Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jared Rivet ""

Friday, January 30, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jared Rivet

Jared Rivet is a screenwriter who has spent 20 years in Hollywood developing projects with people like Tobe Hooper, Daniel Farrands, Marcus Nispel, Steven C. Miller, Victor Garcia, Darren Lynn Bousman, Scott Glosserman and Scott Kosar. While still unproduced, he’s always got something on the burner. Some of his current projects include BLOOD (a horror screenplay written with executive producers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan), KILLERS OF THE DEAD (an original horror screenplay to be directed by Marcus Nispel), and SACRILEGE (another original horror script for producer George Zakk). He spent two years working with master of horror Tobe Hooper on a remake of WHITE ZOMBIE that sadly never came to be and some folks might recognize him as “Clifford Blair,” the obnoxious true crime author in CRYSTAL LAKE MASSACRES REVISITED, the mockumentary feature on the DVD and Blu-ray special editions of FRIDAY THE 13TH PARTS 4 through 6. He recently played the role of a familiar director in the OVER HALLOWEEN episode of the online audio anthology series, “Earbud Theater” for which he has also written anupcoming episode, THE CREAKY STAIRS (coming soon).Jared’s horror trivia team (Zombie Redneck Torture Family) has won the monthly Dead Right Horror Trivia Night a whopping 15 times since its debut at the Jumpcut CafĂ© in January of 2013.

PRISON (1988, dir. Renny Harlin)
Here is a film discovery that succeeds at feeding two of my ongoing movie obsessions: 1.) Shout! Factory’s line ofcatalog horror movie releases on Blu-ray (their “Scream Factory” line), and 2.) the 80’s/90’s output of Charlie Band’s Empire Pictures and Full Moon Entertainment(GHOULIES, TRANCERS, RE-ANIMATOR, PUPPET MASTER, SUBSPECIES).

PRISON has long been considered something of a “lost” film. Shot in 1987, given a miniscule theatrical release in 1988, and then almost immediately tied up in a legal quagmire when Band was forced to sell Empire Pictures back to the bank in order to avoid imminent bankruptcy. The film was eventually released on VHS (once) by New World Pictures when they briefly acquired Empire’s film library before they themselves went out of business and the film was virtually lost to obscurity for 25 years. Needless to say, Shout! Factory’s 2014 Blu-ray release was quite the revelation.

The U.S. directing debut of Renny Harlin, PRISON was a project hatched by producer Irwin Yablans (the man responsible for initiating the original HALLOWEEN) and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner (DOCTOR MORDRID, PUPPET MASTER III) and, lo and behold, it turned out to be the definitive “haunted prison” movie.

A then-unknown Viggo Mortensen stars as short-term convict Burke, the stoic car thief with a heart of gold and strong moral compass who takes on Lane Smith’s hard-ass warden Sharpe as they weave their way through a colorful collection of likeable inmates (including the likes of Tom Everett, Tiny Lister, Larry Flash Jenkins and Lincoln Kilpatrick) transplanted en masse to an outdated Wyoming penitentiary which is in the process of being reopened dueto budget cuts.

Little do these hardened men know that intimidating cellmates, sadistic guards, disciplinary lockdowns, solitary confinement, manly confrontations in the yard, and the occasional riot in D-block are the least of their worries as the pissed-off ghost of a wrongly executed man starts wreaking havoc, in a variety of imaginative, gore-drenched,POLTERGEIST/NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET-inspired ways. (In fact, it’s pretty easy to see why New Line quickly hired Harlin to direct NIGHTMARE 4 later that same year after seeing the steady stream of special effects-laden supernatural scare set pieces accomplished in PRISON on such a limited budget.)

It’s not without its flaws. There are a couple of odd choices at the script level (especially an ambiguous question markleft dangling regarding the third act reveal of the identity of the evil spirit haunting the prison) but the authenticity of the prison setting, the great characters and “anything can happen” vibe of the supernatural kill sequences really beat out the shortcomings in my opinion. And when a pre-Jason Voorhees Kane Hodder literally popped up as the physical embodiment of the vengeful, lightning bolt summoningphantasm in the film’s finale (sporting a first-rate John Buechler make-up design straight out of an EC Comic), I found myself wondering where this movie had been all my life.

