“Carving” out some time for a new post…

After a lengthy absence, I’m back with another review of a straight-to-video film I found on Amazon Prime. For your consideration today, I present Carver, a 2008 release written and directed by Franklin Guerrero Jr.

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No, not that Carver.

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably noticed that my reviews tend to be fairly upbeat; I usually write about films I’ve enjoyed in spite (or sometimes because) of their flaws, and I (generally) focus primarily on their positive aspects. Unfortunately, Carver is one of those rare films I actively disliked. It has little going for it in terms of entertainment value; it might be the first film I’ve reviewed that falls short of my usual 39¢ movie standards.

Big Mike

Not that carver, either.

That’s not to say that Carver didn’t have the potential to become a fine film. The locations, costuming, and effects are all quite good. The actors’ performances, though not particularly memorable, are competent. Writer/Director Guerrero even manages a fairly fresh take on what’s becoming a tired trope: a horror movie about making a horror movie. So what was my problem with Carver?

For one thing, Carver offers very little in the way of character development. At best, our cast members are one-dimensional clichés; at their worst, they become annoying or wholly unlikable. It was difficult for me to muster up any concern for their welfare. The script failed to create a convincing feeling of suspense or a satisfying backstory for the events portrayed in the film. Similarly, it made little attempt to establish a motive for the killer’s actions. Significant plot holes and logical inconsistencies challenged my suspension of disbelief at multiple points in the narrative. Finally, as a photographer, I was bothered by several practical errors in Carver’s portrayal of the photographic process; admittedly, this last point probably wouldn’t trouble most viewers.

What the film does provide – in abundance – is stomach churning, gore-splattered violence. The killing scenes are unnecessarily graphic and (in my opinion) overly long. Two scenes in the film provide flimsy excuses for the filmmakers to detour into juvenile, gross-out bathroom humor. Just to make sure all bases are covered, Guerrero throws in some drunken projectile vomiting about half way through the movie. While I’m not opposed to a bit of violence, disgust, and gore (I’m a big fan of both Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci), I find it difficult to appreciate a film that offers nothing else. My advice: Carver is not worth your time or attention. You’d be better off alphabetizing your DVD collection instead.

…and now for something completely different

Well, perhaps not completely different. It’s been a while since I’ve watched any 39¢ movies. To take full advantage of our Amazon Prime membership, we recently purchased a Roku player; about the same time, we added streaming service to our Netflix account. So far, I’ve been a bit disappointed to discover that these services seem to offer very little of the vintage, grade-z schlock cinema I usually write about. What they do have (in abundance) are contemporary, low-budget sci-fi and horror features that received limited (or no) exposure in theaters upon their release – what we used to call “straight-to-video” movies. In the past, I tended to think of that term as a synonym for “absolute garbage,” but like most aspects of media production, distribution, and consumption in the information age, things are changing. Some of these films are quite worthwhile, and I plan to look at some of the best (and perhaps some of the worst) in a new series of mini-reviews. First up for your consideration:

Harbinger Down (American, 2015)

Harbinger: one that presages or foreshadows what is to come.

-Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary

I was skeptical about this one from the beginning. Harbinger Down isn’t a very catchy title, and it seems to drop a major spoiler even before the opening credits are over. Still, the brief synopsis Netflix provides was compelling:

Thawed from ice after three decades, mutated creatures recovered from a piece of Soviet Space wreckage terrorize a group of graduate students on a fishing trawler…

Hmm. Isolated location? College kids? Soviet space wreckage? Mutated creatures? Sounds good to me – and Harbinger Down does have a suitably creepy, 1980’s style vibe reminiscent (and at times, fairly derivative) of classics like John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien. It also seems to borrow from the lesser-known (but quite worthwhile) 1989 film Leviathan. Riddled with plot inconsistences (why is a group of whale-watching grad students equipped with a tabletop “portable molecular analyzer,” and why doesn’t anyone think it would be best to keep human remains frozen until potential contamination risks can be assessed?) and well-worn B-cinema tropes (like tough-as-nails Russian crewmember “Svetlana,” played by Natasha “Nogoodnik” Fatale – err – Milla Bjorn), Harbinger Down is nevertheless a great deal of fun.

