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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Nyoka and the Lost Amulet of Vultura

I found "Nyoka and the Lost Amulet of Vultura" on the Retromedia TV Roku Channel.  It's an ad-supported channel, so a true no cost way to watch genre movies.

The Nyoka character in this film is said to be the descendant of the character by the same name who headlines a 1942 serial.  That serial was 15 episodes and had a budget of $175,000, according to IMDB.  According to the trivia, this 2014 released "sequel" is actually comprised of 3 shorter films and a new footage.  The editing and continuity are clean enough that I would not have guessed this fact from watching.  The newer film's budget is also estimated at $5000.  It still amazes me how video and ultra-indie productions have changed movie budgets.  $5000 is likely more than I spent in the end on "Jack vs Lanterns", and definitely more than I spent on either "Alien Vengeance" feature. (I actually worked it out so that we saved on flights for Debbie Rochon by flying her in for her scenes in both movies just once and she shot most of her sequences over a weekend, so we were able to split those costs over both budgets.)

Back to Nyoka.  The producers worked hard at keeping the production similar in tone to the original adventure serial, although as a feature the cliffhangers play out a little less dramatically and there seemed to be too few.  (The original likely would have had seven in the same time span.)  Important elements, however, were kept, such as Satan the gorilla, still portrayed by a "Gorilla Man".  I'm glad they kept that specific effect retro since much else was done with CG.  The computer generated F/X quality was of varying degrees, but none of it was "bad".  Some of it was pretty impressive.

Nicola Rae did an excellent job portraying the smart mouthed, capable adventurer, Nyoka. I was actually disappointed to see that she only has one other IMDB credit.  I think she could add some flare to other independent productions.

Chris Casteel lends his talents as both Gurson, one of the explorers who helps provide some exposition and as the man in the gorilla suit portraying Satan.  I feel like the ape suit could have been helped a bit by lighting, but overall it's impressive as a throwback to a an era when gorillas were almost exclusively portrayed by men in costume.  Angles and camera work can also make or break an onscreen monster, even a gorilla, and this is proven by one particular in which Satan charges, which for me stood out among the rest of his appearances.  He really came across as threatening for those moments of screen time.

Pierce Knightly and Nancy Krayer turn in appropriately over the top campy performances as The Crimson Skull and Congo Kate, respectively.

The supporting cast is capable.

The video and audio tracks are pretty clean with some shaky camera work here and there.  That's mostly noticeable because it's more "modern" than the locked down cameras of the 40s.  The score was reminiscent of the type heard in old serials and jungle movies, which added to the nostalgia.

The plot is also pretty typical for these types of movies, so it will certainly seem a bit "corny" to modern audiences, especially if they've never seen an old serial.

My suggest for this one? If you're a fan of old serials and jungle flicks, give it a watch whenever.  If not, look for some old Public Domain serials and/or jungle movies and watch them first.  Then top it all off with this modern adaptation of the genre and style.  "Cape TV" on Roku is a good place to find serials for free and try Tanget TV or The Internet Archives for some old public domain adventure movies.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

There's Something in the Pilliga - But Don't Ask Me What

Seriously, if I hadn't read the description of "There's Something In the Pilliga" I would have had no idea what I was supposed to be watching.  It took a long time to become the monster movie it promised to be and even then I was second guessing what was going on.  But, it's available as part of Prime, so if you subscribe, now is the time to give it a chance.

In a sense of fairness, I'll say that if I hadn't started watching this with the intent to give it a review (The Movie only has two external reviews on IMDB so far and I feel all movies deserve some coverage) I would have stopped shortly after I realized it was going to be a "found footage" movie.  I'm not a fan of the subgenre and I think the method has become overused in  horror.  So, no matter how well that element of the movie may have been done (and some shots were pretty good), the movie was already fighting an  uphill battle to keep my attention through no fault of script, acting or f/x.  Some of that would come later though.

The driving character through much of the movie is Jay and he is annoying as hell.  I wouldn't want to spend an  hour with him in a truck, but thanks to the first person style of the movie, I feel as if I did.  While I found this grating, this is actually indicative of two things:

1. The POV shots did draw me into the action.
2. Brendan Byrne did an excellent job of playing an annoying son of a bitch.

