DVDActive Lost and Found
Gabe Powers offers up a few lesser known favourites in this new feature...
The best thing about reviewing DVDs, by far, is the opportunity to discover an unexpectedly good film and share it with other people. The dilemma is that most folks won’t bother reading a DVD review about a movie they’ve never heard of. I know this because I am a guilty party. In an attempt to share a few of my personal favourite, lesser known or underappreciated titles, and in hopes of goading some other members of the ‘Active writing staff into sharing some of theirs, I’m trying to jumpstart a new DVDActive.com feature: The Lost and Found. Here is part one in what I hope will become a multi-part series, ten movies I enjoy and want everyone else to enjoy with me. I’m naturally inclined to horror films, but I’ll do my best to keep my selection eclectic and hopefully original, because God knows I’m not the first person to do this.
American Movie (1999)
American Movie is the uncannily inspirational tale of Mark Borchardt, an independent filmmaker living out his Hollywood dreams in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. The film chronicles a bumpy road to the completion of Mark’s magnum opus, a semi-autobiographical, black and white drama called Northwestern. To gather the funding he’ll need to complete Northwestern Mark decides to finish an incomplete horror short entitled Coven (pronounced: coh-ven, not cuh-ven). He’ll need help from his friends and family, and he’ll need to hold down a real job for funding.
The first time I caught American Movie I made the silly assumption that it was a mockumentary in the vein of This is Spinal Tap. After I discovered that Mark and his friends and family were indeed real people, who had been followed around by a camera crew for almost a year, I felt awful for all my laughs and judgment. Upon a second and third screening I began to look upon them as the best friends I'd never met. It all strikes a little too close to home sometimes, but it’s downright impossible to resist.
Our hero is a walking contradiction. He’s full of ambitious ideas and genuine skills, and most importantly is a great talker (how many quotable documentaries can you think of). But his ambitions rarely materialize, and his projects wind up incomplete. He finds himself living at home and constantly between jobs despite his self-salesmanship. His best friend Mike Schank, a shy recovering alcoholic, is his perfect Yin—a man who will sit quietly and let Mark talk about whatever he wants, at whatever volume he wants. The two of them are a comic force to be reckoned with, and two of the most lovable people in documentary film history.
In October of 2005, Rue Morgue magazine published a list of 100 ‘Alternate’ Horror Films. It was one of the inspirations behind this list, and I’ve done my best to see them all over the last few years. Almost everything on the list is great suggestion ( Black Sunday, Butcher Boy, Curdled, Cemetery Man, Opera, Perdita Durango), but one particular featured item would have gone completely unnoticed had I not read the article, and I thank the crew for the suggestion. That film is Aswang (aka: The Unearthling, in its cut, R-rated form), a little diamond in the low budget rough.
When making a decent horror flick on a budget, your first step is usually an original idea. Barring that, it’s usually good enough to steal an idea that hasn’t yet been exploited by the mainstream. The makers of Aswang found their hook and title monster in the pages of Pilipino legend. The unnecessary plot takes the East Asian baby sucker, and sticks it into a (then) modern Rosemary’s Baby meets Dracula narrative. This intriguing, but not totally unfamiliar setting is the second step. The third step is hiring passable actors, and with a few exceptions, these players are better than the majority found in low-budget horror.
The trump and final step to make magic without money is loading your feature with unexpected camera work, energetic pacing, and a bit of creative gore. Directors Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann do everything in their power to make your film look like it cost more than nothing. Aswang is often compared to Evil Dead by its fans because of this energy and flare, and it deserves the praise.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Everyone freaked out when Chris Nolan managed to pull the Batman franchise out of Joel Schumacher’s gutter. Some have even hailed Batman Begins as the best Batman film ever made. Besides the fact that I put the newest film on an even keel with Tim Burton’s final stab at the Dark Knight, Batman Returns, this now popular assertion is inaccurate for one big reason: Mask of the Phantasm.
For over a decade, the D.C. Animated Universe team (Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Dan Riba, etc.) has treated the Batman property with more respect, taste, and style than anyone else outside of the comic book medium. Mask of the Phantasm was their coup de grace. The film expands upon the character’s myth while telling an original story featuring an original character. The plot cuts from the past to the present with ease, spinning the tale of Batman’s origin into the fabric of a new adventure. If Batman Begins had an obvious problem it was its inorganic melding of two different adventures. Mask of the Phantasm succeeds effortlessly on that account.
