Tag Archives: horror

Larry Cohen Collection: “Uncle Sam”

Uncle Sam

For this July 4th, I’m going to celebrate by taking a look at the horror film Uncle Sam, from the writer/director team behind the Maniac Cop trilogy.

The plot of Uncle Sam is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Desert Storm vet who was killed in combat rises from the grave on July Fourth, to kill the unpatriotic citizens of his hometown, after some teens burn an American flag over his burial site.

The screenplay for Uncle Sam was, of course, written by Larry Cohen, the visionary horror writer/director behind The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent, It’s Alive, and God Told Me To. This was one of four of his screenplays that hit the screen in 1996, along with Mark L. Lester’s The Ex, Anthony Hickox’s Invasion of Privacy, and the television movie Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct: Ice.

Uncle Sam was directed by William Lustig, who had previously collaborated with Larry Cohen on Maniac Cop, Maniac Cop 2, and Maniac Cop 3: The Badge of Silence. Lustig is best known for his gritty, b-level flicks like Maniac and Vigilante, which have built a significant cult following over the years.

The cast of Uncle Sam includes the likes of William Smith (Maniac Cop, Any Which Way You Can, Hell Comes To Frogtown), David ‘Shark’ Fralick (Inferno, The Young and The Restless, Soultaker), Bo Hopkins (The Wild Bunch, From Dusk Till Dawn 2, Tentacles), Isaac Hayes (Escape From New York, South Park), Timothy Bottoms (Top Dog, The Last Picture Show, That’s My Bush), Robert Forster (Lucky Number Slevin, Jackie Brown, Avalanche, Alligator, Vigilante, Maniac Cop 3), and P.J. Soles (Halloween, Stripes, Carrie).

The cinematographer for Uncle Sam was James A. Lebovitz, who shot a number of films for Troma Entertainment in the 1980s, including The Toxic Avenger, The Toxic Avenger Part II, The Toxic Avenger Part III, and Troma’s War.

The editor for the film was Bob Murawski, who eventually won an Academy Award for cutting The Hurt Locker. His other credits include such titles as Gone With The Pope, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3, Drag Me To Hell, Army of Darkness, Hard Target, Night of the Scarecrow, and From Dusk Till Dawn 2.

The musical score for Uncle Sam was provided by Mark Governor, who also composed music for Pet Sematary II and the Bruce Campbell flick Mindwarp.

Reportedly, the production team for Uncle Sam failed to disclose to authorities that they would be firing a cannon late at night for the film’s finale, which led to a number of noise complaints from local citizens.

Uncle Sam is dedicated to Lucio Fulci, an immensely influential Italian horror, western, and exploitation filmmaker who died just prior to the film’s release in 1996.

A blu-ray of Uncle Sam was released in June 2010 by Blue Underground, featuring commentary tracks by Larry Cohen, William Lustig, and Isaac Hayes, among others. Blue Underground, which was founded by Lustig, specializes in releasing cult, exploitation, and foreign horror movies on DVD and blu-ray.

In July of 2016, John Campopiano of Dread Central interviewed David “Shark” Fralick, who portrayed the patriotic killer in Uncle Sam. In regards to the movie and the role, he said:

I loved the original idea — that he was this patriotic killer. I loved the concept. Then there was all of the makeup sessions. (I didn’t do the burn, but I did all the rest of the stunt work.) It was four and a half hours in makeup and four and a half hours out of it. It really just tore my skin up. What they do is they use alcohol on skin to get the oils off so that everything they needed to put on you would adhere. It was pretty amazing. In fact, I still have the last mask I wore in the film!

From what I can gather, Uncle Sam did not receive a theatrical release domestically, and was distributed primarily on home video. I found an unsubstantiated budget estimate of $2 million, though that accuracy is certainly questionable. It is hard to say whether this flick ultimately turned a profit, but I imagine it probably broke even: I’m sure it was intentionally kept cheap for that very reason.

