.

I can sympathize with how hard it must be to create a believable monster polar bear on what was basically a shoestring budget, but when you are making a monster movie at some point you are going to have to show the audience what they paid their five bucks to see, instead we get interminable shaky-cam shots and endless dark scenes that are all in service of hiding how terrible the creature looks. I can excuse a lot of things from a crappy monster movie, there is a lot working against them, but I will not forgive a film that doesn’t have the balls to at least give us one fucking clear shot of the beast.


The movie is like a “Where’s Waldo” only they didn’t even give the bear a striped shirt.

I’m fond of James Remar, Graham Greene and Ray Wise so I can at least be happy that they all got paychecks out of this thing, but as a monster movie fan I was more than slightly pissed off after watching this glacial paced and poorly shot outing, and don't get me started on the tacked on “environmental message” aspect of the film which was about as lame and insulting as what we got from Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground, and that is not a film you should be emulating. If this was supposed to be a satire they needed the Ray Wise character to be more than a two minute bookend and given us something more than “City folk are assholes” and “Climate change is bad” drivel. Overall this picture is dull creature feature that is guilty of barely featuring a creature.


“Be vewy vewy quiet, I'm hunting wabbits.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

12 to the Moon (1960) – Review

Science fiction movies released prior to 1969 and the actual moon landing ranged from the somewhat series entries like George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950) to the more campier type of Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) variety, but regardless of the intent the “science” in those science fiction movies tended to lean towards the more laughable end of the spectrum. It was in 1960 that Columbia Pictures released a film that purported to show mankind setting aside its jingoistic leanings so as to explore the Moon through international cooperation; sadly the end result was the space opera 12 to the Moon which had about as much realism and political integrity as films like the Queen of Outer Space.

So we the viewers can realize just how important this film is it opens with the Secretary General of the International Space Order (Francis X. Bushman) informing us, in very serious monotone voice, of a space mission that consists of an international team of astronauts that would be comprised of twelve members from twelve different countries; United States, Poland, Israel, Sweden, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, France, Brazil, Britain, Turkey, and even Nigeria. Now that may seem like a lot of people to cram into a spacecraft (the original Apollo mission had a crew of three) but that’s not all as the ship also sports a menagerie of animals including a dog, a pair of cats and a monkey. And just who could lead such a possible volatile collection of scientists? Well to no one’s surprise the captain of this mission is American John Anderson (Ken Clark) who during his introduction strikes poses as if he’s competing for the Mister Universe competition. Then in the category of “Something for the Ladies” we get a scene where a shirtless Captain Anderson walks in on the two lovely crewmembers while they are showering.


“Captain Beefcake to the bridge!”

This international crew may have been assembled with to prevent any one country claiming the moon for their own but it doesn’t stop tensions from forming between the astronauts; Russian geologist Feodor Orloff (Tom Conway) boasts about his countries contributions to science and the space program, this quickly gets on everyone’s nerves and can almost be considered a precursor to the Chekov character from Star Trek.  Then there is the soon to be revealed secret that Erich Heinrich (John Wengraf), who designed the spacecraft, and is actually the son of a Nazi war criminal responsible for the death of fellow astronaut and Israeli born David Ruskin’s (Richard Weber) entire family during the Holocaust. Did the International Space Order not do background checks before picking this crew? Sure Heinrich isn’t responsible for the sins of his father but sticking him on a crew with a Holocaust survivor seems a tad insensitive. Of course personal drama isn’t the only thing threatening the stability of this mission as mere hours out into space Lunar Eagle 1 is flying into a “meteor cluster” (Science Note: The movie keeps on calling these celestial bodies “meteors” when they are in fact asteroids as they only become meteors when they enter the atmosphere) but luckily their ship is outfitted with something called “penetration rockets” which can to destroy any oncoming threat that they aren't able to outmaneuver.

Note: I hope you like this shot of Lunar Eagle 1 rocketing through space because it gets used ad nauseam throughout the film, and which is also not helped by the fact that you can see the stars through the ship’s hull.

Eventually they do land on the Moon’s surface where Captain Anderson quickly hands out assignments to the crew with one particular job I found quite hilarious, he instructs doctors Sigrid Bomark (Anna-Lisa) and Hamid (Muzaffer Tema) to “search for signs of air and life” as if oxygen is something you could possible find lying about the lunar surface. The two enter a cave and just so happen to discover it contains breathable air and any half-conscious viewer is most likely wondering, “Does the cave entrance have some kind of magical airlock that lets people in but not oxygen out?” What is even stranger than random pockets of air on the Moon is that once discovering this amazing phenomenon the two astronauts immediately take off their helmets and proceed to make-out like teenagers at Inspiration Point.


Is the air on the moon some kind of weird aphrodisiac?

The movie had not bothered to set up an kind of previous relationship between Bomark and Hamid so their sudden passionate embrace comes completely out of left-field and is almost as out of place as the idea of air on the Moon, but before we can question the morality of two professionals acting in such a manner the pair walk hand-in-hand deeper into the cave when some strange alien presence then seals the cave entrance behind them with a wall of impenetrable ice. Well the old chestnut of “It’s aliens” is as good an explanation to the bizarre goings on in this movie as we are ever going to get because at this point 12 to the Moon leaves behind an semblance of logic and sense.