In reality all of the acting in the movie was pretty spot on.  I had trouble understanding the dialogue, but 90% of the time that was due to accents and my inability to parse them vs 10% of the time when it was the production being a bit too realistic as to the "found footage" quality of the audio.  Most of the audio is pretty clean, but the truck occasionally drowned out some lines and people at a distance from the camera were heard to be talking as if they were far away.  You don't notice it in most movies, but distance often isn't a true factor in how well  you can hear someone in a film.

The movie takes a good 40 minutes or so before anything even remotely interesting happens unless you count some "peeping Tom" moments early on. I suppose this is story and character building time, but like I said, I found the main lead character annoying, so I could have done with less time developing that.  Getting to the monsters and the danger in the woods takes even longer.  We're treated to some sound F/X and glimpses of shadows and scary eyes, but not much else even though our first person camera operator is shining a spotlight all over the darkness of the nighttime woods.  By this point of the film, unless you're interested in overexposed trees or underexposed monsters, there isn't much to see.  There's an attempt at some exposition by a character who is hiding.  Dylan, our camera operator, reminds us all when he ran across her earlier on because it's been so long that we're not likely to recognize her connection to the movie otherwise.

Honestly, I lost track of what was going on, but again, this could have been due to my lack of commitment to trying to follow "found footage" movies.  I do tend to zone out.

In conclusion, if found footage movies are something you like, you'll find most of the elements you expect here.  Also, a few scares at the end. Very, very solid acting with few relatable characters and not much to see F/X wise.  Oh, and a baby animal make a brief appearance in a bar scene early on that was pretty cute.  This one is more for found footage fans than monster fans and Americans will probably find the closed captions useful if dialogue and plot are important to you.  There's certainly a lot of dialogue.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Project D: Classified - Familiar Classic Sci-Fi Meets The X-Files

Okay, first read the title, "Project D: Classified" out loud.  Now, do it without pausing for the colon.  Clever, right?  You see what they did there?  You know I like a pun title. ("Jack vs Lanterns" - ahem ), so right off this movie, currently available on Amazon Prime, scores points with me.  Although, I'll be honest, I was about 30 minutes into it before I actually caught it.

The movie's premise is familiar to any sci-fi fan who likes 50s and 60s movies or 70s and 80s sci-fi TV.  The idea of an astronaut returning to Earth infected with an alien influence of some kind isn't new.  It was the foundation for 1955's "The Quatermass Xperiment" (remade several times), 1959's "First Man Into Space", an homage to that movie, "First Man On Mars", an episode of the classic "Doctor Who", "The Ark in Space" and even played a part in 1998's "Species II".   I would suggest watching at least one of these movies (If you choose only one go with "The Quatermass Xperiment") before diving into "Project D: Classified".

I believe as a nod to many of these originals, especially Qautermass, "Project D: Classified" has the alien infection first manifest itself as a single hand upon the astronaut victim.  Jeff Kirkendall does an excellent job in his role of Astronaut Brent Taylor.  His first appearance is very sympathetic and he carries that through most of the film.

For much of the time it's like watching two movies, and with a running time of over two hours it can feel like two movies at points also.  There's the drive-in horror of Astronaut Taylor on his blood lust fueled rampage through the woods and suburbs near his crash site coupled with the story of professor Crater ( Bruce G. Hallenback) and his young partner, an investigative reporter, Carl Wolf ( Sean Bagnardi) trying to unravel the mystery of the crashed spacecraft.  Meanwhile political intrigue led by Sergeant Stone ( Gary Secor ) and his two "Silencers", (Gloom and Doom) intercept the mystery hunters now and then.  A cast of other characters fill each of this simultaneous stories until the whole thing comes to a head and they intersect towards the end of the film.

Some of the F/X are clearly achieved using pre-existing props and costumes (Like the astronaut uniforms and I suspect the alien hand), but they're often augmented and used well.  Digital F/X seem to be kept to a minimum and for this movie I really liked that.