Critically, Uncle Sam isn’t exactly beloved. Its 2010 blu-ray release brought it back into the public consciousness for re-assessment, to mixed results. Steve Barton wrote for Dread Central that “the way underrated slasher flick Uncle Sam does a fine job of bringing the pain while we celebrate our independence,” while Nathan Rabin of The A/V Club argues that it is “incoherent as social satire and perfunctory and routine as a horror film.”

Honestly, I think Rabin and Barton are both right about Uncle Sam. The satire and social commentary isn’t quite fully cooked: there’s just a kernel of an idea in regards to military worship and conditioning children to violence, but it isn’t much built upon. Likewise, it is a pretty run-of-the-mill horror flick, in the tradition of the various lesser holiday slashers. At the same time, if you go into the movie with low expectations, and just want a formulaic slasher with some fun effects and kills, this is exactly what you want.

As far as the cast goes, it is always damn cool seeing Isaac Hayes pop up in movies. I absolutely loved him in Escape From New York, and I’m a little surprised he didn’t pop up in more over the years. This movie in particular could have used more of him: his relationship with Sam is only somewhat touched upon, and isn’t dug into too deeply. Another sequence or two with him maybe could have helped tie some themes together. Interestingly, one of his biggest emotional moments in the movie uses dialogue copied straight out of the Maniac Cop 2 screenplay: he tells a brief anecdote about being covered under dead bodies during war, remembering specifically how cold they were, and then recalls that the killer had a similar chill.

Speaking of the Maniac Cop franchise, the makeup effects on Sam reminded me specifically of Maniac Cop 2 and Maniac Cop 3. There is a lot of emphasis on his mutilated hands in the first act, which was also specifically done with Cordell in the Maniac Cop movies. Likewise, the makeup effects have a distinctly burned and partially decomposed appearance, not unlike the more deteriorated and decomposed facial work from the later Maniac Cop flicks. When they are shown, the effects look pretty decent, though they are kept concealed under a mask most of the time. Notably, Lustig managed to use shadows and blocking to conceal Cordell’s face in Maniac Cop, and I think that made a big difference in how intimidating the character came off, particularly when compared to the masked Uncle Sam, who never seems nearly as imposing or frightening here.

One of the biggest problems with Uncle Sam is the terrible lead child actor. Any time a movie has to lean on a child actor, it is a big risk: children who can act are rare, and ones who can carry a leading role are even rarer. In this case,  a lot of the movie rides on the character of Jody, who is played by a very young Christopher Ogden. There are times where Ogden is totally serviceable, but they are few and far between. For the most part, his line deliveries are just off, and he puts in a physical performance like he’s robot.

At the end of the film, there is supposed to be some ambiguity as to whether Jody is good or evil: this is supposed to be shown through a close up on his face, where his expression is intended to instill the audience with a sense of doubt. Unfortunately, Ogden just can’t do it: his eyes are expressionless, his mouth is unmoving, and his body language is neutral. If it weren’t for the music cue and a “shattering” effect to end the shot, I wouldn’t have realized that there was a potentially sinister undertone.

Personally, I think one of the biggest problems with this movie is the screenplay: it is a bit too busy, particularly in regards to the characters. For instance, Uncle Sam has both a sister and a wife, who live together and serve almost identical purposes. Likewise, there are two child characters with “unique” connections to Uncle Sam: one is a random kid with a psychic link, and the other is his nephew, who he is trying to recruit. To me, it seemed like both the psychic link kid and the wife were completely unnecessary: their key traits could have been taken on by his sister and nephew, respectively. It actually would make more sense for Jody to have a psychic connection to Sam, and the coalescing of the wife and sister would play more into the incestuous themes that are mentioned in the story.

Overall, as I previously mentioned, Uncle Sam has some value as a shallow, formulaic slasher movie. It was definitely a bit late to the game, though: this would have fit in great in the 1980s, but seems dated for the mid-1990s. It does provide a 4th of July themed horror movie, though, if that is what you are looking for. While this is definitely not one of Cohen’s better screenplays (nor one of Lustig’s better movies), there is definitely a kernel of an interesting idea here, even though nothing much comes of it.

