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

Splatter University (1984)

directed by richard w. Haines
richard w. haines productions/aquifilm co.

I guess I gotta admit that this objectively terrible movie is right in my wheelhouse, because although it’s completely, laughably awful, I can’t bring myself to pan it outright or consign it to the trash heap with some of the others I’ve slagged around here. But make no mistake – it’s not good, at all. The murder scenes are almost all exactly the same: character opens door, character sees knife brandished by unknown attacker, character gets stabbed in the abdomen, character dies. (The identity of the killer is easy to deduce, as well.) Many if not all of the characters are ridiculously exaggerated stereotypes, and attempts to portray “campus life” are in a similar vein. The only reason I imagine anyone would want to watch this movie is to remember a bygone era of moviemaking. The DIY ethos that the seventies made necessary in many areas of the arts was of considerable value … even if the artifacts it produced may not have been.

why did i watch this movie?

Hey, man …

should you watch this movie?

This picture was largely filmed in 1981, the credits at the end seem to read “1982,” and Troma eventually released it in 1984. Its entry on Horrorpedia includes the director’s explanation that to make it feature-length and “marketable,” a new beginning and ending were grafted onto it along with the abysmal attempts at wacky collegiate humor.

highlight and low point

As the credits rolled, I noticed the name “George Seminara” and thought, wait, the George Seminara? Yep, that one. The names of the Three Stooges are borrowed for character monikers, which amused me. Oh, and the lead role is played by “one of the most sought after female keynote speakers in the country.”

rating from outer space: d−

Candyman (1992)

directed by bernard rose
propaganda films/polygram filmed entertainment

I was metaphorically looking at my watch during the second half of this formulaic slasher flick, reproaching myself for its selection, then once it was over I decided to read some opinions of it and – wow, you must be joking, internet. Personally, I found this picture to be wildly unacceptable, and not just because it implausibly concerns a murderous supernatural ex-slave bogeyman haunting Chicago’s projects. Sure, that’s improbable, too, but nothing else about this feature is any more reasonable. The ridiculously contrived (and likely inadmissible) police and legal procedures, the intrepid graduate students’ daring thesis research, the architectural lessons, the unthinking racism, the trite dialogue – this one’s got it all and then some! By which I might mean a Philip Glass score that we hear the same snippet of way too often. Oh, and vacuous voiceovers that aim for grandiosity only to land on ostentation. Plus, also, too, it’s not very frightening.

why did i watch this movie?

I’ll admit, I’m beginning to suspect there’s a reason I haven’t seen some of these ’90s offerings.

should you watch this movie?

You’d be better off watching any of the 440-plus episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. You know, I’ve read one of Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” collections. Yeah, one.

highlight and low point

Certainly, when Virginia Madsen busts out of the institution where she’s been detained for a month with the help of her paranormal hook-handed buddy, I completely lost any semblance of respect for this absurdity. But it just kept going, exhausting my patience. The ending at least made me laugh, partially because it was so predictable, but also because they dragged it out so much. Did I like anything about this movie, I’m wondering.

Nothing’s coming to mind, sorry.

rating from outer space: D+

Scream – And Die! aka The House That Vanished aka Scream and Die aka Please! Don’t Go in the Bedroom aka Psycho Sex Fiend (1973)

directed by joseph larraz aka josÉ ramÓn larraz
a blackwater film production

So many titles and so many threatening adverts for such a tepid plod whose only semblance of tension arises from the wait for occasional actress and future lad-mag model Andrea Allan to disrobe. Who’s the killer, you might wonder for an idle minute, correctly identifying the obvious attempts at misdirection, and also realizing that you don’t much care so long as you’re assured the picture will be ending. When it does reach that ending, full dark night abruptly shifts to very bright daytime. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to get it over with, too. Perhaps this is why they don’t bother tying up any loose ends … such as letting us in on why our heroine got involved in this affair in the first place, or how some of the action could have occurred unless the culprit read the script, or by what means one of the characters ends up dead during the finale when she couldn’t reasonably have been anywhere near the location in question. This movie also contains an incestuous sex scene, because why not throw that in there, too.

why did i watch this movie?

