Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Fortress”

Fortress

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the two week Stuart Gordon spotlight is “Fortress,” a 1992 Australian sci-fi flick starring the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert.

“Fortress” marks one of the rare occasions where Stuart Gordon didn’t have any writing credit: he strictly directed “Fortress.” That is probably a good thing, because judging from the listed credits, there were already plenty of writers involved with the screenplay.

The initial story of “Fortress” is credited to both Troy Neighbors and Steven Feinberg, who share an initial screenplay credit with a third collaborator, David Venable. Following that, there were apparently re-writes done by Terry Curtis Fox, a scarce television writer who shares an additional (but separate) writing credit on the film. Judging by how the gymnastics sometimes go regarding writing credits on films, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that plenty more hands were involved as well, but were left off of the final listing. I would be even less surprised to learn of some phantom writer on the project given the combined inexperienced of all of the listed writers involved.

The cinematography on “Fortress” was provided by David Eggby, a particularly well-regarded director of photography in Australia, who has extensive work on sci-fi features such as “Mad Max” and “Pitch Black” to his name.

Frédéric Talgorn returned to do the music on “Fortress” after contributing the excellent score to a previous Stuart Gordon movie, “Robot Jox.” Despite not being quite as memorable as the one he did for “Robot Jox,” the score to “Fortress” is certainly good, though perhaps unremarkable.

“Fortress” was distributed by Miramax’s Dimension Films in the United States, which was Bob Weinstein’s sub-division of the highly successful company. Dimension has historically focused on high profit-potential horror and sci-fi films, and “Fortress” was no exception. Interestingly, the Weinstein brothers retained the Dimension label when they ultimately jettisoned Miramax, and incorporated it into the current powerhouse that is the Weinstein Company today.

There is a lot to say about the effects in “Fortress.” There is certainly lots of gore and squibs to go around, which pushes the cheese limit on the flick. In particular, there’s a sequence where a guy has his entire stomach blown out, to the point where there is a complete and perfect hole that he can put his hand through. I’m pretty sure that was a gag in “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist,” which puts “Fortress” at the Rubicon of turning into self-parody. In spite of that, it never quite crosses that river in such a way as to lose the audience entirely, at least not in my opinion.

fortress7Something absolutely worth noting about “Fortress” is that the cyborgs and gadgets all look pretty damn cool, and fit in fantastically with the general set design (which is also top notch). That might seem like a basic thing, but I’m sure there are plenty of ways where this could have gone wrong. Practical effects are all over the place, which is a good practice for this kind of film. All of the sci-fi devices are believable and tangible, and nothing is completely ridiculous. Even the internal detonators placed in the prisoners are pretty simple explosives from the look of them. Speaking of explosives, there are also a couple of fantastic, classic explosions throughout the movie that action movie fans are sure to get a kick out of.

The effects people on “Fortress” included Robert Clark, who has worked effects and makeup on such films as “Starship Troopers,” “Mimic,” and “Cocoon,” and Robert Blalack, whose special effects credits include “Stars Wars – A New Hope,” “RoboCop,” “The Blues Brothers,” and the original “Cosmos” television series. “Fortress” also marked the first credit for the now-proficient visual effects producer Blondel Aidoo, who has worked such fantastic effects movies as “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Spider-Man,” and “Minority Report,” and such not-so-fantastic movies as “Marmaduke,” “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” and “Kangaroo Jack.”

fortress3Outside of Christopher Lambert, the cast of “Fortress” includes a handful of recognizable faces, including Stuart Gordon favorite Jeffrey Combs and Kurtwood Smith of “RoboCop.” Character actor Clifton Collins, Jr. appears in an early role for him, before dropping his initial stage name of “Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez,” which he bore in honor of his grandfather, the actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez. The voice of the prison computer system is voiced by none other than Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, wife of Stuart Gordon and frequent antagonist-figure in his films. Other notables in the cast include Vernon Wells as a heavy inmate and Lincoln Kilpatrick as an aging prisoner facing parole.

fortress6The plot of “Fortress” follows a couple attempting to have a second child after an initial failed pregnancy. However, the dystopian future they live in (2017 United States, hilariously) operates on a strict one-child policy, meaning that they must attempt to cross a border out of the country without their pregnancy being detected by authorities. Unfortunately, they are caught at the Canadian border and sentenced to incarceration in an underground super-prison, where their child is to be confiscated upon birth. Lambert’s character tries to survive the hazardous world inside the prison, while also searching for a way to escape with his wife and unborn child before the out-of-control prison company can claim all of their lives.

“Fortress” made $46 million total on an estimated budget of $8 million, making it a significant financial success. However, it currently holds an IMDb rating of 5.8, a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 48%, and a critic rating of 40%. Personally, I feel like these scores are a bit deceiving, as is the case with any film that falls within the good-bad aesthetic. Just at a cursory glance, some of those negative reviews acknowledge how fun the movie is, but give it a low score nonetheless.

Once again, as I have found with many critics’ reviews of Gordon’s movies in the past, I saw many that compared “Fortress” to Gordon’s earlier works, specifically “Re-Animator.” “Fortress” is very clearly a different kind of movie than “Re-Animator,” without any connection to the horror genre or Lovecraft, and Gordon wasn’t even involved in writing on “Fortress.” So, why on Earth would it be anything like “Re-Animator,” outside of a handful of stylistic and casting choices? It boggles my mind how some critics can’t separate the past and the present for directors and writers. I guarantee that someone out there is writing a review of “Maps To The Stars” right now complaining about how it isn’t “Videodrome” or “Eastern Promises.” You can’t ignore the body of work of a creator when writing about a new feature, but basing an entire review on it is beyond unfair.

As far as actual criticisms go, I saw a fair number of complaints about Lambert’s acting abilities. Personally, I don’t find him that distracting in general, though his accent is always pretty heavy. I usually enjoy his performances when he pops up in things, and “Fortress” is no exception. He isn’t a dynamic actor by any means, but he is pretty solid at the few character types he plays.

fortress4There are some good imaginative sci-fi elements to “Fortress” that are based on real social issues of the time: issues like the privatization of prisons, social anxieties on overpopulation, the institution of one-child laws, the use of technology in surveillance wiping away privacy, the replacement of humans by more efficient robotic workers, etc.

