12.02.10

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The Ugly (1997)

Simon Cartwright (Paolo Rotondo) is a confessed serial killer being held in a mental institution. Dr. Karen Shoemaker (Rebecca Hobbs) is a psychiatrist interviewing him about his past. This horror movie written and directed by New Zealand filmmaker Scott Reynolds is primarily a series of eerie sequences reflexively revealing the nature of his antagonism. The opening must be weathered a bit as the institution scenes can come across a bit silly. Cleanliness is apparently not a concern in modern New Zealand mental institutions according to this film. Likewise, the orderlies are too cruel and unprofessional to be believable. They look and act like front men for a bad metal band; one can’t even be bothered to wear a shirt. But the story of Cartwright’s rampage is an interesting twist on the genre. The murder flashbacks are creepy and the twists are well written as to piece together his story without being terribly obvious. There are some distinct moments of non-cliched tension. Cartwright’s motivations become clearer as the story progresses. Needless to say, it turns out he has issues. Reynolds uses black blood for the flashback scenes. It makes for a visually interesting horror film. Minor problems brought about by the sillier hospital scenes are outweighed by this clever story with good, modern gothic gore.

11.24.10

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Issue #59 of Razorcake contains an interview I wrote with actress Mary Woronov. Her extensive and unique career is going to be the subject of an upcoming documentary slated for early 2011. She was really cool to talk to, so check out the interview if you haven’t already picked up the latest Razorcake. Here is a link to the ordering info on their website: Razorcake- 59. There are also copies at Toxic Ranch in Tucson and Smash! in D.C.

Otherwise, things have been a bit dull. I’m trying to set up an interview with actress Jessica Harper for Shock Cinema, one of my favorite movie mags. Shock Cinema does excellent interviews, so I hope I can rally.  Ms. Harper has been in touch and super nice, but some problems with school and a recent misfire with a favorite filmmaker of mine has taught me not to count my chickens before they hatch. Still, it’s looking good.

09.30.10

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This interview was first published in the Tucson Citizen when I was doing a film blog called “Off the Marquee”: September 30, 2010

Just when you think that the horror genre has gotten as gross as it is going to get, someone comes up with an even more unsettling premise. The Human Centipede is the story of a demented scientist who attempts to sew three people together mouth to anus to determine if people can survive as a makeshift centipede. Actress Ashley C. Williams got her first major film role as a member of this trio, taking part in one of the most notorious horror/exploitation films of late. On Tuesday October 5th, Centipede will be released in DVD. We spoke to Ms. Williams by telephone in hopes of finding out how she feels about her brush with horror infamy. With an impressive theater resume and more film roles on the horizon, there is more to Ms. Williams than just being the middle segment.

Billups: I noticed on IMDB that you were in Willow (1988) as a child.
Ashley C. Williams: Yes. I was four years old and I was living in California with my family at the time and I auditioned for Ron Howard. He wanted me to say the line: “Willow’s home.” I was so scared that I actually started crying, so I didn’t’ end up getting that part. I ended up just being in the crowd during the village scenes. It was really fun.

Billups: Did that experience have any effect on your desire to act or did you already have the bug?
ACW: I don’t know if I knew it was the acting “bug” because I was so young, but my mom noticed I had energy and I loved showing off for people. Putting on little skits in the house. She had to find a place for me to channel that energy, so she started when I was about ten years old taking me for professional auditions for theater. My first show was Peter Pan. I played Tiger Lily. Since then,  I have been in love with it. I love creating characters. Memorizing lines. Being in completely different world. Since then I’ve had the bug.

Billups: Speaking of memorizing lines, I noticed you have done Shakespeare. That must be one of the ultimate challenges for an actor.
ACW: It is completely different. It’s poetry: actually easier to memorize because there is such a flow to it. You just kind of melt into it. I really love doing Shakespeare.

Billups: I noticed you are also singing in the musical Spellbound.
ACW: I play the lead role: a young village girl. It’s a fantasy, epic adventure. She wants to become a wizard so she can learn spells.