• The crew are routinely bombarded by meteorites but their “Metal meteorite deflectors” keeps them safe.
• The astronauts discover that there is gold on the moon. So that’s nice.
• They uncover a massive glowing crystal that Dr. Asmara Markonen (Cory Devlin) intones, “It is beautiful but evil. Evil and sharp like the jewel of Medea.”
• A mortar detonation reveals a fountain of some strange liquid that Feodor stupidly sticks his hand in, resulting in severe chemical burns. Are we sure these guys are actual scientists.
• Geophysicist Dr. William Rochester (Phillip Baird) steps into lunar quicksand and cries out, “Don’t get yourselves caught. It’s no use. I’m finished.” This total drama queen is then sucked below the surface and we are given no reason as to why his friends couldn’t just pull him out.


Are there aliens below the surface pulling him down?

With two crewmembers missing behind an ice wall, another sucked to his death beneath the surface and a third suffering from severe burns it’d be best if they got back to the ship, I myself would have been halfway back to Earth by now, but no sooner do they reach Lunar Eagle 1 that they discover that not only can they no longer contact Earth but they are receiving a typed message from the lunar inhabitants. The message scrolls across one of the ship’s monitors and though it does not seem to be any Earthly language but it somewhat resembles Asian ideograms so they ask Dr. Hideko Murata (Michi Kobi) to translate. This of course makes about as much sense as pockets of air on the Moon so I guess we are supposed to go along with it, but I don’t care what an alien language “resembles” there is no way you are going to be able to translate it on the fly. Regardless of the stupidity of this scene we at least learn a bit about the Moon people as the message imparts to the crew of Lunar Eagle 1 reveals that they are an emotionless race who live below the Lunar surface and do not want Earthlings to "contaminate our perfect form of harmony" and that they will be keeping the two doctors because they are unfamiliar with love and if they discover this emotion can turn to evil they will destroy them and your kind. So they understand the concept of evil but don’t know what love is?  But the two lovers are not the only item on the Moon People's want list.


“Sir, they want us to leave them in peace, also they want our cats.”

Seriously, for some reason the lunar people want the two cats from the Lunar 1’s menagerie stating, “Cats have an unusual appeal for us but unfortunately we have none here on the moon.” This movie could have been called “Mars Needs Cats” and have made more sense, but regardless of how bizarre this demand is our heroes hand over the cats and flee the Moon. Unfortunately things get even more tense for while on route back to Earth the crew discover that North America has been flash frozen and if they don’t do something soon the whole Earth could become one giant frozen dinner.


Though it does give Congress a reason for getting nothing done.

This leads to the Holocaust survivor and the son of Nazi teaming up to fly this ship’s “space taxi” and drop "atomic bomblets" inside a volcano in the hopes it will trigger a massive thaw, but all plans in this movie run into snags and this time out it’s French commie Etienne Martel (Roger Til) who tries to sabotage the bomblets so that the United States of America can remain frozen, this because it will allow the advancement of international communism. In a nice surprise Russian dickhead Feodor is not down with this plan and he alerts Captain Anderson and the two are able to thwart the evil plan.


“I’m not only a scientist I’m a human being, not an insane murder.”

Will Erich and David survive an apparent suicide mission to save the Earth? Can America survive being turned into an alien TV dinner? And what about those poor cats on the moon? Some if not all of those questions will be answered in the startling conclusion of 12 to the Moon, a movie that at just under 75 minutes yet still does its best to bore the hell out of the audience with a story that consists of nothing more than a collection of standard movie stereotypes and bad science. With a surprising budget if $150,000 dollars there really isn’t much spectacle on hand here, we don’t even get to see the bloody aliens, and the script is simply a lazy collection of tropes that are not helped out by the over packed cast that populates the screen. This may not be the worst science fiction film out there but it doesn’t offer much for fans of the genre to warrant investing their time in watching it.


If these guys are humanities only hope we are all doomed.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Frankenstein Chronicles (2015-2017) Review

When Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley released her novel "Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus" back in the year 1818 I doubt even her fertile imagination could have guessed the journey her creation would take, and over the following two hundred years it did take some marvelous turns. The author may have lived to see “The Monster” depicted on stage in a variety of productions but since then her story of mad science and revenge has seen nearly countless interpretations on stage, screen and television; from the classic 1931 James Whale movie starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff to now this BBC production of The Frankenstein Chronicles which takes the gothic tale of science and terror into the world of murder, mystery and political intrigue.

