Problems and solutions: News March 2022

It’s been a little ghostly around this town the last couple of months, hasn’t it tonstant weader? That’s on me. I have had a fullish time job as of late, and it turns out being gainfully employed eat into this blog’s time and inclination to philosophize about cheap thrillers on the Internet for free. It doesn’t help that I’ve also tried to keep my previous job of slowly poisoning myself with caffeine, diphenhydramine and benzocaine, but that’s no excuse.

What to expect in the future? I will be reviewing a few final bad cosmic horror films. I’ve been keeping some of the worst on reserve, so that should be fun. I am still planning to put together a couple of “best of 2021” lists, but there will likely be an update about that. It’s an ambitious goal, given how I’ve only actually watched, um… two new thrillers, I think, so there will be some catching up to do. Feeling optimistic about that update, I tell you wot.

The problem with problems is they’re easy to point out but hard to solve. I think that lo fi anituber DontHurtMyFeelings would understand. We have a similar understanding of the illusion of ownership when it comes to digital media. In a recent video, he outlines some of the reasons for physical copies of games without going full-blown against digital. He’s cautious rather than cautionary. It’s not a bad place to be.

Keeping connected: News January 2022

Hello there, tonstant weader. As usual around this blog, the year is getting off to a slow posting start. There is some more cosmic horror media in the pipeline – I wasn’t kidding when I said we hadn’t seen the worst of it – but most of our attention has been toward a certain “Serial Experiments Lain” research project. Expect to see that first. Hopefully there’ll be a 2021 roundup as well, but the future is unclear on that one. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, anyone who wants some insight into my love of gritty and gross old school web, I suggest this video by anituber MyCatHatesYou69. It’s anime focused, natch, but people of a similar age or outlook as me might find his review of YouTube from 2005 to 2009 nostalgic. Remember when YouTube had a charmingly clunky interface? or when one couldn’t upload more than 10 minutes of media? when Divix logos were in the corner of half the videos? when Newgrounds didn’t restrict adult content? Fan forums and YouTube poops were an integral part of my developing online identity and my ultimate interest in web arcana, so I do.

Special mention will also be thrown at Eddie Harrison of film-authority.com for a review of “The Last Broadcast.” I’ve always had a soft spot for this creaky found footage horror flick, which was understandably overshadowed by the media blitz that was “The Blair Witch Project.” The two movies came out months apart from each other, with “Broadcast” being older but, depending on your country, perhaps not available until after its witchy sibling. “Broadcast” certainly feels older, with a less dramatic stage presence and more bouts of melancholic monologuing. Basically, if “Blair Witch” was put together by community college drama students, then “Broadcast” came out of the philosophically-twinged wing of a media/communication studies department. Here’s to art projects either way.

Don’t say it: A critical review of “The Unnamable” (1988)

A look back at this year’s end cosmic horror experiment, and it can feel like this blog has been picking the low hanging fruit: cheesy old horror flicks, shoestring imports, cringy indies. You’ll have to trust me for the moment, tonstant weader, but we haven’t even hit the worst of it. Still, in the interest of fair play (it being the holidays and all), let’s go after something that approximates a sacred cow, at least within the realm of budget cosmic horror.

If anyone mentions 1988’s “The Unnamable,” it’s typically in the same paragraph as 1985’s “Re-Animator.” Not that “Unnamable” has anything like the “Re-Animator’s” cult appreciation, but rather that it is part of the 1980s and 90s wave of Lovecraft films that proved so profitable for both VHS manufacturers and Eastern European location scouts. “The Unnamable” was filmed in Southern California though, which probably explains why New England looks suspiciously like Topanga Canyon.

The film starts in American’s nascent past, when Arkham was just a blip on the cosmic map. Some old dude is keeping a yowling thing in his attic. He takes a break from his reading room – which comes with mysterious beakers for atmosphere – to let it out for a walk because he’s never seen a horror film before. We shouldn’t blame him. There weren’t a lot of movie theaters in 1706. Naturally the critter tears his still-beating heart out and tosses it on his chest. The next day, some Renaissance festival workers show up to clean the floor, and a clergyman wearing the world’s most outrageous Pilgrim costume (God, that collar! The socks! The socks!) has the old dude’s body buried in the world’s most conveniently located cemetery and the house sealed shut.

Fast forward 400 years or so and the house still stands, although it’s fallen into disrepair, at best a local legend and at worst a place where nearby Miskatonic University students go to perform stupid dares and make out. Guess what this movie is going to focus on? Naturally, when the 1988 remedial class stumbles onto the estate, they’ll learn that the creature that spilled out of the attic centuries ago hasn’t mellowed with age.

“The Unnamable” takes the cake for “films that probably should have known better.” It was clearly made with love, and there are genuinely reasons to watch it, but they’re buried under such a veneer of tedium that it becomes difficult to recommend it to anyone but Lovecraft completionists and haunted house horror junkies.

For starters, there a ton of problems that a budget could have cured, and while it feels unfair to single them out, they’re impossible to ignore. There are rather obviously only a handful of locations, photographed frequently to fill time. The sound effects seem to be coming out of a shoebox. The cast is blatantly inexperienced – for some members, this was their first or only credit on IMDb – and the crew is not too different.

Then there are things that can’t be excused with a dollar sign. Writer-director Jean-Paul Ouellette’s script contains gratuitous amounts of filler that boils down to “teens wander around the old dark house.” When they bother speaking, they have little of interest to say. Philosophy or psychology students these ain’t. Likewise, the film’s attempts at college humor are somehow both old fashioned and juvenile at the same time (it doesn’t help that the students all look a little old to be freshmen). I imagine Ouellette was trying to reach a particular page count – not to mention offer an excuse for the inevitable sex scene – but his frequent solution was to throw someone into the house and have them stumble around in the dark. Likewise, editor Wendy Plump seems to equate mounting tension with jerky montage. The score, by David Bergeaud, is endless and uninspired runs on a synthesizer. These flaws do not arise from lapse of budget but from lack of vision.