Billups: With all of your stage experience, how do you feel about your transition into film?
ACW: Yea, it’s always been a goal to be in film. When I went to acting school, it was for theater training. I have never had any training for film. Doing The Human Centipede was the first time I had a lead role. It was so much fun, so I’m excited to go on a new path and do more film. Definitely a goal of mine.

Billups: I read that you did not know much about The Human Centipede when you went for the audition, but that you were shown a drawing of some kind.
ACW: When I went to the audition, Tom Six, the director, was there.  He sat me down and asked: “Are you easily shocked?” and I said: “No, go ahead.” He showed me this blue piece of paper with that drawing on it. That drawing is all over the Internet: the one of the people connected together with the line drawn through them showing a single digestive track. He showed that drawing to me and I thought: What is this?. And he explained it to me and I asked how is it my face isn’t on that person’s butt.

Billups: I often read interviews with actors and actresses who talk about being nervous before a nude scene or a sex scene. You’re situation must be pretty high up on the list of scenes to be nervous about.
ACW: I was defiantly nervous about it. (co-star Ashlynn Yennie) and I were not sure what we were getting ourselves into when we were flying to Amsterdam. Of course, we knew it was going to be safe. The one thing I was really dreading was the scene where I have to swallow (co-star Akihiro Kitamura’s) feces. That was the one thing that I was really nervous about. I kept looking at the script and thinking: God, when are we gonna do this scene? When’s it gong to be over with? So we finally did it in and got it in one take and it wasn’t that bad.

Billups: The three of you must have had to get very close very fast. Was it intimidating to work so closely with your co-stars?
ACW: Yea. I knew Ashlynn for about a month before shooting. We auditioned at the same time. We flew over to Amsterdam on the same plane. Then Akihiro came from L.A. a day before shooting began so we had to get to know him really fast because we were all about to be connected. We actually got really close. We trusted each other. We bonded: no pun intended.

Billups: German actor Dieter Laser played your nemesis in the film. He seems as if he could be a very severe person to deal with. What was he like to work with?
ACW: He’s intense, but he’s the sweetest guy. While filming with him, he wouldn’t talk to us on set.  You know, he was the bad guy, so he didn’t want to interact with us during shooting. He would keep to himself. He’s very much the type of actor who will stay in character all day. Very method. But he’s amazing to work with because he feeds you so much. There were occasions where he wasn’t needed for scenes but he would come and feed us lines behind the camera and make faces to keep ups scared. He was really helpful. He is also mainly a theater actor. When you look at his credits, you can see he has done more theater than anything. He’s done Shakespeare and classical, dramatic stuff. He’s always involved in a play in Germany.

Billups: I have noticed that when look up an actor who does really sever personas, you find out that he or she has done Shakespeare.
ACW: Yea.

Billups: I know that occasionally you can get typecast when you do horror. Do you have any feelings about doing more projects in the genre?
ACW: I like horror. Before I did The Human Centipede I wasn’t a huge horror fan because the films can have the same types of stories, the same conflicts, and seem kind of cliché. When I read The Human Centipede, I felt that there were people out there trying to do something unique and I really liked that. That’s one of the reasons’ why I was glad to be involved. If I was given a script for another horror film, I would defiantly consider it.

Billups: I notice you are involved in a play called Under the Veil where you are credited as a writer.
ACW: I’m an actor in it and I’m also a writer. The five actors in that show were hired to create a piece by conducting interviews with Muslims and non-Muslims in New York City. It took several months to create this piece that was a series of vignettes. Political theater.

Billups: Besides reading scripts, what else is next for you?
ACW: I’m in talks for a couple of different films and Spellbound is going right now. Under the Veil is sort of an ongoing project. And I’m doing a couple of horror conventions.

Billups: I’m sure that circuit will be a new thing for you.
ACW: Yea. I’ve never done one before.

Billups: I hope that’s going to be fun.
ACW: The horror genre is funny. There are some die-hard fans out there. It’s fun to see how excited they get over the genre. They can be over-ecstatic, but I like it.