Set in 19th Century London this series follows the investigations of Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean), a river police officer given the task of solving a particularly gruesome mystery. While rounding up a group of opium smugglers the body of a young girl is discovered washed up on the banks of the Thames, but what makes this unusual is that the body is later discovered to be a patchwork of parts that belong to at least eight different children. This discovery puts Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel (Tom Ward) in a bad spot as he is currently trying to pass “The Anatomy Act” which would prevent unlicensed doctors from operating in and around London, and he believes this stitched up abomination is an attempt by the opposition to discredit his fellow surgeons. Leading the opposition is Lord Daniel Hervey (Ed Stoppard), an impoverished nobleman who believes that this act is for the sole benefits of the rich and would prevent the average person from getting decent medical care.


Opposed to alternative Mad Science Medical Care.

It’s between these two forces that poor John Marlott finds himself trapped, not helped by the seemingly amorous attentions of Daniel Hervey’s beautiful sister Lady Jemima Hervey (Vanessa Kirby) who can be delightfully distracting, and of course the fact that the slums of London are incredibly dangerous, even without body snatchers practicing mad science on children, it all makes his job nigh impossible. Yet good ole Marlott isn’t alone on this hunt as he is paired up with Joseph Nightingale (Richie Campbell), a Bow Street Runner that though a little green around the edges turns out to be a stalwart ally when things begin to get messy.  For a bit of extra tension a little spice is added to the mix in the form of a homeless girl named Floras (Eloise Smyth), who Marlott saves from the clutches off a nasty bloke named Billy Oates (Robbie Gee), a hardened street-smart criminal who is kind of a black version of Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist, and he becomes a chief suspect in the child snatching.


"How about a quick shave, guv'nor?"

The Frankenstein Chronicles is a dark and brutal show with a mystery that keeps both Inspector Marlott and us the viewers completely engaged, and to help the story along the BBC populated this series with some of the best actors in the business.  And this great cast is is aptly aided by the show’s amazing production values as one can almost smell the putrid air of the slums or feel chilled to bone as we watch the poor unwashed masses huddled in fear and despair, and over the course of the first two seasons we find ourselves helplessly lost in the world created by Benjamin Ross and Barry Langford.

This is obviously not a straight adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel but instead posits a theory as to where the author got her inspiration for her finest creation, Marlott even crosses paths with Mary Shelley (Anna Maxwell Martin) and English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (Steven Berkoff) who both steer our hero down his dark path. I don’t want to get any further into spoilers as that would deprive you of much of the fun this show has to offer, but I’ll just say that the casting of Sean Bean as dogged police officer haunted by his past, sometimes more than figuratively, was pure brilliance on the producers part and the journey he takes us on I hope doesn’t end with just two seasons.


"I declare that season three must happen!"

Recently we have been subjected to less than stellar movies inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel, the godawful I, Frankenstein and Victor Frankenstein for instance, but if you have liked British-American horror television dramas like Penny Dreadful you will mostly likely get a kick out of The Frankenstein Chronicles as it is much in the same vein, if a little lighter on the fantasy elements, and with Sean Bean leading such an endeavor how can you not at least check it out?

There are currently two seasons now available on Netflix and as the streaming service has purchased it as a “Netflix Original” hopefully this means they are willing to fund further chapters in this fantastic world of mystery, political intrigue, corruption, science and murder. If you are a fan of Gothic horror and police procedurals this could be the show you were looking for, if not check it out simply for the amazing way it shows life in London, England in the 19th Century, you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! (2015-2017) – Review

Scooby-Doo, everyone’s favorite mystery solving Great Dane, has been chasing ghosts (or being chased by them) for almost fifty years but with this twelfth incarnation of Scooby-Doo the show takes a decidedly more comedic tone. Of course even dating back to the original Scooby Doo, Where Are You? this series has always had comedic elements to it, even the previous incarnation Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated though much darker still had many moments of brevity, but with Be Cool, Scooby Doo! the comedy reaches almost Meta levels at times.

This particular incarnation of Scooby-Doo could be considered a reboot as it chronicles the Scooby Gang’s first adventures after finishing up their senior year of high school, and as the series progresses we are “introduced” to the tropes that would be familiar to the legion of Scooby fans. One of the most notable features of this new run is in how the show’s aesthetics differs markedly from previous versions as the animation style is much looser and freer, more comparable to such contemporary animated shows as Family Guy and American Dad, but the character designs do at least remain basically true to their classic look.

What makes Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! stand-out from its predecessors is in the way all of the characters are allowed to be funny, and I mean laugh out loud funny not just a random chuckle or two, no longer is Fred Jones (Frank Welker) the strong straight man of the group instead he’s a mystery obsessed dude who only thinks he is the leader of the group and really only holds this position because the rest of the gang could care less about the position.  Velma Dinkley (Kate Micucci) is still able to rattle of reams of facts and minutia at the drop of a hat but in this incarnation she often finds herself being one-upped by Fred when it comes to solving the mystery.  Shaggy Rogers (Matthew Lillard) and Scooby (Frank Welker) change the least from their previous versions as they are still a cowardly duo obsessed with food but as the series goes on they do become a little more self-aware as to what their place in the group actually is, unfortunately for them it mostly involves them being bait for a trap.  The character with the biggest change is Daphne Blake (Grey DeLisle) for no longer is she “Danger Prone Daphne” a simple damsel who gets gagged and tied to a chair once an episode, but instead she is the moral heart of the team and is the one who rallies the gang when things look their darkest.


