The Ugly (1997)

written & directed by scott reynolds
essential productions/the new zealand film commission

What a deft accomplishment this New Zealand production is. With a setting straight out of the mundane – serial killer in asylum, being interviewed by psychiatrist – this nifty little low-budget film never settles for the industry standard, a directive it follows all the way through to the end. Piecing together fragments of the story as it proceeds – symbolically represented by events in the story itself – the question becomes how much of the killer’s version one is expected to believe. With its effects largely confined to jarring cuts and hazy flashes, and much of its overt violence glimpsed therein, an enigmatic aura is created and sustained. Though as the film moves past its climax it begins to rely a little too much on what may perhaps be manifestations of the mind of the madman, enough quirks and curveballs are presented along the way to avert predictability. The final scene is no exception. Interpretations may vary.

why did i watch this movie?

1990s. Saw some reviews or blurbs that said it was a little offbeat, and affecting.

should you watch this movie?

Aficionados of little-known horror flicks should definitely search for this one. Really, those who are more than casual fans of the genre would most likely appreciate it.

highlight and low point

The unique presentation of the material stands out, because – again – this is well-trodden territory, but it never quite feels that way while on view. The characterizations are interesting and not straight from central casting, as it were. The filmmakers also do a credible job despite very apparent fiscal constraints. On the downside, at times some deliberately outré details seem too intentional, and a few issues the script didn’t intend to raise might rankle a bit.

rating from outer space: A−

The Road Builder aka The Night Digger (1971)

directed by alastair reid
yongestreet productions/tacitus productions

Based on a novel with the unwieldy and unpromising title of “Nest in a Fallen Tree,” with a screenplay by Roald Dahl and starring his wife, this tale of suspense is very British, a study of drawing-room manners for the most part. Oh, but there’s a twist! Here we have a festering sense of resentment within the familial relationship that anchors the picture, a kinship upset and altered by the arrival of a young stranger. Now, some of what then occurs is basic dark British fodder; murders are perpetrated, suspicions are raised, and the village folk get to enjoy more of their favorite pastime (gossip, of course). Later, though, a murkier and more disturbing subplot develops, emotions are exploded, and the setting abruptly shifts entirely. An ambiguous ending completes the affair, which manages to entertain despite its lack of sensationalism.

why did i watch this movie?

I needed to balance out the recent spate of ’90s flicks – and I’ve lately covered a bunch of modern productions as well – so I sought a picture from the seventies, and this was the one I found.

should you watch this movie?

This is the sort of film that TV stations used to show on lazy weekend afternoons, as very little of it is at all lurid. It’s good, if understated, and definitely of a different era.

highlight and low point

The action takes off when a mysterious young man named “Billy” enters the tale, and I think we can all agree that’s a momentous circumstance. Actually, though, some displays of splendid acting, mainly concerning liminal expressions of emotion, are what impress most. Oddly, it appears this was an edited version of the movie, but I’m not sure any other rendition is readily available.

rating from outer space: B

30 Miles From Nowhere (2018)

directed by caitlin koller
film camp productions

I’ll admit I’m biased, but good writing has saved many a movie, and if you can add good acting on top of that, well, then you can get a lot of mileage out of a well-worn scenario. This quirky, offbeat indie comedy thriller is really more about its ensemble cast than its afterthought plot or minimal scares. Which is not to say it doesn’t keep one in suspense; it does, albeit mildly, but what this movie does better than anything else is establish one long setup for a sucker punch. Slight though the overall effect of this picture may be, it will impress you with its panache. A worthy diversion whenever you need a break from whatever the hell TV programming you watch.

why did i watch this movie?

I rather randomly wound up on some dubious streaming site and this title was hanging out there and I looked at the description and thought what the hey. An insight into my procedures: Six or seven flicks in toto were selected initially; only this and one other survived.

should you watch this movie?

I really wanna say this is a horror picture for the NPR crowd, without being able to define that very strictly, and not wanting to make this some sorta cultural football. But it concerns research psychologists, for crying out loud.

highlight and low point

Everyone in this film apparently is some stripe of known television personality, but as I pretty much only watch horror flicks and baseball, I did not recognize any of them. As hinted above, I greatly enjoyed the snappy dialogue writing, which managed the tricky feat of being highly literate without sounding forced or overly theatrical. And the performances were excellent across the board.

rating from outer space: B+

insignia found on film’s website

 

Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

directed by jeff burr
republic pictures/steve white entertainment

So, one of the actors in this picture was driving me nuts with his strained, nigh-unintelligible gibbering and his painfully restricted movements, and I just HAD to find out who he was … and it turned out to be Crispin Glover’s father, who purportedly is also an acting teacher. So I definitely learned something from this hokey, by-the-book bit of B-grade nonsense. Just about every cliché in the book is hauled out here – estranged daughter returns to small town! Her dad’s the mayor! She hooks up with the hot local guy! There’s trouble! And an ancient curse! Or something! – with the only novel touches being a few of the ways the, uh, demonic scarecrow kills or maims his victims. It’s entertaining, really, but man, is it ever generic. Which ceased to surprise me once I discovered that the director also was behind the camera for the equally uninspired Leatherface.

why did i watch this movie?