I must have been lured in by the promise inherent in the lurid early ’70s British cinema I’ve been “enjoying” of late, but to be frank, I have no idea.

should you watch this movie?

It’s not nearly lurid enough to justify that.

highlight and low point

The second murder scene is pretty intense, I suppose, but by that point it isn’t even interesting enough to sustain one’s attention. Some of the leftover mod touches of a foundering Swinging London are amusing. A tangential subplot involving pigeons goes absolutely nowhere. Yes, pigeons.

 

rating from outer space: D

Psycho (1960)

directed by alfred hitchcock
shamley productions

I’m sure it’s been noted before, but the attention to detail in this movie astounded me, such as the scene wherein Arbogast is looking for clues to Marion’s disappearance in the Bates Motel’s office parlor – where Norman is displaying his stuffed birds – and the bookshelf behind him holds a full set of books entitled The Art of Taxidermy. So it’s a bit surprising, I guess, that certain other important factors seem so transparent, or even dishonest. Of course, that’s nitpicking, and anyone who doesn’t think this is a high-quality cinematic achievement … probably doesn’t care for noir films or suspense, or pulp fiction. Hitchcock himself must have thought he had a goldmine here, however, as he went ahead and made it despite Paramount’s objections and refusal to budget it appropriately. That worked out all right.

why did i watch this movie?

Noted horror film aficionado and memorabilia collector Johnny Ramone designated Psycho no. 10 in his personal Top 10 in the appendices to his posthumous autobiography Commando. Since the Ramones rank in my personal Rock Band Top 10, and I am a fan of these dumb films anyway, it seemed only right and natural to compare and contrast.

should you watch this movie?

Haven’t you seen it?

highlight and low point

I’ll pick two scenes to exemplify these extremes. The first is the scene where Arbogast is cagily picking his way through Norman’s story that no one’s been to the motel for a while. Anthony Perkins does a tremendous job stumbling over his lies and attempts to dissemble. The other is the terrible, terrible penultimate scene in which the psychiatrist explains the whole thing … and explains it, and explains it, and EXPLAINS it, sucking out a little more of the film’s mystique with every florid sentence. What. A. Drag.

Rating from outer space: B+

kids: don’t do drugs
(click to enlarge)

Maniac (1980)

directed by william lustig
magnum motion pictures INc.

Can I call this a disappointment if I watched it thinking it would be a scuzzy, nothing exploitation slasher with paper-thin intent and slapdash execution, but instead discovered a well-crafted picture of surprising depth and real pathos made with a skillful hand? Don’t answer that, it’s a rhetorical question. But despite a number of moments that could have turned this flick into a groaner, the poignant portrayal of the title character proves redemptive. Obviously inspired by the Son of Sam killings, with a handful of details provided by other notorious murder sprees, this film’s account of title psychopath Frank’s travails leavens its less credible portions with an intermittent awareness of his humanity. (How self-aware Frank is, however, remains an open question.) Lead actor and co-writer Joe Spinell’s creation is disturbingly credible, and in context, the more fantastic notions are not hindered by their implausibility.

why did i watch this movie?

I’ll reiterate: give the picture a title as blatant and evocative as “Maniac,” and I’ll think about giving it a whirl.

should you watch this movie?

So, you are aware that I like this type of film from this general era, so when I say yes, you probably know how to weight that advice.

highlight and low point

Are you, by any chance, familiar with the cover art for the Big Black EP that came packaged in the “body bag,” Headache? (Careful with that link, Eugene.) Yeah, well, there’s a scene in this movie that is extremely reminiscent of that delightful image, courtesy of makeup guru Tom Savini. One slight drawback is the dubious relationship that forms the core of the plot. Another is that the main character evoked for me Lester Bangs crossed with Lew Zealand.

Lew

Lester

Rating from outer space: A−

Note: Maniac received the remake treatment in 2012. Update to follow …