This was a very ambitious project. Washington D.C. plays a major role in this movie and location shots were used with varying effect.  Probably the only bad audio moment was when Colonel X is on the phone at the Lincoln Memorial and his dialogue is nearly drowned out by a group of school kids on a field trip just off camera.  It just doesn't seem like the situation a guy named "Colonel X" would choose to make a "need to know" phone call during.

Another sign of the ambition involved is the size of the cast.  There are so  many characters and at times this works against the movie.  Clearly Gloom and Doom are largely involved for comedy relief, even though they're portrayed as deadly hunters with no mercy.  And it works to keep the movie entertaining. But there are members of the cast whose acting falls far shorter than the rest.  For the most part the core cast is pretty solid with Jeff Kirkendall, as I mentioned, giving a stand out performance as the sympathetic man made monster.

There are quite a few action sequences, including hand to hand, swords, knives and guns.  About half of these sequences fall short of being convincing, but they're all fun to watch.  It's not easy keeping things safe on an indie budget and making it look convincing.  My fight scenes in movies like "The Lunar Pack" and "Stopped Dead" were only possible because I had pros like Mia Morse and Joel D. Wynkoop willing to help me out and do the choreography and fighting themselves.

So, a familiar but CLASSIC story with some neat modern twists, a mixed bag of acting, f/x and action and a sense of self-aware humor throughout.  What more can  you ask for?  An after credits sequence, you say?  Well stick around after the credits start rolling because this retro styled movie doesn't disappoint when it comes that modern movie convention.  And once again, we're given a clever way to achieve an ambitious scene on a modest budget.

Overall I'd say this one is for any fan of old drive-in sci-fi or anything made for TV up through the 90s.   Completists of "Men infected by space monsters" movies and TV may even want to own it.
(Oh! I just remembered, "The Six Million Dollar Man" had its own version of this where the astronaut was driven mad and given super strength by an experimental serum! The episode was "The Pioneers", season 2.)

I couldn't find a trailer, but here's a placeholder video for now with some looks behind the scenes.

Some of the other movies I mentioned.

("Quatermass Xperiment" aka, "The Creeping Unknown")

Saturday, August 11, 2018

"Frankenstein's Daughter" (1958) - Classic Indie Schlock

"Frankenstein's Daughter" is currently available on Amazon Prime.  It's one of those movies I have been aware of for a long, long time.  I have seen clips from it and because of the poster I was under the misunderstanding that the make-up from "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein" was reused in this movie.  In reality, the monster in this movie was intended to be a woman (and at some points was), and was referred to as "she", but most of the time it was painfully obvious that a man was beneath the make-up of the final incarnation of the creature.

The name "Frankenstein" got thrown around a lot in B movies during the 50s.  Being in the public domain and popular culture will do that to a character.  Adaptations that were either modernizations, teenage versions of or completely unrelated to Shelley's work would carry the moniker in order to sell tickets. It was name recognition with no star to pay.

Frankenstein's offspring is the mad scientist in this one.  A grandson or great grandson, I believe.  I lost track of the lineage. But certainly not a daughter.  The "daughter" refers to the attempt to build a woman "for the first time".  Apparently "The Bride of Frankenstein" movie was being ignored here, which makes sense because only the book would have been in the public domain.

There is also a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde in the movie with a criminally under utilized "serum" that turns a girl into a rampaging, swimsuit clad monster.  An opportunity for an all female monster brawl is completely missed in this pre-60s camp classic.

For the most part the make-up is dated, but effective.  The slight touches of "gore" were probably still effective in 1958.  The final creature design, except for clearly not being female and not exuding any feminine qualities, was actually a bit original, using metal braces for support and a rubberized suit to cover most of the body so in later scenes some F/X could be played out on the lower budget.

The human villain is truly dislikeable.  The victims who surround him are mostly hapless and sort of stupid or at least na├»ve. From a teenage girl who accepts a "bitter" drink from him minutes after he has forced himself upon her (and after she blacked out the evening before after he made her "punch") to her uncle who neglects to tell the police that his lab assistant tried to strangle him.  This is literally seconds after the murder attempt.  The police arrive at the door, interrupt the murder and the Uncle just sort of forgets to mention it.  Horror movies would be short if the characters were smart.