She’s also a little nuts.

Each episode will find Daphne displaying some new eccentricity whether it be a fondness for puppets, dressing up as a sports mascot, becoming a mime or even wearing a moustache and Vandyke beard. Her bubbly enthusiasm throughout the series is infectious, and dropped dead funny at times, and she is easily my favorite part of this particular series.  Yet Daphne isn’t played as an idiot as we see that from time to time it’s her on-the-point insights that will solve the many of the cases. Such oddball wackiness does not detract from the standard Scooby-Doo formula it's just the right amount of added “color” that makes this show work so well, and I must state that this series does completely retain the same story structure of the Scooby-Doo mystery.
  • A ghost or monster terrorizes some locals.
  • The Scooby gang arrive to investigate.
  • The group will split up to look for clues.
  • Shaggy and Scooby will encounter the “creature” and run in terror.
  • Shaggy and Scooby will come up with some elaborate disguise and ruse.
  • We will get a musical montage of the Scooby gang running down hallways.
  • Fred will come up with a trap that involves Shaggy and Scooby being bait.
  • The trap will fail but some kind of accident will result in the villain being captured.
  • Masks will be pulled off resulting in the standard “I would have gotten away with it to if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.”
Now Be Cool, Scooby Doo! may follow that formula from episode to episode but that didn’t stop the writers from occasionally tweaking things and dancing around self-awareness of said formula by having such moments as Shaggy and Scooby commentating on the fact that it seems they are always the one chosen to be the bait for one of Fred’s traps, and we even get the origins of such things as Scooby Snacks which leads to a brilliant moment of Daphne questioning the morality of bribing friends to go into danger. That we also learn that Daphne also managed to offend the entire species of dolphins is just another example of the wonderful lunacy that makes this show amazing.


"Don't look in their eyes, that just makes them madder."

The other key difference to found in this show is that Scooby and the gang are living in a somewhat more fantastical world than what we've seen in the past, sure the over-elaborate schemes the villains hatch to scare people away were always a bit silly but in Be Cool, Scooby Doo! things reach stratospheric levels of absurdity that one can only assume that if the villains had put as much time and effort into honest work as they did in building robot pterodactyls or abominable snowman costumes they'd be much better off and wouldn't have to worry about a bunch of kids in a van spoiling their fun.


How exactly does one go about building a functional robot pterodactyl suit?

Now if in the past you may wondered how this group of mystery solving misfits funded all their travelling from town to town (I've always kind of assumed drugs were somehow involved) but don't expect to finally get answers in this series as not only do we see no signs of any visible form of income but we also find Fred Jones now driving a spectacularly awesome Mystery Machine that not only has a pop-out crime lab and kitchen but it has numerous modes of transportation it can transform into that includes submarine, plane and even a giant robot.  I kept expecting to learn they were being funded by an eccentric billionaire.


"More than meets the eye."

As mentioned even the villains stretch the realms of fantasy to the breaking point in this series because even though there are still a fair amount of headless ghosts and amphibian sea creatures to be unmasked and revealed to be nothing more than a security guard or disgruntled employee, there are also some monstrous creations that are staggeringly over-the-top. In the episode “Scary Christmas” Fred is obsessed with solving a Christmas mystery, and is quite upset that no Christmas themed crime is afoot and he really wants something that will cause him to save an orphanage, but instead the gang are pursued by the aforementioned giant pterodactyl, which is strong enough to carry away the Mystery Machine, and in the episode “Giant Problems” Fred dons medieval armor to go toe-to-toe with a two hundred foot faery tale giant.  Of course both the pterodactyl and the giant are revealed to be robotic creations the sheer scale of the “monsters” is simply absurd and just adds the hyper-surreal aspect of the show.


"Fee-fi-fo...what the hell?"

Sadly this show was cancelled after just two seasons and thus this brilliantly silly show will become just another footnote in the long history of Scooby-Doo, but one that I will consider a personal favorite as its special brand of lunacy really tickled my funny bone. I must doff my hat to the Cartoon Network and their insane group of writers and animators who brought us such a wonderful and unforgettable incarnation of our beloved Scooby gang.



Monday, March 5, 2018

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-2013) – Review

In 2010 Warner Bros Animation teamed up with the Cartoon Network to produce the eleventh and possibly the best personification of Scooby-Doo and the gang in a two season series that works as a prequel to the original 1960’s Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Though the series takes place during the time period where our teen-age sleuths are still in high school, before taking the Mystery Machine on the road, they do encounter characters fans will recognize from many of the past incarnations of the show, and it's these nods to past shows and meta narrative Easter Eggs that will make fans of Scooby-Doo easily fall in love with this installment.