The film’s only drawback is the fact that it censors itself for younger audiences, while the basic story exists far over most children’s heads (or attention spans). The film is emotionally and physically violent enough to turn off most parents. Viewers that assume the animated characters are any less structured or sympathetic than their live action counterparts are gravely mistaken. Besides the fact that the plot is aimed at adults, the characters are adults themselves. The voice actors are all professionals, and most of them represent my favourite versions of each character, especially Mark Hamill’s Joker.
Bringing Out the Dead[ (1999)
Now that Scorsese has finally won his Oscar casual fans should take the time to discover, or rediscover some of his less well-received work. The director’s early career is worth seeing for reasons of completion, but film’s like Boxcar Bertha and Who’s That Knocking on My Door are more about experimentation than entertainment (please don’t shoot me, diehard fans of Neorealism). His middle career is consistently cited at classic even by critics and audiences that haven’t even seen them, so putting any effort into begging people to see lesser seen films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or The King of Comedy should be rendered moot.
Of the Scorsese’s later career, Kundun and Bringing Out the Dead seem to have been entirely forgotten. I’m going to cover Bringing Out the Dead because I still haven’t gotten around to watching Kundun myself (hypocrite!). Bringing Out the Dead is obviously not the director’s best film—it’s rife with casting problems, structural issues, and it lacks the ‘importance’ of the director’s better features. But what it lacks in pomp and circumstance it makes up for with unadulterated entertainment value, something old Marty hadn’t really done since Goodfellas.
Of all the graduates of the ‘Movie Brat’ generation, Scorsese is one of the few that can handle comedy for a sustained period of time, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and Mike Nichols being obvious exceptions. Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, and can toss around a few successful jokes, but their greatest failures were often in the comedy realm. Bringing Out the Dead follows the same anarchic loop as the director’s stress inducing comedy After Hours, but softens the blow with some genuine levity and a slightly stupid love story.
Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader (working from Joe Connelly’s novel) cultivate enough neurotic characters and high energy shenanigans to fill out the rather threadbare plot, and Nicolas Cage proves charming enough to carry his first successful dark comedy since Raising Arizona. If you watch Bringing Out the Dead as a worthy follow-up to Taxi Driver or Goodfellas you’ll be as disappointed as the critics, but if you’re looking for immaculate pop music montages and a few belly laughs the film is worth a second chance.
Dead and Buried (1981)
Dead and Buried is a legendary, rowdy weekend rental from high school, and it’s pedigree was based purely on its iconic box art—a dead, blue face cracking through flat, blue ground, endowed with the phrase “The Writers of Alien Bring a New Terror to Earth”. What could this mysterious motion picture possibly be about? Alien zombies? Coming from under the Earth? The phrase “A New Dimension in Terror” only sweetens the bewilderment. Could it be the story of an inter-dimensional vortex breaking through the planet’s crust, filled with zombies?
No, the film has nothing to do with its cover besides the fact that there are some dead people buried during the course of the narrative, though in caskets, and entirely underground. But it’s hard to be disappointed when the real movie itself is so much fun. Dead and Buried is basically a successful feature length episode of The Twilight Zone, mixed lightly with the paranoia of The Wicker Man, and the pulpy terror of the best episodes of Tales From the Crypt, and it works very well.
The cast is above average, including a pre-Freddy Kruger Robert Englund, and writers Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon don’t skimp on the characters or dialogue. The film’s banned status in the UK during the Video Nasty era implies a much more violent feature then what’s delivered, but the horror crowd shouldn’t be disappointed by the level of malicious shock, and the lo-fi but effective gore effects. The creepy atmosphere is thick beyond mere fog, and the jump scares often work despite the film’s quarter century age.
Gods and Monsters (1998)
Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters isn’t the most obscure title, and for a short period in 1998 it was top of the block. It even collected a pile of awards and nominations, including Ian McKellen’s first Academy Award nomination and an Oscar win for Condon’s script. The film’s success pulled Condon from the made for TV gutter (his only other theatrical release at the time was a sequel to Candyman and a forgotten horror flick called Sister Sister), and placed him in the position to write and direct Academy favourites like Chicago and Dream Girls.