As far as performances go in “Fortress,” it is impossible not to mention Jeffrey Combs. He is once again solid in his supporting role, and is nearly unrecognizable with his long hair, massive lenses, and hippy-ish dialect. Also deserving of commendation is Kurtwood Smith, who is one of the best movie villains out there, period. I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten more opportunities to show it off over the years. He is incredibly memorable in “Fortress,” almost as much so as his most highly regarded role in “RoboCop.” It is just hard not to love a creepy, evil prison warden trying to get in touch with his humanity.

fortress5 fortress2There are a couple of well-executed twists and fake-out in “Fortress” that make it particularly memorable in my opinion. I really like the twist of what the government does with the “extra” children conceived outside of the one child limit. Cyborg experimentation sort of ties into aspirations of transhumanism, which is alluded to at points through dialogue as a way of dealing with overpopulation: the goal is to create a non-sexual, immortal cyborg population that will be able to sustain on the planet. It is also fun to see how the cyborg played by Smith condescends to his computer, looking down on the entity that represents a part of him that he comes to loathe. He clearly desires to be more human, and takes the frustration out on his computer. Speaking of which, the computer gets a glorious act of revenge with an outstanding death for Smith.

The ending sequence, which was apparently omitted from some versions of the movie, also features some bit I really enjoyed. There is a little bit of “Maximum Overdrive” thrown in at the last minute, which leads to a spectacular final explosion and one of the cruelest fake-out non-deaths you can imagine for the conclusion of a movie. Lambert’s reaction shot to the explosion is also hilarious, but I unfortunately haven’t been able to dig up a clip of it.

This is one of the few Stuart Gordon movies that I had not seen before this retrospective, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. Most of what I had heard was that it failed to live up to his other, more memorable works. However, I think this deserves consideration towards the top of the list for his career. I feel about “Fortress” what I expected to feel about “Castle Freak,” which is the opposite of what I was led to believe before watching them. “Fortress” is an absolute blast of a movie with some great sci-fi and action elements, hammy performances, cheesy / squibby effects, and a fun concept at the core. I think this movie generally deserves a second look, because I found an awful lot to like about it.

If you are looking for a fun flick for a bad movie showcase, I think “Fortress” will certainly fit the bill to your satisfaction. I mean, it is a sci-fi prison break movie featuring Herbert West, Connor MacLeod, and Clarence Boddicker. What about that isn’t to love?

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Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “The Dentist”

The Dentist

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the two week spotlight on writer/director Stuart Gordon is the 1996 endodontal driller thriller, “The Dentist.”

“The Dentist” was directed by frequent Stuart Gordon collaborator and producer Brian Yuzna, and is one of the few works that Stuart Gordon only wrote and did not direct. Once again, it was written in cooperation with his frequent writing partner Dennis Paoli, though the screenplay was later significantly re-worked and altered by a third writer, Charles Finch.

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This box art is the only one that I’ve seen that makes reference to Gordon and Paoli’s involvement

The music in “The Dentist” is, frankly, just god-damn ridiculous. It drifts from operatic belting to awful synthesizer arpeggios at break-neck speed, and seems to never relent throughout the whole movie. Just as with the cinematography, though, it seems to fit right in with the over-the-top performances and story, so that is hardly a complaint. Just listen to all of the musical madness going on in this scene, in which the background music shifts incoherently between being diagetic and non-diagetic (whether the characters can actually hear it or not). To set it up, Feinstone has been listening to opera in his office, when his unfaithful wife walks in to meet him. He then insists on taking a look at her teeth in his brand new, yet to be used operating room, with her not realizing his nefarious intentions:

The composer who was in charge of the score, Alan Howarth, was no rookie, either. He frequently collaborated with John Carpenter for music on films like “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Prince of Darkness,” “They Live,” and a number of the “Halloween” sequels, and additionally worked in the sound departments on films like “Army of Darkness,” “RoboCop 2,” and the first five “Star Trek” films. I have no idea what happened with “The Dentist,” but his more recent credits since that time are far less distinguished: for instance, they include some movie called “Evilution” and an IMDb Bottom 100 alumnus in “The Omega Code.”

Something that is impossible not to notice about “The Dentist” is the disorienting and at times nauseating cinematography. It is incredibly heavy-handed, but I have kind of grown to love it. Everything throughout the film is so way overdone, the bizarre shots more or less fit in with the rest of the production. Interestingly, the cinematography work had to be split between two men, because the initial director of photography (Dennis Maloney) had to withdraw part way through filming due to a family emergency. The final credit was given to Levie Isaacks, who came in as his relief.

The cast of “The Dentist” is led by Corbin Bernsen, in what is certainly his defining role. Ken Foree, who worked with Stuart Gordon on “From Beyond,” plays a police officer who ultimately catches onto the killer dentist’s trail. Linda Hoffman gets the honor of playing Bernsen’s long-suffering and unfaithful wife, who gets to ham up her material quite a bit in her own right. Last but not least, buried way down in the accessory cast is “The Avengers” member Mark Ruffalo, who plays a scummy talent agent who brings his model client in for a dental check up.

The story of “The Dentist” follows the progressive mental breakdown of one Dr. Feinstone, who, over the course of a day, is blackmailed by an IRS agent, discovers his wife’s infidelity, and finds that his favorite shirt has been ruined by a stain. This leads him to commit a string of murders over the course of his subsequent work-day at the dental office. These antics are somehow not discovered until after working hours have ended, and Feinstone has slipped away undetected. It is all pretty outlandish, to say the least.

dentist3The inspiration for “The Dentist” comes from the story of a real life serial killer dentist named Glennon Engleman. Interestingly, Corbin Bernsen played him in a television movie, “Beyond Suspicion,” years before the making of “The Dentist.” It may well have been a feather in his cap when it came to casting on the flick, for better or worse.