The camerawork is typically solid but boring (the photography was by Tom Fraser, then a music video and budget thriller veteran); it’s best when it’s whimsical or inventive, seeking odd angles that suggest odder perspectives, but too frequently it’s stagnant and as sedate as the cast and sets it displays. The house itself is interestingly lit (I’ve said it before, I’m a sucker for offbeat monochromatic lighting), but unimaginatively dressed and clearly smaller than it’s playing.

The cast approaches being a mixed bag. The film’s hero is Mark Kinsey Stephenson as Randoph Carter, a role he was perhaps born to play (he has seven credits on IMDb, and two of them are Carter; you do the math). He looks thoroughly comfortable as the character, portrayed as a kind of king nerd who’s as at home in a mausoleum as a university library. Everyone else in the cast is never better than an overeager community theater player. I suppose Charles King as sidekick Howard has a kind of dorky charm, and Laura Albert as pouty bobby-soxer Wendy shows the most range, but everyone else is thoroughly replaceable, with one exception.

If there is a single spot where some cash was clearly dumped into “The Unnamable,” it was the costume design of the titular creature. It’s a practical costume, all layered latex and sheepskin, resulting in a kind of demonic gargoyle look. It’s not bad, and after a movie’s worth of playing coy, the final 10 minutes of the film are not shy about showing it off. There’s a thinness to it, as if it’s always threatening to reveal some blatant budgetary flaw, but it somehow works, giving the creature the feel of something caught between worlds. It doesn’t hurt that she’s portrayed effectively by Katrin Alexandre – notably her only film role as well, and no extra info this blog could dig up on a hurry – a captivating dance between animalistic rage and wounded tragedy.

Unless there never was an Alexandre, and that wasn’t latex at all. Hmm…

“Unnamable” does not lack interesting moments, but they are simply too few and far between. There are atmospheric shots – a flash of a dirty window, a suggestive shadow around a glowing blue corner – but they must be hunted down by wandering around the same three rooms. There are some choice lines, but they’re all directly from Lovecraft and delivered by Stephenson (“Well Joel, you’ve seen it. It’s right there”). Even the gore is done is weird bursts, relative anemia punctuated by excessive slasher splatter as if making up for lost time.

The film’s first 10 minutes look like utterly enjoyable cheese; then there are 70 minutes of disposable haunted house high jinks; then the final 10 are surprisingly competent budget surreal horror. Then we get played off the stage by “Up There,” credited to Mark Ryder and Phil Davies in some circles, which sounds like a more laid back version of the “Phantasm” theme. That pilgrim clergyman was portrayed by the delightfully named Colin Cox. What is this movie? Why does it toy with me? I suppose the title is accurate. There really is no name for a film like this.

The witch is back: A critical review of “Wicked City” (1987 or 1993)

In keeping with the notion that not all bad cosmic horror is terrible, 1987’s “Wicked City” is probably not the worst cosmic horror anime out there (it’s also not that “Wicked City,” not that you had asked). It is probably one of the most controversial though, still remembered for its over-the-top content even by old school anime standards. Contemporary reviewers noted the graphic violence, casual sexuality and atmosphere of self-seriousness. One reviewer also noted undercurrents of Aldous Huxley, which you’ll have to figure out for yourself, Tonstant Weader, cos this blog sure didn’t see it. What I saw instead was a story that bounced frequently between cliché and convoluted.

Five minutes in the future, Earth has been in a state of constant, albeit uncertain, peace with the mysterious Black World, presumably a kind of shadowy sister dimension to our own populated by demons that can take human form. The time has come to renew the treaty between the two realities, and a radical demonic faction has emerged to see that it doesn’t go through. The key to the treaty is Giuseppe Mayart, a soothsayer who has traversed the worlds. Tasked with guarding Mayart is Taki, a studly human enforcer, and Makie, his fey and fetching distaff counterpart from the demon world. The pair will have to learn to work together if they want to guard their charge, as well as learn the motivations of both the deadly radicals and their own mysterious handlers.

There is little that’s original in “Wicked City.” The film opens with some pulpy detective dialogue, like a junior Raymond Chandler penning dark fantasy fan fiction, describing: “A world of darkness out there, beyond time or space… Within that world, there things that run wild.” Stirring stuff. Full disclosure, I watched the 1993 dub because that what was what available to me. Purists may scoff, but, whatever. I’m an old-ish anime junkie, and awful dubbing is part of that experience.

To be fair, most of the voice acting is OK. Pretty much everyone in the cast is nice enough to not stand out, landing somewhere between acceptable and forgettable. If there is a positive exception, it’s Greg Snegoff as Taki, as he throws some character into his portrayal from time to time.

A performer who occasionally remembers to be human can do little to salvage a script that seldom does. After the pulp detective opening, we get the impression that Taki is a James Bond type, with god-like thighs and good reflexes in the bedroom. He works for the in-universe equivalent of Universal Exports, and he’s known around the office as a Lothario (a chance encounter with a demonic spider-woman hybrid is brushed off as a one-night stand gone awry). This does little to prepare us for later in the film when Taki gets labelled a hopeless romantic. And not a newly minted one, but an always has been. It’s strange, but it’s hardly the most vexing turnaround in the film, all in the service of the last second plot reveal.

The plot operates on a lot of convenience, which bleeds into the design. This demon-haunted world looks a lot like 1980s Japan, except less populated. There are few people on the streets, cars on the road, that sort of thing, but what’s there looks suspiciously normal. The implication, if there is one, is that this nightmare is more bureaucratic than demonic. We’re told that the world is a dark and dangerous place, a powder keg in need of policing, but we’re almost never shown it.

We are shown that the world is sexually violent though, largely through the medium of demonic cop Makie. She’s apparently dated a third of the demonic realm’s population, and her exes keep popping up for revenge… and revenge sex. This is where that nonchalant misogyny pops up, which modern audiences might find problematic. There’s still debate about whether Makie is a damsel in distress or shows some agency. It’s hard to deny that she gets groped an awful lot and that the camera likes observing it from pleasing angles. This blog is firmly on team Makie though. I find she does show some agency, particularly during the finale, but my decision ultimately has more to do with Taki getting beat up almost as much as her. The film is somewhat egalitarian regarding assault, more so regarding shootings, stabbings, being smashed into walls, bitten in half, silk restraints.

