Ratings Key



★★★★
= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
★★★
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dreamaniac (1986)

Directed by:
David DeCoteau


As a teenager, David DeCoteau was already working professionally in the movie business. He began as a production assistant on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and the Corman production GALAXY OF TERROR (both 1981), worked on craft service for such films as Ken Russell's CRIMES OF PASSION (1984) and also did some sound editing under the alias "Richard Chasen." Somewhere in between he got involved in the adult film industry (using the name "David McCabe") and would have over a dozen (mostly-all-male) X-rated features under his belt before the age of 25. The gory supernatural slasher DREAMANIAC (1986) - backed by Charles Band and released through his company Empire Pictures - was DeCoteau's first foray into 'legitimate' films as a director. He produced the film and probably also wrote it using the name "Helen Robinson." It possesses all of the earmarks of a low-budget slasher film from a first time director from this era, including terrible dialogue, God awful acting, inept direction, sloppy continuity errors, cringe-inducing attempts at humor and a bare minimum of both plot and location change. The budget was just 60,000 dollars, it was shot-on-video and though technically abysmal all the way around, it's fairly entertaining because it's gory (far gorier than the other films I've seen from the director) and the 80s sensibilities are occasionally amusing.

The film opens as Adam (Thomas Bern) has a nightmare about walking down a red-lit hallway naked and encountering an evil (and naked) woman in a blood-filled bath. As it turns out, our young hero has been toying around with black magic and has somehow managed to summon up a seductive succubus named Lily (Sylvia Summers). Let me take a brief time out to comment on Adam. Considering the fact he's supposedly a Satanist metal musician, Adam is hilariously wholesome, clean-cut and mild-mannered. He's even decked out in glasses and a ... Def Leppard t-shirt. Adam has a "punk" girlfriend named Pat (Kim McKamy) who has a preppy, sorority-hopeful sister named Jodi (Lauren Peterson). For some reason Adam agrees to let Jodi host a party at his house for her snotty sorority sisters - including the extremely unpleasant and slutty Francis (Cynthia Crass), who has her sights set on Jodi's boyfriend Brad (Brad Laughlin). Pat makes hash brownies for the occasion. The guests show up. Then the succubus shows up. And then the guests start getting killed by the succubus. Some of the victims return to life as zombies to try to kill the others. The end.

One of the only distinctive things about DREAMANIAC is the amount of homoeroticism and male flesh on display. There are more male asses, shirtless guys and guys in briefs than in any other 80s slasher film I can think of. During an electrocution scene, the camera placement isa even at crotch level on a guy gyrating in his tighty-whities. Admittedly, it's pretty funny seeing the obviously gay cast trying to play it straight. I wouldn't be one bit surprised if most of these guys were transplants from DeCoteau's gay porn past and their acting is about on that level. Strangely enough, the only verifiable porn connection of the cast is with lead actress McKamy. After appearing in this, EVIL LAUGH (1986), LUNCH MEAT (1986) and DeCoteau's follow-up CREEPOZOIDS (1987), she'd become popular adult star Ashley Gere. McKamy/Gere is easily the most watchable of the actors on display here and thankfully she's given the most to do at the end as well. The rest of the cast is amateurish and/or insufferable (those valley girls about take the cake).

Originally released by Wizard on VHS in a large-side display case proclaiming it "Too gory for the silver screen!" The film did well enough to prompt more Band/DeCoteau efforts, including the cult classic SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA (1987), the fun sci-fi comedy DR. ALIEN (1989), the above average sequel PUPPET MASTER III: TOULON'S REVENGE (1991) and many others.

★1/2

Initiation of Sarah, The (1978)

Directed by:
Robert Day

Brian De Palma's CARRIE was released in 1976 to excellent reviews, just as impressive box office returns and even award recognition (a rarity for a genre film). Over the next couple of years, several 'misfit strikes back' horror films were made to cash in, including this made-for-TV movie; a thinly-disguised rip-off of the aforementioned classic that debuted on ABC. It's reasonably entertaining and benefits from a good cast, though it's not without a few glaring missteps along the way that we'll be getting to here in a bit. Kay Lenz stars as Sarah Goodwin; a shy, demure, plainly-dressed and misunderstood girl who doesn't quite fit in with her adoptive family. Her cold, social climber mother (Kathryn Grant) wants Sarah and her bubbly, outgoing sister Patty (Morgan Brittany) - who will both be attending Waltham College as freshmen - to pledge the most popular sorority house on campus. Unfortunately, Sarah learns a lesson in snobbery as the target sorority (Alphu Nu Omega) shuns her in favor of her sister. The only sorority actually interested in accepting Sarah as one of their own are the Phi Epsilon Delta, a sisterhood of cast-offs and misfits, headed over by reclusive house mother Erica Hunter (Shelley Winters), who takes up a peculiar and sudden interest in our troubled heroine.

