June 3, 2021

Time-release Capsule Reviews: Horrific 21st Century Life Lessons (Part One)

I just want to reiterate that, although I run a blog devoted to lean-budgeted genre movies from the hazy past, roughly ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s, I am not some close-minded old codger who refuses to watch anything new.

Okay, so I’m not a big fan of the current crop of comic book movies or Disney’s endless retreads, but I’m constantly on the look-out for intriguing new films to feed my addiction.

Not to brag or anything, but my wife and I saw a good many of the films nominated for Academy Awards this year, and enjoyed them all to some degree or another. (We also were among a relative handful that watched the awards from beginning to end, but I’m not sure that’s a bragging point.)

Still - Psycho (1960)
Although viewership for the 2021 Academy Awards hit a new low, the show
still managed to do well with the key 100-110 year old demographic.

If you’ve stopped by here before, you may have run across the disclaimer in About this Blog that I will occasionally write about newer films that pique my interest, if only to prove that I’m not hopelessly mired in the antediluvian past.

It’s been awhile since I reviewed something reasonably contemporary, so I’m devoting the next couple of posts to independent, low-budget horror and sci-fi films made in the past dozen years or so that grabbed my attention for their fresh, inventive takes on their genres (and that IMHO deserve more exposure).

I’m calling these “time-release capsule reviews” because a.) I’m releasing myself temporarily from the preference for moldy oldies, and b.) I’m hoping that with these capsule descriptions, I will plant a mind-seed that will tempt you to hit play the next time you run across one of these titles.

A time-release capsule from Hell
Warning: this blog uses time-release technology that will blow your mind.

Poster - Triangle, 2009
Triangle (2009)

“Mind-bending” is a term that gets tossed around a lot by critics, but Triangle earns that description in spades and then some. Jess (Melissa George) is an exhausted single mother of an autistic child who has taken the day off to go yachting with a group of wealthy friends. When their boat capsizes in a freak squall, the survivors, who are clinging desperately to the upended hull, are ecstatic when an ocean liner passes close enough to climb aboard.

Jubilation turns to consternation as the group explores the ship, which seems to be an antique from decades past, and which also is apparently completely deserted. Wandering around the spooky ship, Jess gets an uncanny sense of deja vu. But before anyone can fully process what’s going on, terror strikes in the form of a burlap-hooded killer who is targeting the group one-by-one.

The terror is amplified exponentially as Jess discovers that she and her yachting friends are caught in a time loop, seemingly condemned to repeat the chilling events over and over. Jess has to avoid becoming the hooded maniac’s next victim while trying to figure a way out of her terrifying Groundhog Day from hell.

Triangle is a sci-fi-mystery-action-psychological-thriller that steadily ratchets up the tension and keeps the audience guessing along with its frantic protagonist. It takes the old time loop cliché and transforms it in very disturbing ways. There is one scene in particular, involving one of Jess’s companions, that very graphically illustrates how many trips around the space-time merry-go-round the group has taken (and it’s a scene you’re not likely to forget).

At the start of the film, Jess is something of a mystery. She’s a working class mom, a duck out of water among the toney yuppies that she sets sail with. As things get deadly serious, Jess appears to be another in a long line of B-movie heroines and final girls; down-to-earth, practical types who are far-better equipped to survive than their arrogant, pampered companions. Yet, even as Jess is on the brink of solving her hellish puzzle and emerging triumphant, the film reveals events leading up to the sailing excursion that completely upend assumptions.

Writer-director Christopher Smith also co-wrote and directed Severance (2006), a grisly black comedy about a corporate team-building retreat in the wilderness of eastern Europe that goes horribly wrong. Australian actress Melissa George has done a ton of TV along with the occasional feature film. She is currently starring in Apple TV’s The Mosquito Coast.

Poster - The Shrine, 2010
The Shrine (2010)

While international backpacking has not been a thing recently for obvious reasons, vaccine rollouts are opening up more travel possibilities, and before long restless souls will no doubt once again be tromping around exotic locales on the cheap and staying in crowded hostels.

The Shrine begins with the aftermath of a backpacking trip gone bad. Carmen (Cindy Sampson), a young journalist, is intrigued by a string of mysterious disappearances of backpackers in eastern Europe, the latest of which is a young man by the name of Eric Taylor.

Carmen tries to sell the idea of an investigative story to her editor, but he declines. Undaunted, she interviews Eric’s mother, who gives the journalist her son’s diary that was found after his disappearance. From the diary, Carmen pinpoints Eric’s last known location to a remote village in Poland. Even without management’s blessing, she talks intern Sara (Meghan Heffern) and photographer Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) into accompanying her on a trip to try to find out what happened to Eric.