Natasha

Hmm… seems legit to me…

Perhaps most interesting to me, Harbinger Down was funded primarily through a Kickstarter campaign, and made on a modest budget of approximately $400,000. The special effects are notable as well; the film relies almost exclusively on practical techniques (animatronics, make-up effects, stop-motion animation, and miniatures) in bringing an impressive array of disgusting alien monstrosities to life. Though Harbinger Down isn’t likely to merit repeat viewings, it’s well worth seeing once.

Black Christmas (Canadian, 1974): There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays!

Why no, I don't think there's anything even remotely suggestive about my sweater! Why do you ask?

Why no, I don’t think there’s anything even remotely suggestive about my sweater! Why do you ask?

I’m always looking for new material to review, so I was excited recently when a friend pointed me toward this list of 13 Scary Movies You’ve Likely Never Seen Before.” Sure enough, I’d seen only two on the list: Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and the low-budget classic Carnival of Souls. Of the remaining eleven films, Black Christmas seemed like a good place to begin. As you might have read in my last post, I particularly enjoy films that bring together disparate genres; how could I not love a movie that blends Yuletide joy with the grisly excitement of a slasher flick?

Black Christmas has a lot going for it. The cast, for the most part, is solid. High points include Keir Dullea as Peter, a sensitive soul (but lousy boyfriend) who studies piano at the local conservatory, and veteran character actor John Saxon as stoic police Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller. Olivia Hussey is lovely as our heroine Jessica Bradford, though her character is otherwise a bit flat. Far more interesting is her drunken, foul-mouthed sorority sister Barbara, played by a pre-Superman Margot Kidder, though the filmmakers fail to use the character to her fullest potential. The locations are effective if not terribly memorable, and the art/noise soundtrack does a fine job of setting the mood.

Even so, I feel Black Christmas ultimately failed to deliver on its promise. The film’s pacing was rather slow, and didn’t build any genuine feeling of suspense for me. The filmmakers (almost halfheartedly) tossed a couple of red herrings our way, but I wasn’t very surprised when the truth (or some portion of the truth) was finally revealed. Potential spoiler warning: Black Christmas has a rather ambiguous ending that leaves many aspects of the story unresolved. This strategy can be quite effective if handled properly – The Blair Witch Project is one good example – but it didn’t work for me here. I’m not one who needs to have every thread woven into a neat little bow at story’s end, but Black Christmas left me feeling a bit short-changed.

Memorable visuals: As you might have gathered, I though Olivia Hussey’s sweater in the opening scenes was fun. I found myself wondering if she borrowed it from the Master in Manos: The Hands of Fate. Also – you’ll have to watch the film to see it – I never knew unicorns could have such long horns!

Horror cred: There’s not much gore here, and the body count remains surprisingly low, but this is definitely a horror movie. To be fair, Black Christmas was one of the first films in the slasher genre, and it’s influenced a host of horror writers and directors in the years since its release. My problems with the film, I’m sure, are partly due to seeing so many more recent movies – both good and bad – that incorporate similar themes and plot devices.

Is it worth 39¢: You may be wondering if I’ll ever review a movie that won’t be worth 39¢. Though I probably won’t be giving it a second screening, Black Christmas wasn’t disappointing enough to become the first.

Find it here: Black Christmas is another film that isn’t in the public domain. It’s available via Netflix; Amazon also offers it on DVD.

Shock Waves (American, 1977): When plain old zombies just aren’t enough!

Despite all indications to the contrary, I think a solitary swim in this brackish, murky pool is a great idea! What could possibly happen?

Despite all indications to the contrary, I think a solitary swim in this brackish, murky pool is a great idea! What could possibly happen?