The series takes place in and around the town of Crystal Cove, self-proclaimed as the "Most Hauntedest Place on Earth" and its abundance of ghost and monsters provide most of the town’s revenue with tourist dollars. This often results in the Scooby Gang butting heads with Mayor Fred Jones Sr. (Gary Cole) and Sheriff Bronson Stone (Patrick Warburton) as their exposing of the various supernatural threats as nothing more than criminals in masks is considered bad for the town’s tourist based economy, made more awkward by the Mayor being our lovable Fred's dad.

Fun Trivia:
• Don Knotts as a random tourist is a nod to The New Scooby-Doo Movies.
Casey Kasem who originally voiced Shaggy now voices Shaggy’s dad.
Linda Cardellini who played Velma in the live action movies plays Velma’s friend Hotdog Water.

The element that may catch fans by surprise is that Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated takes the show into a serial format, not something done any of the previous incarnations, with an ongoing story arc that will track a larger mystery across the two seasons, and though it does still incorporate the “monster of the week” elements we've come to now and love, along with some nice tongue-in-cheek references to the formulaic nature of the older versions, it is a show that rewards viewer for tuning in each and every week as more clues are uncovered.

Yet it’s not just the serial format that makes this version stand out from previous incarnations it's the time the show spends letting us get to know our main characters, in ways we’ve never seen before.  No longer are they just two dimensional characters with one simple defining character trait, instead they are fully fleshed out and even given time to change and grow over the course of the two seasons. The show starts with Fred (Frank Welker) as a trap obsessed mess who deeply wants to impress his emotional distant father while also being completely oblivious to the fact that Daphne (Grey DeLisle) is madly in love with him, but overtime he will learn what is truly important in his life. Meanwhile Daphne herself is insecure about being overshadowed by her overly successful sisters and Fred’s failure to see her other than a friend slowly drives her around the bend. Velma (Mindy Cohn) is still the chief brains behind the groups mystery solving ability but in what could come as a bit surprise to many a fan is that the show opens with her and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) in a relationship, though it’s a secret one because Shaggy is afraid of Scooby (Frank Welker) being jealous.


Who could have seen this coming?

In these two seasons the group’s dynamic goes through some serious emotional turbulence that becomes the backbone of the series; we actually care if Fred and Daphne eventually hook and the idea that Shaggy could ever pick a woman over Man’s Best Friend is treated somewhat seriously. Of course the show isn’t an animated version of Beverly Hills 90210 as our heroes will often have to put their own personal issues aside to tackle whatever “supernatural” threat has reared its ugly masked head that week.

It's the over arcing plot of the much bigger mystery that is the centerpiece to this series for in between exposing various residence and visitors as masked monster the gang receives cryptic messages from someone known simply as Mister E (Lewis Black), a shadowy figure who parcels out information that will not only reveal a mystery about a fabulous cursed treasure of immense value but also knowledge of four students and their bird Professor Pericles (Udo Kier) who formed a high school mystery solving club called Mystery Incorporated, a group that just so happened to disappear twenty years ago while hunting down that very same cursed treasure mystery.


The original Mystery Incorporated.

Aside from the excellent mystery that spans the two seasons, one that if not solved could very well end the life of everyone on the planet (How is that for high stakes?) the show is rife with references and in jokes for Scooby-Doo fans and movie nerds alike. The Hex Girls from the direct-to-video animated movie Scooby-Doo and the Witch's Ghost make a couple of appearances with Daphne having to go undercover as the lead singer while in another episode The Hex Girls get into a battle of the bands against a group of zombies. We see that Shaggy and Scooby are fans of Fright Fest actor Vincent Van Ghoul (Maurice LaMarche) but old fans will recognize this character as having first appeared in The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, only in that show Van Ghoul was a Warlock voiced by Vincent Price. It’s a fairly nice meta moment and is just one of many great references that are liberally sprinkled throughout the show’s run.


We also get to see clips from old Vincent Van Ghoul movies and they are a treat.

Aside from nods to previous versions of of the show movie buffs will also have fun spotting references to such films as Carrie, The Shinning, Nightmare on Elm Street and in one particularly hilarious moment when Sheriff Bronson Stone casually opens the puzzle box from Hellraiser and then casually slams the door in the face of oncoming cenobites. The gang even runs into author Harlan Ellison, who is speaking at a neighboring college, and he gets into trouble after slamming local author H.P. Hatecraft (Jeffrey Combs).  Of course Combs is known for playing H.P. Lovecraft in various horror films which just adds an extra layer of fun for horror buffs.


Harlan Ellison voices himself here and has fun poking at his acerbic persona.

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated not only references previous Scooby-Doo shows and various horror movies but it also kind of creates a Hanna-Barbera shared universe with random cartoon characters from their other shows making guest appearances; such as Captain Caveman, Jabberjaw and Speed Buggy and The Funky Phantom.


It’s the ultimate team-up.

One of my favorite episodes has Blue Falcon and Dynomutt teaming up with Mystery Incorporated to take on a Dragon-Man robot, and even though they often teamed up on past shows this time out we get a new origin where find out that Blue Falcon was once a normal security guard working for Johnny Quest’s dad at Quest Research Laboratories when an attack by Doctor Sinn left his faithful guard dog mortally wounded, a couple of cybernetic parts later and Dynomutt is born.  Though Dynomutt is still depicted here as the lovable goofball he was back The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour we get a much darker more violent version of Blue Falcon, one who is more a Frank Castle/Punisher type vigilante than he is of the Batman mold.