The trio wind up in a Polish village that seems to be straight out of the middle ages, run by severe-looking priests. At first the sullen, tight-lipped villagers are of no help, except to warn the visitors not to go in the woods where an odd, static fog bank hovers over the trees.

Eric’s diary mentioned the bizarre fog, so of course, Carmen and her companions have to investigate. At first Sara, then Carmen stumble upon a demonic-looking statue located in the center of the fog that appears to be examining them with sightless eyes, leaving them paranoid and disoriented.

Back at the village, one of the locals has a change of heart and leads them to an ancient-looking shrine that contains the bodies of Eric and other unfortunate travelers, each wearing a primitive iron mask suggesting some sort of grisly blood ritual. By trespassing in the woods, the visitors have marked themselves to be the next sacrificial victims, but incredibly, that may not be the worst fate awaiting them.

At first glance, The Shrine seems to be another standard entry in the “Don’t go in the woods!” subgenre featuring naive young campers, hikers and backpackers meeting gruesome demises that Cabin in the Woods parodied so well. But The Shrine cleverly adds yet another layer of horror onto the proceedings, and you’re suddenly not sure who the bad guys and good guys really are.

This culminates in a very effective scene in which Marcus and Carmen, exhausted, terrified, and desperately trying to avoid having metal masks nailed to their skulls, invade a family’s home to try to get the keys to their truck. The language barrier adds to the tension, but the family members, upon seeing the strangers, are panicked beyond what a garden variety home invasion would suggest. At this point the viewer is clued into what’s going on, but Marcus, who just wants to get out of Dodge, is completely oblivious.

The Shrine features some very hard, but important life lessons:

  1. Don’t make snap assumptions about people you don’t know, including those who live their lives differently from you.
  2. If the locals tell you not to go into the woods, don’t go in the woods.
  3. Always be aware of your surroundings.
  4. Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind.

Carmen and her crew pay a very heavy price for traipsing into a place they know nothing about in an attempt to solve a mystery for fleeting journalistic glory.

Jon Knautz, also a writer-director, is responsible for The Shrine’s unique take on an old subgenre. Since then, he has directed a pretty well-received “neo-slasher,” Girl House (2014), and a psychological horror film, The Cleaning Lady (2018; expanded from his short film from 2016). Fans of the Smallville TV series will recognize Aaron Ashmore (Marcus), who played Jimmy Olsen.

Coherence (2013)

It’s a sad fact of 21st century life that many people rarely interact with their neighbors except to squabble over fences that encroach on someone’s property or uninvited kids trampling on flower gardens. Coherence is a sci-fi/psychological horror film that asks the question: What would you do if you suddenly encountered the mother of all bad neighbors, and that bad neighbor was.... you!

Eight young suburban professionals are having a dinner party on a night when a comet is passing close to the earth. When the power goes out, the group goes outside and sees that one house in the neighborhood still has power. Two of the men go over to the other house to find out what’s going on. They return with a box containing pictures of them, the eight friends, and a strange story about the place being deserted, but it also being an exact copy of their house, with a dinner table set for eight.

They write a note to tape to the front door of the other house, but then are freaked out by a stranger who approaches their house, then runs off. To their amazement, they find the very same note they had written pinned to their door.

One of the more scientifically inclined dinner guests suggests that somehow, the passing comet has torn open space and time to such an extent that an infinite number of alternate universes/realities are suddenly coexisting together. Naturally, this induces paranoia and distrust in the group -- and all the other alternate groups that are co-occupying “reality.” Things degenerate from there.

Coherence is great example of a film of far-out ideas and suspense, made for next-to-nothing (reportedly around $50k), that grabs you from the get-go, doesn’t let go, and twists you around until you have no idea who’s on first or what’s on second (but in a fun way, I assure you).

The film was released in 2013, just as the possibility of parallel universes was gaining more ground among mainstream physicists, and in popular culture, the notion of the Mandela Effect -- allegedly false memories that make it seem as if the fabric of reality is changing in small but noticeable ways -- was also gaining traction.

But beyond cutting-edge physics or the paranormal, Coherence speaks to some very down-to-earth realities of daily living. It’s a sort of metaphor for how, in spite of the supposed unlimited connectedness of social media and technology in general, we continue to carve ourselves up into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people who are increasingly suspicious of those who aren’t in the club. The social pods that developed out of the pandemic have only accelerated the trend.