Alternatively, I might just have a thing for handsome women in men’s fashion who have perfected an icy stare. I might be a failure as a human being, but I’m doing all right as a retro anime fan.

Better to focus on the action scenes perhaps. Those are often displayed in an intriguingly limited color palette: black, blue, pink. The framing and choreography of the shooting, kicking and monster-on-monster action is well executed, in part due to the fluid animation. Fight scenes tend to be notably smoother than the rest of the film, which is detailed but somewhat static. I’d like a smoother affair across the board, but if anything had to get the attention, probably best it was the combat and grotesque transformation sequences.

In truth, the monster design is surprisingly subdued, with most of the demons resembling buff dudes with overgrown fingernails. There’s a melting woman who’s likely the most infamous, but I prefer the exploding teeth and tentacles of one particular bad man. He looks like he’s drawn straight from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” right down to a crawling head. It’s also a nice touch that his fight has the backdrop of an airport tarmac, but that’s about as artsy and out there as things get.

Actually, I’m going to go to make a (relatively) bold statement and say that, at least for a while, “Wicked City” is not all that wicked. Sure, we get anime titties, suggestions of violence and actual violence before the opening credits, but then it’s pretty tame for the next half an hour, when the film looks like it’s going to be about interdimensional diplomacy. Even after that, much of the action is bloodless and the sex is typically soft core (barring a somewhat infamous scene with tentacles).

Let’s talk music. It’s kinda diverse, with industrial, jazz and thriller soundtrack synthesizer runs, all passed through a 1980s filter. There are even a couple of erotic thriller ballads, cos it can’t all be hentai tentacles. While no single piece sticks around long enough to make an impression, but as a whole, it stands out.

The diversity of mood also sticks out, but not in a good way. Pulp detective drama, dark fantasy horror flick, late nite skin thriller, buddy cop picture, “Wicked City” wants to have it all, and it doesn’t care how it assembles the pieces. The film’s focus takes more turns than a lost traveller, and the end reveal is so from out of nowhere that it probably needed a passport. This is nowhere clearer than the character of Giuseppe Mayart, which is when the movie wants to also be a pervy comedy. In the middle of thrilling explosions, body horror transformations and grotesque sex, there’s still time for Mayart to make sleazy comments; despite everyone – including him – warning about the danger of the situation, he still finds time to sneak off to a brothel. It’s as if he’s been artificially inserted from another movie. Also, he wears a track suit the whole movie. Huh?

There are a ton of smaller “huh?” moments too, like Makie not recognizing a former lover until he removes his sunglasses. That Clark Kent disguise, I tells ya. Elsewhere, the gang watches an airplane explode. “Is the life of one person worth so much to have to kill so many?” Taki muses, without much regard for the English language. “It’s so cruel,” Makie responds. “That ain’t the half of it, sister,” Mayart adds unhelpfully.

For a cosmic horror fan, “Wicked City” has some interesting potential with its dark world, insignificant humanity and plenty of tentacles, but it’s a potential that the runtime never quite realizes. For the retro anime fan, “Wicked City” is a rite of passage, and while it is wild, it’s maybe not as wild as you’ve heard. For both, it threatens to be a bit of a slog. The images are detailed and little organic movements keep things from seeming like you’re watching a painting, but there’s an inescapable stiffness. Perhaps it’s the muted colors. Perhaps it’s the occasionally shattering slow motion. Either way, in another film, it might give the proceeds an atmosphere of grace or gravity. Unfortunately, there is little that’s gracious about “Wicked City.”

A war we can’t win: A critical review of “War-Gods of the Deep” (1965)

Maybe it’s a little unfair to review this film during a cycle of arguably the worst cosmic horror ever. The American-British thriller “War-Gods of the Deep” – that’s the Yankee title, by the way; the original UK title is the less bellicose “City Under the Sea,” not “in the sea” as IMDb would have you believe – is not one of the worst horror films ever made. It is, however, singularly disappointing. The setup is great: American International Pictures producing, Jacques Tourneur directing and Vincent Price starring in a dark fantasy thriller with hints of Lovecraft. You could not get me to watch that fast enough. Unfortunately, the film is much less excited about its own pacing, tone and purpose.

The film opens on a Cornish beach, where a body has been discovered in the shadow of a seaside mansion. Nervous fishermen surround it, debating whether it has any connection to legends of spectral bells and cities beneath the dark waves. American engineer Ben Harris (Tab Hunter) heads to the mansion – currently an electric power-deprived hotel – to inform the owner (Susan Hart) her lawyer is dead. When she disappears, Harris partners with an eccentric artist (David Tomlinson) to locate her. They discover a grotto beneath the mansion, and there a watery portal that leads to the crumbling ruins of an ancient civilization. Despite their age and seismic instability, the ruins are still inhabited by both men and monsters.

What makes “War-Gods” such a letdown is what it could have been. Tourneur could do atmosphere like few others – need I mention “Cat People” “I Walked With a Zombie” “Out of the Past” and “Curse of the Demon”? – and Price could handle the weight of Lovecraftian moods and themes, as in AIP’s “The Haunted Palace,” which deserves its own review some day. Also, the two could collaborate effectively, as evidenced by 1963’s “The Comedy of Terrors.” Of course, “Terrors” also had the support of a stellar cast and Richard Matheson’s smart script, both of which are lacking in “War-Gods.”

For script, “War-Gods” is as thin and inconsistent as a dying flashlight. This blog tries not to listen to grumbling from the writers’ room, but here I’ll make an exception. The original screenplay was penned by Charles Bennett, who previously wrote thrillers for Alfred Hitchcock and Irwin Allen. There was tension between the production companies, and his draft was rewritten by Louis M. Heyward, who had mostly written for television up till then (Heyward would go on to doctor the script for “The Crimson Cult,” and we know how that turned out). Heyward is the one who added the comedy and the chicken, and I doubt I’m the only one to notice similarities between that bird and the duck from 1959’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

This blog has yet to find anyone who will defend “War-Gods” for its sense of humor. The first scene is a great example. The body on the beach instantly raises intrigue. Even as the script railroads us toward convenient solutions, the mood doesn’t. Tight camera angles ramp up the atmosphere while off kilter editing keeps us uneasy and at arm’s length. We still don’t know if we’re in for a murder mystery, ghost story or dark fantasy. Then we get David Tomlinson in a kilt straddling Tab Hunter’s shoulders searching for a chicken.