As with many of these movie we're treated to a couple of musical interludes during a party populated by  "teenagers" or youngsters who look to be in their mid-30s.  The music might be reminiscent to some and comical to others, but it's certainly entertaining in some way to most.

The acting is drive-in quality, all of the technical specs, like movies from this time, are actually pretty high.  Back when everything was shot on film, even B-features had seasoned pros working on them, just with much less time and money, but they were still, for the most part, professional affairs.  The acting is similar.  More of a television quality than rehearsed film stars, but not just a bunch of people found on Craigslist who never saw a script before like we get today.

Overall, I was more impressed than I expected to be.  I definitely suggest it as a watch to anyone who likes old monster movies and hasn't managed to see this one yet.  Especially while it's still lurking around on Prime.

I for one, keep wanting to make a Frankenstein adaptation of my own.  It seems like making monster movies and not having a Frankenstein movie in my portfolio is somehow disrespectful to the genre.  (I've been in, but never directed a zombie movie.  I did have zombie like ghouls in my first vampire film, however.)  The closest I have gotten to a Frankenstein homage actually refers back to the 1931 movie.  The scene in which Frankenstein is playing with the little girl was cut short on PBS the Halloween my parents let me watch the movie as a kid.  Because of that, the scene has always interested me and when I finally saw it, the whole tone of the movie was changed.  I reversed the scene in "Bogged Down" with the mud mummy from "All Wrapped Up" (my only feature currently not available as "Prime").

Friday, August 10, 2018

"Frozen Sasquatch" - Ape run amok movie with old school flair

"Frozen Sasquatch" has shown up as a suggested movie on my Amazon feed a few times now.  Had I seen the Polonia name attached to it, I may have watched it sooner.  If you're a fan or Mark Polonia I won't need to tell you much.  You'll know what to expect for the most part.  A rubber suited monster and an ambitious plot that far exceeds the movie's budget.

To get a feel for the retro movies this is an homage to, perhaps the best example to seek out would be "Terror in the Midnight Sun".  There's no lab and experiments gone wrong in that movie, but many of the other unusual aspects of the Yeti explored in "Frozen Sasquatch" are explored there.  Also, the F/X are pretty much on par.  What was pretty cool for 1959 has become an oddity in modern cinema.  Men in monster suits are now mostly the domain of specific indie genre directors like Polonia, Thomas Berdinski ( The Giant Rubber Monster Movie 2) and myself ( Onyx Origins, Lumber vs Jack, Jack vs Lanterns ).  I still like this style of effect, although in this movie the suit used seems to be pretty "off the shelf" and the mask is ill fitting. This isn't so much a flaw as part of the charm.  This movie is for the "kid in us".  It's monsters without real scares.

The acting is either hit and miss or occasionally intentionally reminiscent of older "schlock".  I never was quite sure. There is a scene near the beginning with the team of scientists being briefed on what has happened at the facility in the Himalayas.  Most of the dialogue is shot in close up, affecting the pace and giving a it a staccato tempo, and the acting is sort of wooden.  At first I thought we were going to be treated to performances like this throughout the movie.  Sometimes a lack of rehearsal time can lead to acting that seems like characters are reading from a teleprompter.  Sometimes it's because you have a great location, but only have it for 20 minutes.  But as the scene went on I began to suspect that the wooden like acting might also have been part of the retro charm.  I feel like this was confirmed later on in the film as the story line advanced and most of the same cast members started to turn in more solid performances.  There were other moments of acting being a bit more "B" than one would like, but the core cast did a good  job for the most part.  Cast regular for these films, Jeff Kirkendall, makes an appearance and it's solid as always.  I would like to see him and Joel D. Wynkoop in something together.