He has a bird themed utility built and a predisposition for violence.

To date Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated is easily my favorite version of the show and it’s not just because of the fun references to beloved moments from my childhood but by the fact that this run actually goes pretty dark at times, with threats that are genuinely terrifying and a mystery with serious stakes. Despite the shows "darker" tone at times the two seasons still have plenty of goofy instances for younger viewers to get a kick out of, and I particularly love the level of insanity Fred’s Rube Goldberg inspired traps achieve at times, but when season two rolls around, and the main mystery becomes even more prominent, the dangers to Scooby and his friends are simply nail biting at times.


The retro design of the show is also quite gorgeous.

The only downside is that though season two does wrap up the over-arcing mystery in a very satisfying manner, and I must say having the mystery span across two whole season is petty daring on the producers part, it teases what could have been a great third season but sadly it was cancelled. On the plus side the follow up series of Be Cool, Scooby-Doo if not as dark and mystery centric as Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated was it more than makes up for it in being bizarrely brilliant and outright nuts. So if this particular run of Scooby-Doo managed to slip by your nerd radar I highly recommend you give it a shot as all 52 chapters are vastly entertaining.


Note: Velma’s mom runs a horror museum that sports a statue that terrifies Fred and Daphne.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Laserblast (1978) – Review

There are low budget movies, there are next-to-nothing budgeted movies, and then there is 1978’s Laserblast which looked as if it's budget consisted mostly of whatever loose change producer Charles Band managed to find under the seat cushions in a Tijuana brothel. We’re not just talking low production values but something on a subterranean scale that is almost staggering in its sheer awfulness.  The truly shocking thing here is that as bad as the movie looks the script was even worse, it's 82 minute running time is a complete collection of utter nonsense that ends without answering a single questioned raised in the preceding 80 minutes. Laserblast is so bad you almost have to respect the audaciousness of it all.

The movie doesn’t so much as have a plot as it does a series of events that happen before the end credits finally roll, but if one were forced to sum it up you'd have to call it a revenge fantasy about a picked upon teenage kid being granted great power, which he does not use with great responsibility. The movie has a bizarre opening where we see some green faced Eddie Munster type dude, sporting a clunking weapon of some kind on his arm, running across the desert landscape until a spaceship lands which two turtle looking alien guys disembark from.


One can assume much of the film's non-existent budget went towards these guys.

Eddie Munster (Steve Neill) opens fire on the turtles but his laser gun is pretty ineffective and he is quickly disintegrated by one of the aliens, leaving behind only a scorched outline as well as his laser gun and funky necklace. It was up to this point I thought I was watching some post-apocalyptic science fiction movie and that Eddie Munster was some mutant survivor of the war, a war that must have involved these turtle dudes, but then the aliens are startled by a passing Cessna and they hustle back to their ship leaving behind the laser gun and necklace.

So in this early "twist" we learn that the film actually takes place in a contemporary timeline but for some reason there are green skinned humanoids and alien turtle guys running around trying to kill each other, while trying to keep a low profile for some reason, and just to make things more confusing we jump cut to our hero Billy Duncan (Kim Milford) as he bolts up in bed as if being awoken from a nightmare.


As if millions of screenwriters suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.

Was this a dream? No, because later Billy stumbles across the sight of the mutant murder so that opening must have actually happened.  Could it have been some kind of vision that links our hero to these strange events?  Sadly we will never know because this film doesn’t bother to ever address the issue, which leads one to believe that it’s more a case of sloppy editing than anything script related, if in fact this movie had a script.  Weird nightmares are the least of Billy's concerns as he has a lot of problems in his life and other than his girlfriend Kathy (Cheryl Smith) no one seems to understand him, and even his mom (Janet Dey) abandons him so she can go have sex in Acapulco. He is hassled by dope smoking redneck cops, yelled at by Kathy’s deranged grandfather Colonel Farley (Keenan Wynn) and taunted by local bullies Chuck (Mike Bobenko) and Froggy (Eddie Deezen) who one minute are challenging Billy to a car race then the very next they are going for the attempted rape of his girlfriend Kathy.


“If I had a laserblaster instead of this tennis racket you would be so dead.”

Unfortunately for Chuck and Froggy good ole Billy had stumbled across the abandon laser gun in the desert and after fooling around with it for a while he gets it to work, yet after the attempted rape Billy doesn’t rush home to get his weapon of death he simple goes to sleep where he tosses and turns until properly possessed by the power of the laser gun.  So Chuck and Froggy get a temporary stay of execution.