And yet everyone seems to have forgotten the film, including myself who just recently got around to buying the DVD after catching the film for a second time on the Independent Film Channel. What we tend to remember most are the performances, specifically McKellen, who even in his sixties was a relative unknown in the United States at the time. What we tend to forget is the Oscar winning writing and wonderful visual style. Gods and Monsters is a rich and stylized character study of two very different men at very different stages in their lives, and Condon tells their story with such deeply impactive melodrama it drains you.
McKellen is James Whale, the director of the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, an open homosexual lost and lonely in his old age, surrounded by sycophants and phonies. Fraser is Clay Boone, a down on his luck handy man hired to tend to Whale’s yard. The two men develop a shakey friendship. What the audience knows is that at the end of this story Whale will be found dead, floating face down in his pool, casting a dramatic darkness over the doomed relationship.
The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio, 1968)
The Great Silence was something I regretfully missed when I wrote about Spaghetti Westerns last year. At the time I hadn’t been able to score a copy of the coveted film, and now that I’ve finally seen it I’m borderline ashamed for not including it in my article. Repo Man and Sid and Nancy director, and Spaghetti Western aficionado Alex Cox calls it his favourite among the Euro Westerns. Though I won’t necessarily go that far, the film does crack my top five.
The initial thing to notice here is the film’s setting, which is much further North than that of most Westerns. The landscapes are enshrouded in thick, white snow, and tall trees rather than dry clay and dusty shrubs. This cold environment is a character, and is most comfortable among the human cast of melancholy and evil men. The villain, as played by the incomparable Klaus Kinski, isn’t a brute or a dandy (both mainstays of the sub-genre), and the hero, Silence, doesn’t quip a single one-liner the entire film. Actually he doesn’t talk at all, one-upping the relatively quiet Man with No Name. The plot, a meditation on the darkness of vengeance, is secondary to a series of icy images and emotions.
Even stacked next to Leone’s Duck You Sucker and Guilio Questi’s If You Live, Shoot! (aka: Django Kill), The Great Silence may be the darkest Spaghetti Western ever filmed. Director Sergio Carbucci wasn’t the first or last to turn the conventions of the American Westerns on their heads, in fact it was the norm for the European versions of the genre at the time, but few films have the courage to spit these conventions back into the faces of their audience with such venomous content. The finale will stick beneath your skin for days.
Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
I can hear fervent and confused cries of “What the Hell, dude?” rattling through my head like the death throes of trampled piglets. I had a similar reaction when I was half-forced to watch the Archie B-comic/sub-B cartoon inspired Rachel Leigh Cook vehicle for the first time, but the second the seething pre-credit sequence finished I had to readjust my gapping jaw, and throw all my negative-nelly prejudices out the window. Josie and the Pussycats is a potent, aggressive, and shockingly clever satire of late ‘90s/early ‘00s popular culture.
The film overshoots its ideal audience, twelve-year-old girls, by miles, cracking jokes that aren’t only over their heads, but at their expense (a quick trip to Rottentomatoes.com seems to say that these jokes zipped over the heads of most critics too). There is an effective moral centre (It’s OK to be yourself, girls!), there’s a bit of teeny-bopper romance, and the power-pop soundtrack (performed by members of Letters to Cleo) is infectious, so the younger ones should be entertained, but this odd little film will probably appeal more to adults with really subversive sensibilities. And some of these scalp-skimming jokes are pretty raunchy to boot—the pre-credit sequence song, performed by fake boy band Dejour (made up of Breckin Myer, Donald Faison, Seth Green, and Alexander Martin) is entitled ‘Back Door Lover’. I’m sure most grown-ups don’t miss that particular double-entendre.
The film in and of itself is no classic, not even a ‘must see’, but Alan Cumming’s performance is one for the ages. Cumming, a former comedian and musical theatre man, will do anything for money (even Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas), and is often delegated the responsibility of the sole shining light in some of Hollywood’s worst comedies. Here he’s a regular tour de force as the Pussycat’s shifty manager, ready at any moment to call in a special industry password (“bring the Chevy to the levy”) to off the group the second they begin asking too many questions. Cumming’s back up comes in the form of the always incomparable and always dependable Parker Posey, as the mastermind of a worldwide teenage brainwashing.