This movie makes a lot of use of stock footage with breathtaking and hilarious results going hand in hand.  We get vast landscape shots of beautiful snow covered mountains intercut with the characters walking through fields of clover (with flower tops in bloom!) while an overlay of snow flutters across the screen.  Nowhere else in the movie are the budget constraints so at odds with the story.  You have to admire the tenacity it takes to film a movie about the Himalayas in a green wooded area during what appears to be Spring or Summer weather.  And props to the actors for not constantly being covered in sweat while hiking in winter clothes.  In the old days Hammer would have done this on a soundstage covered in fake snow and with painted backdrops of mountains behind the actors.  More convincing? Maybe.  As much fun? No way.

Probably the best part of this movie is that instead of it just being a monster on a rampage, there's a mystery (or several) being unraveled.  And as the story grew ( wink, wink ) I found myself being more and more drawn into it.  By the end I was so surprised at the twists it had taken I wasn't as insulted by the complete lack of actual snow or even corn flakes spray painted white like in the
"Brady Bunch".

Down to the technical.  The picture quality was all fine with true moments of excellence.  The audio was mostly good with occasional "over scrubbing" leading to that tinny quality that so many indie movies suffer from, including my own.  The score was unobtrusive. And the lighting, well it was adequate, but most of the time, pretty boring.  A lot of the movie looks like it was shot with lighting as they found it with the exception of one day for night scene that did a good job of faking firelight ( with post lighting like we did here), but essentially no effort seemed to be made to add drama through lighting.  There was one more instance of what looked like post lighting F/X, but I can't really describe it without giving away a plot point I think you should find out on your own.

If you're willing to really, really suspend your disbelief or just watch a movie and marvel at the risks a filmmaker without a budget will take to tell a story, then you're the audience "Frozen Sasquatch" needs.  It's ambitious, fun, creative and has furry monsters and a bit of blood.  Perfect for switching off the real world for awhile and enjoying a film like you used to as a kid when you stayed up past your bedtime.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Blood Redd - Matriarchs and Monsters

At first glance, "Blood Redd" seems like a run of the mill werewolf/red riding hood crossover.  It even follows that path for a good 20 minutes or so, which had me thinking maybe I had made a bad choice, but then the movie hits its stride at about the half hour mark and it evolves into a very interesting look at werewolfism.

This is going to be one of those movies that's tough to review fairly without giving too much away.  It's currently available as part of Prime and well worth the watch.  We're treated to a grotesque autopsy at the film's opening and this is pretty indicative of the gore effects to follow.  The movie is mostly solid, and at times impressive, in the special F/X department. We don't see a whole lot of our monster, but there's some great shadow work and the glimpses we do get are well worth the wait.  As a werewolf fan I was very happy with the resulting beast when I finally saw it.  But I really like practical werewolf F/X, even when they're kind of dated, like in my own "The Lunar Pack", which was all make-up, masks and fun fur.

After the autopsy we start to meet some of our characters.  In the beginning they seem like caricatures of the people populating a lot of other b-horror films, especially the teenage girls and clueless cop, but give it time.  Some of the acting seems very off the shelf, standard for indie cinema, say your lines and move on, as well, but in this movie bad actors don't last.  Not just because their characters don't live long enough, which is how some horror movies deal with the problem of "Bob really wanted to be in a movie and he let us film at his house for a role", but because as their characters developed most of the actors seemed to develop with them.  Stephanie Huller and Torey Widener are the best examples of this.  During the first act both of their characters are pretty two dimensional as the film sets  up the story and their performances reflect this, but by the end of the movie they've turned in some pretty excellent moments on screen, especially playing off of one another.

The movie's look at the werewolf, how the curse works and the way the female characters handle themselves all give it an original flair. This isn't a rollercoaster ride of werewolf attacks or simple reimagining of  "guy gets bitten and now he has to find a cure or risk killing his friends".  Instead, we're led down a path of discovery, new ideas and family bonding that is largely new to the sub genre (at least in my experience).  There are some old gags thrown around such as the wolf's hearing and sense of smell, etc.  But overall this is a very original take on werewolves that makes good use of special F/X, but doesn't rely on them as the only selling point of the movie.