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Uninvited

Uninvited

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Today I am going to take a look at a truly bizarre low budget film about a killer cat: 1988’s Uninvited.

The plot of Uninvited is succinctly summarized on IMDb as follows:

A mutated killer cat finds its way on-board a yacht.

Uninvited was produced, written, and directed by Greydon Clark, who is probably best known for his work on the Joe Don Baker movies Final Justice and Joysticks.

The music for the film was provided by Dan Slider, who most notably composes and orchestrates the music for the long-running television series America’s Funniest Home Videos.

The cinematographer for Uninvited was Nicholas von Sternberg, who shot the blaxsploitation classic Dolemite, Greydon Clark’s films Final Justice and Joysticks, and David DeCoteau’s infamous Dr. Alien.

uninvited2The cast of the film is headlined by George Kennedy, who is best known for more acclaimed movies like Cool Hand Luke and The Dirty Dozen, and is by far the most recognizable face in the lot. Other cast members include Alex Cord (Airwolf), Clu Galuger (Return of the Living Dead), Clare Carey (Coach), and Toni Hudson (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III).

The year prior to Uninvited, a similar movie was released in China called Evil Cat, which also follows the sinister exploits of a blood-thirsty feline.

Currently, Uninvited holds an impressively low 4.0/10 IMDb user rating, along with a 50% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

I sincerely believe that there is only reason that this movie is at all remembered: the cat monster puppet. Holy crap, this cat puppet is honestly one of the worst movie effects I have ever seen. With that said, this movie is simultaneously made and broken by that ridiculous cat puppet. Without it, the movie would have been completely forgettable, and totally lost to the ages. With it, the movie is exponentially more atrocious, but enough so that it has stuck with people through the years.

uninvited4Beyond the puppet, there isn’t much to say about the movie. As you might expect, it has a really slow story, which is fairly typical of this sort of b-movie. If the story had stayed targeted on the cat, there might have been some potential, but the focus regularly drifts to a group of teenagers and a couple of criminals, who are all pretty dull.

Outside of a couple of interesting bulging vein effects, the technical aspects of the movie are pretty much what you would expect from this sort of flick: there are a lot of sound issues, the music is hilariously awful, and the visuals certainly aren’t anything to write home about.

While Uninvited showcases an interesting idea and original concept, I think this was a case of the filmmakers vision exceeding his grasp. With such a low budget, there is just no way that an elaborate cat-demon could have been pulled off adequately.  While that may mean that this movie was doomed from the start, I can certainly say that I am glad it exists, because it is so unique. I highly recommend looking up some clips and stills from the movie, but I certainly don’t endorse sitting through it. The pacing issues make sitting through the whole run time a little too much of a slog, but the cat puppet action simply can’t be missed.

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Jockstrap Slaughterhouse

Jockstrap Slaughterhouse

Today, I’m going to be fulfilling a request from one of my gracious Patreon patrons, and talking about Jockstrap Slaughterhouse.

The plot of Jockstrap Slaughterhouse is summarized on IMDb as follows:

An evil football player terrorizes a group of nerds in this bloody throwback to 80’s slasher flicks.

Jockstrap Slaughterhouse was written, directed, produced, shot, and edited by Leopold Vincent Medley, who has a handful of independent short films and features to his credit going back to 2011.

As with most small independent projects helmed by weekend warriors, Jockstrap Slaughterhouse clearly faced the natural limitations that come with working on a low budget. That said, the blood that is shown on screen looks quite good. However, its appearance is sporadic: there are moments where blood should absolutely be present when it isn’t, like in the (theoretically) bloody denouement. There also isn’t much in the way of makeup work, which could have gone a long way for the production: the villain is in an obvious Halloween mask, and he could have looked a lot better with a little bit of makeup work (that wouldn’t have broken the bank).

Jockstrap suffers from a handful of issues that can easily be chalked up to inexperience. For instance, there is a lot of distractingly shaky handheld camera work where a tripod would have made a whole lot more sense. Honestly, that’s just a thing that happens, and is typically rectified by just having multiple takes to choose from. Watching over the footage at the time could have helped the production avoid having to deal with unsatisfactory, wobbly footage as well, though the shakes aren’t always obvious until an image is blown up.