This blog will agree with… another blog, who slipped out of my notes, but I’ll try to give credit where it’s due eventually. That blogger said the script sans comedy would still have been pretty mediocre. That’s fair. Even without feathers, “War-Gods” lacks focus. For horror, the film’s strategy seems to be every time there’s a problem, just toss Price reading Edgar Allen Poe at it. That works to a degree, but you need more than one option. You can’t just throw Poe, Lovecraft and Jules Verne onto the floor and hope for the best. There has to be something to glue it all together.

There are no characters on which to pin anything. Harris is a pretty anemic detective. He falls into a puddle and tries to punch people while searching for his lady friend, and that’s about it. That lady friend is also kind of a drip. She mainly gets kidnapped so that Harris has something to do. There’s a point where she learns she might be the reincarnation of a 17th century noblewoman, but that’s given all the attention of a mosquito bite.

The only character worth your time – and this should surprise no one – is Vincent Price as a villainous pirate captain. It’s still a shallowly written part (and despite being credited above the title, it takes 25 minutes for him to show up), but Price has enough grace and gravity to make it compelling. He’s violent, guilt-ridden and delusional. The problem is, we’re simply told most of this, and we get no signs of who he was before his psychological fall. I’d much rather watch his descent into madness than any number of underwater chase scenes.

That said, John Le Mesurier as an old prisoner gets to look adequately haunted and be kind of helpful, smoothing the plot along at a moment that feels almost natural. It’s one of the few moments in the narrative that feels organic. Also, as a non-human character, the city itself is pretty good. The sets are arguably the film’s strongest cinematic element, all dusty statues of animal-human hybrids, drip-drip-dripping rocks and giant hands jutting out of jagged stone.

The monster design, that’s not so good. It could have been great, sort of creatures from the Black Lagoon with witch-like seaweed hair. It’s just that the costumes look like they were stitched together in three minutes. Tourneur does his best to hide them with smart lighting and camera angles, at least in the early parts of the film, but he could only do so much. By the time we’re in the city, the creatures are being photographed swimming around with pirates in broad daylight (how that daylight reaches the bottom of the sea is anyone’s guess). There is no sense of mystery or wonder here.

I keep coming back to those first 15 minutes, when the film could have been anything. I wouldn’t have minded more mystery, more investigation above the surface and more time to make us care about the central characters. Instead, we get whisked down to the water-logged city and pretty much never leave. The characters walk back and forth as everything is explained to them in unnatural exposition. The set is small, and it does very little of the narrative lifting. Actually relying on the city as the focus would have required a greater sense of wonder and discovery – meaning more patience and daring from the producers.

The last 20 minutes of the film are a particularly obnoxious crawl. The whole thing becomes an extended underwater chase scene, with plenty of shots of people gasping inside diving helmets. Tourneur tosses in some interesting angles, but there’s only so much the man can do. Even when the actors get out of the pool, it’s just for a second to avoid some falling statues, then we go back in the water again. Don’t worry though. Tomlinson keeps the chicken dry in his helmet.

I don’t want to spend much more time on the film, but there is something almost noble about its conclusion. Given it’s the last cinematic testament of Tourneur, it feels worth discussing. The designated heroes ascend to the surface to watch an undersea volcano blow up courtesy of some footage stolen from an Ishiro Honda movie. Parallel to that, Price’s pirate captain – wounded and alone – climbs a flight of stone steps toward the surface. He stumbles and reaches for a painted backdrop, before he himself freezes like an oil painting. Is it madness or time dilation? Either way, it’s slightly surreal, dream-like, and hints at the weird fiction this film could have been. Honestly, the mashup of 18th century pirates, Victorian explorers and ancient Atlantian fishmen is kinda of cool. I hope someone eventually gives it the attention it deserves.

This blog finds it hard to recommend “War-Gods of the Deep.” Proper horror fans, even those with a taste for retro, will likely be more impressed by cinema that’s either better or decidedly campier. I suppose I can suggest it to cosmic horror completionists. It doesn’t fare too bad on our cosmic horror keyword watch. It’s slightly “Dagon” rather than squarely “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but we’re got a superstitious and xenophobic seaside town, ancient aquatic ruins, a portal that fucks with time and someone named Tregillis (get it?), as well as the fishmen, natch.

I shouldn’t have had my hopes up, I suppose. Just look at that title. I can’t figure out that hyphen, and neither can you. Anyway, that’s enough of sluggish underwater chase scenes for now. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at something more animated. Stay tuned.

Friendly neighborhood pimp: A critical review of “Beyond Atlantis” (1973)

What did you do for Thanksgiving, tonstant weader? I run this blog, so I spent the holiday watching the low budget thriller “Beyond Atlantis.” The film is often remembered for its unusual approach to production. Actor/producer John Ashley wanted a grindhouse film, perhaps akin to “Woman Hunt,” a previous collaboration he did with this film’s director, Eddie Romero. However, the production company thought they could court star Patrick Wayne with a more family friendly film. Or else Wayne requested no naughty stuff. He gets blamed either way. The point is, things were toned down, and we don’t get no topless ladies.

Topless ladies is nice, but what drew me to this film was the promise of fishmen. I will watch anything with fishmen because fishmen can have the distinct aroma of H. P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror. However, the concern this Thanksgiving is that “Beyond Atlantis” smells less like fish and more like turkey.