So then, come for Rachel Leigh Cook and Rosario Dawson scantily clad and the up-tempo soundtrack, but stay for the satirical bite, the hilarious art design, and two smashingly comedic performances. Avoid the re-edited PG cut readily available at most stores these days.
Plague Dogs (1982)
In 1969, thirty-two of the best scientist and technicians in the world were sequestered in a secret laboratory deep in the jungles of the Amazon (their exact location was never revealed). After thirteen arduous years of toiling under the most aversive conditions possible, the team emerged having concocted the saddest motion picture physically possible on this plane of existence. They called it Plague Dogs.
Based on Richard Adams’ equally depressing novel, the author behind the nearly equally depressing Watership Down, Plague Dogs is the story of two dogs who escape a medical testing facility in the Lake District of England (I have no idea where that is). The talking puppies learn to live off the land like the wild animals they once were. Rowf, a black lab, is the more cynical of the pair having grown up in captivity, where he’s left to drown, then resuscitated every day of his life. His friend Sniffer, a fox terrier, once had a good home, but his master was killed when saving his life from an oncoming truck, an accident for which Sniffer blames himself. Sniffer has had some kind of brain surgery, and as a result is a manic-depressive schizophrenic.
The plight of children during World War II in Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen may’ve made a depressing subject for an animated film, but one thing that tugs quicker upon the heartstrings then children are animals with human expressions and emotions. Maybe really cute robots. I’d like to go into the specifics of the sad things that befall to these poor critters, but I’d ruin the plot, and if you’re expecting something specific the flick won’t work quite so well. The animation isn’t the best you’ll ever see, but it’s distinctive, dramatic, and effective. Plague Dogs isn’t a movie you’ll forget, it’s a movie you’ll hire a hypnotist to erase from your brain.
The best, and coincidentally most depressing, version of the film available is the Australian DVD release, which is the only uncut video DVD available. My friends at Xploitedcinema.com supplied me with one for the purposes of this write-up, and it is a better film than the cut US and UK releases (which aren’t very easy to find off the internet either).
Ravenous gets my vote for the most overlooked film of the past decade. Released between 1999’s blockbusters The Matrix, The Mummy, and The Phantom Menace, but unable to get a foothold in the counter programming due to now classics like Magnolia, Three Kings, and Fight Club, the film was under-advertised, and received only luke-warm reviews from critics. It was in and out of theatres in most territories within two weeks.
The hard to define film is a mish-mash of genres, and features no major stars (at least it didn’t at the time, Guy Pierce went through a popular period after Memento), so it’s no wonder Fox couldn’t get a handle on the film’s advertising (those who actually remember the trailers probably only remember ridiculous heavy metal music and action oriented images). There are obvious elements of horror in the tale of cannibalistic frontiersmen setting up a vampire-like family structure in the passageway to territorial California, as well as Western elements engraved in the era and location. The film begins with a series Mexican/American War flashbacks (of which there were originally going to be more of), and ends as a history lesson for a forgotten age. But above all this rigmarole, Ravenous is a dark and bloody comedy.
Director Antonia Bird (A woman? Surely you jest), balances all these mismatched elements, ensuring that the final product is disturbing and frightening when needed, adventurous considering the budget, and never without a satirical sting. The film is visually lush, graphically violent, tightly constructed, and endlessly quotable. The cast is filled to the gills with solid B-Stars, headed by the always-incomparable Robert Carlyle, and the films solitary straight man, Guy Pierce. Ravenous also features an original score constructed by Michael Nyman and Blur’s Damon Albarn, which mixes modern electronic music and traditional blue grass.
More lost, underrated, never discovered, or misunderstood films I’ve already written reviews for:
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Horrors of the Malformed Men
Kidnapped (Rabid Dogs)
Who Can Kill a Child
Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs
And thanks again to Xploitedcinema.com for the review copy of Plague Dogs.
Editorial by Gabriel Powers
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