As if being flatly rejected and separated from her sister isn't bad enough for Sarah, she also becomes the prime target for humiliation by the popular sorority who turned their noses up at her. Blonde megabitch Jennifer Lawrence (Morgan Fairchild) seems to make it her mission to treat Sarah as horribly as possible. She mocks the PED's (calling them "Pigs, elephants and dogs"), forbids Patty from seeing or talking to her sister, tries to ruin Sarah's budding relationship with a teaching assistant (Tony Bill) and then organizes a very cruel prank against her. Little does she know but Sarah is harboring some powerful psychic/telepathic abilities which reach their pitch whenever she's angry. Eventually, Mrs. Hunter encourages Sarah to use her powers against the rival sorority and things end in a fiery black magic ceremony.

The school setting, bullied outcast with telepathic powers, evil blonde bitch and weird religious fanatic mother figure are just the tip of the iceberg for the CARRIE parallels. This one goes a step further by blatantly ripping off the famous prom scene by having poor Sarah get all prettied up in a nice white dress only to get pummeled with mud / rotten vegetables and then do an entranced, wide-eyed stare from underneath the muck. The pacing is also a problem as the first hour is incredibly slow-moving and the last fifteen minutes are a rushed, confused mess. There are numerous plotholes as well. It's mentioned that Sarah's birth parents were involved in the sorority rivalry many years earlier, and even a suggestion that Winters' character is actually Sarah's actual birth mother, but the story threads are curiously dropped altogether. Furthermore, the Winters character seriously lacks motivation for what goes down at the finale and the film does a sudden, jarring switcheroo on the primary antagonist that makes the 'revenge' portion anti-climactic and unsatisfying.

Under the circumstances, most of the cast does a good job. Though the try to downplay her looks via frumpy wardrobe and a flat hairstyle, it's difficult (if not impossible) to make Lenz unattractive to the point of her eliciting unwarranted cruel treatment from the sorority snobs as seen here. Still, as per her usual, the actress does a credible job inhabiting her role and elicits an admirable amount of sympathy for her. Winters alternates between likably eccentric and over-the-top, blowsy camp (and is watchable in either mode) and Fairchild is positively perfect in her part. Playing an extremely timid, possibly lesbian music student at the unpopular sorority, Tisa Farrow (who'd later sleepwalk through her roles in the Italian gore-fests THE GRIM REAPER and ZOMBIE) gives a surprisingly good performance. Also on hand are Robert Hays (of AIRPLANE! fame) as Fairchild's boyfriend, Talia Balsam (daughter of Martin), Elizabeth Stack (daughter of Robert) and Deborah Ryan (KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK). Michael Talbott, who has a small role here, also appeared in CARRIE. Interestingly, his character in both films is named "Freddie."

British director Day, whose career lasted from the mid-50s until the early 90s, also directed the genre films CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (both 1958 and both starring Boris Karloff), FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959) and the TV movies RITUAL OF EVIL (1970) and (the excellent) MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES (1979). The original (hrmmm...) story was co-written by Tom Holland.

The film has been released multiple times on both DVD and VHS, and is quite easy to find. It was remade in 2006 (also for TV) by Stuart Gilliard. That version featured Fairchild again, this time cast as Sarah's mother.

★★

Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell (1987)

... aka: Prevues from Hell

Directed by:
Jim Monaco


This 83-minute trailer compilation, originally distributed on VHS by Off the Wall Video and now available on DVD through Virgil Films, features loads of cult, gore and exploitation trailers plus dumb "comic" framing scenes that were shot-on-video in a Landsdowne, Pennsylvania theater. Your host is a bespeckled, not-very-animated ventriloquist named Nick Pawlow, whose sidekick "Happy Goldsplatt" at least has an excuse for not being very animated since he's a handheld zombie dummy. The two trade lame wisecracks (Pawlow himself was one of the four credited writers) while the movie theater slowly begins to fill up with zombies patrons. The zombie scenes are a bit more amusing than our hosts. The make-up is very decent and some of the gags (such as a zombie popping out an eyeball and eating it, zombies using a severed arm to drizzle blood on their popcorn, a man getting his eyeballs blown out, etc.) are fun. By the way, "Mad Ron" (played by co-writer, co-producer Ron Roccia) is a zombie who is chained to a movie projector and doesn't really have much to do.

But the trailers themselves are what you came for and this one has some pretty great ones. You get a little bit of everything here, from mainstream releases to exploitation staples to popular cult classics, American and otherwise. Some are very brief, while others last several minutes. Some contain nudity and gore and all of them are from the 60s and 70s, aside from the also-shot-in-Pennsylvania TOXIC ZOMBIES (1980). On of the most memorable is for Orgy of the Living Dead (re-titled 60's Eurohorrors FANGS OF THE LIVING DEAD, KILL BABY KILL and THE MURDER CLINIC), which features a man supposedly driven crazy after sitting through the triple feature. A double-feature of I DISMEMBER MAMA and THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE (both 1972) uses a similar sensationalized angle. Several recycle the "It's only a movie!" campaign from THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972). A trailer for the shockumentary AFRICA BLOOD AND GUTS (1966) features real animals and humans being killed. A somewhat out of place trailer for WILDCAT WOMEN (a 3-D release) provides a shot of straight-up sexploitation. Fangoria Magazine is also plugged several times.

Also included are trailers for COLOR ME BLOOD RED (1964), THE THRILL KILLERS (1964; under the title The Maniacs Are Loose), TWO-THOUSAND MANIACS! (1964), THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1965), THE GHASTLY ONES (1967), NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1968), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), THE WIZARD OF GORE (1968), I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970), BLOOD AND LACE (1971), THE CORPSE GRINDERS (1971), THE DEVIL'S NIGHTMARE (1971), LADY FRANKENSTEIN (1971), CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972), LOVE ME DEADLY (1972), SISTERS (1972), TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972), TORSO (1973), DERANGED (1974), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), DEEP RED (1975), GOD TOLD ME TO (1976) and many more.

★★1/2

Paganini Horror (1988)

...aka: Killing Violin, The

Directed by:
Luigi Cozzi


Tacky, colorful, confusing, mildly-entertaining drivel seems to be the European answer to the short-lived North American 'heavy metal horror' subgenre; films that typically revolved around Lycra-clad, big-haired rock band members being terrorized by supernatural (usually Satanic) forces. Said subgenre included the titles Rocktober Blood (1984), Monster Dog (1984), Hard Rock Zombies (1985), Trick or Treat (1986), ROCK 'N' ROLL NIGHTMARE (1987), SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK (1987), BLACK ROSES (1988), DEAD GIRLS (1989), Hard Rock Nightmare (1989), HEAVY METAL MASSACRE (1989; directed by David De Falco and so obscure it's currently not even listed on IMDb), SCREAM DREAM (1989), SHOCK 'EM DEAD (1990) and probably a few others I'm forgetting. This one, from the director of the usually-well-regarded giallo THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN (1975), the silly sci-fi adventure Starcrash (1979) and the unofficial, unauthorized Suspiria "sequel" THE BLACK CAT (1989) - amongst others - is neither the best nor the worst of the lot, though it's far from what most would consider good.

A nearly all-female rock band headed by singer/songstress Kate (Jasmine "Main" / Maimone) has hit a creative slump, as evidenced by their atrocious "You Give Love a Bad Name" opening rip-off number. To help matters, drummer Daniel (Pascal Persiano) purchases an unreleased composition written by famous Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini from Mr. Pickett (a diabolically dubbed and goofy acting Donald Pleasance). Upon hearing the track and learning of its origins, the band's bitchy, money-hungry producer Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli) decides to hire famous horror film director Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi) to shoot a horror-themed music video in Paganini's former home; the same place where the violinist reputedly sold his soul to Satan to become famous. It isn't long before most of the cast - which includes Daria Nicolodi as the current owner of Paganini's home and sexy guitarists Michel Klippstein and Luana Ravegnini - are facing various supernatural horrors.

For starters, there's a ghostly, echo-voiced, gold masked killer lurking around who uses a gold violin with a retractable blade. There's also an underground tunnel which leads to an alternate dimension (?!), strange shrill noises that incapacitate people and an electric forcefield which surrounds the house (?!) and is able to blow up a car. Some of the death scenes are pretty bizarre. Someone is crushed by an invisible wall; another is mutated by some kind of infectuous tree fungus (!) Oh yeah, and one of the females may be a little girl who toasted her mum in the bathtub with a hair dryer years earlier. The final scene tries to tie all the loose ends together but only succeeds in making things even more confusing than they already were.

There's some mild gore (fx are variable) and no less than three musical numbers, including a pretty funny music video. Everything is drenched in blue, red and green colors because the director is an Argento devotee (and had helped write a couple of Argento's earlier projects).

★★
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