Now that’s just me assuming this is the case as the film is never clear as to what the weapon and its corresponding necklace are supposed to be or even do. Was Eddie Munster an evil mutant being hunted by the turtle guys and after being killed his spirit was trapped inside the necklace, now possessing any who dare wear it? Right there I probably put more thought into this movie’s “plot” than the screenwriters did because nothing about anything we see is ever explained, Without rhyme or reason Billy suddenly goes on a laser gun fueled rampage all the while looking like the Incredible Hulk’s sickly nephew.


Maybe he’s auditioning for an “I was a Teenage Frankenstein” sequel.

Later Kathy notices a strange wound on Billy’s chest and she convinces him to go get it looked at by Doctor Mellon (Roddy McDowall), who upon discovering a metallic disc imbedded in the kid’s sternum he tells Billy it would be a good idea if he had removed. Once the operation is completed the good doctor quickly calls the local police laboratory to set up an appointment to have the disc examined, but sadly things don’t go as planned because for some reason Mutant Billy doesn’t want the disc examined and that night he blows up Melon while he is on route to the lab.


“I will remove this foreign object if you promise not to murder me later tonight.”

Did I mention that there was a strange government agent wandering around town asking questions? Well because the movie hasn’t made a lick of sense up to this point it decides to double down by introducing government spook Tony Craig (Gianni Russo) who everyone in the town seems to know but we just don’t how or why they do. We never even find out what tipped him off to the alien menace in the first place as he arrived in town before Billy even got a chance to go on a proper rampage, and somehow he also has a device in his briefcase that beeps when Billy is near...because?


“Have you seen the script? Seriously, has anybody seen the script?”

Billy eventually goes on a right proper rampage; he shoots down a police sniper who was taking shots at Billy from the air for some unknown reason (Note: This movies tagline should have been “For Unknown Reasons"), he blows up a pinball machine, a hippy who offers him a ride gets blasted out of his own vehicle, Billy explodes a random phone booth and then finally gets around to murdering the two failed rapists from earlier. Eventually he makes it to the city, or going by appearances the studio backlot equivalent of one, and while there he continues to blast at arbitrary objects for no discernible reason. Kathy and Agent Craig arrive to presumable talk the boy down from this carnage fueled rampage but before they can say so much as "boo" to him those turtle aliens return and hit Billy with some kind of beam. The ray gun the aliens use on Billy doesn't disintegrate him as it did the Eddie Munster dude from the beginning of the film but it does kill him, and it also removes the laser gun and necklace.


This gun was set to Plot Contrivance.

Now I’ve seen some pretty fucked up movies in my day but Laserblast is a whole new level of bad, and I'd like to believe that that the script was developed using Boggle tiles and the daily word jumble. The only consistency in the film is that not one bit of it makes any sense, not the beginning not the middle and not the end.  Characters are introduced without any sort of proper backstory or eventual payoff, and it’s clear that veteran actors Keenan Wynn and Roddy McDowall did their work in a single afternoon and were probably paid in sandwiches, and aside from stop-motion effects man David W. Allen, who created the really cool alien turtle dudes, nobody else deserved even that.


We need a movie about these guys.

With the lack of any percievable of budget I’m not sure what one could expect from director Michael Rae but even Ed Wood managed to hang his flying saucers bullshit on some semblance of story, while in the case of Laserblast its script would embarrass an autistic chimpanzee with Tourette’s syndrome. Now I don’t need to have every “T” crossed and every “I” dotted when I watch a movie but this wasn’t about filmmakers leaving a few mysteries unresolved because they don't bother to explain one single thing.

• Who was that Eddie Munster dude the aliens disintegrated?
• Why did the aliens leave behind the laser gun and necklace?
• Who the fuck is Agent Craig and what is relationship to the aliens?
• Why was there a police sniper shooting at Billy from a Cessna?
• Why did the aliens come back, did they realized they'd fucked up?
• Why didn’t the aliens use that rainbow ray gun on Eddie Munster in the first place as it worked quite well against Billy at the end and left no evidence?


And why the fuck does the laser gun drive people green skinned and nuts?

The only positive thing I can say about Laserblast is that it was certainly never boring, any viewer of this film will be too busy scratching their heads in confusion to get bored.  It’s lack of budget, and that it forgoes having any semblance of a plot or believable characters, makes this a film I can only recommend as riffing material amongst like-minded friends who brought a proper amount of alcohol for the viewing.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) – Review

When person embarks on making any kind of murder mystery one must ask the question, “What makes my thriller about a crazed killer stand out from others of its kind?” Does the movie have a brilliant but eccentric detective? Is the hero/heroine a spunky and resourceful fighter? Is the setting for this mystery in outer space or some equally cut-off location? Coming up with a decent hook or original twist has to be about the hardest thing when trying to write a story about a crazed killer for if you’re not careful you just end up with a generic slasher film that is soon forgotten. Enter producer Jon Peters who stumbled across a screenplay written by John Carpenter (Note: This script was bouncing around before Carpenter’s break-out film Halloween) and he thought it would be a great project for his then girlfriend Barbara Streisand, but when she thought the script was too “kinky” for her tastes Peters turned to Network’s Oscar winning actress Faye Dunaway. So what kind of take does the Eyes of Laura Mars bring to the genre? Honestly, I have no idea and I’m pretty sure all those involved didn’t have a clue either.