I love it when a writer can bring something genuinely new and fresh to well-worn subject matter. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are awesome, of course – but they’re even better when placed in an unexpected situation, or seen from different perspectives than the ones we know so well. This strategy served Stephen King well in Salem’s Lot (vampires… in small-town Maine!), and it’s a major reason why State of Decay (vampires… in space!) is one of my favorite stories from the original run of Doctor Who.

Knowing of my affection for zombie films, perhaps you can imagine my excitement about Shock Waves – this is a film with underwater Nazi zombies! Wow! As soon as I heard about it, I bumped it to the top of my Netflix queue and waited in breathless anticipation for the disc to arrive. Was it everything I hoped for? Well… sort of.

I feel like I say this a lot, both here on the blog and in conversation with my patient spouse: this film has a lot going for it, but ultimately it falls short of its potential. The casting is quite good, beginning with two legends of the horror genre: John Carradine and Peter Cushing. Both gentlemen are consummate professionals, possessing such gravitas that their presence alone gives Shock Waves a degree of legitimacy. Unfortunately, neither of these veteran actors receives much screen time; Carradine in particular exits the narrative quite early on, and the filmmakers could have made much better use of him. Brooke Adams (perhaps best known for the excellent 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) also brings a lot to the film as our leading lady, Rose. As usual, she’s pleasantly quirky and girl-next-door loveable, while remaining believable in her role. Performances from the rest of the cast range from capable to surprisingly good.

Shock Waves also benefits from excellent location scouting. The wreck of the SS Sapona, grounded on a sandbar off Bimini, and the Biltmore Hotel (abandoned at the time of filming) in Coral Gables, FL provide an ideal setting for the action. There are several nice shots featuring these locations, but again – I think the filmmakers could have made better use of what they had available to create an even richer atmosphere. The pace of the film became a bit of an issue for me as well. Don’t misunderstand me – Shock Waves has plenty of action, but the main part of its narrative seems to occur in less than 48 hours. I don’t necessarily think the film itself needs to be longer, but implying our characters were stranded on the zombie-infested island for a week or so would add some welcome tension to the film, and might make Rose’s ultimate end (I’m trying hard to avoid a spoiler here) seem more plausible.

Memorable visuals: Here’s another area where Shock Waves doesn’t quite reach its full potential. There is some very good underwater shooting as the zombies first awaken and exit their watery tomb. The motionless, vertical way our Nazi undead rise from and submerge into the water is also quite unsettling (at least when the actors’ cheeks aren’t bulging with a final breath before slipping beneath the surface – I’m pretty sure zombies don’t need to breathe). Most of the zombie close-ups display decent make-up and maybe even some basic prosthetic effects, but I’d love to see their puffy, waterlogged look pushed much further. One last gripe: I think the zombies’ uniforms should be in much worse shape after 30 years underwater.

Horror cred: Though there weren’t many real scares and gore is totally absent, this film definitely belongs in the horror category. It’s a must for zombie movie fans!

Is it worth 39¢: Absolutely! Though the overall tone of my review might indicate otherwise, I quite enjoyed Shock Waves, and I’d willingly watch it again.

Find it here: Unlike a lot of the films I review, Shock Waves is not in the public domain. As I mentioned, I got a copy via Netflix; Amazon offers it on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Instant Video.

Manos: The Hands of Fate (American, 1966): Meanwhile, out in the west Texas town of El Paso…

I may not know much about art... but I know what I like!

I may not know much about art… but I know what I like!

Manos: The Hands of Fate was the brainchild of one Mr. Harold P. Warren, an insurance salesman and community theater enthusiast from El Paso, Texas. Apparently Warren produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the film as a result of a bet made during a chance conversation with television and film writer Stirling Silliphant – the gist of which, apparently, was that horror films “aren’t difficult to make.” Its production was plagued by various difficulties, including an inadequate budget, inferior equipment, and the apparent ineptitude of an inexperienced cast and crew. As you might imagine, Manos was poorly received upon its release, and played in only a couple of venues before sinking into cinematic obscurity. Since its rediscovery in the early 1990s, Manos: The Hands of Fate has apparently developed a reputation for being one of the worst films ever made.

