Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Shane Bitterling ""

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Shane Bitterling

Shane Bitterling is the writer of over twenty feature films, including BENEATH LOCH NESS and REEL EVIL. He doesn’t lay claim to many more. Currently in Development Hell on almost all things involving life, he also explains why celebs die in threes in the Stoker nominated horror anthology, HELL COMES TO HOLLYWOOD and appears in 18 WHEELS OF HORROR. He’s on Twitter as @ShaneBitterling.

2017 beat me up. Between my first residential move in over twenty years, months of refurbishing a house by battling ancient shag carpets, mountains of knick-knacks (not mine) and invasions of one critter after another, I’m exhausted. I barely wrote anything and was so tired at night, when I watched the rare movie at night, I fell asleep minutes in or had no clue what I watched the next morning. Through it all, I did manage to discover twenty-six movies I’d never seen before. These are the ones that stuck out to me for reasons good or bad.

HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (1973) – I’ve been a huge fan of Spanish horror for a couple decades, with Paul Naschy (born Jacinto Malina) being the forever reigning King. The one movie from his catalog that always eluded me was this one, which many consider his best work. In many ways, they are right. Naschy plays Gotho, a slow-witted hunchback who falls in love with the only person who is kind to him. In true Spanish horror tradition, that person happens to be a beautiful woman. However, she is quite ill and eventually dies. But not to Gotho, who thinks she’s merely sleeping. Enter mad scientist, who uses Gotho to find (produce) fresh corpses to experiment on in exchange for reviving his dead love. You know? It’s how all of life works. Teaming again with DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE director, Javier Aguirre, Naschy pulls off one of his most emotional performances here and the Madrid locations are lush. Complete with dungeons, beheadings (legend says that a real corpse was approved for this scene, but Naschy couldn’t take it), hunchback sex, an acid pit and a primordial goo monster. There is a scene involving flaming rats that will have modern audiences, rightfully, in an uproar. However, it’s pretty astounding. Viva la SeƱor Lobo!
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DEADLINE (1984) – I found this one to be pretty impressive, if not completely muddled. In it, we have a famous horror novelist and screenwriter in the miserable Steven (paging Mr. King!). His wife is an addict, his kids are neglected turds and his producer is on his hump to come up with something new and worthwhile. He has a deadline that’s killing him, and a serious bout of writer’s block. The perfect combo that sends him spiraling out of control, no longer able to tell reality from his own fiction. Meaning, people around Steven start croaking in the most awful of ways. IS IT REAL? This was a Canadian production, but feels like it came straight out of Italy. It’s all so sleazy and has fits of violence that are utterly gruesome with scenes of cannibalistic nuns, murderous kids and satanic goats. Directly akin to the Maestros, the allegory of the place of violence in media is confusing as hell. The character was clearly based on Stephen King, but pre-dates his more self-referential works like THE DARK HALF and SECRET WINDOW by a few years. BUT IS IT REAL?
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PSYCHIC KILLER (1975) – How has this not been a part of my life before this year? I had seen the poster image for decades, but never was able to catch it anywhere until this year. And I feel like a huge chunk of joy has eluded me for far too long. Jim Hutton gives a wonderful performance as Arnold, a mental patient doing time in the Crossbar Hotel for a crime he didn’t commit. That’s until a fellow inmate, just before dying, bestows on him an amulet thingy that allows him to astral project and seek revenge on those who done him wrong. This is all pretty confusing, and we’re left to fill in many logic gaps on our own, but it’s all wrapped up in a neat, fun package with inventive, elaborate kills that foreshadow THE FINAL DESTINATION series. Director Ray Danton (from a script co-written by Greydon Clark) fills the supporting role slots with name actors (then wife, Julie Adams, Aldo Ray, Neville Brand, Della Reese and Whit Bissell as a pervert) and that’s where this movie really shines. Everybody is having a blast and it shows. This little gem falls into the proto-slasher category, and snugly fits into the 70s wave of psychicsploitation. If it came out a few years later, maybe the world would be a better place with more adventures of Arnold in the Astral Plane.
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THE DISMEMBERED (1962) – This Philly regional movie was shot in 1962, but not released until 2017. It isn’t exactly a lost gem like LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, but I found it to be a fun, charming romp in the vein of HILLBILLIES IN A HAUNTED HOUSE or GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW. Three thieves rob a bank and hide out in an old, abandoned house that just happens to be haunted by four ghosts who have grown tired of the living interrupting their forever slumber over the years. Much of the 65 minute runtime is devoted to the ghosts sitting around a table, debating the horrible ways to kill the living, but they have to do it before the dismembered bodies in the nearby graveyard get to them first. I doubt many will endure the goings on here, as the best parts of the movie are the super snazzy theme music at the beginning (that gets repeated ad nauseam) and the bonkers ending where the titular dismembered, played by bargain basement Halloween body parts, are thrown at the actors.