“The Dentist” was reportedly shot over the course of only 18 days, and cost only $2.5 million in total to make. Some of the cuts made to keep costs down included not having a story-board artist, excluding prop furniture from the budget,  and reusing the special effects props: notably the oversized mouth, which had interchangeable teeth to indicate different characters. Speaking of which, the designer of that effect, the highly acclaimed make-up effects artist Kevin Yagher, reportedly agreed to do his work on “The Dentist” as a favor, as he was reportedly far out of the production’s price range.

At one point, Corbin Bernsen’s character shoots and kills a neighbor’s dog. This incident leads to the police launching a formal investigation, which ultimately leads to his capture. During the sequence where the cops are investigating the crime scene, the dead dog shown is actually a stuffed goat, because apparently the production couldn’t come up with a convincing stuffed dog on that day of filming, but a goat was readily available. This is the kind of production story you just can’t make up.

The reception to “The Dentist” was overwhelmingly negative, with at least one reviewer uncertain if the movie was supposed to be a genre-mocking comedy or an earnest horror/thriller. The movie currently holds a 0% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, alongside a 28% audience score. The IMDb rating is a bit higher with a 5.1, which I am going to believe is due to people now watching this as a good-bad flick in retrospect.

To put it mildly, Corbin Bernsen goes completely over the top and through the roof with his performance in this film. His dialogue is so venomous, faux-erudite, and delivered with such excessive, bitter intensity that it is absolutely hilarious. He meanders on about about the “filth” and “decay” in society with all of the focus, drive, and self-righteousness of a firebrand preacher railing against the foreign, vague evils of short-haired women and the godless undisciplined youth, and his content is equally as nonsensical as any backwoods testament you could dig up.  Most of the film consists of either Bernsen on one of these ranting tangents, or him slowly torturing people with poor dentistry practices (or, more often, a mixture of both). The entertainment value comes from both his performance, and from the clear bafflement of all of the accessory characters around him, who never seem to catch on to the fact that he’s losing his grip.

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"Nah, he seems fine to me. Why do you ask?" “Nah, he seems fine to me. Why do you ask?”

At one point towards the end of the film, a timid dental student stops Feinstone while he is viciously drilling at a tooth, noting that the patient is clearly in pain. Feinstone responds:

“Pain is an abstract emotion. It has to be managed, shaped, and disregarded as a distraction.”

The assistant allows him to carry on, but looks thoroughly disturbed and perplexed by the statement. This is almost the perfect encapsulation of the movie: meandering, lunatic dialogue by Bernsen, followed by perplexed reactions from the straight characters surrounding him, who ultimately do nothing to interfere.

On top of Bernsen’s performance, the accessory cast seems to constantly deliver out of the blue, non-sequitur lines that sound like they would come out of imperfect robotic facsimiles of humans, particularly whenever Bernsen isn’t on screen. Here is a segment of a conversation between the two cops on Feinstone’s trail, for instance:

Detective 1: “…[he’s] a regular James Bond!”

Detective 2, stiltedly: “A James Bond regular!”

Detective 1: *awkward sideways glance at Detective 2, silence*

I am pretty sure that Detective 2 (named “Sunshine,” by the way) would just straight-up fail a Turing test. How does that line (with that delivery) stay in this movie? Regardless of how it happened, I am glad it did, because these moments are absolutely golden.

Here is another segment of dialogue, where a mother is trying to make small talk with Bernsen’s Dr. Feinstone while he is working on her child’s teeth:

Mom: “There’s lot of money in dentistry?”

Feinstone, with a thousand yard stare: “I work hard….too hard to lose it all”

Mom: *confused silence*

I probably have a bit of an excessive fondness for this movie, as it was my first exposure to Stuart Gordon, but I honestly feel that it is the least-appreciated film he has worked on. I still rewatch it on a regular basis, and I still absolutely love it. Corbin Bernen’s performance is one of the most heavy-handed, ridiculous things I have seen in any movie, and it totally makes the film. Ken Foree adds some delightful flair, and gets to show off the comedic chops that you only see glimpses of in “From Beyond.” When you add in the bonkers score and cinematography, “The Dentist” becomes a truly magnificent achievement in awfulness.

dentist4“The Dentist” is without a doubt a fun, good-bad movie, and definitely deserves some more attention. If you are looking for an awful horror film to showcase to friends, “The Dentist” is one worth considering. I would go so far as to schedule another visit every six months or so, just to check in. You don’t want your memory to decay, after all.

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Castle Freak”

Castle Freak

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Today’s feature in the two-week spotlight on acclaimed horror writer/director Stuart Gordon is the 1995 direct-to-video flick, “Castle Freak.”

“Castle Freak” is yet another Stuart Gordon adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft tale, something that I wasn’t aware of until I started reading into the background on the film. It is specifically based on the short story “The Outsider,” which was published in 1926 in the magazine Weird Tales, which frequently showcased Lovecraft’s works. As is the case with many of Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations, it varies from the source material significantly, to the point of being almost unrecognizable in its final on-screen form.

Dennis Paoli once again shares writing credit with Gordon on “Castle Freak,” marking their fourth collaboration of an eventual eight (nine if you liberally include the much-maligned sequel to “The Dentist,” in which both men take character credits only).

“Castle Freak” was a production of Full Moon Features, a company started by Charles Band after the dissolution of Empire Pictures, which distributed the Stuart Gordon movies “Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” “Dolls,” and “Robot Jox.” Full Moon is almost certainly best known for its handful of b-movie franchises, including “Puppet Master,” “Trancers,” “The Gingerdead Man,” “Demonic Toys,” and “Dollman.” However, it also produced Stuart Gordon’s first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, “The Pit and The Pendulum.”

The cinematography on “Castle Freak” was provided by Mario Vulpiani, a man who can claim the IMDb Bottom 100 and Mystery Science Theater 3000 superhero movie “The Pumaman” on his list of over 70 distinguished cinematography credits.