Here’s an instance where I must disagree with prevailing opinion. I’ve watched far worse films than Manos. It begins with a fairly compelling story idea, the plot (overall) makes logical sense, and Mr. Warren succeeds at creating an adequately “creepy” atmosphere with the very modest resources at his disposal. The soundtrack music is pretty groovy, too!

Sure, many of the common criticisms of the film aren’t without merit: the dubbing is terrible, and the clapperboard is briefly visible during a scene about six minutes into the film. I’ll also admit the massive catfight between the Master’s wives at the forty-minute mark is clearly… well… a flimsy excuse to work a “sexy” catfight into the film (even though their disagreement does make sense in the context of the story).

Still, I must congratulate Mr. Harold P. Warren, who never made another film, for his work on Manos: The Hands of Fate. I’ll say this much for him: he had a vision, and he made it happen in spite of the circumstances facing him. I do have one little nagging question, though: how did the hapless vacationing family hear about “Valley Lodge,” a place none of the locals seem to know exists, in the first place?

Memorable visuals: I thought the costuming was quite nice throughout the film. The design of the Master’s robes is particularly successful; only when he fully raises both arms do you realize the red accents on the black robe are, in fact, two large, stylized hands. The painted portrait of the Master prominently displayed inside the Lodge is a lot of fun, too – though not nearly as well executed.

Horror cred: I can’t honestly say I found Manos: The Hands of Fate to be scary, but it does display all the trappings of a supernatural-occult horror/thriller.

Is it worth 39¢:  Sure – why not? Like I said, I’ve watched films far worse than this.

Find it here: Manos: The Hands of Fate is another gem from the Pure Terror 50-movie set.

It’s on YouTube as well.

It Happened at Nightmare Inn (Spanish, 1973): Read the reviews before booking!

I hope this Nightmare Inn place is as nice as it looks in the brochure...

I hope this Nightmare Inn place is as nice as it looks in the brochure…

The setting and tone of this movie reminded me a bit of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); it also has some elements in common with a pair of later films – Carrie (1976) and Misery (1990) – both based on Stephen King novels. Though British actress Judy Geeson received top billing, It Happened at Nightmare Inn is really the story of Marta and Veronica, two middle-aged sisters who run a hotel (more subtly named The Two Sisters) in a small Spanish village. They are respected members of the local community, leading almost monastic lives. However, the sisters each conceal a dark secret that will lead them down a shared path toward insanity and murder…

This film has so much potential. The setting is beautiful, the acting is pretty good, and the premise – a generational conflict aggravated by changing moral standards – is both compelling and relevant for the time. However, the version I viewed might as well be titled What Happened at Nightmare Inn? Almost 15 minutes have been cut from the original European release (titled A Candle for the Devil) to remove most instances of nudity, sex, and violence. Unfortunately, those 15 minutes also contained significant plot points that explained the motivations of the main characters. It didn’t help matters that the audio on my copy is fairly low volume overall, and much of the dialog is muffled. I found it difficult to keep up with what was happening.

Memorable visuals: Visually, It Happened at Nightmare Inn is very subtle. Still, Marta and Veronica have a couple great food-preparation scenes in the kitchen during the movie, culminating in a singularly unforgettable sight about five minutes before the credits roll. Judy Geeson’s character takes a break from the action to make photographs at the local museum about half way through the film; the amateur art historian in me was amused to spot Caravaggio’s Medusa among her subjects, even though the painting definitely isn’t in Spain!

Horror cred: Though I found the film enjoyable, it wasn’t very scary, nor was it particularly gory. It’s more of a thriller, though the confusion caused by missing scenes does much to undermine the suspense.

Is it worth 39¢: In this bowdlerized form – barely. I suspect the uncut version is well worth seeking out instead. If you do find yourself watching It Happened at Nightmare Inn, this website will fill in some of the blanks for you.

Find it here: It Happened at Nightmare Inn is available from multiple distributors on DVD. I got it as part of the Pure Terror 50-movie set.

It’s on YouTube as well.