James Ward Byrkit completes this post’s trifecta of writer-directors. This was his first feature film directing job (and the only one to date); he also wrote the screenplay. He is apparently a jack of all filmmaking trades, with producer, art department, visual effects, acting and soundtrack credits on his resume in addition to writing and directing.

Emily Baldoni, who plays Em, the alpha female in the dinner group, has been all over TV since about 2008, with parts in several of the CSI and NCIS series, among others.

May 21, 2021

The Christopher Lee Sweat-a-thon: Night of the Big Heat

Poster, Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Now Playing:
Night of the Big Heat (aka Island of the Burning Damned, 1967)

Pros: Competently directed and acted; Decent attempt at adult science fiction.
Cons: Budget limitations result in a disappointing alien menace.

This post is part of the 2021 Christopher Lee Blogathon, hosted by the inimitable Barry at Cinematic Catharsis and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. Check out their sites for an impressive lineup covering almost every aspect of Sir Christopher’s amazing career.

There is a startling, if somewhat depressing, dialog exchange from another British science fiction film, also released in 1967, that sums up Night of the Big Heat quite nicely (not to mention our present predicament):

Professor Bernard Quatermass: The will to survive... it's an odd phenomenon. Roney, if we found out earth was doomed - say, by climatic changes - what would we do about it?
Dr. Mathew Roney: Nothing. Just go on squabbling as usual.
Quatermass: Yes, but if it weren't men?
[Quatermass and the Pit, aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967]

Since the beginning of science fiction, aliens with “minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic,” have “regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely” have drawn plans to invade it. [From the opening of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.]

The 2021 Christopher Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews

Today, considering how far humanity has come in turning the planet into a hot, chaotic mess, I doubt that we'd be high on any alien civilization’s invasion list. But back in 1967, it was still possible to imagine aliens desiring a piece of our big blue marble.

In Night of the Big Heat, the climate (or weather or whatever) is changing rapidly on the remote British island of Fara, aliens are suspected of being behind it (at least by one person), and, as the cynical Dr. Roney predicted in that other movie, all the locals can do is squabble.

It seems that in the middle of winter, while the rest of Britain is shivering in the cold, Fara is experiencing a bizarre heat wave. It’s already in the 90s, and the thermometer keeps inching upward. The locals are wandering around the island with large pit stains, and even larger stains where their souls should be.

The proprietors of the island’s inn and tavern, novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson), outwardly seem to be happily married, but the heat wave is revealing cracks in their relationship.

Jeff has advertised for a personal secretary to help with his writing, and who should show up but Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow), a sultry young woman with whom he had a brief affair on the mainland?

Jane Merrow, Sarah Lawson and Patrick Allen in Night of the Big Heat, 1967
"You've been fiddling with that thing for hours! When are we
going to go swimming?"

The heat is being turned up for Jeff in more ways than one, as Angela is doing everything short of licking his ear in front of his wife in a bid to win him back. Fortunately for Jeff, Frankie is either as dumb as a box of rocks or willfully blind. At one point, Angela sadistically spills the beans about the affair to her, then takes it all back, airily telling her she was just joking. Frankie’s reaction is to exhale a huge sigh of relief.

The befuddled Jeff is alternately attracted to and repelled by his former flame, but unfortunately Angela also attracts the attention of the island’s car mechanic, who, maddened by the heat and lust, viciously assaults her.

Lurking in the background of all the high drama is the enigmatic Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee), who is skulking around the island in a white shirt and tie, setting up equipment including cameras with tripwires, then quickly scurrying back to the inn to shut himself up in his room.

When he interacts at all with the locals, it’s to gruffly tell them to mind their own business. Naturally this sets tongues to wagging, fueling speculation that the mysterious stranger himself may somehow be behind the unusual weather.

Christopher Lee as Godfrey Hanson, Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) has spared no expense in his mission
to prove the existence of the elusive alien invaders.

In contrast, the avuncular Dr. Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing), a fixture at the inn’s tavern, is a calming voice of reason in the midst of all of the overheated emotion and paranoia. But eventually, even his reason will be tested as people start hearing an eerie whining/trilling noise that pops up randomly all over the island, and several of them wind up dead, fried to a crisp.

Night of the Big Heat was made and distributed in the UK by Planet Film Productions, a small independent that had released a sort of companion film the year before -- Island of Terror (1966) also featured harried islanders (Peter Cushing among them) threatened by mysterious, deadly creatures.