As should be expected of a Charles Band produced Stuart Gordon movie, brother Richard Band once again provides the score for “Castle Freak,” as he did with “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.” It would mark the last time that Richard Band music would grace a Stuart Gordon work until the short film “Dreams In The Witch House” was created for the Maters of Horror television program many years later.

As is usual of the director, Stuart Gordon chose to go with a familiar cast on “Castle Freak.” Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton both return once again, reuniting for the first time on screen since Stuart Gordon’s “From Beyond” nine years earlier. Jonathan Fuller plays the eerie title character, a whipping boy named Georgio. Fuller also had previous experience working with Stuart Gordon, specifically in his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and The Pendulum” four years prior to the production of “Castle Freak.” The rest of the cast seems to be mostly filled out by Italian actors, such as Elisabeth Kaza, Luca Zingaretti, and Massimo Sarchielli. These casting choices were almost certainly motivated as much by financial prudence as any desire for realism, given the Italian filming location and low budget of the production.

castlefreak6The effects on “Castle Freak” were provided by Optic Nerve Studios, a special effects outfit which has worked on such acclaimed films and as “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” Roger Corman’s unreleased “Fantastic Four,” and “Battlefield Earth.” In all seriousness, they have a number of solid credits to their name as well: namely “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Babylon 5,” which earned the team an Emmy for their prowess. Their work here definitely carries a heavy load, as Fuller’s title character requires extensive, convincing makeup to be an effective presence on screen. In my opinion, they nailed it.

castlefreak5“Castle Freak” has gained somewhat of a reinvigorated following in recent years, at least partially due to the highly acclaimed internet show, “The Flop House Podcast,” which has featured in depth discussions on details of the film (particular about whether the title character rips off his own genitalia or not). The movie has become inexorably linked with the show in the minds of fans,  and it has gradually become a running gag for the hosts to recommend the movie at the end of the show.

“Castle Freak” follows the story of a family on the rocks as they travel to Italy to check out a mysterious castle that was left to them via an unknown relative’s will. It turns out that the previous tenant, unbeknownst to anyone, kept a whipping boy in a dungeon of the castle. The maimed, feral, and surprisingly stealthy man quickly starts to cause havoc for the family, pushing them to a mental breaking point. Even without the presence of the eponymous “freak,” the family struggles with the hostility of the locals, as well as the latent tensions amongst themselves over a tragic accident years earlier.

“Castle Freak” is surprisingly a very straight movie, and could have perhaps used a little more tongue in cheek humor to lighten it up. Even a little more emphaticness from Combs could have helped, who is usually quick to provide that darkly comedic element without diluting the constructed horror atmosphere. Combs is pretty surprisingly subdued throughout the film, which seems like a waste after his “don’t expect it to tango” performance in “Re-Animator” and his hilarious brain-munching in “From Beyond.” His drunk acting is pretty great in “Castle Freak” at the very least, but it just isn’t quite enough to showcase his real capabilities to carry a film.

castlefreak4As I mentioned, there are some hard-core matrimonial tensions in this flick, and Crampton and Combs have to play at each others’ throats throughout the film. The source of their friction is slowly revealed throughout the story: Combs’s character caused the blindness of their daughter and the death of their young son in a horrific car accident, during which he was apparently driving intoxicated. They both do a good job with their roles, but it is a little strange to see two actors who are capable of extreme hammy-ness play an entire movie so straight. I kept expecting more memorable, over-the-top moments, and they never really came.

Something that isn’t quite a positive or a negative per se is the fact that “Castle Freak” is mostly a gross-out movie: the effects / makeup on Fuller is for the most part the extent of the horror in the film. Some people are more fond of this style than I am, but regardless, it is something worth knowing about the movie going into it. As I mentioned earlier, these practical effects are pretty good, and are certainly a strong point in the film. I think that just about anyone would wind up cringing at one point or another over the course of sitting through this film, which is a credit to both Fuller and the effects team.

castlefreak2Something I did quite like about the film is the inclusion of a main character who is blind. The audience naturally sees things she can’t, which builds tension and provides a sort of visual dramatic irony. I kind of wish that this was played with more in the movie, but it really only comes into play early on, while the daughter is still investigating the castle.

castlefreak3Overall, I think this is a weaker Stuart Gordon film, but it still certainly has value as a horror flick. Combs and Crampton are good here without any doubt, and have great chemistry with each other (even if it is discordant by design). Jonathan Fuller is outstandingly eerie as the “freak,” and the effects work do a lot to accentuate him. The film as a whole is better than your typical sci-fi or horror television movie by a long-shot if you ask me. That said, it isn’t in my upper tier of Stuart Gordon features by any means. There just isn’t enough “fun” value here, which is very unusual for Stuart Gordon. I think that comes from how straight and sober the film’s tone is in comparison to many of his other movies, like “Dolls” or “The Dentist”. Hell, “Castle Freak” even makes “From Beyond” look a little lighthearted, because at least Ken Foree adds some solid comic relief to the early acts of that flick. Nobody ever steps up to provide that in “Castle Freak,” which I think was a misstep.

In spite of all that, “Castle Freak” still gets a recommendation from me, though not a particularly strong one. This seems like a movie that should be more entertaining than it is, though it certainly isn’t boring or bad. I had pretty high expectations going into it given it’s recent cult status, and I was a little disappointed on the whole. If you go in with the caveat that this isn’t going to be a particularly “fun” horror watch, but rather a more straight horror flick, then you will probably be more satisfied with the experience.

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Robot Jox”

Robot Jox

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the two week spotlight on writer/director Stuart Gordon is 1989’s ridiculously fun giant robot movie, “Robot Jox.”

“Robot Jox” was co-written by the acclaimed Hugo and Nebula winning sci-fi author Joe Haldeman, best known for the 1974 novel “The Forever War.” Reportedly, he is not a fan of the ultimate product of “Robot Jox” that made it to the screen. In 2008, he was quoted as saying:

Some people enjoy [Robot Jox], but to me it’s as if I’d had a child who started out well and then sustained brain damage

This opinion can almost certainly be attributed to frequent clashes between the author and director/co-writer Stuart Gordon over what the direction and tone of the film should be, which caused much of the production to apparently become a nightmare. Gordon wanted an audience-friendly story that could act as a visual, action-packed spectacle, whereas Haldeman was more interested in the story being a serious, harder sci-fi war drama. These visions proved, of course, to be generally incompatible.