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970, dir. Roy Ward Baker)
A couple of years ago, I decided I was going to get a hold of all of Hammer’s Dracula films on DVD and watch them in order. My efforts were thwarted when I discovered that the sixth film in the series, SCARS OF DRACULA, was out of print. I got as far in my viewing as film #5 (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) and wound up adrift for a good year and a half. I refused to skip SCARS and move onto the next film in the series (specifically DRACULA A.D. 1972), even though there’s admittedly not a whole lot of continuity being carried over from film to film. (In fact, DRACULA A.D. 1972 opens as many of the Hammer sequels do, recapping the climactic scene from the previous adventure, only in DRACULA A.D. 1972’s case, it’s not a climactic scene from any of the earlier films, it’s an entirely made up climax from an unseen Dracula story, thus rendering the fate of Dracula from SCARS moot as far as any ongoing continuity is concerned.)

At some point in 2014, I hadn’t realized that Lionsgate had put the title back into print and my wife was nice enough to get it for me as a birthday present. My Draculathon could finally continue.

And SCARS OF DRACULA wound up being worth the wait. Rubber bats on strings vomiting bright red blood, the pub full of superstitious villagers who know what’s really going on but refuse to tell outsiders, James Bernard’s usual top notch score, beautiful women in period costumes (and sometimes less, apparently this is also the first film in the series to include actual nudity), and of course, Christopher Lee, donning the cape and fangs for a fifth time.

Lee’s Dracula has more screen time and dialogue than usual, he even has a couple of scenes that harken back to some of the “traditional Dracula” moments one might expect from an adaptation of Stoker’s novel (there’s a scene where Dracula effortlessly scurries up the outer wall of his castle, which comes straight out of the original book, and Lee’s suave prince of darkness actually greets more than one unexpected houseguest at Castle Dracula with ominous politeness and hospitality). Dracula’s cordial, conversational scenes are in and of themselves fascinating when you take into account how vicious, even animal-like the character had become over the course of the Hammer films (in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS for example, the character doesn’t even have a single line of dialogue, instead he snarls and growls at his victims with monstrous rage).

But don’t think for one minute that things are all teatime and English manors: SCARS is actually a surprisingly violent and gruesome entry in the series. For all of his cordial meet-and-greets, Dracula’s brutality towards his victims is truly unparalleled here. At one point he viciously and repeatedly stabs one of his vampire brides to death with a dagger. He sadistically tortures his not-so-loyalmanservant Klove with a white-hot sword (in another bit of unexplained continuity mysteriousness, Klove is not played by the same actor from DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, this time he’s played by Patrick Troughton who you will remember as the priest who gets impaled by the weather vain in the original THE OMEN). And I haven’t even mentioned the extended prologue which features the horrible discovery of every woman in the village dead in the local church, the walls stained with blood, an off-screen massacre committed single handedly by Dracula as retribution against the village men who earlier organized themselves into a lynch mob intent on burning down Dracula’s castle.

I know that it might sound like I’m bashing the movie but I so love the tropes of these films, the bad day-for-night photography, the obvious matte paintings and backdrops, the fog shrouded sets, the bats bouncing around on strings, the heightened seriousness of the actor’s performances, the inevitably convoluted staging and execution of Dracula’s (temporary) destruction in the finale…these are a few of my favorite things. And SCARS OF DRACULA delivers them all in blood-soaked spades.

DEADLY EYES (aka NIGHT EYES, aka THE RATS,1982, dir. Robert Clouse)
Dogs in rat costumes. It’s one of those things you can’t unsee once you know that’s how they did it. But honestly, there’s something unnerving about the overgrown, steroid-enhanced killer rats in DEADLY EYES and I think a lot of it has to do with seeing them scamper around en masse.