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DEATH WATCH (1980) – Like THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER, this one seems to be ripped from the pages of today’s culture of odd stardom, reality TV and scandal culture. Harvey Keitel has a camera implanted in his eye by TV producer, Harry Dean Stanton, and is set with the mission to befriend and record the daily activity of the terminally ill Romy Schneider. All of this to gain ratings for the newest hit show, DEATH WATCH. The first few minutes are cloaked in a thin sheen of sci-fi, but other than the electronic eye, is pure drama between two adults. One at the beginning of their career. The other at the end of their life. Both learning from each other about themselves, what is behind and ahead. Wonderful Glasgow locations add to the eerie beauty of it all. Trailers and ads lead you to believe this is pure sci-fi, so if you’re expecting that, you will be disappointed. The hardware is so far in the background that it’s quickly forgotten. Stanton, as always, is a highlight.
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THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER (1962) – As an actor, Timothy Carey was a force of nature, with memorable roles in Kubrick’s THE KILLING and ONE EYED JACKS. He had a magnetic creepiness to him that can only be ingrown. As a writer, producer, actor and director, Carey was downright apocalyptic. In this, his first film filling all those roles, he plays a lowly insurance man who gives it all up to become a rock and roll evangelist. He soon gains a following from the everyman, which propels him to start his own political party, The Eternal Man. Not satisfied with that, he basically becomes God to his cult. Only then does he question the true limits of man. This is an extremely small production and rather clunky. But it seethes and fully alive with ideas, swagger, sweat and sleaze. It’s the utterly raw, unfiltered version of Elia Kazan’s A FACE IN THE CROWD, and it isn’t fully of this earth. Carey played deeply disturbed, often insane madmen. With this, I believe he is just that. Many come to this movie, if they can find it, for the soundtrack from a very young Frank Zappa, but find something far more dangerous. When’s the last time you felt that while sitting comfy on your couch?
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DOOMWATCH (1972) – In one of the horror books I used to constantly go through as a kid, there was an image of a bulbous headed man looking down at the camera, and holding some kind of club over his head with two hands. I don’t have my reference books handy, but it was either A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF HORROR MOVIES by Denis Gifford or MONSTERS AND VAMPIRES by Alan Frank. Anyhoot, that image was from DOOMWATCH and more than any other on display, scared the crap out of me all throughout my childhood and beyond. I finally saw it and context is everything. It’s more of an ecological thriller than a horror film, and that scary man with the club was viewed with more sympathy than squeals. A team of ecologists visit a small island off the coast of the UK when chemical dumping in the waters contaminates the fish, deforming the villagers who eat it and making them violent. It’s solidly written, acted and sometimes Hammer director, Peter Sasdy keeps it all going at a good enough pace. Worth a gander, but I sure do feel silly about hiding under the covers over this for all of those years.
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THE NORSEMAN (1978) – Charles B. Pierce has made some of my favorite, go-to movies. Both THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK and THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN are in constant rotation around here, as the pseudo-documentary feel, regions, time and odd authenticity are like catnip for me when I struggle to find something to watch. As much as I love those, I love THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN even more. So this team-up of Steve Austin and Charles B. Pierce could be nothing less than cinenirvana, right? Lee Majors is a Viking who boats his way to America to find his father, who has been captured by Native Americans. It’s awesome, yeah? Yikes. Wow. Oof! It’s appalling. This is a seriously cheapjack affair, with actors sharing costumes for scenes, a creek doubling for the ocean and that one sided Viking war ship made from materials that aren’t exactly sea worthy. A coked-up, porn ‘stached Majors is amusing for about five minutes, but quickly becomes as tedious as everything else here. His acting certainly was limited, but he is woefully miscast as a Viking with a thick Midwestern drawl. His intonation on the cusp of falling asleep at any moment. House fav, Jack Elam, as a sorcerer couldn’t even breathe a little life into the non-happenings. “See. Where. Your. Ma-gic. Has. Gotten. Us, Wizz-zard?” Indeed.
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