Charles Band and his company, Empire Pictures, produced “Robot Jox,” just as they had done for Stuart Gordon’s earlier films “Dolls,” “From Beyond,” and “The Reanimator.” However, “Robot Jox” proved to be a much larger project for the company: the budget reportedly eventually hit $10 million, making it the most expensive undertaking by far for the b-movie outfit.

“Robot Jox” suffered significant delays on its release date due to the (perhaps predictable) bankruptcy of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, which left it in limbo for a couple of years after the film was finished shooting.

One of the most distinguishing aspects of “Robot Jox” is its inspiring, top-notch score. The music on the film was provided by Frédéric Talgorn, who also worked on the Stuart Gordon film “Fortress,” as well as the animated “Heavy Metal 2000.”

The cinematography on “Robot Jox” was once again provided by frequent Stuart Gordon collaborator Marc Ahlberg, who had a handful of credits to his name in 1989. Included among these is the hilarious sci-fi boxing movie “Arena,” also a product of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. It is worth checking out for die-hard b-movie fans in need of a deep cut: I have often summed up the film as “Rocky in Space.”

The extensive visual effects and stop motion work in “Robot Jox” was supervised and directed by David Allen, who worked the stop motion on b-movies such as Larry Cohen’s “Q” and “The Stuff,” IMDb Bottom 100 feature “Laserblast,” and Stuart Gordon’s own “Dolls.” Apparently, his work ran into multiple delays due to weather, as he insisted on filming against open sky. Stuart Gordon has stated that the weather issues caused the Mojave desert stop-motion filming to stretch on for “a year and a half…[because] everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.”

robotjox8 robotjox9The box office results on “Robot Jox” proved to be nearly as unfortunate and disastrous as the production process. On the rumored $10 million budget, the movie barely grossed $1.2 million in its limited theatrical release. Audiences at the time weren’t particularly thrilled with the movie, though it has certainly gained cult acclaim in the years since its release. It currently hold a 5.2 rating on IMDb and a 41% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, through you would certainly get a different response from a group of bad movie lovers today.

The story of “Robot Jox” takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where international conflicts are settled through competitive combat utilizing large, piloted robots. A particular pilot, Alexander, has been causing havoc on the United States, defeating nine pilots in a row as the story begins. The meat of the story follows Achilles, an American pilot who is burned out following a traumatic bout with Alexander that proves fatal to a group of spectator civilians. He is forced to deal with the disdain from his fellow pilots and people for his decision to withdraw from competition, and has to make hard choices that will have global consequences.

The popularity of “Robot Jox” has significantly grown in the years since its flubbed theatrical release. It has recently been featured on the internet review show “Best of the Worst” by RedLetterMedia, it has inspired the Bad Movie Fiends Podcast to name it’s positive review scale “1-5 Jox” in honor of the film, and it even had sound bites remixed into a Nine Inch Nails track by Trent Reznor. Its cult status has even gotten it 35mm theatrical screenings at a couple of the Alamo Drafthouse Theaters in recent years. The release and popularity of Gullermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” has also brought increased attention and viewership to the cult classic in the past few years, drawing many comparisons between the films by bringing giant, piloted robots back to the big screen.

“Robot Jox” does a pretty decent job of building up the desensitized and callous dystopian society that surrounds the plot. I wouldn’t quite call the details subtle, but the hostile and unempathetic behavior of the average person in the world is always noticeably in the background. Personally, I think this makes the peaceful ending all the more impressive and optimistic, but I am sure that many out there would disagree.

robotjox1Something that I noticed through reading reviews of “Robot Jox” is that even most of the negative reviews admit that the film is oddly endearing and fun to watch. Most of the complaints strike me as anachronistic gripes about the use of stop motion, or express issues with the overacting in one breath, only to ironically praise it in the next. This is clearly regarded as a classic good-bad film for a reason.

Personally, I think that the stop motion work in “Robot Jox” still looks pretty good for what it is. The method has fallen out of favor in recent years due to the expense involved, and because of the increasing availability of more (ironically) “realistic” computer-generated effects. At the time, however, this was as good as a live action giant robot movie could get effects-wise.

robotjox2My personal favorite sequence of “Robot Jox” is probably during the pilot training program, in which about 20 people are forced to climb an electrified jungle gym in a strobe-lighted room. It is at once clever, ridiculous, unnecessary, and perfectly placed in a movie filled with outlandish concepts and designs.

As iconic as the last shot of “Robot Jox” is, I feel like the ending probably turned off many typical action movie fans at the time. Conventional logic would have Achilles defeat Alexander, and Alexander pay for his murderous asshattery with a gruesome death. However, the ending winds up showcasing growth on the parts of both men, and they are able to bond over the camaraderie of being driven combatants who struggle to find meaning outside of the fight. The more I think about it, the more I like it. It helps that the acting is hilariously over-the-top and melodramatic, and that it ends on a freeze-frame. You just can’t ask for anything better than that.

Speaking of which, the over-the-top performances in “Robot Jox” define the movie just about as much as the robots themselves. Particularly, Michael Alldredge as “Tex” and Paul Koslo’s Alexander steal the show, chewing every bit of scenery that they can get their hands on. Gary Graham is perfectly melodramatic as Achilles, and clashes with Koslo’s Alexander in just about every way you can imagine. Keen eyes might also spot Stuart Gordon regulars such as Jeffrey Combs and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon filling in background roles.

robotjox6 robotjox5 robotjox3Overall, “Robot Jox” is one of the better good-bad movies out there that hasn’t quite seeped into the public consciousness yet. It isn’t on the level of “Troll 2,” “The Room,” or “Birdemic,” but it may very well be on its way. It is a fantastic showcase of Stuart Gordon’s peculiar style, which is particularly unusual given it is outside of his usual genre of horror. Despite the poor reception at the time, the second wind of this film in the secondary market is more than deserved, and I hope to see a blu-ray release at some point in the future. In any case, many regard this as their favorite Stuart Gordon movie, and I certainly get where they are coming from. It goes without saying that this is a strong recommendation from me: “Robot Jox” will serve for any of your potential bad movie nite needs without any doubt. If you go in knowing what this is, you won’t suffer the disappointment that 1990 theatrical audiences did. Just stop worrying, and love the Jox. Crash and burn.