While there are a number of technical issues with the film, the thing that hurt the film the most from my perspective was the writing. First off, a lot of the attempted humor fails to come across as intended. Imitating and mocking the shallow characterizations that defined 1980s horror movies is tricky business. If you do it wrong, you look, at best, like a lazy writer playing into the stereotypes that you had intended to satirize. At worst, you like an asshole punching down at marginalized groups.

On top of the issues with the comedy writing, there seem to be some structural issues with the screenplay: there were a number of times while watching the film that it didn’t seem to have a blueprint. The screenplay, on top of providing dialogue for the characters, should be a pacing tool, which bolsters the natural act structure of the story. In Jockstrap, there doesn’t seem to be a logical sequence of events. For most of the run-time, characters are just getting picked off at random by the killer. Rarely do these deaths have any consequences: characters never go to the police, come up with a plan, or even evacuate the home that they know the killer has free access to. This sort of lack of logical progression in a story results in a diminished investment on the part of the audience: if the characters don’t behave or think like people would, then how is an audience to identify with them? On top of that, if there are no consequences for actions, and the characters aren’t capable of making logical decisions, then there isn’t much tissue left to connect scenes to each other. When scenes aren’t connected to one another, then your movie doesn’t have any flow, and your audience will inevitably get bored.

On a positive note,  I will say that Jockstrap effectively uses a few local landmarks to try to keep the visuals interesting. Making the most of your surroundings and keeping an eye open for distinct locations can lead to some cool results. In the case of Houston, it is a city that isn’t often seen on screen, so there should be a lot of open possibilities.

Something that specifically stuck out to me about Jockstrap is that it attempted a couple of montages and a chase sequence. These are both complicated sorts of sequences that require adept editing to come off right. Honestly, while they all left a lot to be desired, but there were some flashes of decency in the chase. The best thing I can recommend to the team is to attempt some earnest imitation: pick some chase sequences and montages that you know that you like, then watch them a whole lot. Break them down, and think about what makes them good. Experiment with techniques like match cuts that can help make sequences more fluid, and see what you can do based on your observations.

Overall, Jockstrap Slaughterhouse is clearly an early effort from a group of filmmakers with some drive. There is a lot of polishing to do, but having the energy and motivation to create is always the first and hardest step in the process of creation.

Bleeders

Bleeders (1997)

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Today, I’m going to be fulfilling a request from one of my gracious Patreon patrons, and talking about 1997’s Bleeders.

The plot of Bleeders is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A man travels to an island with his girlfriend in search of his relatives but he finds maybe more than what he wanted to know.

Bleeders is loosely based on a serialized 1923 H.P. Lovecraft story called The Lurking Fear, which had been translated to the screen twice previously in Dark Heritage (1989) and The Lurking Fear (1994).

Among the credited screenplay writers for Bleeders is Dan O’bannon, who was known for genre flicks like Alien, Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, Total Recall, and Screamers. Also listed is Ronald Shusett, whose works include Freejack, Above The Law, and King Kong Lives.

bleeders2Bleeders was directed by Peter Svatek, who also helmed Witchboard III: The Possession, the television show Big Wolf On Campus, and television movies like Baby For Sale and The Christmas Choir.

The cast for the movie is headlined by Roy Dupuis (Screamers, La Femme Nikita), Kristin Lehman (The Killing, The Way of The Gun), and noted character actor Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, Surviving The Game, The Hitcher).

bleeders5The creature designs for the film were provided by CJ Goldman, who went on to work on larger movies like Battlefield: Earth, Pacific Rim, The Fountain, 300, and X-Men: Apocalypse.

As with many b-movies, Bleeders has been released under a number of different titles over the years, including Hemoglobin and The Descendant.

Bleeders currently holds an IMDb user score of 3.8, alongside an unenviable 30% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. A prominent review of the film on HorrorNews.net confidently stated that “I’ll be damned if there was anything in this picture worth seeing again,” which succinctly sums up the general reaction to the film.