 

 

 

09.12.10

Evilspeak (1981)

Two things validate this movie in a big way. One is Anton LaVey cited it as an excellent movie about Satanism. The other is that the film was caught up in the UK’s video nasty legislation of the 1980s that attempted to regulate video sales in the UK. Violent and sexually explicit videos were censored similarly to the way parental advisory stickers were placed on rock albums in the US. The video nasty censorship efforts had a similar effect on videos as the parental advisory stickers had on rock albums: the movies became notorious. For a movie about Satanism, Evilspeak is actually pretty tame in the beginning. There are a lot scenes featuring Ron Howard’s odd-looking brother Clint looking incredulous about things. But as with most Satanism narratives, there is a guarantee of nudity and unorthodox deaths. For what it is, it is actually a pretty well executed horror film. Stanley Coopersmith (Howard) is regularly terrorized by his military school classmates. When he finds an ancient tome owned by a Spanish priest who turned to Satanism, he begins dabbling in the world of the dark lord. He brings one of those awesome, 1980s looking computers into the basement and begins translating the book and essentially instant messaging the devil.

The movie is foremost worth seeing for the people watching. The film contains a really strange hodgepodge of character actors. What’s Happening’s Heywood Nelson plays Coopersmith’s only friend. Night Court’s Richard Moll, no stranger to b-horror films for some reason, portrays Father Esteban. Loren Lester who played Fritz Hansel in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School reprises his role as a nerdy looking bully, a role he seems to be born to play. However the weirdest cameo in Evilspeak has to be Lenny Montana who played Luca Brasi in the Godfather. This movie is ripe for a game of weird actor bingo. I’ll mail a free candy bar to anyone who makes a homemade bingo card featuring all these actors and sends it in. Besides all of this, Evilspeak has some great horror elements in play once it gets started. There are some cool, 1980s computer-generated effects representing Satan’s arrival through the screen. There are beheadings, an Omen-esque soundtrack, exceptional blood loss, and a soccer team eaten by evil pigs. It takes a little while to get started, but once it gets going, Evilspeak goes bananas.

08.09.10

Razorcake #57

Razorcake #57

Here is a link to the ordering information for the latest issue of Razorcake. In this issue is a long piece I wrote about the life and films of Pedro Almodovar. I hope I did him justice; I worked on this thing for a long time. Amy did the illustrations. The cover drawing of Noam Chomsky is by Cramhole regular Danny Martin who also did several of the illustrations inside.  Razorcake is a great magazine.

For any of my beltway friends looking in, I was watching this really low budget Hong Kong movie directed by Godfrey Ho called Undefeatable (1993) when I realized that one of the fight sequences takes place in the parking lot of Fair City Mall in Fairfax. I could tell the movie had been shot in Maryland as soon as one of the local hires opened his mouth. It was a trip to see FCM in the movie. It was especially funny because it is an extended fight sequence during an abduction in the middle of the day with cars going by. Later in the film, the cops are still baffled as to who is doing these abductions. I find it hard to believe they could fight for that long without somebody seeing something, but this plot hole is the least of this film’s problems. Still, it was a pretty entertaining watch.

Here is a link to my review at the Loft Blogspot- Undefeatable

08.04.10

 

Body Rock (1984)

It makes sense that Body Rock was made the same year as Breakin’ (1984). All the good dancers must have been making Breakin’ when Body Rock was being filmed. Where as the cast of Breakin’ was largely a group of unknowns who knew how to dance, part of Body Rock’s budget went to pay Lorenzo Lamas. Chilly (Lamas) is a cut-rate rapper/break-dancer who runs a crew called the Body Rock Crew.The BRC are, according to Chilly, ready for their big break despite the fact that only a few of them dance competently. But the big break comes when an uptown businessmen wants Chilly to perform in his club. He goes on to achieve great fame in the club circuit despite the fact that he has no discernable talent. He is able to sleep at night under the notion that he is eventually going to ease everyone from the BRC into his club act so they can all “make it” like he has. But after a few leather jackets and sexual encounters with strangers hot for his fame, Chilly quickly forgets his roots. The BRC must struggle without him.