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Dreams in the Witch House”

Dreams In The Witch House

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Welcome back to the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the spotlight series on horror writer/director Stuart Gordon is “Dreams In The Witch House,” a short H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that Gordon created for the television program “Masters of Horror.”

“Masters of Horror” was a television series on Showtime that ran for two seasons from 2005-2007, specifically featuring short films (under 1 hour) developed by notable horror directors and writers. Apart from Stuart Gordon, the series spotlighted such notables as Tobe Hooper, Larry Cohen, John Landis, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Clive Barker, and many others. “Dreams In The Witch House” aired in the first season of the show, and Stuart Gordon later returned to the second season of the program with an episode adapting the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Black Cat.”

“Dreams In The Witch House” is based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story published in 1933, and is Stuart Gordon’s fourth film adaptation of his works. Dennis Paoli once again returns as Stuart Gordon’s writing partner on “Dreams In The Witch House” and “The Black Cat”, but to date these two “Masters of Horror” episodes are the last works they have collaborated on.

The effects on “Dreams In The Witch House” were provided by the KNB EFX group, an Emmy and Academy Award winning outfit that has worked on productions such as “Django: Unchained,” “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad,” “Army Of Darkness” “Drag Me To Hell,” “Kill Bill,” “Casino,” “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Grindhouse.” They undoubtedly provide one of the strongest aspects of the film, particularly with the incredibly creepy human-faced rat effect and the concluding “chest-burster” sequence.

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The cinematography on the film was provided by Jon Joffin, who has done extensive work on television movies, and worked on a number of early episodes of “The X-Files.” The production design for the movie was provided by one David Fischer, who is best known for his work on “Friday the 13th Part VIII” and “Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical.” Last but certainly not least, the music for “Dreams In The Witch House” is provided by Richard Band, brother of Charles Band, who also scored a number of Stuart Gordon’s earlier films, including “Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” and “Castle Freak.”

The cast of “Dreams In The Witch House” is led by Ezra Godden, who re-teamed with Gordon after working together on another of his Lovecraft adaptations, “Dagon.” The human-faced rat, Brown Jenkin, is played by a Ukrainian magician named Yevgen Voronin, who was cast based on his facial structure, and has done no acting work before or since. Chelah Horsdal was given her role because she exuded an atmosphere in her audition that was both “maternal and vulnerable,” making her more than believable for her part of a struggling single mother. She has since appeared in television shows such as “Hell on Wheels” and “Arrow,” and has been getting consistent work over the past few years. The old man character, Masurewicz, was initially going to be played by long-time Stuart Gordon collaborator Jeffrey Combs, but he unfortunately had to back out at the last minute. His replacement was Campbell Lane, who proves to be capable (though unremarkable) in the role.

“Dreams In The Witch House” follows a young physics doctoral student who is working on completing his graduate work. The story starts when he decides to rent a room in a secluded house so that he can focus on his work, but his accommodations quickly prove to be much creepier than he initially suspected. He befriends a young mother who is also a tenet in the home, but slowly starts to lose his grip on reality as he repeatedly sees a small creature that appears to be a rat with a human face. The apparent hallucinations become more vivid and disturbing as time goes on, and the promising young mind begins to consider that his research may have other-worldly applications.

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“Dreams In The Witch House” is not as over the top or fun as many Stuart Gordon movies, but it is pretty solid for what it is. It is certainly better than your average TV horror film for sure, at the very least. It does have your typical Lovecraft downer ending, which probably didn’t sit well with many, especially given the fact that it involves a particularly bloody child sacrifice. A bloody baby death is something you do not get very often in any genre, and many people found that to be a particularly upsetting aspect of the movie, (including Stuart Gordon’s wife, interestingly enough).

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Among the complaints I have seen about this film are that it doesn’t have enough true scares or horrifying moments. I think there is at least a case to be made there, but I feel like Lovecraft stories shouldn’t rely on shocks or jump-scares, but are more crucially reliant on atmospheric horror: something I think “Dreams In The Witch House” nails down pretty well.

The DVD commentary track for “Dreams In The Witch House” offered some fantastic insights from Stuart Gordon, including the following quotes:

“A good actor can make you believe anything, a good effect sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t”

“In horror…you always have to find a different way to get under people’s skin”

“[the actors I use] are not afraid to make themselves look ridiculous…if the character isn’t scared, why should the audience be scared? If you have an actor who won’t be afraid, you need to get another actor”

According to Stuart Gordon, “Dreams In The Witch House” was regarded as his ‘truest’ Lovecraft adaptation by many in attendance when he screened it at the Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, OR. Lovecraft fans are definitely split on Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations, particularly over his often apocryphal inclusion of nudity in the features, and sometimes dramatic alterations from the source material.

Overall, this is a pretty well crafted short film, especially considering the limited time and budget devoted to it. Gordon clearly enjoys Lovecraft and this story in particular, and has said that he wanted to do this adaptation since the 1980s. For those that might complain that Gordon’s works are too often tongue-in-cheek, this is the perfect work to show that he can take on horror without any side humor.

“Dreams In The Witch House” is a pretty strong recommendation from me. It is definitely a slight departure from the usual Stuart Gordon fare in that there is little to no comedic element to be found, but it is a pretty fantastically creepy and unsettling Lovecraft adaptation that is easy for any horror fan to enjoy.

Interestingly enough, the source material for “Dreams In The Witch House” inspired another adaptation: a Lovecraftian rock opera of the same name, which can be checked out in part on YouTube. I’ll recommend checking that out as well, if only for the novelty of the thing.