When I first saw images of Bleeders, the first thing that stuck out to me were the monster designs. They don’t look particularly good, but they are, I suppose, imaginative. I assume that the budget, particularly for the effects, was really low, so there was a lot of necessary creativity to accommodate those restrictions. Honestly, considering that, the monsters could definitely have looked a whole lot worse.

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That said, there is definitely a problem with the monsters: they aren’t scary. While they do successfully rack up a kill count over the course of the movie, they are never particularly intimidating, which I think is more the fault of the direction than the creature designs themselves. There is one specific sequence I recall in the film where one of the beasts charges out of a clothes dryer at a potential victim, only to get caught in a sheet, flail confusedly, and then fall head-first into a boat motor. That sequence is probably the best representation of a Dungeons and Dragons “critical fail” that I have ever seen on screen, and it doesn’t give the CHUD-like beasts much gravitas.

The ludicrousness of that incident aside, the moment in the movie that has made the most lasting impression on me was a sequence that was meant to have great plot significance. One of the lead characters is, during the story’s climax, forced into a position where he must succumb to his long-suppressed cannibalistic nature. On its own, this setup has the makings for a decently dramatic scene. However, the way he goes about indulging this need is at once too gross, while arguably not being explicit enough: he eats (drinks?) a wet specimen of a human fetus.

While the act isn’t shown, the lead up and its aftermath are. On one hand, the very idea of eating a wet specimen is hella gross, and that is accurately and sufficiently conveyed. On the other hand, from the perspective of understanding and experiencing the character, not actually capturing this final, irredeemable act is a huge loss for the audience: it is a pivotal, climactic moment for a central character that is played entirely off-screen. While suggestion can certainly be powerful, missing out on the entire fall from grace isn’t something that can be overcome easily. At the very least, the act could have been done in silhouette or in deep shadow: any way that the content could be understood and experienced, while details of the act could still be somewhat concealed. The moment simply would have been more powerful if the audience could have experienced it.

This brings me to the biggest issue with the film: there really isn’t anyone for the audience to identify with. One of the strengths of Lovecraft’s stories comes from his ability to write horror from a distinct perspective, which helps immerse readers into his tales of terror. However, Bleeders lacks this immersive identification with any of the characters. If the story were from the perspective of the sick young man, that might have worked as a descent into madness. If the story had been through the eyes of his love-stricken, confused caretaker, there still could have been a story there, as she is the most notable outsider on the island. Instead, the narrative doesn’t back anyone in particular: the audience is left without even the slightest guidance. On top of that, the characters are all so damn weird and unbelievable that I couldn’t help but feel like a wholly disengaged gawker, rather than an invested observer of the story.

 

bleeders3Overall, Bleeders is a weird, if uneven, b-movie. Rutger Hauer is good for what little time he is on screen, and there are a couple of other hammy performances that lighten up the experience of watching the flick. However, the story is pretty damn slow, and pretty much everything that shows up on screen is visually bland. There are definitely the makings of a decent movie with the source material, but this isn’t it.

As far as a recommendation goes, I’m on the fence. Bleeders is definitely not your everyday b-movie, and it does have some redeeming qualities, but they aren’t enough for me to recommend it to anyone but the most die-hard bad movie fans.

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Death Bed: The Bed That Eats

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats

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Today, I am going to take a look at a famously bad movie with a unique cult reputation: Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.

The simple plot of Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is summarized succinctly on IMDb as follows:

A bed possessed by a demon spirit consumes its users alive.

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats was directed and written by George Barry, and to this day has proven to be his sole film. However, a handful of the cast and crew went on to notable careers. William Russ, one of the actors, later appeared in Cruising, The Right Stuff, and wound up on the sitcom Boy Meets World. Editor Ron Medico went on to cut the cult creature feature Alligator, and had a significant career editing for documentaries and television after that. Cinematographer Robert Fresco wound up working on the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, and wound up working on a handful of documentaries as well. Last but not least, the special effects worker, Jock Brandis, went on to have a long career as a lighting technician and gaffer, working on movies like Videodrome, Scanners, The Brood, The Dead Zone, Maximum Overdrive, Blue Velvet, and Serial Mom, among others.

Famous comedian Patton Oswalt had a popular bit on his album Werewolves and Lollipops in which he obsesses over the inherent absurdity of the concept of Death Bed, and speculates what the inception process was like for the screenplay.

In 2002, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats received a remake in the form of Deathbed. The movie stars Joe Estevez (Soultaker) and was directed by Danny Draven, who has spent most of his career editing movies like A Talking Cat!?!, A Talking Pony!?!, Evil Bong, Ice Spiders, and The Gingerdead Man.

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats did not have an official release of any kind until 2004, over 25 years after its completion in 1977. Before that DVD release, Death Bed had been widely circulated online and via pirated VHS tapes, and developed its cult reputation. George Barry, the movie’s director and writer, allegedly forgot he had made it until he saw it online, and only decided to officially release it after seeing how much people enjoyed it.

Rumor has it that the lion’s share of the action in Death Bed was filmed on Keelson Island in Detroit, specifically in the infamous Gar Wood Mansion. The mansion was originally built by inventor Gar Wood in the 1920s, but sat empty for many years after his retirement. Starting in 1969, it became a renowned partying location, becoming a combination of a music venue and a counter-culture collective until it was shuttered in 1972. Only a handful of years later, the mansion suffered significant fire damage, and was eventually razed in the 1980s.

The company Cult Epics, which specializes in restoring and transferring cult movies to DVD and Blu-ray, released an updated Blu-ray version of Death Bed in 2014, which boasts a full commentary track with writer/director George Barry.

Recently, I had the rare experience of getting to see the officially restored Blu-ray version of Death Bed: The Bed That Eats in a theater, as part of a fundraiser for Cult Epics. Previously, I had only seen some rough clips of the movie online, and I was shocked at how clear the movie wound up looking on screen.

As you could probably gather at this point, Death Bed is pretty far from a cinematic masterpiece. That said, there are definitely some positive aspects to it: first and foremost, the effects. For each of the scenes where the bed consumes something/someone, there is a cut away to an amber-colored tank, which stands in for the bed’s interior digestive system. I’m not sure exactly how they did this, but I suspect they filled this tank with some sort of highly corrosive fluid, and dipped in objects on fishing line to show them digesting inside of the bed. At first, these shots are of things like an apple and a bucket of chicken, but the movie’s climax features a character’s hands disintegrated in the fluid, which actually looks pretty cool.

Outside of those effects shots, however, there isn’t much positive to say about Death Bed. Almost all of the dialogue in the movie is done in voice over, and is delivered in a sort of trance by a multitude of perspectives and narrators. The overarching plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, and is poorly conveyed to boot. The performances range from sleepwalking to possibly comatose, as most of the characters show no range of emotions or exhibit any kind of sensible reactions to the events around them. I’m pretty sure that fault doesn’t lie with the actors, though: the strange reactions and woozy behaviors were almost certainly part of the directorial intent, which was apparently to re-capture the surreal atmosphere of a dream. However, I don’t think it comes across quite as he wanted it to.

For me, this is the biggest question about Death Bed: how serious were they about this movie? While there are brief moments of knowing humor scattered throughout, including a sequence where the bed ingests a bottle of pepto-bismol, most of the movie plays as serious as a heart attack. It clearly isn’t as hammy as the name implies, and is a pretty far stretch from any kind of Troma or Full Moon b-movie. I usually describe this as one of the worst-executed art movies of all time: the atmosphere is way too self-important for it to fit in with the usual lot of b-movies and horror fare, and it certainly isn’t smartly profound or well-crafted enough to land in the Criterion collection. It is a unique little oddity that is unlike pretty much anything else out there, and worth giving a shot for that reason alone. While it can be a little dull at times, I think the ride as a whole is worth a ticket, particularly for b-movie and cult movie fans.