First of all, isn’t this the plot of Breakin’? Krush Groove? Both of these movies came out the same year as Body Rock. The differentiator is that there were talented people in those movies. Lorenzo Lamas is hilarious as he lumbers through the movie like a rapper in a fast food training video. The best parts of the movie for me were the ludicrous stage productions put together by the club choreographers after he “makes it.” One where the lights go out and these neon skeletons dance around him incompetently is worth sitting through the whole movie to see.

Breakin’ was essentially a pretty awful movie, but the dancing saves it. Here, the dancing saves the movie as well; only it is all the terrible moves making the movie worthwhile. The best dancer in the whole thing is a young man named Magick (La Ron A. Smith). There is an awesome montage where Magick teaches Chilly to dance. Of course, when it’s over, Chilly can’t dance any better than when he started.

Another bizarro-world parallel between Body Rock and Krush Groove/Breakin’ is that Chilly forgets his friends and must eventually choose to if or not to redeem himself. I don’t want to give the story away, but I will tell you that if he does happen to come crawling back to the BRC, it is because he has no other choice. In Krush Groove, for instance, Joseph has to make a moral choice regarding whether or not to realize who he was. In Body Rock, the moral is that talentless schlubs who fall into high paying jobs should not burn bridges.

 

Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958)

Frankenstein’s Daughter is one of those great, nonsensical science fiction movies from the late 50s where the science and motivation of the characters doesn’t make much sense. Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson (which I believe isn’t possible as the story takes place in 1958) wants to continue his family’s eccentric work. But this particular Dr. Frankenstein, hiding in America under the moniker Oliver Frank (Donald Murphy), isn’t as much an insane genius as he is just a jerk. He is taking advantage of poor Professor Carter Morton (Felix Locher) by using his lab, screwing up his research, and drugging his daughter. It sort of serves Morton right for not asking for references. Frank cannot even produce a fake I.D. that says who he is. For a Frankenstein, he is a pretty lackluster mastermind.

When Frank drugs Morton’s daughter Trudy (Sandra Knight), she becomes this sort of Frankenstein’s monster/werewolf hybrid. She runs around town in a bathing suit terrorizing people. This is endlessly amusing to the local police department. When Frank is not drugging Trudy, he is sexually harassing Trudy’s friend Sally (Suzie Lawler). Frank turns Sally into the permanent monster that is inherently promised by a Frankenstein narrative. The monster is a man in a very masculine looking mask. There is noting remotely feminine about the monster, which is not created from the only daughter in the story, which is not Frank’s daughter anyway. A better title would be: Frankenstein is Sexually Harassing Someone’s Daughter’s Friend, Eventually Turning Her Into a Man. I guess that doesn’t fit on the marquee. On the plus side, Frank’s monster is better behaved than his creator; it knocks on the front door of the house before revealing itself.

If this sounds at all complicated, it really isn’t. Because of the thin plot, Frankenstein’s Daughter contains one of my favorite elements to be occasionally inserted into movies from the 1950s: a performance by a rock band. The Page Cavanaugh Trio, a white bred-pseudo rock group, does a couple of numbers to fill out the run time. It’s a nice break in the action for both the actors and the audience. I felt refreshed after their songs, fully prepared to return to watching people run around in masks. Frankenstein’s Daughter is misguided, 50s-sci-fi fun. There isn’t much to it, but it manages to entertain on a lot of levels.