What lies beyond Atlantis is some port town in the Philippines, which is lorded over by East Eddie (Sid Haig), arguably the most affable pimp and petty mob boss in cinema. Eddie catches wind of a treasure trove of pearls somewhere over yonder, so he enlists the aid of down on his luck gambler/fence Logan (Ashley) and presumably slightly less crooked boat captain Vic (Wayne). They eventually learn that the pearls in question are coming from an island populated by a bug-eyed sorta Stone Age tribe. The tribe’s comely princess (Leigh Christian) sets her normal-sized eyes on the treasure hunters. Her reasons for doing so are enigmatic at best, and might have something to do with the sacrificial temple at the center of the island.

In a neat trick, the first thing to stick out about “Beyond Atlantis” is its thoughtful shot composition and blocking. I mean that literally; the images running behind the opening credits are simple, clean and quite deft. Considering this film’s reputation, it’s a pleasant surprise for the start. Unfortunately, while the quality of the composition remains consistent through the movie, there is often not much point to what’s being posed.

Still, there is Sig Haig. He plays the cigar chomping, jive talking, purple silk shirt wearing East Eddie, who honestly fascinates me. Part of it is Haig’s performance, since the actor throws himself utterly into the role. It’s also the lopsided writing, which has Eddie forgive indebted gamblers and wannabe mutineers with astonishing ease, and not beat the crap out of a potential informant, at least not right away. He wants to put his share of the treasure into a brothel, a classy one, so his girls don’t have to walk around outside all day. What a guy. He also has no qualms about shooting people, strangles a Rudyard Kipling quote and has a shrieking vendetta against crabs, but that’s another story.

The unbalanced script, which permits Eddie to be such a sleazy charmer (a charming sleaze?), is not nearly as successful with every other aspect of the film. The characters are paper thin. Logan the gambler is there because we are told he likes money, so he wants pearls. Captain Vic seems less interested in pearls, so he’s there because someone has to drive the boat. Then there’s Dr. Vernon (Lenore Stevens), an anthropologist, I guess. Her motivation is ostensibly to study the tribe, but it kind of boils down to how many midriff-bearing outfits she can wear while conducting field research.

I’m not even going to touch the tribe. It would be generous to say that their intentions, customs and backstory are left vague on purpose. It seems more likely that the film has no idea what do with them. The script is a collection of questions that can’t even be called unanswered; they seem to get halfway raised and then discarded rather than asked. It’s baffling rather than frustrating, and it leads to some bizarre moments.

When the princess returns home to the island from a swim, she witnesses a sudden and unexplained execution. Later, her father says she must mate with an outsider because she is not the same species as the other members of the tribe. Elsewhere, Dr. Vernon corners a tribesman and asks him if he’s seen a certain idol. He responds by throwing a baby goat into a pond that contains some stock footage of piranhas.

Disconnects abound. Sudden flashes of danger or intrigue are swiftly and conveniently forgotten by the characters onscreen, and underwater chase scenes that should be tense feel light and playful (it doesn’t help that the editing is so brisk it makes all the action seem like it happens two seconds ago). Dingy bars and gambling halls are brightly lit. This blog’s favorite moment might be a massage scene where Eddie asks the massage girl to go lower on his back, and she flips him over. He tells Logan her hands are a gold mine, and she starts using her feet. Why not?

One would expect the plot to be a meandering mess, a sort of “people wander around the haunted house except it’s an island,” but it’s too unfocused for all that. Much of the film is stitched together from what looks like someone’s vacation videos: people in wetsuits and bikinis struggling to stay underwater, exterior shots of maybe the American embassy, beaches that look suspiciously like murky rivers, casinos that looks suspiciously like someone’s living room, a cock fight. Yeah. There’s only one, but even one cock fight is more than this blog was expecting for something everyone was complaining about was too “family friendly.”

The audio is a mixed bag. Portions of dialogue in the same scene sound like they were recorded on different sets and different days, then spliced together in the editing room. It would matter more if the script was worth listening to, I guess. To be fair, the score is kind of charming. None of it is directly memorable, but it strikes a cute balance between goofy wannabe-eerie synthesizers and pleasant 19th century Romantic era orchestral/piano cues.

For this blog, a goofy and pleasant soundtrack, bizarre outbursts and pacing, and the presence of Sig Haig are enough to make a film watchable, but more discerning eyes might not be so generous. “Beyond Atlantis” is not really worth viewing for the cosmic horror elements. There are some whiffs of the subgenre: fishmen, ancient civilizations and mutations brought about by incest. But the fishmen are underpaid Filipino extras with ping pong balls covering their eyes, the ancient civilization is all talk and no atmosphere, and the incest is pure speculation courtesy of the anthropologist. “I’m just making guesses,” she tells Patrick Wayne. “I don’t know nearly enough.” You and me both.

It should have stayed in space: A critical review of “Almost Human” (2013)

It was my own fault. Someone says: Colin, go watch this movie, I want to hear your thoughts on it. Any movie upon which someone wants to hear my thoughts is probably pretty messed up.

Well, someone said they wanted to hear my thoughts on “Almost Human,” a sorta sci fi horror thriller. The film is equal parts road rage slasher and “Alien” ripoff, which itself is kind of an accomplishment. While that sounds like an interesting premise – a creature feature version of “And Then There Were None” on a derelict space cruiser perhaps? – that’s not quite this flick. Everything’s a bit squishier than that.

The current top review of “Almost Human” on IMDb begins with the line: “Nothing subtle occurs in this movie.” That single sentence is a better review than anything I could write, but here goes. Two years ago – in 1987 – chubby white dude Mark (Josh Ethier) went missing on an evening when mysterious lights were spotted in the skies above rural Maine (the film was really shot in Rhode Island, but we won’t hold that against it). Now it’s later, and Mark is back from beyond to bother his old pals Seth (Graham Skipper) and Jen (Vanessa Leigh). He’s using axes, chainsaws and a stolen SUV to build a pile of bodies, all in the service of some sinister alien agenda, because I guess just out-and-out murdering people isn’t sinister enough.

For those familiar with indie horror, looking at the cast and crew of “Almost Human” will result in seeing a few familiar names. Writer/director Joe Begos also wrote and directed “Bliss,” and actor/editor Ethier also acted in “Bliss” and edited “Gretel & Hansel.” I liked both those films. They were visually stylish and ultimately felt like they had something to say.

