The Stuff (1985)

written and directed by LARRY COHEN
LARCO PRODUCTIONS

Here – if you don’t know – is your basic Body Snatchers tale about a, um, parasitic dessert. Well, it isn’t really a dessert, but it’s being sold that way at the behest of a secret business cabal whose profit motive compels it to ignore that it turns people into … something or another, somehow. Unless (or until) it kills them. As it proceeds, this flick rather unexpectedly invokes Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, while also managing to be evocative of Stripes, which requires a certain deftness. It’s also got some kinda shadow government thing going on, a rogue former FBI agent whose motivation remained unclear to me, a public relations and/or advertising maven as an uninteresting love interest, often laughable FX, a child actor in a lead role, and a strangely laid-back demeanor on everyone’s behalf, considering that, you know, the existence of the human race is being threatened by deliciousness on behalf of Big Confection.

why did i watch this movie?

It’s a Larry Cohen picture, or hadn’t you noticed?

should you watch this movie?

It’s fun, and not notably demanding.

highlight and low point

Satirical moments abound here, and they’re often pretty sharp, but the detritus of the 1980s cultural milieu contributes plenty of its own zest. At times, scenes seem to have been completed well after being shot, with conspicuous use of green screens, superimposed effects, and the like. (Trying to induce terror via a whipped cream-like substance has its perils.) Occasional FX involving body deterioration is actually pretty effective, though, especially in a questionably timed demise during the film’s climax. Superlative is the scene featuring an exploding The Stuff establishment stationed between what resemble McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken eateries from a model train setup.

rating from outer space: b–

Vampire Circus (1972)

directed by robert young
hammer film productions

“Better no mother than a mother that worships the devil!” proclaims a vindictive villager as this picture comes out with all guns blazing. (Torches, actually.) I immediately wondered if I needed to start watching everything with the Hammer name from this time period. Child slaughter, nudity, lust, arson, mayhem … and that was all in the first 15 minutes, before the credits ended. Things settle down after that, once the gypsies show up with the “Circus of Nights,” although a hearty massacre of three members of a family – by a panther – does find its way in there. (The panther is rather amusingly animated and exaggerated by the FX of the day.) Despite getting a bit bogged down in the villagers’ struggle to understand what has befallen them, however, enough eldritch touches recur to keep things moving along nicely toward the expected ending.

why did i watch this movie?

Look, I try my best to keep my motives pure and my intellectual pursuits respectable, but this damn flick is called “Vampire Circus.”

should you watch this movie?

terrifying muppet gore

If you don’t find the title “Vampire Circus” deliriously fetching, then probably not.

highlight and low point

The Circus has an attraction called “Mirror of Life,” and it is within this enclosed tent that nefarious truths are revealed, of course. One of the scenes that takes place in said location is pretty impressively intimidating. Some of the moments when the main vampiric henchman Emil brandishes his fangs verge on silly. Oh, and if you’re keeping track, herein it is once again revealed that removing the stake from the undead’s heart will allow it to return to its imitation of life. So apparently I forgot that bit of mythology somewhere along the way.

rating from outer space: B−

The Strangeness (“1985”)

directed by david michael hillman
stellarwind

“Strangeness” is deciding to film nearly an entire movie inside an unconvincing “mine.” (Very obviously plaster.) With at least some cast members who never may have acted before, or since. And a creature that is kind of an amalgam of those found in The Deadly Spawn and The Mutations, only less credible. Plus a miraculous exit from deep within the mine that’s completely ludicrous. As to that “strangeness” … they couldn’t come up with a better name for it, you know? And despite the fact that one of the characters is a writer concocting an adventure yarn out of this abandoned gold mine’s backstory, the “strangeness” is never discussed by anyone. As for the other characters … yeah.

why did i watch this movie?

Little-seen pix sometimes end up being called “overlooked gems” or attracting attention for this feature or that one, but … there’s usually a reason nobody’s seen ’em.

should you watch this movie?

That’s really not necessary, unless you want to see an “abandoned mine” that looks even more ersatz than the one in The Boogens. Fun fact: the credits read “Copyright © 1980 By Stellarwind–The Strangeness.” It took FIVE YEARS to find a straight-to-video distributor!

highlight and low point

A final look at the mysterious underground creature, showing it in stop-motion glory devouring what is obviously an action figure purporting to be one of the actors, in a poorly filmed and ineptly edited insert, does not heighten the fear factor and the intimidation level of the monstrous oddity. The stiffly acted characters, most of which are unconvincing or irritating, each bear a significant personal flaw. For a film that largely takes place in dark caverns, it’s usually fairly easy to follow the proceedings – a rarity for such a low-budget undertaking.

rating from outer space: D+

Lake Placid (1999)

Directed by steve miner
phoenix pictures/fox 2000 pictures/rocking chair productions

Only tenuously a “horror” picture – and only because it features a monstrous crocodile in an otherwise tranquil rural setting – this thriller/comedy/slapstick mashup is simultaneously way better than it should have been and much less than it could have been. It starts out with a ton of promise, with a witty showcase of screenwriting that manages at first to tiptoe with aplomb the extremely fine line between playing dumb and exposing banal inanity. This can’t last, of course, but it never devolves into lowest-common-denominator stupidness, even as it invests Betty White with a foulmouthed gimmick that exemplifies the law of diminishing returns. Not unlike Airplane! or, say, The Naked Gun, what it does best is wink at the tropes of several film genres, but unlike those broad farces, it generally avoids beating them into the ground. Unfortunately, the overall effect is slight and forgettable … though it somehow spawned FOUR sequels and a reboot (!), trailing in its wake the absurdist fare of SyFy and its ilk.

why did i watch this movie?

I’ve wanted to see it for a long time, and following the new Pet Sematary, it seemed apt. Plus, I wasn’t in the mood for any of the other crap terrific offerings in the pipeline.

should you watch this movie?

Despite boasting top-shelf attributes almost across the board, in the end it’s a little too disposable, a little too redolent of the brainless summer cinema it’s presumably lampooning.

highlight and low point

Brendan Gleeson is splendid as the Sheriff and Bridget Fonda’s fish out of water (sorry) is disarmingly ingenuous, highlighting the clever wordplay by TV veteran David E. Kelley. (That the parodic elements never exceed homage is another testament.) Momentum lags at times, and a few moments of unwarranted crudity surface.

Rating: B+

Pet Sematary (2019)

directed by kevin KÖlsch & Dennis widmyer
di bonaventura pictures

To its credit, here are some things this unbidden remake of an unloved movie doesn’t contain:

Song-and-dance routines
Postmodernism
Dragons
Folksy narration
Superheroes
A blaring “modern rock” soundtrack
Auto-Tune

That it also lacks any explanation for its existence is unimportant, since isn’t that the linchpin of the plot? The … CEMETERY PLOT? (creepy laugh)

Seriously, I have no idea why someone filmed “STEPHEN KING’S TERRIFYING NOVEL” again or why they made some of the choices they made in revising key elements (and some trivial ones as well, which is just odd). The exposition is rushed, the backstory truncated, and the voiceovers ridiculous. But credit where it’s due: once the dead little girl shows up, she’s really spooky. Altogether, however, it kinda feels as though someone had the idea for the final quarter of this flick, only to realize they’d have to adapt it to the existing framework. Is it “better” than the first go-round, probably. Is that any sort of quality claim, well …

No.

why did i watch this movie?

I had no intention of seeing this, but its schlock-ridden FINAL TRAILER defeated me. (Had I known its helmsmen also made 2014’s Starry Eyes, I woulda been interested much earlier. And greatly disappointed.)

should you watch this movie?

Hundreds of movies have yet to be made from heretofore unfilmed S. King output, and pix made from presumably original stories also abound.

highlight and low point

This flick is almost completely worthless until the dead little girl comes home. Then it’s not that bad, especially when she hints at an unimagined diabolical secret. The last scene is also pretty twisted. But extraneous distractions abound, some amateur touches provoke laughter instead of frisson, and the penultimate scene is largely shameful.

rating from outer space: D+

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

 

Venom (1981)

directed by piers haggard
morison film group/venom productions limited
based on the novel by alan scholefield

You know, sometimes I decide to watch a movie just because the totality of its promotional efforts entices me. That was definitely the case with this offering, as its poster makes promises and presents plaudits that one figures can’t possibly be true, and the cast includes not only our old friend Oliver Reed but Klaus Kinski. “Oh, man,” I enthused, “I can’t wait to watch that one!” Well, somewhat to my disappointment, Venom is but an above-average thriller that isn’t even spoiled by the fact that as far as scary screen monsters go, your average snake – or even the DEADLY MAMBA – isn’t all that threatening. (This is the second Oliver Reed movie I’ve watched that features a snake, though, which has to count for something.) Frankly, the plot is a bit nonsensical; this international fugitive just happens to have connections in the house of a wealthy banker whose asthmatic kid just happened to order a new imported snake, and …

It did fairly well at the box office.

why did i watch this movie?

Venom! A deadly snake! Oliver Reed! Oliver Reed and a deadly snake! Klaus Kinski! Oliver Reed, Klaus Kinski, and a deadly snake! Venom!

I didn’t realize this when I picked it out, but Haggard is the same director responsible for The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a fact which also would’ve weighed heavily in its favor.

should you watch this movie?

Sad to say, Oliver Reed doesn’t have much of a substantial role to play here, so the film lacks for his usual je ne sais quoi. For what seems as though it should be a fairly middle-of-the-road affair, however, it’s actually pretty interesting.

highlight and low point

Susan George has a pretty overwrought death scene as well.

rating from outer space: B+