06.18.10

This interview was first published in the Tucson Citizen when I was doing a film blog called “Off the Marquee”: June 18, 2010

As a teenager, Michael Stephenson thought he had received his big break. In 1990 he was chosen to star in a horror film. So many actors start out with small roles in horror films that Stephenson had every right to imagine that he might be on his way to a serious acting career. The film not only failed to have a theatrical release, but also became a huge embarrassment to those involved through video and screenings on late night television. Troll 2, the story of a small enclave of goblins that trap tourists for food, went on to consistently register on lists of the worst movies ever made. However the film found life in the hearts of trash cinephiles who found the earnest performances, strange special effects, and preposterous premise engaging. As he grew up and established some distance from the film, Stephenson became aware of loose pockets of fans around the world and produced a documentary that goes beyond exploring the phenomenon of bad cinema and excavates the cast for a compelling story about the true value of art. We spoke to Stephenson by phone as he travels the country making appearances with his documentary Best Worst Movie, a “where are they now” story about the film’s director, cast, and fan base.

Billups: As an actor, Troll 2 was not your only movie with the film’s director Claudio Fragasso?
Michael Stephenson: Beyond Darkness was done about a year and a half after Troll 2.

Billups: I don’t know if it was a mistake, but IMDB has the film listed before Troll 2 as House V. There is that series of films called House. Is there any relation to the other four films?
Michael Stephenson:Absolutely no connection whatsoever. It’s sort of the same deal as Troll 2. There is no connection to the first Troll. I guess in Italy they were notorious for ripping off titles from American sequels.

Billups: It seems Fragasso does not see the same things that the fans of the film do. Does he see some intrinsic value in the film that others don’t?
Michael Stephenson: Claudio Fragasso plays a big part in the documentary. Part of what we see and learn is how he and a lot of the Italian crew really took it so seriously and their perception of what they were making which, in turn, is what we thought we were making. Everybody thought we were making this great horror film. In Best Worst Movie,  you see Claudio and his wife Rosella [Drudi] who wrote the script process it.

Billups: I know Fragasso has worked for Dario Argento. I have always felt Italian horror directors have a different sense of linear narrative than horror directors from other countries.
Michael Stephenson: I think Claudio made the film the way he wanted to make it. I think that is always to be commended. He is full of heart and passion. It is certainly unique. You know, you look at something like Troll 2  and you could say that it failed in every kind of fundamental cinematic way , but it still has this strange competence. It hasn’t failed to entertain. You can’t say that Troll 2 is not creative. I think that makes it a film that is certainly not the worst film ever made. I think the worst film that was ever made was a film that bores you.

Billups: A bad movie to me is one that is not engaging. I find Troll 2 engaging.
Michael Stephenson: Yea, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s Citizen Kane, but it’s a movie that has found an audience and engaged an audience and left an impression all these years later. Think of all the films that are made with far greater resources that are supposed to be much better because  logically they check all the boxes. But they are forgettable.

Billups: I get frustrated with the language of film being steeped in realistic performances and special effects. Do you feel this trend could ever come to a head and people will start appreciating more unconventional filmmaking?
Michael Stephenson: I hope so. I think Transformers 2 is the worst movie ever made. There is this notion of what is considered to be a “good” movie and those movies are just the same thing. It’s exciting to see movies that take risks and are resourceful and do something different. So many of the movies coming out of Hollywood are throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall just to see what sticks.

Billups: There must have been a time after Troll 2 was completed that you realized that the film had at least failed in the traditional sense.
Michael Stephenson: Troll 2 was released straight to VHS. This was 1990 or 1991, and after that it was banished to late night television and it played all the time on late night television  and it was my first movie and I was embarrassed by it. This is the movie I thought was going to be great and everybody said it was horrible. I remember getting the newspaper and rushing to pull out the TV guide and just praying that I wouldn’t see Troll 2 listed in there again. And every Sunday there it was. And right next to Troll 2 was the icon of a turkey. I remember really not wanting anything to do with it.