“Almost Human” is neither of those things. It’s not stylish, unless a bunch of medium close-ups and a lack of tripod counts as a visual style. It is gleefully gross, but if that is a visual style, then “8MM” and “Freaked” are cinematic cousins.

It also doesn’t have anything to say. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as this blog will hastily attest. In fact, for the film’s first half, when it feels more like a slasher (or an adaptation of “Falling Down” that’s completely divorced from reality), it’s actually pretty fun. When you’re urging the film’s obvious villain to hurry up so he can murder more people, that’s a good sign. Are we running low on shotgun shells? Are we slitting too many throats with a hunting knife when we have a perfectly good chainsaw? Those are questions I’m happy to ask. They certainly seem more worthwhile than asking why the film sports all these eccentric affectations: nosebleeds, psychic transmissions and extraterrestrial visions. The breakneck pace makes those easy enough to gloss over or simply accept as goofy attempts at spooky atmosphere.

When the film dribbles into its second half, when it tries to lean hard into the “Alien” vibe, that’s when this blog starts to actually feel uneasy. At that point the buoyant murders are out of the way, and the film becomes a dreary attempt at cat-and-mouse stalking and shocks-for-the-sake-of-shocks trauma. The climax in particular – and the film’s rough treatment of Jen therein – becomes a bit much. Look, I’m typically insensitive toward any sort of cinematic violence, so I’m not sure why this stood out to me. Maybe I’m becoming more of a prude as I get older (says the person who also begged the antagonist to throw a bloody chainsaw through a car window). More likely I’m more frustrated by the bad script. Alien-haunted Mark has to shove his alien-haunted dick into people to turn them into gooey pod people… somehow. I get that. So how come everyone else got an alien wang to the face, but Jen gets one in the hoo-ha? That’s not even logical within the confines of the film’s own narrative.

The critter that’s possessing or possibly taken over Mark acts like it has a plan, but whatever that plan is isn’t clear to me. He wants to take over the town, or so he says. So a barn-full of awkward pod people is going to do that? OK, why not. This clearly isn’t a big town, given how fast rumors travel (reports of a double homicide at a gas station take approximately six minutes to hit the hardware store). So then what, after you’re the mayor of pod-ville? Where is this going, Mark? What’s the big picture? Step one is pod people; is step three profit? Are you Pinky, Mark? Cos you sure as shit ain’t the Brain.

A meaningful cosmic horror sidestep of this would be that Mark doesn’t know what his plan is, but he’s compelled to do awful things by visions from beyond. That would be interesting, a commentary on human smallness in the big picture, and it would at least engage some of the film’s earlier eccentricities, but it would also require some thoughtful scripting, which the film does not have. Ultimately, the script isn’t meaningful; it’s just mean-spirited.

Whatever. I’m being that guy, the one I’m normally complaining about in these types of situations. Logic is to “Almost Human” as a cozy yule log is to survivors of a house fire. The first half, when nothing had to make more sense than shotgun vs. skull, works well. That’s all fine. Fast-paced, gory and eccentric is pulp horror I wanna watch. The second half of the film is when things slow down enough that I start to ask questions about why anything is going on. It’s also when I can’t figure out who precisely would want to watch this pulp horror. The title of “Almost Human” presumably refers to the antagonist of the film, but perhaps it’s better description of the target audience.

In space, no on can hear you steal: A critical review of “Breach” (2020)

This blog wouldn’t be attempting to finish the year by exclusively covering cosmic horror if we didn’t like the genre. You know who else likes cosmic horror? The writers of “Breach.” I can tell because they recycle every notable cosmic horror film, television show and video game since the Hoover administration that they can think of. Instead of more introduction, here’s the plot of the film, with a couple comparisons pointed out as we go:

A group of humanity’s best and brightest get onto a sleeper ship after Earth appears to be doomed (shades of “Pandorum”). Everything’s going soap opera smooth until an alien entity starts entering the mouths and bursting out of the chests of the blue collar skeleton crew tasked with running the ship (“Alien,” natch). The dwindling staff decides to reawaken the ship’s commander (“Pandorum” again). He and his squad of overly confident space marines (“Aliens”) find the threat has mutated, and they face human hosts turned into zombies with bleeding eyes and gooey black drool (“Helix”).

That’s far from the end of repurposed plot points. We haven’t mentioned even mentioned crawling through the vents while someone shouts directions (“Alien,” “Aliens,” “Alien: Isolation”). Or how the final creature design looks straight out of “Resident Evil 2.” Or how the crew speculates about its origin, and someone theorizes it’s older than the universe. Was that lifted from “Event Horizon”? Warhammer 40K? Something else? Even the name of the film is the same as a flash game from 10 years ago about, you guessed it, a parasitic organism that goes zombie-nutso (by way of “The King in Yellow”) on a space station.

But who cares. “Breach” doesn’t try to be anything more than a derivative pulpy sci fi thriller. There’s no problem with that. In fact, given some of the problems this film has with its mechanics and narrative, the lack of originality is downright endearing.

Bloody Disgusting theorized that the film drew inspiration from “The Thing,” but in this blog’s opinion, that’s one of the few sources that is not blatantly on-screen. Unlike “The Thing,” there’s never a sense of mystery – in “Breach,” it’s always pretty clear who’s infected and who isn’t. However, the first half of the film has the potential for a similar tension. When the skeleton crew fans out over the ship in pairs to hunt down the creature, it feels like maybe this is going to be a psychological thriller. Then the zombies hordes show up, and it becomes a zombie shooting movie in space. OK, I guess, but where are these hordes coming from? I thought the passengers were all asleep.

This change of genre might be fine for fans of “Doom,” but they will still likely wonder why all the security forces shake their guns when they shooting them, like little boys going pew-pew-pew while firing finger guns. Or why the bullet sprays look like lens flare effects. Or why both the people shooting and the zombies seem to change location from shot to shot. Or where everyone’s wounds disappear to when they tumble to the ground.

All right, so the film has poor direction, inadequate budget and bad continuity on top of its inconsistent and unoriginal narrative. Is there anything else to recommend?