Mind you, this Toronto-lensed “nature run amok” movie can’t really be lifted any higher than “guilty pleasure”status, but I also wouldn’t slam the movie by branding itwith the “so-bad-it’s-good” label. It’s just a fun monster movie that delivers the nasty goods. No apologies. No excuses. It’s got some surprising kills and more than its share of genuine shocks. ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse stages every attack scene to maximum effect. Babies aren’t safe. The elderly aren’t safe. Scatman Crothers* isn’t safe.

A no-nonsense Toronto health inspector (Sara Botsford) orders the destruction of a large shipment of corn after discovering that the grain is not only loaded with steroids but also infested with rats. The vicious, super rats manage to escape the incineration of the corn and flee into the sewers where they start attacking the unsuspecting citizens of Toronto, including students at the local high school, where gym teacher/basketball coach Paul Harris (Sam Groom) fights off the advances of beautiful, blonde cheerleader Trudy (Lisa Langlois), whose shameless, incorrigible flirtations begin to take on the qualities of a teen sex comedy. As the increasingly aggressive rat attacks bring these two plotlines together, the health inspector and the gym teacher eventually team up (and hook up) to try and stop the rats and save the city.

Remember the movie theater scene from THE BLOB? There is a movie theater scene in DEADLY EYES thatkicks the one in THE BLOB’s ass.

The show-stopping climax takes place at the gala opening of a new subway station, hosted by the Mayor and attendedby the Toronto elite. Oh yes, and the super rats. Theinevitable collision of unsuspecting, white-bread socialites and bloodthirsty, rat-suit wearing dachshunds lived up to (and surpassed) every expectation I could have had for this scrappy little monster movie, which stretches every penny of its $1.5 million budget.

I’m afraid I haven’t read James Herbert’s source novel (“The Rats,” a title which was used for the film in its U.K. release), so I don’t know whether or not to credit Herbert or screenwriters Lonon Smith and Charles Eglee for the relatively solid structure of DEADLY EYES. There are a lot of characters and situations being juggled here, with set pieces both large and small. The filmmakers do a good job with the pacing of these events while ratcheting up the not-so-gradual escalation of the rat situation.

DEADLY EYES wants to be “RAT JAWS,” and while it doesn’t come close to achieving that goal, it has fun while it’s trying.

(*During the opening credit sequence, Scatman Crothers gets the best “Special Appearance By” credit placement in movie history.)

FINAL EXAM (1981, dir. Jimmy Huston)
I’m not ashamed to say that slasher movies are my movie comfort food. They are my fallback genre for those times when I just want to chill out and throw on a movie. So the fact that I had never seen FINAL EXAM until Scream Factory put it out on Blu-ray last year is a little inexcusable.

FINAL EXAM was released in 1981, at the height of the initial slasher movie craze. The usual hyperbole about ‘81 is that there was a new horror movie released in theaters every week, and most of those movies were slasher films. I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly seemed that way at the time.

Many a fly-by-night producer scraped together a couple of bucks to jump on the bandwagon and independently throw together a HALLOWEEN or FRIDAY THE 13TH rip-off in the hopes of finding distribution and replicating their blockbuster success stories. Once folks realized that you could transplant the slasher formula to any locale that might be a gathering place for young people, you picked a place, dreamt up some stock Hollywood stereotype characters, threw a knife-wielding maniac into the mix, lather, rinse, repeat, and voila: instant slasher.

FINAL EXAM maybe “just another one” of those, but I fell in love with it for a number of reasons. For the most part, it follows the formula to a T: a maniac with a knife begins stalking the students of Lanier College during the week of final exams and a brainy wallflower is the only one who manages to take notice until it’s too late. As a synopsis, that really does kind of cover it, but what it doesn’t mention is that the entire first two-thirds of the film plays out like a standard fraternity-prank-college-campus-sex-comedy. Other than the obligatory double homicide in the prologue (a couple making out in a parked car by the lake, no less), there isn’t another legitimate murder until fifty-five minutes into the movie (the movie is only 90 minutes long).