The British Film Institute lists just five movies under the Planet Film banner spanning 1951 - 1967. Night of the Big Heat was their last hurrah. Their 1960s projects, including the vampire horror film Devils of Darkness (1965; see my review here) seem to have been inspired by big brother Hammer’s successes, including the use of Hammer veterans in front of and behind the camera.

Unfortunately, the Cushing/Lee pairing in Night is not particularly notable. They share little screen time together, and their characters at this point (1967) were sort of shorthand representations of the screen personas they had developed in the previous decades: Cushing plays the warm, kindly village doctor who is there to listen and help; Lee is the gruff, imperious stranger who stomps around trying to document the bizarre manifestations, freaking out the locals in the process. But they’re not really antagonists, and each gets a shot at being heroic at the climax.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Hanson and Stone debate the relative merits of antiperspirants vs.
body wash when the heat is on.

The film really belongs to the heated love triangle of the conflicted writer, his wife and former girlfriend. The script cleverly ratchets up the physical heat even as Jeff gets weak-kneed and starts to succumb to Angela’s desperate ploys, and block-headed Frankie begins to realize the sexpot is not there to help Jeff keep his papers in order.

The metaphorical pièce de résistance occurs at the tavern, when the beer bottles behind the bar start exploding in quick succession due to the heat. In both love and alcohol, something’s gotta give when things heat up to the boiling point.

Something else that got me smiling while watching Night was the strict adherence to dress code as the heat became more and more insufferable. They say that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. The film further bolsters that reputation and ups the ante, as the characters barely shed a stitch of clothing even as the sweat pours down their faces. Lee’s character goes through the whole film with a buttoned down long sleeve dress shirt and tie. Similarly, Cushing’s doctor sports his suit coat and tie to the bitter end.

Under the same circumstances, Americans would take a millisecond to fling off their clothes and go full-on Beach Blanket Bingo.

Frankie (Sarah Lawson) finally gets wise to her husband's infidelity - Night of the Big Heat, 1967
"Hey Jeff, we need more beer... oh, pardon me, I'll come back when you're not so busy..."

Another oddity is the whole “island of the burning damned” idea that presupposes that everyone is trapped on Fara and unable to get to the mainland for help. The same alien forces that are causing the island to heat up have also incapacitated the phones and two-way radio, but there is no explanation or context given as to why there are no boats around and no way to evacuate.

The events of the film transpire in a single day, which suggests that perhaps there’s a ferry that stops only on certain days, and everyone is SOL at the moment. But there’s a government meteorological station on the island that figures prominently in the climax, and I kept thinking, “surely they have a boat for emergencies!”

This being a low-budget British sci-fi thriller of the ‘60s, the aliens only show themselves at the very end of the movie. Without going into too much detail, they’re not of the rubber-suited humanoid variety, and they’re not particularly intimidating, but they do look suitably equipped to suck up fuel and electricity and other sources of energy (per Hanson’s theories) and spit it back at the unfortunate islanders, turning them into crispy critters.

Based on a novel by John Lymington, this is not a kids’ matinee sci-fi show, but rather a thinking person’s study in human strength/frailty and what it takes to persevere in the face of the unknown and extreme conditions. The suspense comes in trying to figure out who will step up to the challenge, who will fold, and who will get fried. 

The first casualty of the aliens in Night of the Big Heat, 1967
"Uh-oh, I have a feeling I'm one of those expendable characters..."

Making Night of the Big Heat was something of an endurance test for the cast. They filmed on the UK mainland, but in the middle of winter, not summer. Sir Christopher did not have particularly fond memories of the movie:

[Night of the Big Heat] dealt with the invasion of Earth by alien protoplasm. Looking like fried eggs, they ruined the climax. They were as bad a letdown as the Hound of Hell and the Gorgon’s snakes. They rode in from space on a heat ray. We wanted the illusion of 115 Fahrenheit so Peter, Patrick Allen and I worked in shirtsleeves, and the girls had bikinis. That was fine, except that it was the middle of night in winter. To foster the impression of heat we were drenched in glycerine. [Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee. Orion, 2003, pp. 226-7]

Joining Christopher and Peter in shivering in the dark was veteran actor Patrick Allen (as Jeff Callum). If you’ve seen more than a few British TV shows or movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s a good chance you’ll recognize this square-jawed actor. Among a list of credits spanning six decades, he made appearances in The Avengers TV show, Hammer’s short-lived Journey to the Unknown series, and Brian Clemens’ Thriller series. He also appeared in quite a few action and war pictures like Force 10 from Navarone and The Wild Geese.