There are a few positives. The first is Bruce Willis in a prominent role. He’s charismatic and knows how to handle the pulp dialogue in a fun way, so he’s always watchable even as he slogs through the same script as everyone else. He’s easily the best thing happening on screen. Thomas Jane doesn’t fare quite as well, but that might be because he’s only on-screen for a few minutes. He has the role of “guy who shows up long enough to growl some lines and get his name in the credits,” but at least he growls with the best of them, even if it is a thankless task.

There are also a few interesting lighting choices, with some of the industrial space station corners shot in various foggy monochrome: a green workroom, a red corridor, a blue docking station. It’s about as atmospheric as things get, and it utilizes the film’s limited budget well.

The final thing of note is the ending, which is so bonkers that the badness of the film might actually circle back in on itself and become good again. If you’re like me, you’ve watched a couple of thrillers, and you think you know all the tricks. I figured there was going to be a twist ending, and partway through the film, I saw the perfect moment to set it up. But the film kind of forgot about the set up when the ending rolled around, so I assumed it was going for a less twisty conclusion. But no, it introduced a new element in the last second, and the film changed genres again to become… a kaiju movie? I have to admit, I did not see it coming, so congrats on that. Unless it was taken from “The Cloverfield Paradox,” just in case you thought we were done borrowing. But if we are so desperate we resort to borrowing from “Cloverfield Paradox,” it really is time to stop.

This blog still doesn’t quite see “The Thing” comparison, but at one point (and in similar circumstances), “Breach” does repeat a line from that film. Bruce Willis’s space janitor sees the alien creature, thought to be destroyed, start to rise again. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he groans. I concur.

Actual news for a change: News November 2021

As was prophesied, this blog is going to shift into doing some film and TV reviews for the rest of the year, and we’ll keep up our focus on cosmic horror. We initially wanted to do a lineup of the most underrated cosmic horror media, but then we asked ourselves: How could we do a “most underrated” lineup when we hadn’t established what the best cosmic horror media was?

So our focus shifted to the best cosmic horror. But then the obvious question emerged: How could we do a “best of” lineup when we hadn’t established what the worst cosmic horror media was? You can probably see where this going.

Through this thoroughly backwards reasoning, this blog has settled on its year-end mission: track down, watch (or re-watch, as the case might be) and review the worst cosmic horror media ever. That sounds like something to look forward to, right?

Hey, no one ever said this was a smart blog. Or a good one.

Ah well, that’s not really news. I mean, the “worst ever” part might be, but then again, reviewing crappy pulp thrillers is hardly new for us. So how about this instead.

I actually thought of a useful purpose for these news posts. From now on, when I’ll try to include a roundup of links I found interesting over the last month. A sort of “in case you missed it” of my side of the web. Since we just came out of October, there was plenty of fodder for fans of thrillers and weird fiction. So much, in fact, that I had to narrow things down a peg by sticking to creature features broadly defined.

For the beekeeper in all of us, Little Red Horror blogger Kim Morrison reviewed “Royal Jelly.” I find bees terrifying, so anything that combines weird atmosphere and psychological horror with that buzzing sound will catch my interest. I haven’t actually watched it yet, but I have seen Roger Corman’s “Wasp Woman,” which got a nice retro write-up by Simon Jones over on Meathook Cinema.

Keeping things in the insect theme, Mandalore Gaming did a thoughtful video review of “No One Lives Under the Lighthouse,” a game I was initially introduced to via Oney Plays. Wait, is that giving something away? Eh, probably not. This is one of those weird ones where it’s hard to tell what is and isn’t a spoiler.

Let’s pivot to more complex organisms. At the online literary journal Coffin Bell, writer J. Campbell shares his short story “A Frog Died For This.” It’s hazy and uncanny, and, despite the animal symbols in its bookends, technologically flavored. For something a bit more straightforward, let’s return to Meathook Cinema for a quick review of “The Last Shark.” How could you not watch something with such a ridiculous-yet-compelling title? It’s apparently a splattery Italian creature feature, so that checks more than a couple of my thriller boxes.

So was there a significant amount of creepy crawlies and big critters circling this Halloween, or was it just me? You know how it goes. You notice a trend, then that’s all you can see.

One big Gothic family: A critical review of “Darkest Dungeon” (2016)

You might think this blog would save something special for a day when Halloween herself lines up with our posting schedule. Well, you’d be right. Sorta RPG sorta turn-based strategy maybe rogue-like if I’m getting my terminology correct “Darkest Dungeon” is, uh, a dark fantasy dungeon crawler. It also happens to be one of my favorite recent discoveries, a perfect translation of nihilistic pulp Lovecraft that manages to sidestep most of the contemporary Lovecraft dressings. Intriguing.

Like the corporate world, “Dungeon” is all about team management, albeit in a fantasy/horror way. The plot concerns a crumbling manor built upon a series of catacombs that may lead to unspeakable horrors from another world. Those horrors have been spilling into the countryside, and you’re in charge of cleaning up the place. Not personally, of course. As the last living scion of the estate, you let your purse strings do the talking. The cleaning is done by squads of hired heroes – shifty mercenaries, misguided zealots, callous mystics and warriors with nothing left to lose – who march through swamps and ruins and attempt to map, burn and kill anything in their path. You steer them through ever-shifting levels representing the labyrinthine surroundings of the mansion, overseeing their combat, health and sanity.

Overseeing combat and health is pretty straightforward. Heroes fumble around enemy-haunted levels until they bump into the things going bump in the dark. In combat, they can attack, heal or inflict status effects on enemies. Sanity is a different affair. Well, it’s not quite sanity. The developers – who emigrated from Backbone Entertainment, a somewhat generalist developer with a vague specialty in updating old games or franchises to new consoles – were adamant that “Dungeon” would not have a sanity system the way a number of psychological horror games have over the years. Instead it’s stress, which gets its own bar like health.