The movie is centered on controversial fashion photographer Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway), whose unique style of mixing sex and violence in her work has caught the eye of homicide detective John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) because some of the photographs found in her coffee table book “The Eyes of Mars” closely mirror actual crime scene photos. As premises go that’s not bad; crazed killer imitating the work of a famous artist could lead to some interesting discussions on the responsibility of an artists and the work, but that’s not all this movie throws at us because not only is Laura’s work somehow linked to a killer but she is suddenly having visions of said killer as he stalks and murders his latest victims. She is literally seeing through the eyes of the killer.


A killer who apparently suffers from glaucoma.

To say these nightmarish images leave Laura a little distraught would be an understatement but when she discovers that these “visions” actually took place, and that someone is out there murdering her friends and associates, she starts to get pushed towards the edges of sanity. Dunaway is without a doubt one of the great actresses of our time but her portrayal of Laura Mars is basically a one note “Woman in Danger” role with her character looking panicked or terrified to varying degrees for the bulk of the film’s running time.  So right there the film fails on the delivery of an interesting protagonist, and though I’m not one who expects every thriller to have a spunky heroine who insist on investigating the horrible goings on despite the possible dangers, but if the character's sole purpose is to simply scream and run in blind terror she’s not only boring but someone not worth rooting for, that is when she’s not having one of her “terrifying” visions.


Is that a look of terror or more of “I think I left iron on” expression?

So if the film’s heroine is less than interesting then what about the killer? Because we only get POV shots of the murders (Side Note: Why do all these types of killers stare up at the knife hand during their kills?) we never get a sense of what kind of crazed individual we are dealing with or what really motivates him. Is he obsessed with Laura’s photos because he hates them or because they inspire him? Sadly the film seems even less interested in the killer than Detective Neville is as he seems more intrigued with the idea of getting into the pants of this “Frustrated voyeur type” as he calls her, than in catching the killer. And just what kind of suspects does this film?

Could the killer be Laura’s slimey ex-husband Michael Reisler (Raul Julia), a womanizing drunkard and gigolo whose last money ticket was a friend of Laura’s and a victim of the killer?

What about her manager and friend Donald Phelps (Rene Auberjonois) who is maybe a trifle overbearing and controlling.

How about her personal driver Tommy Ludlow (Brad Dourif), an ex-con who is mostly guilty of being played by Brad Dourif.

The suspects and red herrings though obvious and clich├ęd aren’t even the film’s major problem as I’ve seen worse in countless other examples of the genre, and at least the caliber of actors on hand here raises it above many of its contemporaries, but what sinks the film for me is that the whole premise of “Laura is seeing through the eyes of a killer” is never explained. Is the killer an unbeknownst evil twin of Laura's? Could it be that she is possessed by the ghost of a previous victim? Or maybe she just suddenly developed psychic powers like John Smith from The Dead Zone. Anyone of those would have been better than the non-explanation we get, and worse the filmmakers decided that the best way to end this type of film would be with a twist, one that comes out of left field and without one ounce of evidence presented before the "big reveal" that would lead us to buy into it. If you don’t want to learn the startling twist behind the Eyes of Laura Mars stop reading now.

After prime suspect, and one of the film's chief red herrings, Tommy Ludlow is murdered during a police chase the killer is presumed dead (a terrible and criminal way to underutilized Brad Dourif), but despite this "good news" Laura is shocked to find herself still being afflicted by one last vision of the killer. Turns out the killer wasn't her driver but was actually Detective John Neville, he gives us a long rambling monologue about being the child of a prostitute who witnessed his mother’s murder, and that he now clearly suffers from multiple personalities becomes very apparent. And what is the psychic connection between them that allows Laura to see through Neville’s eyes? Who the fuck knows, and that includes the filmmakers who clearly pulled this little revelation right out of their collective asses.


What a twist!

Director Irvin Kershner tried to at least make a visually interesting movie but whatever goodwill the movie manages to garner during it's running time is completely derailed by the last act because when it is revealed that Neville is the actually killer we aren’t so much shocked as we are perplexed. The key to a plot twist working is that once the big reveal happens it should make us look back at the film with a whole new light, watching Psycho or The Sixth Sense a second time you will find yourself noticing clues that could have tipped you off that something wasn’t quite right, but in the case of the Eyes of Laura Mars there was nothing to indicate that John Neville was anything more than an average police detective who just so happened to find Fay Dunaway irresistible.


Unprofessional to be sure but not proof he's a serial killer.

Apparently the spec script written by John Carpenter was extensively rewritten and the ending, including the identity of the killer, was changed and that Carpenter had nothing to do with the final product. I’d be interesting to find out who was the intended killer in Carpenter’s version as the one we got was clearly a case of the studio wanting a “shocking” ending without bothering to work out the whys and wherefores.  Basically Eyes of Laura Mars comes across more as an average episode of Night Gallery than it does a movie, and the film's twisting ending is an insult to the viewer.