It sounded like a hell of an improvement over the previous strawman-themed picture I viewed. I thrilled to the prospect.

should you watch this movie?

It really isn’t the type of work one should watch on purpose, unless it involves nostalgia for the heartland fetish of decades long past. (Today’s politicized heartland fetish is different.)

highlight and low point

The evil possessed scarecrow is a kind of highlight, I guess, and the flashback scenes are endearingly slapdash. The ridiculous caricature of the extended family would have to be seen to be believed, and the backlot politics implicit in the details differentiating the women’s roles seemingly would’ve been intrigung. Overall, however, this one feels as though the script was churned out in little more time than it takes to watch the finished product.

rating from outer space: C−

Jack Be Nimble (1993)

written & directed by garth maxwell
essential productions limited/new zealand film commission

Wow, what a strange movie this is. Though one never expects an original take when dipping into genre offerings, this New Zealand picture is playing entirely on its own field. And what a field it is … the polar opposite of a “feel-good” film, this neverending litany of miseries only lets up at the very end, with a seemingly tacked-on segment that feels suspiciously like an afterthought, but which instead may not have been meant as a representation of reality. Sometimes it’s rewarding when you finish a viewing wondering what in the hell you just watched, and this feature manages to provoke that same sense of confusion and intrigue throughout its duration. I mean, I had no idea where this one was heading – and given its overall bleakness and the uncomfortably horrific final scenes, I’m fairly glad about that.

why did i watch this movie?

This is another product of the 1990s, and I was lured in by the odd name and convinced by its description as a unique, psychological offering.

should you watch this movie?

Powerful in several different ways, it’s quite an experience if you’re looking for a less typical horror picture, fraught with emotional turmoil. It is not an easy watch.

highlight and low point

Though obviously one must suspend one’s disbelief for certain elements of a picture steeped in the paranormal, the conflict in this flick relies on its grounding in related phenomena without an apparent link or any explanation whatsoever. It’s just sort of dropped in there: oh, by the way, this can happen, too. Since most of the variant otherworldly or mystical manifestations are given at least some backstory, that slight is troubling. Alexis Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy play long-separated orphaned siblings very believably.

rating from outer space: a−

A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

directed by larry cohen
larco Productions/420 demons

As this picture began to unspool, I didn’t know if I’d be able to stand it, because once we reach the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, the production quality (acting, costumes, props, makeup) takes a severe nosedive – and it was iffy from the get-go. I persevered, however, and was amply rewarded by general weirdness. (I also greatly enjoyed the credit “Based on characters created by Stephen King,” as the only way in which that is true is if one considers the town of “Salem’s Lot” itself to be a character.) Okay, look, in terms of actual credibility, this flick is nowheresville; it plays more like a made-for-TV movie than the 1978 Tobe Hooper-directed Salem’s Lot CBS “miniseries” and is chock-full of several stripes of bad acting that run the gamut from half-baked to hammy. Throw in a Nazi hunter to save the day, and you’ve got everything you always wanted in a fear, and less! This is where sequencing can be important: after watching Scarecrows, this flick wound up being highly enjoyable.

why did i watch this movie?

As acknowledged, I am a bit of an S. King obsessive, so I’ve wanted to investigate this one for quite a while, especially after having viewed Cohen’s Special Effects.

should you watch this movie?

It depends on how SERIOUSLY you take “Salem’s Lot” to be a “gripping masterwork of horror,” or whatever people consider King’s (or Hooper’s) Dracula redux to be, because this is a tongue-in-cheek treatment of the (purported) source material.

highlight and low point

The last time I watched a vampire flick I learned how to revive a bloodsucker; this time I found out a mortal can impregnate one and that its ashy remains may spontaneously combust. This is the terrifying leader of the hemovores:

rating from outer space: D

Blood Bound aka The Dark Rite aka Bloodline (2019)

written and Directed by richard lemay
southern fried filmworks/film mode entertainment/garden house entertainment/bloodline productions

It CAN’T be a good omen that a film’s own production company’s website doesn’t have its title of record updated, or that its “release” schedule on IMDb only lists “(internet),” but truth will out, and this movie is, like, an emo vampire picture. Even if the brooding deep dark character isn’t a vampire. Know what else isn’t a good sign? This explanation: “Two hundred years ago a distant cousin of mine made a pact with a demon to give our family unlimited power. He was greedy and didn’t realize he was binding our whole family to darkness. In exchange, every 25 years we must sacrifice four human lives, one being a member of our own family.” (SHHHH! THAT’S AN IMPORTANT HINT!) This is a teen-soap-opera horror of a type I wasn’t aware they were still making, and it’s got more angst than you could hit with a stake. Even if the demi-magical evildoers aren’t vampires. Note to all aspiring screenwriters out there: Just recycle some shit, that’s how you’ll get your script into “development.”

why did i watch this movie?

Hey, ’19,” I thought. “That’s, like, a new release.”

should you watch this movie?

It is really hard to take seriously.

highlight and low point

That the demon who eats still-beating hearts from human chests is not one of the most labored – pun inevitable – plot points in this picture should clue you in on the level of creativity we’re dealing with here. Also, a detail crucial to the SHOCKING twist at the end impossibly evades the notice of the character it will directly affect. Eden Brolin does a passable job with her thankless role, I guess.

rating from outer space: c–