From a technical standpoint the camera work ranges from mediocre to very sharp, well lit and nicely composed. The audio is the same, with only a few lines lost to characters whispering or music interference.  The  score is supportive without being terribly noticeable, which is how it should be.  My own film, "Savaged", had a completely different feel before we replaced the placeholder music with the finished score.  Music can make or break a movie and in a suspense film like this, it often improves the movie without being overtly present.  It was really only during one discussion that I questioned the score at all.

If you're a fan of werewolf movies, like suspense and are willing to watch something without "name talent" in it, then please give this one some of your time.  Do be sure to give it at least 30 minutes to grab hold of you.  I know it's unusual today to wait for a movie to develop, but the slower pace of this movie is because it's more about story telling and character growth than grabbing you by the throat and shaking scares out of you.

It's really everything an independent monster movie should be.  Thought provoking and different from the mainstream stuff a bigger studio would pump out hoping for mass appeal.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Sharkman! -More Monster and Mad Scientist Mating Mayhem

When I saw the title "Sharkman" as a recommended movie on Amazon I didn't realize that I had already seen it over a decade ago under the title "Hammerhead".

I've always been a huge fan of hammerhead sharks, so I was excited way back then to see a movie about a human-hammerhead hybrid.  The idea of mixing Shark and Human DNA to combat cancer will seem like familiar territory for fans of 1999's "Deep Blue Sea", but this movie switches it up by giving the shark a bit of the ability to walk on land.  For those who read the review of "Monsters of Carnage: The Dinobeast", you'll also find the idea of the titular monster trying to mate with human women in this film.  What's up with that?  Is it a fetish I haven't heard of?

Anyway, I started the movie, recognized as something I had seen and decided to watch it again.  Already a good sign that I had good, if not clear, memories of it.  My younger self thought the creature design was pretty great.  And it is.  The man in suit F/X were especially impressive, if never fully shown.  For full on moving shots of the creature, a CG Hammerhead monster is used.  While I applaud the technique of using specific methods for specific F/X shots, the over a decade old CG doesn't hold up well to modern eyes.  It may have even been a bit hokey back then, but for a TV movie (I think this was a "Sci-fi original") it's acceptable.  Practical F/X were used for most of the gore and it was usually done pretty effectively.

This movie is a bit horror, a bit sci-fi and a lot of old school "Jungle Adventure" movie, with our heroes stuck on an island with a mad scientist.  The look for an escape while dealing with a monster, crazy jungle mutations (like killer vines.  I love killer vines- see "Lumber vs Jack" for proof of that.) and the mad scientist's henchman.  Somehow these guys who lose their jobs for breaking ethical ideals always wind up rich enough to hire gun toting henchmen.  As an escape the island jungle adventure, I think it's pretty effective, right down to William Forsythe's character, who we're told is an IT expert, showing great proficiency with a gun, hand to hand combat and basic survival skills.  I don't know if we ever find out about his military background or if we're just supposed to assume all IT workers are secretly jungle badasses.

Technically the movie has very little to complain about it.  It's a professional production with an occasional effect, such as bullet hits, that don't work.  Over all though, a great looking film with good audio and solid acting from an established cast.  A rarity for my reviews, I know, but this movie was on a budget level that most of the filmmakers I review here would have used to make a franchise of 10 movies.

The real problems come with the suspension of disbelief.  Why does being part hammerhead shark make our creature bullet proof.  Bullets seem to annoy it at worst, yet tranquilizer darts can penetrate its thick skin.  Or maybe the people with AK-47s just keep missing?  Also, why are they storing so much gasoline on this island?  I get it, they can't just go to the local station to fill up their two "Jeeps" and helicopter, but they've got tanks and barrels of flammable liquids all over the place.

If you're a fan of old island adventure movies with a bit of monster action thrown in ( I know I am!) then this movie is certainly worth a watch.  Lots of action, a serviceable plot and Jeffrey Combs playing the mad scientist bent on revenge with a pretty solid motivation for his crazy antics.

Expect a few clearly stupid moves on the parts of the characters, a couple of two dimensional throw away people for the shark to eat and a lot more explosions than your run of the mill horror movie.

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