Billups: When did you realize the film was amassing a cult following?
Michael Stephenson: It wasn’t until 2003 that MGM released a DVD with Troll and Troll 2 together; MGM  acquired the catalogue and had no idea that they were completely unrelated, so they put them together. So that DVD started getting out there and it was just over four years ago when I started the documentary. There had been no large screenings or reunions yet. In 2006 I started getting messages from out of nowhere asking ‘is this Joshua Waits from Troll 2? Please, say it is so.’ At first I thought: Ugh, this thing is never going to go away. Then I started interacting with the fans and I realized the fans did not know about each other; they were all sending me messages thinking they were the only ones who were doing this. It was weird. In a period of two or three weeks I got messages from people from different parts of the world. They started sending pictures of their Troll 2 parties. And there would be eight or nine kids watching Troll 2, dressing up as goblins, and eating green food.

Billups: I often talk to people who are attached to certain movies that they saw over and over again on late night television.
Michael Stephenson: Now so much is on demand. It’s not the same; if something doesn’t grab your attention in the first five minutes you have a million other options. Where as before you went to a video store and try to decide what to rent and watch it all the way through. Films that have the ability to create that communal movie watching experience and bring people to a theater at midnight and have this experience together is remarkable. In a time when art house theaters are being bulldozed and turned into parking lots, the movie watching experience is starting to become disconnected and fragmented. People decide to watch stuff alone or on their phones. Watching films together with friends in a theater is not only a great experience, but also it seems to be passing, and that’s a shame.

Billups: I noticed that the cast was reassembled at some point. How did the others react to your resurrection of Troll 2? Did you find any of them hiding from their past and/or still acting in other films?
Michael Stephenson: A lot of the movie is about that. The movie is more about the humanity of a bad movie and the people who made it. It is not so much about “let’s take apart this phenomenon and define what makes it.” It’s more of a human driven film.

Billups: Best Worst Movie seems to be reaching a wider audience than its subject matter.
Michael Stephenson: You don’t have to see Troll 2 to take away an enjoyable experience. It’s inevitable that if you have not seen Troll 2 and you see Best Worst Movie, you’re probably going to want to watch it. It’s neat to see, because most of these people are not the kind of people who would watch Troll 2. Through the documentary they are introduced to this absurd world through the eyes of a dentist [Troll 2 actor George Hardy became a dentist after the film was done]: a man who is relatable in so many ways.

Billups: The best documentaries to me are ones that where an artistic struggle transcends the subject matter.
Michael Stephenson: It’s been wild. We have played some pretty serious documentary festivals. I would see 50-year-old women walking out saying: ‘Oh my god, I have to go see Troll 2.’

06.16.10

Virgins from Hell (1987)

This movie opens on a curious premise. The leader of a female motorcycle gang infiltrates a casino by seducing the owner. She gets him alone; naturally, he is expecting something. She fights him off, kicks his ass, and then the rest of the gang drives a jeep through the front door and robs the place. Why didn’t they just drive a jeep through the door in the first place? Such is logic not to be questioned in the Indonesian women-in-prison epic Virgins from Hell. If logic were applied, you might ask if the leader of an international drug ring would really wear such a wide variety of cummerbunds. I have not been exposed to very much Indonesian culture; perhaps their drug lords do look like they have raided Prince’s Goodwill donation pile. As curious as his choice in wardrobe is the fact that he changes clothes often throughout the film. I tried hard to determine if this was just a continuity problem, but it really seems to be on purpose.

Eventually, the drug lord captures the gang and holds them hostage in a dungeon underneath a laboratory where he is developing an ecstasy-type drug that makes women want to have sex. There is nothing subtle about the plot. I am not a huge fan of the women-in-prison genre, but this one is interesting for its naivete’. Most of the scenes seem improvised, until the action sequences, which are meticulously staged and still relatively incompetent. The exploitation aspects of the film are hard to take seriously which removes some of the power from the prison situations. For me, it works. Loaded with low budget spectacle, Virgins from Hell comes across as a sort of primary color version of Rambo II.

The Pit (1981)

The beginning echoes a hint of Stephen King’s high school horror story Carrie (1976). Jamie (Sammy Snyders) is a creepy little kid. However on the surface, Jamie’s problems don’t seem too far outside of the realm of natural curiosity. In spite of this, people seem to hate him on sight. His schoolmates. The librarian. