Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3: THE HANGMAN'S DAUGHTER

Only now does it occur to me... that FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3: THE HANGMAN'S DAUGHTER is the finest Ambrose Bierce fan fiction ever made.

The second straight-to-video sequel to Tarantino and Rodriguez's hardboiled vampire flick FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, THE HANGMAN'S DAUGHTER is a period piece, set in in 1913.  Essentially, it follows the structure of the original: a Western/crime drama which makes a sudden turn into horror territory around the one hour mark.

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2: TEXAS BLOOD MONEY was not without its high points, but part three outdoes it on nearly every count––primarily, in concept. 

Ambrose Bierce (THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY, AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, THE DAMNED THING) was one of America's finest satirists, a witty, wayward, and delightfully bitter man whose attitude was somewhere between Jonathan Swift's and Robert Mitchum's.  "Nothing matters" was his motto, and, at seventy-one, rather than suffer the sins of geriatric boredom, traveled south into Mexico with the intention of joining the Revolution.  He was never seen again... 

"...Or was he?"  So supposes FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3: THE HANGMAN'S DAUGHTER, which delivers the masterstroke of casting the inimitable Michael Parks (DEATH WISH 5, TWIN PEAKS, THE HITMAN, KILL BILL) as Mr. Bierce.

Parks delivers an understated performance that strives for poetry; he imbues the film with a haunting sense of élan vital.  And yes, I'm still talking about a straight-to-video vampire flick.  Remember, this is the actor who can make "waiting around and drinking coffee in a car" rife with pathos (in THE HITMAN).

Written by Robert Rodriguez's cousin Álvaro (and based on a story by the two cousins), THE HANGMAN'S DAUGHTER places a drunken and detached Bierce amid a sea of outlaws, missionaries, lawmen, revolutionaries, and Aztec vampires, where he can quote one-liners from THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY and generally not care a damn.

This is about as brilliant as having Oscar Wilde become Paladin's sidekick in a particularly memorable episode of HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL.

Director P.J. Pesce, long imprisoned by television and straight-to-DVD sequels (THE LOST BOYS: THE TRIBE, SMOKIN' ACES 2: ASSASSIN'S BALL, SNIPER 3) brings a genuine style to the proceedings; you see the talent and joie de vivre of a young director excited to be playing with the medium––this is not a man phoning it in, and boy, that makes a difference.

True to the Tarantino/Rodriguez oeuvre, it's packed with loving homages to everything from THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY to FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE to TAXI DRIVER, and composer Nathan Barr even turns in a borderline brilliant score, heavily inspired by Ennio Morricone by-way-of John Zorn.

Also of note: Danny Trejo is still tendin' bar eighty years prior (he has about three minutes of screentime),

Though he says, "We don't need no stinking brushes!" in perhaps the saddest nod to THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE ever made.

Sonia Braga (KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN) has a blast as the Elvira-ish innkeeper/madame (and mother of Salma Hayek's character from the first film),

and Temuera Morrison (ONCE WERE WARRIORS, Boba Fett's dad in the STAR WARS prequels), is the titular "Hangman" and he gives it his all in a sort of an "evil Yul Brynner" performance.


Sure, there's plenty of bad CGI, and I would never call it a masterpiece, but the act of shoehorning a literary figure into a bargain bin horror flick and then hiring an actor capable of embodying said figure is something of an artistic coup, and it's why FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3 ought to outlive its intended shelf-life.
Here's to you, Mr. Bierce... and Mr. Parks.

PS: And if you check it out, stay tuned after the end credits for a mildly amusing, meta scene involving the singular Mr. Parks.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Film Review: ZOMBI 3 (1988, Claudio Fragasso, Lucio Fulci, & Bruno Mattei)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Deran Serafian (actor in 10 TO MIDNIGHT, director of JCVD's DEATH WARRANT), Beatrice Ring (INTERZONE, SICILIAN CONNECTION), Ottaviano Dell'aqua (HBO's ROME, LADYHAWKE), Massimo Vanni (RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, ZOMBI 4), Mike Monty (BLACK COBRA 2, BLACK COBRA 3).  Music by Stefano Mainetti (SILENT TRIGGER, HIDDEN ASSASSIN).  Sort of directed by Lucio Fulci (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, ZOMBI 2), Claudio Fragasso (MONSTER DOG, TROLL 2), and Bruno Mattei (HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD, RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR).
Best One-liner: "That'll fix ya, you friggin' monsters!"

In a familiar, darkened alleyway:

"It's been a while, bud!"
–"Indeed it has.  Seen any good movies lately?"
"You ready for this?  How 'bout a holy and unholy mess of Italo-zombie flickery?"
–"Lay it on me."
"ZOMBI 3."
–"Hey, that's not a 'third' film!  Lucio Fulci's ZOMBI 2, known in the U.S. as ZOMBIE, was really the first film in its series, the '2' was only there to trick people into thinking it was a sequel to George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, which was released in Italy as 'ZOMBI.'  You're really starting this series off on the wrong foot if you're gonna fudge it like that."
"There's a '3' in it, and that's all that matters, my friend.  And get ready for another three––a trio, if you will.  ZOMBI 3 has three directors.  Count 'em: Lucio Fulci, Claudio Fragasso, and Bruno Mattei.  It's not just a perfect storm, it's like the convergence of three perfect storms in one wild turducken of incomprehensible Euro-trash nuttery!"
–"It's sounds like the Three Tenors, if the Three Tenors were known for eye trauma and bad dubbing and 'pissing on hospitality.'  How is that possible?  The idea of the directors of TROLL 2, THE NEW YORK RIPPER, and RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR collaborating is too much for my bad-movie-addled mind to bear."
"Well, I wouldn't really call it a collaboration, per sé.  Fulci fell ill about three weeks into the shoot, blaming the tropical climes of the Philippines.  Though those in the know claim that was a fabrication provoked by the terrible script."
–"Lucio Fulci walking away from a terrible script?  I don't believe it."
"You might if you realized it was the work of Claudio Fragasso and his writing partner, Rosella Drudi, whose finest hour was TROLL 2.  When Fulci bowed out, Bruno Mattei took over and directed the remainder of this thing.  Fragasso worked on some additional scenes.  Consequently, it doesn't have the dreamlike feel of your typical Fulci."
–"What's it about?"
"Essentially, it rips off DAY OF THE DEAD and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD in equal shades.  There's a secret army bunker (called Death 1 Compound!) on a remote tropical isle (like DAY OF THE DEAD), and they're messing around with viruses and bacteria (the writers continually act as if the two terms are interchangeable) and they accidentally make a gingerbread man-lookin' zombie.

This gingerbread man-lookin' zombie.

Then a bunch of nogoodniks who look like they wandered out of Fulci's CONTRABAND steal a suitcase filled with the virus/bacteria thing (not knowing what it is?) and there's a gun battle and then the surviving thief wanders over to a shitty resort

This shitty resort.  Actual quote: "A week ago this place was buzzin' with life... now it's buzzin' with flies!"

which is a five minute walk from the biological weapons facility (which seems like a less than ideal vacation locale) and then he infects some people, and then the General of the facility (who keeps commenting on the events as unbelievable 'science fiction!' even in the face of hard evidence)

Look at all the science on that whiteboard.

decides to burn the bodies in the crematorium (just like in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD)

and the smoke enters the atmosphere, which leads to practically the entire island getting infected.  One bureaucracy-battling scientist who knows what's up (and looks like the poor man's Jeffrey Combs from RE-ANIMATOR)

"Inexplicable acts of violence... murder... and people are eating each other!"

tries to solve the problem to no avail, because zombie movies are truly about the futility of human endeavor.   Zombies and survivors alike are hunted down by a bunch of dudes in biohazard suits (like in Romero's THE CRAZIES).  Gore and hilarity ensue, in something approaching equal measure.

So that's pretty much 'the big picture.'  But the big picture in a movie like this is rarely impressive.  It's the categorically insane 'little things' that make this kind of movie."
–"Such as?"
"I want to give you an idea as to the true flavor of this film.  A little soupçon of what ZOMBI 3 has to offer.  Behold:

That, my friend, is two and a half minutes of pure gold.  An inconsequential scene, really, of horny soldiers on leave hitting on some babes in a bus.

"We love soldier boys!"

But the rockin' 80s tunes, stilted line delivery ("What was her name? Cindy, Lindy? –I don't remember her name, but I sure as hell remember her TITS!"), and bizarre plotting (the bus of babes wants to con the soldiers into dates so they can swim at their biohazard beach?!) really push this over the edge."
"And nothing can prepare you for this, which feels more like the actual inspiration for BIRDEMIC than Alfred Hitchcock's THE BIRDS:

We've got a lot of Fragasso screenwriting hallmarks: a hamhanded pro-ecological message that immediately undermines itself ('I think nature is something that should be considered sacred, that's all...'  –'K, but let's not make a big deal of it.  I like smoking, I take a toke of a joint every now and then, and once in a while I like to piss on a bush... am I gonna go to hell for that?'), pissing references, odd syllabic emphases ('According to these greenPEACE people we're on the brink of total extinction or something'), and rank exaggeration (a pile of dead birds is described as 'I've never seen anything so sad'). 

"Looks like some hunter's gone crazy!"

–"I'm also noticing a theme here––does that DJ hover around the periphery of the film, commenting like a Greek chorus throughout?"

"You better believe he does, spouting pro-environment and anti-science inanity all the while, though it's unclear if his actual problem with science is that it doesn't do enough to stop pollution?  Anyway, his name is 'Blue Heart,' and I'll come back to him later on.  In the meantime, ZOMBI 3 starts to lay on the crazy––we've got zombie bird attacks out-of-doors:

We've got zombie bird attacks in a bus (set to arena rock):

Hell, these scenes are so good they even made an unofficial sequel called ZOMBI 5: KILLING BIRDS!

We've got leaping ninja zombies!

 We've got machete-wielding zombies:

This zombie, inspired by RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD's 'Tar Man' is the most persistent zombie in zombie movie history––he has more agency and drive (he really, really, really, wants to kill this particular woman with that particular machete) than any other character in this movie.

We've got fast zombies, slow zombies... we've got no consistency in zombie speed whatsoever!  We've got zombies that talk, zombies that don't talk, zombies that know stage combat:

A zombie baby that busts out, mid-delivery, to eat the face of a midwife, even though she was already being eaten from behind by a full-grown zombie:

–"Why, it's utterly relentless!"
"There's a gas station explosion, because we all know it's not really an action movie till that happens:

we've got Deran Serafian (director of JCVD's DEATH WARRANT) in a rare acting appearance:

there's an Alice Cooper reference (the DJ has "Vincent Raven" read a list of safety precautions–– Vincent Raven being the name of Alice Cooper's character in Claudio Fragasso's MONSTER DOG!), and an inexplicable scene where a live woman is pushed into a pool and after she's rescued a few seconds later, she's missing her legs and is now a zombie.

–"Was it zombie fish?  Whew.  You're overloadin' my circuits, brother."
"With Fulci & Co., you should probably be used to havin' your mind blown.  ...But has it ever been refrigerated?"
"Shut up and watch:

 –"Oh, sweet mother of mercy.  What did I just see?"
"That there, my friend, was a knucklehead opening a fridge and seeing a severed zombie head instead of a stack of Kraft Singles, and then the head magically flying out and chomping on the neck of said hapless, food-seeking man."

–"So he became the midnight snack, as it were."
"Truly this is why we watch these movies.  Given a million years, I never could have come up with something as implausibly, brainlessly brilliant as a severed head flying out of a fridge on its own volition."
"Oh yeah, and there's a final twist of some kind where it turns out DJ Blue Heart was a zombie all along...

but it doesn't make any sense, so don't worry about it."
–"Hot damn.  Looks like another true trashterpiece."
"Yup.  And I'll bet you'll think twice the next time you open a fridge."
–"That I will.  But let's do the math: ZOMBI 3, divided by TROLL 2, plus 2 bird attacks, minus 1 Fulci ailment, but plus 1 head in the fridge... about 3 and a half stars?"

–Sean Gill

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Coming soon: Good things come in 3's!

Spring is here, which for me means cold beers and hot pizzas and bad movies.  I have a new themed cycle of reviews in the works, devoted entirely to the third films of a series.  Most of these are relatively obscure and belong to franchises that, using conventional wisdom, probably shouldn't have had a second installment, much less a third.  Sometimes they aren't even the third installment, they just claim to be.  And we are the richer for them.  I'm not opposed to recommendations, either, so fire away!
From the poster art of Cannon's NINJA III: THE DOMINATION.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... CRUISING

Only now does it occur to me... the four most unexpected bit parts in William Friedkin's heavy leather psychological thriller, CRUISING, are:

#1.  Joe Spinell, brilliant NYC character actor (THE GODFATHER, MANIAC, TAXI DRIVER, THE SEVEN-UPS, NIGHTHAWKS, VIGILANTE) appearing as a closeted, homophobic cop.  He's only present for a handful of scenes, but he imbues his character with equal measures of sleaze, torment, and a surprising pathos.

Joe and his sleazy pathos (in the passenger seat).

#2.  Ed O'Neill (known chiefly for his sitcom work on MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN and MODERN FAMILY, though occasionally as a David Mamet stock player) as a plain-talkin' detective.

He's pictured here to the right of real-life cop-turned-actor Randy Jurgensen, who's looking sorta like a poor man's Warren Oates.

He doesn't have too much to do here, but he brings a straightforward, simple-minded focus to his character, running down dead-end leads for his boss, an utterly beleaguered NYPD Captain (GOODFELLAS' Paul Sorvino).

#3.  Hey, look, it's Powers Boothe (EXTREME PREJUDICE, DEADWOOD, SOUTHERN COMFORT, RED DAWN, SIN CITY)!  Now here's where it starts to get really special.

As the "Hankie Salesman," he briefly explains the code system of the of colored pick-up bandanas to undercover cop Al Pacino.  While describing which hankies in which pockets denote blowjobs, hustling, golden showers, et al., he plays the character as a mix of affectionately annoyed and mildly disinterested.  Pacino says he'll go home and "think about it."  "I'm sure you'll make the right choice," says Powers, still bored.

 #4.  James Remar (THE WARRIORS, DEXTER, 48 HRS., BAND OF THE HAND, THE PHANTOM) as the dancin' roommate.

One of the main supporting characters, Ted (Don Scardino, who plays him as a lovable Bohemian like from TALES OF THE CITY), has a boyfriend who's a mildly (?) abusive dancer who's always on tour.  He's spoken of occasionally throughout the film.  We finally get a glimpse of the dancer near the end, and it's none other than James Remar, wearing short-shorts and waving a butcher knife around.  This was especially amusing to me because, though we never see his character dance in CRUISING, I believe this may have inspired his role in 1987's RENT-A-COP, where he plays a murderous and sweaty dancin' machine.

In closing, CRUISING is a well-made psychological thriller (Friedkin has always been a consummate craftsman who rarely draws attention to his technique) with some brilliant performances and featuring a very specific time and place. It fits nicely in his "cops on the edge" oeuvre, alongside TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... THE MUPPET SHOW 1x01

Only now does it occur to me... that an obscure image in the first-ever produced episode of THE MUPPET SHOW (1x01, hosted by dancer Juliet Prowse in January 1976) seems to have inspired the poster image of the now (unfairly) obscure 1984 educational drama, TEACHERS.

The poster for TEACHERS:

The image in question, whereupon Fozzie Bear and Rowlf the Dog handle an apple bomb:

I really have nothing else to say, except maybe "How 'bout that?"

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD

Only now does it occur to me... that even in a movie where he's in a wheelchair,

Note the wig.

Christopher Walken manages to shoehorn in... a dance sequence!

Granted, it's via a short-lived flashback, but boy oh boy does the man love to dance.

In all, THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD is sort of a mediocre "Guys Doing a Job" crime movie, injected with 90s indie quirkiness and a slightly out-of-place existential tone.  Clearly, the Weinsteins were trying to capture some Tarantino-ish lightning in a bottle once again, but it doesn't quite take.   However, the Guys Doing the Job are a terrific ensemble, as Andy Garcia assembles a team that includes trailer trash William Forsythe, sporting rainbow-colored tattoos and looking like his character from STONE COLD:

Christopher Lloyd as a crabby porno theater projectionist who's always complaining about how he just "lost a toe!":

Treat Williams as a psychotic ex-boxer and current funeral home employee who trains using corpses as punching bags:

and Bill Nunn, shot from low angles like his character Radio Raheem from DO THE RIGHT THING:

Bill Nunn in Denver...

...and Bed-Stuy.

Plus, we got Fairuza Balk as a streetwalker

doing that same sassy/punk/smartass thing she does in almost every 90s movie, but that's why we love her.

And closing it out over here is Steve Buscemi as "Mister Shhh," the master hitman––
who feels more like a character from a Rodriguez film instead of this one, but I s'pose that's fine, too. 

In all, a 90s curiosity that's far from essential viewing––but it does function as a tremendous repository of bizarre and brilliant acting choices.