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “From Beyond”

From Beyond

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the two week spotlight on the career of writer/director Stuart Gordon is 1986’s “From Beyond.”

“From Beyond” is the spiritual follow-up to Stuart Gordon’s smash debut, “Re-Animator.” It would be the second of Stuart Gordon’s eventual four H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, and reunited much of the same cast and crew that created the cult classic predecessor. Gordon went back to Lovecraft again for inspiration on his later films “Dagon” and “Dreams in the Witch House,” but neither of those films got the same kind of attention as “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.”

As mentioned, multiple players from “Re-Animator” return for “From Beyond,” most notably Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. Apparently, producers on the film opposed Crampton’s casting due to her youth, but Stuart Gordon specifically fought to let her have the role. Also in the cast is Ken Foree, who later pops up in the Gordon-penned movie “The Dentist,” and Stuart Gordon’s wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon. Ted Sorel, a character actor who never saw much success,  rounds out the cast, playing the mad doctor who loses himself in the “beyond” world.

Stuart Gordon shares screenwriting credit on “From Beyond” with two of his most frequent career collaborators, Brian Yuzna and Dennis Paoli, who were both involved with other Stuart Gordon-associated films such as “Re-Animator,” “The Dentist,” and “Castle Freak.”

Charles Band, the primary producer on the flick, is best known for the “Puppet Master” series of films. He specifically arranged for “From Beyond” to be done back to back with “Dolls” on the same sets as a cost-saving maneuver, in true Roger Corman tradition.

The cinematographer on “From Beyond” is Marc Ahlberg, who was also a frequent collaborator with Stuart Gordon for many years. Apart from working on Gordon movies such as “Dolls,” “Re-Animator,” and “Space Truckers,” he also did such notable gems as “Good Burger,” “Evil Bong,” and Joe Dante’s “The Second Civil War.”

The music in “From Beyond,” as was the case with “Re-Animator,” “Dolls,” and later “Dreams In The Witch House,” was provided by Charles Band’s brother, Richard: a veteran B-movie music master who additionally worked on the “Puppet Master” and “Demonic Toys” films with his brother.

The special effects on “From Beyond” were provided by Mechanical and Makeup Imageries, who also worked on the Stuart Gordon films “Dolls” and “Robot Jox,” as well as other b-films such as  “Ghoulies,” “Troll,” and “Trancers.” As was the case with “Dolls,” it is clear that the special effects team had an absolute blast with this movie. Outside of a few cheesy effects to create the translucent “beyond” world, the creatures and mutants manifested via practical effects look like they were a dream to create, and look pretty fantastic for a lower-budget feature. The effects reminded me of some of David Cronenberg’s movies, such as “Videodrome” and “Scanners,” in the use of imaginative visceral entities and squibs.

frombeyond4“From Beyond” follows the story of a young physics graduate student, who is working with a cruel and obsessive professor on creating a device (the resonator) aimed at expanding human perception. When the initial test of the resonator is successful, a creature from a “beyond” dimension kills the professor, leaving the student apparently insane. A controversial psychiatrist decides to take the student on as a patient, intrigued by his experiments and their potential applications for the treatment of schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and other brain-related diseases. She convinces him to once again operate the resonator, resulting in further other-worldly shenanigans.

Outside of the effects work, the biggest strength of “From Beyond” are the performances. Particularly, I thought Barbara Crampton knocked her role out of the park, which is both a heavier and more dynamic character than the role she was given in “Re-Animator.” Jeffrey Combs is once again a blast, and gives the same 110% performance that anyone should expect from him. There is a particularly great moment where he is confronted by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon’s character while frantically eating a handful of brains. Boy, is that a sequence for the Jeffrey Combs career highlight reel.

frombeyond2 frombeyond1“From Beyond” was a financial failure on release, making back less than half of its $4.5 million budget. However, it was generally well received by audiences and critics, currently holding a 6.8 rating on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes scores of 69% (audience) and 71% (critic).

While I think “From Beyond” is pretty enjoyable, it certainly isn’t without flaws. With so many returning players from “Re-Animator” and all of the other obvious similarities between the two films, it feels like there was too much of an effort put towards trying to replicate “Re-Animator,” rather than trying to create a work to stand on its own. It feels like an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle, and result of that is a number of moments that feel artificial and forced, and steals away some of the charm that the movie might have otherwise retained.

Something else that I certainly found off-putting about “From Beyond,” and something that also feels imitative of “Re-Animator,” is the amount of uncomfortably forced sexuality. There is an attempt to explain it away in dialogue as being a side-effect of the resonator, but I am quite curious if that was actually part of the source material. One of the biggest popular complaints about Gordon’s adaptations of Lovecraft are his insertions of nudity and sexuality into the tales, and I can’t help but wonder if that was the case here. There is certainly a way to use eroticism as a way to enhance a horror movie, but Gordon has never been able to find that balance if you ask me, mostly because most of his notable sex scenes are massively uncomfortable and non-consensual. That might have been what he was going for, but I feel like the emotions conjured from the inclusion of that kind of scene somewhat clashes with the traditional, squibby horror that makes up most of “From Beyond” and “Re-Animator.” Personally, I find it at best clashing and distracting, and at worst a potential detriment to the entire genre by turning both creative people and audiences away from the films.

frombeyond5The only other minor gripe I have about “From Beyond” is that the pacing of the story feels oddly stilted, and a number of moments feel like they could function as endings. It still functions fine, but it starts to feel a bit repetitive towards the end of the film.

“From Beyond” is a movie I expected to like more than I actually did. It is still pretty enjoyable, particularly the performances of Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Ken Foree, but it really lives in the shadow of “Re-Animator,” which is unfortunately a comparison that the film constantly draws thanks to the casting and style. I would be interested to see how someone would feel about this film if they hadn’t seen “Re-Animator” first, as I get the feeling that this is a case where the film’s context almost certainly dooms it. In any case, this is a somewhat more serious Stuart Gordon movie that is still a good bit of fun, and is worth checking out if you enjoyed any of his other films.

Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Space Truckers”

Space Truckers

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Welcome back to the Misan{trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the Stuart Gordon Spotlight is 1996’s blue-collar sci-fi flick, “Space Truckers,” featuring the one and only Dennis Hopper.

Stuart Gordon both directed and co-wrote “Space Truckers,” sharing writing credit with one Ted Mann. Mann has primarily done television writing and producing on shows such as “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood,” with his most recent high-profile credit being the 2012 mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys,” which starred Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton.

The cast of “Space Truckers” is undoubtedly headlined by the presence of Dennis Hopper, though it has more depth than you might expect. Charles Dance (“Last Action Hero,” “Game of Thrones”) plays one of the primary antagonists, Stephen Dorff (“Blade,” “Public Enemies”) plays a sidekick rookie trucker, and Debi Mazar (“L.A. Law,” “Entourage”) rounds out the main cast as the quasi love interest. In the background you might spot Jason O’Mara in his first theatrical credit, character actor Sean Lawlor, Shane Rimmer of “Dr. Strangelove,” and George Wendt of “Cheers.”

spacetruckers8 spacetruckers5The cinematography on “Space Truckers” was done by Marc Ahlberg, his fifth of an eventual seven collaborations with director Stuart Gordon. His career included an assortment of B-movies going all the way back to the 1950s (“Arena,” “Evil Bong,” “Trancers,” “Ghoulies”)and he worked all the way up until his death in 2012.

The plot of “Space Truckers,” interestingly enough, revolves around the secret development of a killer robot army intended to overthrow the Earth’s government. Dennis Hopper’s character is unknowingly tasked with hauling the robots to Earth, a trek which ultimately (and fortunately) features a number of unexpected obstacles.

spacetruckers6I initially got the idea of doing a Stuart Gordon Spotlight after seeing “Space Truckers” on a list of killer robot movies when researching potential flicks for my Killer Robot Week, which is why I didn’t cover it last week. Speaking of which, however, the robots featured in “Space Truckers” are much sleeker than what I expected. They were designed and constructed by Cannom Creations, who provided work for movies such as “Cocoon,” “Cocoon 2,” “Cyborg,” and “Blade.” Despite a couple of questionable / cheesy effects work, the robots themselves are pretty solid, and are fortunately mostly portrayed with practical effects. Instead of constructing actual robots like “Evolver” or “Chopping Mall,” the robots in “Space Truckers” are much more similar to the xenomorphs from the “Alien” franchise, in the sense that they are suits that feature humans inside to make their motions more realistic.

spacetruckers1 spacetruckers3“Space Truckers” was a massive financial failure, grossing less than $2 million on a reported budget of $25 million. It was likewise loathed by audiences and critics alike: it currently has a 5.1 rating on IMDb, which looks downright impressive next to the Rotten Tomatoes scores of 9% (critic) and 27% (audience). I am a little surprised at how hated this film was: from my perspective, it is very clearly a b-movie comedy, and I found it to be plenty enjoyable for being that. Just judging from the marketing I saw for the film, however, it appears that this was a difficult movie to pitch to audiences. Particularly in the secondary market, there was a clear attempt to make this appear to be a space drama akin to “Armageddon.” Just check out this DVD re-release cover:

spacetruckers11To be generous, that doesn’t exactly convey the tone of “Space Truckers” accurately. It does seem that people are looking back more fondly on this film in retrospect, as the IMDb score might indicate. Personally, I thought this movie worked pretty well: the idea was to make a blue collar sci-fi film, and I think this pulled off that concept. It isn’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny, and a lot of jokes land flat, but it is a notch higher than your typical television sci-fi movie. However, at a budget of $25 million, perhaps the product should have been more impressive than that.

In general, “Space Truckers” manages to nail the atmosphere it set out for. It conveys a self-awareness without winking, acknowledging its outlandish premise through the set design (square pigs, beet cans in space, etc) and dialogue (“Did you hear something back there that sounds like there’s something back there?”). It could have used a bit of comedy script-doctoring to help with the laughs, but it is still a fun watch in my opinion.

spacetruckers12As far as criticisms go, there are certainly problems with “Space Truckers.” I mentioned the lack of effective comedy in the script, but there are a few other things worth mentioning. First off, the general passage of time is very unclear between the prologue and the main story. The film opens with a demonstration exercise of the developed killer robots, in which Charles Dance’s character is nearly killed. When the main story starts, Dance has managed to turn himself into a cyborg and take over / build a gang of space pirates, which I assume would take some time. However, the killer robots are just then being shipped to Earth as the main plot begins, being hauled by Hopper’s character. How long has it been since that training exercise that nearly killed Charles Dance’s character? Have the killing robots just been sitting in storage for years? What sense does that make? It is later revealed that Saggs (played by Shane Rimmer) was able to conquer the Earth without any help from the robots at all…but why would he do that? Any way you cut it, some explanation of the passage of time should have been included.

spacetruckers7The only other major issue I have with the film is also related to the writing: the love triangle between Hopper, Dorff, and Mazar feels very forced, and makes Hopper’s supposed protagonist much less likable. He is essentially forcing Mazar to marry him in exchange for passage to Earth, which is incredibly fucked up, and is not-at-all made up for by his eventual faux-redemption in the conclusion. The age difference and history between Mazar and Hopper is also a little perplexing: it is established that they have known each other for years, and that Hopper has proposed multiple times to her. When he asks about Mazar’s mother, he is shown a picture of her which is “20 years back,” which was from when Mazar was either very young or before she was born. So…how old is Mazar’s character supposed to be, and how old is Hopper? How long has Hopper been pursuing her? It just gets creepier the more you think about it.

Despite those issues, this is a pretty strong recommendation as a good-bad watch. It is almost certainly one of the lesser Stuart Gordon movies, but it is still quite a bit of fun. I wouldn’t go in expecting “Re-Animator,” because this is a comedy at its core, and that should be kept in mind. There aren’t any huge squib explosions here, and you shouldn’t be anticipating them. It is dumb fun, and might justify turning your brain off for a little bit to get maximum enjoyment.