I say “legitimate” because FINAL EXAM is the only slasher movie I’ve ever seen that contains a “fake terrorist attack on campus” scene. Yes, the prank and petty-crime obsessed fraternity brothers actually stage a fake terrorist assault (complete with ski mask-wearing gunmen blasting away at students with M16s) in order to cause a distraction that allows one of their members to cheat on a test.

It’s a pretty amazing sequence and undeniably unique in the pantheon of slasher films. In a post 9/11 world, it’s a shocking jaw-dropper to behold. In the carefree world of ‘80’s campus slashers, the incident is basically chalked up to the classic “boys-will-be-boys” defense and shrugged off. I’ll just leave that where it is.

So we spend the first 50+ minutes watching these care free college goofballs and getting to know them as they get into shenanigans, complain about exams, discuss relationships,steal test answers, get into each other’s pants, endure hazing rituals, and deal with their professors, coaches and the local authorities. The killer appears from time to time, stalking about, spying on our oblivious coeds, and generally hanging around campus without suspicion.

How is he able to do this? Well you see the killer in FINAL EXAM is just a random dude. He doesn’t wear a mask and it’s not a “whodunit” slasher, nor is there some traumatic backstory revealed at a key point in the story (the one bit of tragic backstory that is given doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the killer at all). He’s just a stocky white guy in ajacket, jeans, and a shaggy 80’s haircut (parted in the middle, of course) who has suddenly and inexplicablydecided to start bumping off college students. For reasons unknown, the director chooses to occasionally obscure the face of this undisguised killer while showing it in others, to the point where things like stylized lighting, deliberate framing and even foreground tree branches are strategicallyused to keep his face hidden. His utter lack of mystery is one of the great mysteries of FINAL EXAM.

The characters he stalks are a watchable bunch. Final girl Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) is a very down to Earth, believable bookworm who gets along with everyone (she somehow manages to be both mousier than Laurie Strode while simultaneously more popular in a way that I buy), but the real standouts here are the characters of Wildman and Radish.

On the surface, Wildman is just a stock, monosyllabic, beer-swilling, mouth-breathing, jock, bully, moron, football player. But there’s a little bit more going on in Ralph Brown’s hilariously dimwitted performance, not the least of which are all of the creepy shades of homoerotic menace he exhibits at the drop of a hat, a blatant quality that surfaces several times throughout the film that none of the othercharacters seem to notice or care about. Maybe he’s the life of the party, an unmitigated “wild man,” outwardly obsessed with football on the surface, but the movie leavesme wondering whether or not all of his belching, bullyingmonstrousness is simply a cry for help and he’s kidding himself about his heterosexuality. (Sadly, the movie never delves deep enough into Wildman’s inner life to find this out.)

And Radish…I could write a whole paper on Joel Rice’s uber nerd character, the nice guy who is doomed to finish last. First and foremost, his name is Radish. Second, he is both flamboyantly gay (unlike Wildman’s bizarre, closeted behavior) but seemingly crushing on final girl Courtney.Third, he’s gleefully obsessed with horror movies, famous real-life mass murderers and the psychology of psychopaths. Radish is really the first to realize there’s a killer on campus, and his repeated, one-sided, morbid discussions about how “senseless murders are a modern phenomena” or how Charles Whitman is one of his favorite mass murderers actually serve to unintentionally prepare Courtney for the reality of having to fight for her life against an unstoppable killer who seems to have no motive.

Radish is undeniably a template for Randy Meeks, Jamie Kennedy’s film geek character from Wes Craven’s SCREAM and SCREAM 2, two movies which owe more than a little bit to FINAL EXAM. (Especially SCREAM 2.)

I said that the first 50+ minutes are devoid of kills and tha twas true, but what this means is that the final 35 minutes of the movie are a virtual non-stop parade of back-to-backstalk-and-kill scenes, some more inspired than others. But the ones that hit, really hit, the massacre is worth the wait.What this killer lacks in mystery and finesse, he makes up for in raw brutality.

To boil it down: if you love 80’s slasher films and can appreciate all of their low budget, amateur-hour shortcomings for what they are (and maybe like to psycho-analyze one-dimensional slasher fodder characters the way that I do), you really should check out FINAL EXAM, it might just turn out to be one of your favorites. It’s now one of mine.

THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS (1985, dir. Freddie Francis)
“I don’t need any friends, I prefer enemies. They’re better company and their feelings towards you are always genuine.” – Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton)

Here is another forgotten gem resurrected on Blu-ray in 2014 by the good folks at Scream Factory. First and foremost, I’ll hype up the credits, they were more than enough to get me excited about giving the film a look. The screenplay was originally written decades earlier by Dylan Thomas (yes, the “Do not go gentle into that goodnight” poet) and then rewritten in the 80’s for production by Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY). The film was produced by (Mel) Brooksfilms. The director was Freddie Francis (director of many thrillers and horror movies, including Hammer’s EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and Amicus’ THE SKULL, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and also the celebrated cinematographer of films like Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS, David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE, and THE STRAIGHT STORY, and Martin Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR).
And the cast? Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, Julian Sands, Twiggy, Patrick Stewart and DOWNTON ABBEY’s Phyllis Logan.

The film is a fictionalized adaptation of the notorious Burke and Hare case, the ten-month long series of murders-for-profit in Scotland in 1828. Burke and Hare were working-class criminals who graduated from grave robbing to murder in order to sell fresh corpses to Dr. Robert Knoxfor his anatomy classes.

The macabre crimes inspired countless stories (including both “The Body Snatcher” and “The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”), plays, feature films and television adaptations (including Robert Wise’s THE BODY SNATCHER starring Boris Karloff for Val Lewton in 1945, and John Landis’ recent BURKE AND HARE (2010), starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis).

In the film, Timothy Dalton plays Dr. Thomas Rock, an anatomist who regularly gives passionate lectures to medical students, though he suffers from a considerable lack of cadavers with which to dissect, a result of the religiously motivated lawmakers of the time. Rock can only get the corpses of condemned criminals once they’ve been executed. Anyone else is off limits.

Enter Fallon and Broom (Pryce and Rea), two unscrupulous criminals who love liquor, gambling and whores…and little else. The attached-at-the-hip drinking buddies soondiscover that they can make quick cash discreetly providing freshly (and illegally) dug up corpses to Dr. Rock, who always turns a blind eye and then happily presents the bodies to his classes for educational dissection and study.

Fallon and Broom graduate from grave robbers to murderers, as they realize that Dr. Rock’s payouts increase substantially depending on the freshness of the bodies they provide.

Dalton plays Dr. Rock as a progressive, boundary-pushing obsessive, willing to do anything to attain more knowledge,never shirking from the belief in his righteousness. He seems to care more for the struggling lower class than the gossip-mongering socialites in his upper crust world.

The crisp, clean, well-mannered society of Dr. Rock is juxtaposed by the squalid conditions of the starving and poor in Fallon and Broom’s daily lives. Where desperation,sickness, prostitution, and crime are the order of the day.

Fallon and Broom’s new chosen profession escalates with terrible inevitability. While the initial switch from grave robbing to murder is initially an unsteady one, the two men eventually become equally complicit in their horrific crimes, though Pryce’s Fallon finally becomes the more vicious of the two, clearly starting to savor and enjoy the murderous acts themselves. (Their drawn-out murder of a drunk, old lady late in the film is a particularly disturbing highlight.)

Everyone in the cast delivers first-rate work, the oddity being that THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS was made before any of them had really broken out. The biggest name at the time was probably Twiggy, which seems unfathomable when you rattle off some of the other names in the cast.

The film isn’t flashy or especially gruesome, it’s just a well-made, period-drama-thriller with an exceptional cast and first-rate personnel all working at the top of their game. (John Morris’ excellent score and Robert Laing’s vivid production design should be given special mention.)

Unceremoniously dumped into a cursory, limited theatrical release by 20th Century Fox in 1985, THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS has been available on VHS and DVD previously, but its unassuming nature and lack of exposurehas seemed to keep it off the radar for the last 30 years. I feel like we film fans, especially those with a taste for the macabre, are extremely lucky that Shout! has dusted it off and given it the Scream Factory treatment.

No comments: