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The Wicker Tree (2011) - 2.5/4

Some people are very consistent in their obsessions. Robin Hardy appears to be one of those. He wrote and directed the horror classic, The Wicker Man, a very strange film with otherworldly cadences. That film concerned a Christian police inspector who is sent to some remote hamlet on a British isle, somewhere off the coast of Scotland. There he encounters an infuriating lack of Christianity. Under the rule of the gentlemanly Lord Summerisle, a fictitious brand of Paganism has propsered and the villagers couldn't be happier. The inspector not so much.

I suppose there could be some ambiguity read into The Wicker Man as to just which side Hardy is on. I'm not sure he's on any side, strictly speaking. There's no doubt to me that Hardy holds the Christian inspector, and his brand of Christianity, in contempt. He's our protagonist and first-time viewers enjoy the island's mystery through him, giving him some sympathy. His moral behavior also lends him considerable dignity. Hardy gives the inspector a martyr's death and villainizes the Pagans thoroughly, of course, and this has no doubt led to multiple interpretations. There's an apparent fondness for the Pagans and their now morally taboo ways, but they are cast as the villains of a horror movie--many of them stubbornly cruel simpletons.

The Wicker Tree is a kind of sequel to Wicker Man, but in many ways a rinse-and-repeat. This time, it's a lot less subtle and a lot more fun. Instead of a morally righteous British Anglican born and raised in good values, what we get is a white trash country music gal. She used to play up the farmer's daughter slut look and looked damn good doing it. Then she found Jesus, and all Nashville said, "Dang!" She's Born Again and using her celebrity to spread the Gospel, in this case to a certain Pagan island off Scotland. She also drags her gosh darn cowboy boyfriend (cowboyfriend?) with her, as he pretends to like his chastity ring.

This is where The Wicker Tree gets good. Because the Pagan village is not full of pagans, it's full of horny pagans. My favorite kind of pagan. Everything in the village is about sex. Every innocent little sea chanty, pub ditty, or lullaby the characters sing, line of poetry they recite, is all thin innuendo. Now, our country gal is too blonde and dumb to grasp anything's going on. But her cowboy, while certainly dumb, happens to have a penis, so he's picking up on it. Particularly the part where a gorgeous and naked pagan girl asks him to strip and join her in the radioactive pond.

There actually is a plot to The Wicker Tree, though it's kinda convoluted and not that important to enjoying the film. Lord Summerisle's successor is a knighted businessman whose specialty is nuclear energy. Somehow his nuclear power plant ties into a pagan ritual that involves crowning a May Queen, killing her 'Laddie'--who must ride a horse--and then burning her at some wicker contraption. Failing the first rule of good missionary work, our Nashville refugees do not bother to learn any of the culture they've come to destroy, and so gladly accept the May Queen and Laddie titles.

Now this bimbo country star is so dumb, I don't feel much sympathy for her. "Dear God, thank you for making my voice so good, and my looks okay." She really says that. The cowboy I kinda like. He's stupid too, but open to the point of naivity. He just does what he's told. You get the feeling it wouldn't take much to convert him to Paganism. The point is, there's none of the ambiguity here that you had in Wicker Man. Clearly Hardy thinks these Born Again Christians are morons. American Christianity is even more contemptible to him than the British kind. For him, it's a Christianity of ignorant rednecks repressing their sexuality. He's all too happy to throw them into a sexually liberated environment of amoral hedonism and watch them be destroyed by it. The pagans remain villainized barbarians who impose their beliefs on the unwitting Christians with brutality. But before this horror formalism takes over, you sense he really likes these horny pagans as much as I do. They're a good lot before they kill you.

So that's The Wicker Tree. For anyone who's seen The Wicker Man, there aren't really any surprises. That's part of the reason it's not too well regarded. Another reason is that its tone is so different than the original, less austere and mysterious, less otherworldly, and more earthy, crass, "Dionysian." Hardy still comes across as a self-taught filmmaker with his own odd cadences, but Wicker Tree is really a b-movie that has fun with sex and violence. It's a riot.

Skinned Deep (2004) - 2.5/4

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one helluva movie. Like the Hamlet of horror movies, if a movie goes anywhere near its subject matter, it does seem to be imitating it. Imitating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't such a bad thing; just that its tones are so delicately balanced and ambiguous it'll be very easy to mess up. There's something darkly comedic about TCM, and yet it's never stupid or goofy. It's vicious and violent, yet strangely reticent to show you its ugliness. It's meaningful and satirical, a caricature and a portrait, but never self-consciously so, never blaring a message.

I could go on, but why bother? TCM is alive and making money still. Skinned Deep is an obscure and undeservedly neglected slasher in the TCM vein. Other films that tread the TCM territory, like Kevin Connor's Motel Hell and Hooper's own TCM2 both tried to play up the comedy and over-the-top feeling of TCM. Both films are excellent in their own right, if not as perfect as their template. Skinned Deep goes a country mile farther. This move is probably for the worse, but it sure results in a unique film.

Skinned Deep, much like TCM, concerns an odd 'family' that dwell together in a fiendishly eccentric house that is a small triumph of set design. This family similarly preys on stupid, American passers-by who happen into its traps. In this case, the Americans are ten times stupider, a family of fat fools who all but place their heads on the chopping block. This leaves the barely attractive teenaged daughter in the position of taking on the whole family herself. Fortunately she's under the protection of 'Brain' AKA 'Brian,' the family's childish but well-meaning sweetheart, with an enormous, skull-less brain and a single set of overalls.

The girl is dragged through one horrible situation after another as the family tries desperately--due to Brain's pleadings--to socialize her into the family. This involves some bizarre hijinks like a battle with a gang of decrepit bikers and the random murder of some joyriding rednecks. The film culminates in meeting 'The Creator,' a headless 1960s Sean Connery, flexing compulsively and speaking in riddles out of the ether.

I don't think there's any sense to Skinned Deep's absurdism. It's crazy for the sake of it. If you can't enjoy Warwick Davis as a plate-throwing midget that spews philosophy and does jinjitsu dances after every murder, a headless Sean Connery, a metal-jawed slasher called 'The Surgeon General,' and intentionally terrible dubbing, you've already missed the boat. It's strange and silly and you're supposed to like it for what it is.

As it happens, I liked it very much. But it's nevertheless a deeply flawed film. There is no seamless blending of tones like in TCM or even Motel Hell. The Surgeon General is a pure horror movie creature and as cool-looking as any slasher villain ever created, maybe cooler. The scenes involving him are often moments of pure horror, intended, it seems, with some seriousness. Then we see Brain prancing naked through crowded streets. There's no consistency, no clean segueing from tone to tone, just abrupt shifts from episode to episode or sometimes mid-episode.

All of this is lovingly filmed in a muddy 16mm that reminds of a good ol' HG Lewis movie. And the comedy in this movie probably comes closer to Lewis's sense of humor, incidentally. Skinned Deep has more in common with the insanity of The Gore Gore Girls and The Gruesome Twosome than Hooper's or Connor's subtlety. The shooting, however, is much better than anything Lewis ever did. There is a real sense for the tones of 16mm, particularly in the night shots, and an often brilliant use of abstraction rarely seen outside of Hitchcock.

Writer-director Gabriel Bartalos's next creation is Saint Bernard, another surreal, horror epic set for release sometime in 2014. I'm very eager.

Disconnected (1983) - 2.5/4

Phones are creepy. The proliferation of cellular phones today has transformed them into almost an extension of the body. I'm old enough to remember a world without cell phones. I'm old enough to remember rotary phones--and I ain't even that old, I'm just from a small town. In those days, the phone is this mysterious chunk of plastic you keep in your home where disembodied voices can access you at almost any time. Sure, it's usually your grandma asking if you remember where she put her purse. But sometimes that call at 3am could be someone you don't know, and you're permitting that stranger's voice to be in your home, to have access to your ear. Phones are creepy.

Disconnected is a movie that wouldn't work so well in the era of cellular phones. Something about those analog lines was different, both more personal and yet more otherworldly. Especially when we had no caller ID and couldn't google the number. The protagonist, Alicia, has a white rotary phone--a Model 500, I suppose--that starts ringing in with strange calls. As she recriminates her boyfriend for possibly screwing her twin sister, she hears her boyfriend talking to her sister over the phone. Thing is, neither her sister nor her boyfriend live with her and it's no party line.

Meanwhile, a serial killer has been murdering women and the police are desperate to find him. Just happens Alicia's rebound guy is none other than the slasher himself, a soft-spoken film buff who hits on her in the video store. These murders are remarkably bland affairs in which the effete film buff repeatedly sticks his embarrassingly small blade into dispassionate sluts. Including, eventually, Alicia's slutty twin herself, Barbara Ann.

What really makes Disconnected stand out is not Joe, the rude video store customer who leers at Alicia while asking about the latest porn releases. It's the weird phone calls. As the film's title indicates, the calls are 'disconnected' from the rest of the plot. Sort of.

The killer is shot by police halfway through the movie, leaving Alicia in a confused state she can only alleviate with chain smoking and binge drinking. We watch her 'downward spiral,' I guess, in a variety of indulgent montages that say, "Hey, I may have gone to film school." And I'd believe it. Gorman Bechard's direction is pretty assured for a debut slasher. Still, usually once the monster is dead, the movie ends.

That's the trick. The serial killer isn't really the monster. Alicia's mental state aside, she does continue to receive bizarre phone calls in which an alien voice growls gibberish at her. We also learn in passing that the serial murders are continuing, and all victims received harassing phone calls before they got it. Aha!

But then, just when you're intrigued about what's really going on, that's when Bechard decides to end the movie. And he ends it on a high note: with an old man leaving Alicia's apartment and walking away with his hands behind his back. Dun nun nuuun! That's actually the way the movie started. The old man asks to use her phone and is never seen again. What could it all mean? Only two people know: Gorman Bechard and Joe the porn afficianado--that's just my theory.

Disconnected is certainly one of the more peculiar slashers ever made. It's interesting, tries to be ambitious and subtle, fails miserably in the blood and tits departments, but succeeds in totally confusing everyone. That's a C+ in my book.

Pledge Night (1990) - 2/4

The slasher genre has a strange fixation on fraternities and sororities. I'm not sure why that is. They are a standard location to find a bunch of young adults and kill them. So there's that. Also, many slasher directors were using the AV room equipment at their college in between liberal arts courses. On the other hand, most of these slashers were made in the '80s. The '80s itself was kinda obsessed with the idea--whether being treated seriously or subverted--of fraternities and sororities as the building blocks of social success. In some way, these slashers were undermining the value of fraternities and sororities, presenting them as an extention of the poisonous teat upon which socially successful children must suck until they become full-blow sheep themselves. Rich, powerful sheep. Or maybe it's just because lots of douchebags, tits, and sex is likely to be there.

Pledge Night is even more fixated on the operations of the fraternity life than most slashers of the kind. The first half (yes, half) of the film follows the pledges through the process of initiation into Phi Upsilon Nu (That spells PhUN!). The way the 'officers' play with the pledges is scrutinized and the values they attempt to instill is presented clearly. The fraternity is all about loyalty and brotherhood. And the best way to make loyal brothers out of young men is to make them carry cherries with their perspiration-drenched buttocks for hours and then eat them. Straight out of Plato's Republic.

One pledge is a particular focus, as his mother is an old hippie who distrusts frats. Maybe she distrusts them less out of social protest and more out of, well, her ex-boyfriend was killed in a bad hazing incident in that very house. He was a well-meaning hippie named Joey Belladonna. I mean, Sid. Never saw it coming. But the pledge also got in with one of the officer's girls enough to know that the supposedly crazy frat member is all an act. Or is it?

Finally, just when you're starting to feel like you're being hazed by this movie, the frat exposition reaches climax during an exhausting monologue about the ancient history of PhUN. These frat guys really take themselves too seriously. Fortunately, the fake maniac becomes a real maniac and begins killing his 'brothers' while cackling with haemorrhoidal glee. But he's not just gone psychotic. He's been possessed by that hippie ghost, Acid Sid. Sid no longer believes in free love. He believes in asking people who they are, then killing them in gruesome ways. After crawling out of the frat brother's caved-in body, he strangles a pledge's with his own spinal column, melts another pledge's head in his vaginal gutwound, and chases the final guy and gal around the confusing frat house. They meanwhile hide in a secret room behind an American flag.

Yes, Pledge Night is a movie all about freedom and what America is really built on: rich, powerful families and the connections made in fraternities? or the human spirit that will never be satisfied as long as someone's oppressed? Neither. It's based on heavy metal, cheesy movies, and tittays. As Joey Belladonna sings in his epic ballad Efilnikcufecin, "Just one too many cookies/From the batch no one should taste." Or in Caught in a Mosh, "Your mother made a monster, now get the hell out of my house." Words to live by.

Notes from the Turkeyground III: A Month in Bad Movie Asylum

Yet again, the annual tradition of watching allegedly 'bad' movies dawned in our household. November 1st is eagerly anticipated like a harvest feast. We stockpile for it all year long. "We can save that movie for the Turkey Challenge!" So we do. It's the Saturnalia, the Carnival season, when all the checks and guards can be dropped and taste is turned on its head. The usual measures of taste, value, and pleasure are no longer so restricted. The gates are open and one never knows what will wander in. Movies that would seem a waste of time in June are, in November, a discovery, a gem, or just a damn good time.

This year, we knew what to kick off with. Those wacky SyFy movies, often produced by The Asylum, that just seem to be getting wackier all the time. There was always a tongue-in-cheek element to those giant shark movies, but they were still playing at being serious. That is, they were still about a giant shark or some other massive terror. I think, as they've come to realize they don't have to play serious, they've gotten better. They've given in to their worst impulses and that kind of perversion is always rewarded in a creative element. The best of these are directed by Griff Furst.

The anaugural film of the challenge this year was Furst's Ghost Shark, a film whose very concept is preposterous enough to amuse. It plays out almost as good as it should. A shark is assaulted by grenade-tossing rednecks, as all good sharks must be, and retreats to a semi-submerged druidic temple to die. The druidic powers that be make the shark not just a ghost, but a ghost that can materialize in any body of water, anywhere, no matter how small or shallow. The shark appears in puddles, cups, sweat, condensation, swimming pools, eating children, teens, more children, and a boardroom executive. This is what we waited all year for, and it was worth it. Thank you, Griff.

Furst also delivered in Arachnoquake, a severely underrated disaster flick about flame-breathing spiders and the all-girls softball team and the drunken tour bus driver that kick their bulbous asses. But he outdid himself with Ragin' Cajun Redneck Gators, where Louisianan yokels are chomped by gators with actual red necks and then themselves transform into angry, you could even say ragin', Cajun redneck gators. Such flagrant disregard for making sense deserves to be seen, however average the result. Hopefully Griff continues in this direction.

Next on the list was similar director, Mark Atkins, whose films are quite a bit more hit-and-miss, but also quite a bit more varied in style. His worst, Alien Origin, is an almost silent film, with a bunch of Filipino non-actors whispering in the jungle and the back of a restaurant with no music or special effects to speak of. His best, The Haunting of Winchester House, is a rehash of the same thing seen many times before, just done better than its larger-budget comparisons. Sand Sharks also deserves mention for its relentless goofiness, thanks largely to Corin Nemec's brilliant portrayal of a massive ahole into which all sharks must flow.

Unfortunately, as a dog that turns to lick its own feces, we returned to David DeCoteau for another try and got more of the same. In 1313: FrankenQueen we found very little Franken and even less Queen. A milfy scientist is supposedly conducting Frankensteinian experiments, but spends 20 minutes straight running a 'probe' (a dollar store flashlight) along one of the buff boys' half-naked body. The boys walk around in a trance a little. Then are merged into a single buff boy who kills her. But 1313: Giant Killer Bees! was totally different, a breath of fresh air, it was--just kidding, it was the same garbage with some bad CGI bees inserted into a few of the frames. DeCoteau's Hansel and Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft, however, was a predictable, but entertaining private school drama with a playful witchcraft element. I'm assuming it was
ghost-directed.

At this point, we decided to return to Griff Furst and see what his earlier career had to offer. Swamp Shark proved a much more average 'ancient shark awakens from the deep and wreaks havoc' film. His take on the Richard Matheson classic, I Am Omega, starring Mark Decascos, was quite a lot of fun. Decascos unleashes his usual martial arts moves on some monstrous non-CGI creatures, hooks up with a city girl, kills some rednecks, and blows stuff up. The more independent film, 30 Days to Die--a title that describes nothing in the film, really--is a combination of serial killer slasher mayhem and women-in-prison flick, with a deranged sheriff running headfirst into a very mismanaged teen girls' juvenile rehabilitation camp, at times very dull and at the same time one of the month's highlights.

The third of our SyFy heroes was Steven Monroe, who provided us with the very entertaining Mongolian Death Worm, which used the wise technique of overstuffing the plot and making good use of its washed-up actor star, Sean Patrick Flannery, as a charming rogue. Monroe's Grave Halloween was a strange Japanese ghost story, set in a spooky forest. Although a great setting, as the only setting the forest provided highly monotonous to the point of sopor. 

Unfortunately, not all SyFy directors are created equal. Leigh Scott offered up Flu Bird Horror, in which silly pterodactyls attack teen delinquents in the woods and spread a plague. These plots awkwardly converge with little satisfaction. The Possession of Gail Bowers, starring Griff Furst, was the average possession movie, copying all The Exorcist's moves. The film's vulgarity is what it really has going for it. Finally, Hillside Cannibals, which tries to be deep and anthropologically serious as well as grim and gory while ripping off The Hills Have Eyes ends up being tedious and shrill.

Relief from the SyFy movies came from the UK thanks to Jonathan Glendenning. His S.N.U.B! was a boring mix of Yes Minister without the comedy and unduly slow apocalyptic zombie film. Night Wolf was a little better, hiding the werewolf for far too long and giving us only irritating characters who never get naked. But Strippers vs. Werewolves, a goofy, playful, comic-booky splatter movie with lots of good gore and nudity delivered everything a b-movie ought to deliver and in abundance. Perhaps the most outstanding film of the whole month.

At last, we decided it was time to stop waiting and give Sharknado a try. Can it be as fun as the premise? Can it offer all the pleasures it should? Of course not. The premise is hilarious, but when it comes to stringing it into a plot and real humans, you're stuck taking it too seriously. It's impossible not to take that plot too seriously, as any seriousness is too much. It should only exist as a lost Monty Python skit. At any rate, Sharknado is still fun in its gleeful nonsense, particularly the skydiving climax that so eagerly pisses in Newton's face.

Having watched Sharknado, we had to give director Anthony Ferrante another shot. Hence Hansel and Gretel, a very enjoyable if often wilfully stupid backwoods slasher about a clan of cannibals. Dee Wallace is excellent as the madwoman at the heart of the cannibal mayhem. The Headless Horseman is also a very enjoyable SyFy movie about a backwoods town with an ancient curse. It delivers: a. sinister inbred yokels. b. an ancient curse. c. a malevolent spirit that steals people's heads. d. a pit to hell with little ghostly hands. and e. a sexy hillbilly with pigtails. Sharknado may just be the least of Ferrante's ouevre.

The last of the new directors we met this year was Dennis Devine and hoo boy this fella's a basket case. All of his movies are shot with three ingredients: a bunch of girls from the local college's acting class, a digital camcorder, and Randal Malone. He bakes them not so much to perfection, but to a bizarre, lumpy hodgepodge of catfights, bitchy comments, dark pasts, flashbacks, Agatha Christie style reveals, doughy bodies in bras and bikinis, and cheap stage blood. Yes, every Dennis Devine movie has a large number of cat fights. The most enjoyable part of each of these slashers must be Randal Malone's earnest delivery, used best in Don't Look in the Cellar. Alice in Murderland comes second, thanks to its cat fights, and last and least is Blood Mask, a confusing possession movie with braindead teens, priests, robes, and cheap goth makeup. I'm not sure how I feel about these movies, but I'm glad to have watched them.

Not much time, with all the new friends, to revisit our old buddies. I trekked through Fred Olen Ray's backyard on my own, enjoying my annual treat of Beverly Hills Vamp, and this year Fred's tna classics Evil Toons and Witch Academy. I also paid Steckler a 'What's up, dude?' by rewatching Blood Shack and The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher. But it was really Charles Band my wife and I spent the most time catching up with, enjoying the political incorrectness of Ooga Booga and the mindnumbing pleasures of the latest Evil Bong movie, Wrath of Bong. I'm not sure I know who Charles Band really is. He can make a brainless titty movie like Doll Graveyard, a heady French philosophy-referencing surrealist gem like Blood Dolls, and then a wacked out stoner-flick like Wrath of Bong. He's hard to peg. I just realized this.

I'm glad to say we closed out the year on Wrath of Bong and not the wretched Witchcraft movies we decided to try out. Overall it was a fine month of turkeys, where The Asylum scored a lot more hits than I would have ever imagined. Yet, a month where nothing mindblowingly great was discovered, and a lot of our new company proved little more than fleeting acquaintances. Most of all, I'm glad to have met Griff Furst, a gang of strippers and werewolves, crossed Mongolia with Sean Patrick Flannery as guide, and enjoyed the familiar comforts of Michelle Bauer's bosom and Eddie Deezen's flailing-hand emoting.

Until next year, stay hungry and hold the cranberry sauce.