His wife in the movie, Sarah Lawson, was also Patrick’s wife in real life. I’m happy to say the vicissitudes of making Night of the Big Heat had no effect on their marriage, and they stayed together until Patrick’s death in 2006. Sarah is best known to horror fans as Marie Eaton in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out. And like her husband, she also appeared in an episode of Journey to the Unknown.

Patrick Allen and Sarah Lawson at the climax of Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Patrick and Sarah go into glycerine-induced shock at the end of Night of the Big Heat.

The third wheel of the love triangle, Angela, was played by Jane Merrow. Shortly after Night, Jane scored appearances in The Avengers and The Prisoner series, and has kept busy ever since, with a credit as recent as 2020.

Rounding out the film’s Hammer connections, directing duties were handled by the great Terence Fisher, who, as we all know, is responsible for some of the studio’s greatest Gothic horrors: Horror of Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, and The Devil Rides Out, to name but a few.

Night of the Big Heat is obviously not preeminent on anyone’s resume, but I would take Sir Christopher’s put down of it with a grain of salt. In the late '60s Lee was frustrated by typecasting and the quality of the scripts he was being offered, so this stage of his career was not a favorite. A few years later, he would be basking in showy roles in blockbuster hits like The Three Musketeers and The Man with the Golden Gun.

Night of the Big Heat is competently directed and acted. It’s main limitation is the budget, which necessitated keeping the less-than-spectacular alien menace hidden until the very end. Nevertheless, it’s a decent attempt at reasonably intelligent adult science fiction.

Do you dare reveal the alien from Night of the Big Heat?
If you dare, click on the question marks above to reveal the 
alien menace from Night of the Big Heat!

Where to find it:
DVD | YouTube  

April 24, 2021

Amazing Animal People #7: The Bat People

Amazing Animal People #7, The Bat People, 1974

On their honeymoon somewhere in the American southwest, Dr. John Beck (Stewart Moss) and his wife Cathy (Marianne McAndrew) decide to take a tour of some caverns before hitting the ski slopes. Cathy suggests that they ditch the tour group and find an out-of-the-way place for some impromptu lovemaking. As she looks for a good spot she promptly falls down a crevice. John scrambles down to rescue her, but climbing back out is a problem. Before help arrives, John is bitten on the forehead by a rogue bat.

Later, as they’re taking a gondola up to the ski run, John has an eye-rolling seizure. Cathy is worried, and even though the incubation period for rabies is a minimum of several weeks, she insists John get treated at once. At the hospital, John has an even more violent reaction to the rabies shot, and is kept at the hospital for overnight observation.

John is not only suffering from severe seizures, but he’s also having terrible nightmares of shrieking bats, and of stalking and attacking people in the dead of night. Sure enough, wherever he goes, he seems to leave a trail of bodies in his wake: first, a night nurse at the hospital whose throat is cut open, then an unfortunate girl living in a trailer park, and finally a homeless man living out in the desert.

Sleazy police sergeant Ward (Michael Pataki) is suspicious of Beck, having found his patient ID bracelet next to the nurse’s body, and begins shadowing the tortured doctor. But Ward seems as interested in hitting on Cathy as he is in solving the string of homicides.

Even as the evidence is stacking up against her husband, Cathy wants to believe that John is just having severe hallucinations as a result of the rabies treatment. Will her love be enough to prevent John from joining the ranks of The Bat People?

Funanimal fact: The Bat People was special effects wizard Stan Winston’s first makeup credit for a feature film (his very first credit was for the TV movie Gargoyles, 1972). He would later go on to do creature effects and makeup for such sci-fi classics as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Predator (1987), Jurassic Park (1993), Galaxy Quest (1999) and Iron Man (2008). Along the way, he won 4 Oscars in the categories of Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. He is just the second special effects person to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Stars.

Winston is quoted as saying, “I don’t do special effects. I do characters. I do creatures.”

Publicity photo - Stan Winston with some of his creations
Stan Winston (1946 - 2008)

Lobby card - It Lives by Night aka The Bat People, 1974
"Go back to sleep dear, it was only a bat dream."

Animal Crack-up (click on the text to see the punchline):

Bat silhouette
Don't miss these other Amazing Animal People:
Lota from Island of Lost Souls | Paula Dupree, Captive Wild Woman | The Mole People | Leonora the Cat Girl | The Alligator People | The Vulture