Heroes can acquire stress in combat by taking sudden heavy damage or being attacked by psychological, rather than physical, attacks. They can also take stress outside of combat by encountering frightening random events or if the lights go out. Arguably, the stress system is just a sanity system in overdrive. Instead of jarring interface screws, you get management screws, with heroes who’ve undergone terrific stress breaking down mid-combat and skipping their turn, injuring themselves or demoralizing the other adventurers. The system is logical, tense and brilliantly executed.

The character classes undergoing this stress all mesh, which is actually surprising. The game doesn’t take place in any specific time or space, and the heroes reflect this. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, fitting neatly (and not so neatly) into a tank/assault/healer/support system, but they also have their own cosplay periods. Medieval characters like a Crusader, a Plague Doctor, a Leper king and a presumably lost Renaissance festival musician are in lockstep with Gothic tropes like a Highwayman, Grave Robber and lycanthrope, not to mention an Occultist who straddles the 19th and 20th centuries. On paper, it shouldn’t work. In practice, it does.

It probably helps that there’s a unity of style. It’s most apparent in the visuals, which all follow a somewhat lo fi woodcut/Mike Mignola presentation. The outlines are sturdy and dark, and the color scheme is muted, all stone grays and burnt reds and woodsy greens, with occasional splashes of sunset purple and neon blue to suggest an otherworldly ill health.

Part of the unity is that same blend of dark fantasy/Gothic/cosmic horror tropes is present in the environments. The individuals dungeons crawls are set in a dark forest, a haunted mansion and an oceanic grotto, the latter of which contains both ghost pirates and Deep Ones. Enemies likewise span sympathetic genres, and your team of hired heroes will face human highwaymen, resurrected skeletons in armor, mutated fairy tale giants, giant spiders and unplaceable monsters from beyond the stars because you touched the damn artifact, didn’t you? There are also a ton of spooky details to keep up the atmospheric pressure. The pirate cove is populated with alien bunches of coral and rotting whales. It took me a couple of times looking at that level’s rest screen to realize there was a corpse flopping out of a wrecked ship.

There are a couple of audio touches that neatly tie everything together too. The music is at points stately, jarring and operatic, which is fantastic and fitting. But the real sonic star is the narrator. First off, the writing (by director Chris Bourassa? I’m not certain about that) is perfect. It is absolutely Lovecraftian in both rhythm and word choice. Just check the prologue: “salt-soaked crags” and “damnable portal of antediluvian evil” aren’t directly lifted from Lovecraft, but they might as well be. The narrator is voiced by Wayne June, whose articulation is – and I hate using this word – epic. His voice is deep and thick, and he takes the performance seriously, so what might sound silly with a different set of pipes is absolutely appropriate. Vincent Price and Christopher Lee would both be proud.

The script, acting and music all melts together in a stewpot of pessimism. The narrator provides commentary during combat. Victories are met with admiration, caution and dismissal. Defeats are wearily acknowledged. The narrator is not someone you phone when you’re having a rough day. The music stings back this up. Even victories sound grim.

In fact, the final stylistic thing that ties all the disparate elements is the mood, which is nicely crushing and apocalyptic. It’s interesting. Everything feels inevitable, both victory and some certain as yet unknown defeat. This blog loves that mood, as there are too few games that so fully commit to a pessimistic atmosphere while still making it seem organic. Go figure, a game called “Darkest Dungeon” is not a happy one.

Still, if I had to call out “Dungeon” on one thing, it might be that it does its job of downbeat atmosphere a bit too well. I have similar feelings about “Dark Souls” actually, that the crushing atmosphere is so ingrained into the gameplay that it makes caring and wanting to continue difficult at points. “Dungeon” is similarly hard. Even when you win a dungeon crawl, it takes a toll on your heroes. Most of them leave levels with gameplay disrupting personality neuroses and STDs. Management extends to the hub – a town below the estate that’s just waiting for a shipment of torches and pitchforks to come in – where you upgrade heroes attack and defense, as well as cure them of their ills at the sanitarium, or reset their stress at the bar or local meditation center. If you haven’t been grinding enough heroes, you can find yourself with nothing to do while your A team has the night off.

Then there’s always the chance that your team will wipe, and your heroes – including a level five crusader who you’ve been grinding for hours – will all die in one fell swoop. And that’s a perma-death, by the way. In theory, a few bad, or just poorly managed, runs can cut your roster of useful heroes in half, crippling your progression. And the game expects you to wipe. Literally. You get an achievement for it.

The saving grace of “Dungeon” is its relative speed and simplicity. Wiping only takes minutes, but getting back into the game can be a quick operation as well. It’s as simple as hiring a few more heroes and tossing them into the grinder. Load times are usually short, and since everything is based on immediate dungeon crawling, you don’t have to wander aimlessly around a map. If you’re sufficiently soaked with resources, you also have a chance to hire more experienced heroes right off the start, cutting down on some of the grinding.

What’s more, “Dungeon’s” lessons are brutal, but at least they’re clear. For boss battles in particular, I always knew why I was wiping. Why did I bring an Antiquarian to a boss fight? Why didn’t I bring adventurers who could hit the back row? Characters died, but lessons were learned. In short, it was always fair (except that one fucking time I attacked the wrong fucking enemy by complete fucking accident, fucking fuck, the boss was one fuck-diddly-yuck strike away from keeling over… fuck).

Most of “Dungeon’s” combat is simple enough – walk around, fight some dudes, follow the strategy you’ve developed based on your team – so it runs the risk of getting samey. Arguably, it’s the tension that spices things up. Boss battles in particular, where fights can stretch out, feel satisfying upon conclusion, but so can simply getting to the end of a level when you’re a sliver of health or stress away from losing a character.

“Dungeon” is difficult – which makes sense given its Gothic atmosphere, cosmic horror themes and commentary on stress – but it’s not unfair. If I’m to be fair, I must admit that I’ve sunk hours into it and I haven’t beaten it yet. It’s possible that at some point I will toss my controller aside and, much like the heroes on screen, silently scream in rage and fear at the crushing gameplay and slow progression. However, I think I’ll stick it through. Style and atmosphere welcomed me in; clever gameplay and tiny victories keep me going. Despite the dark and downbeat mood, I think the brightest takeaway is that I’m still playing.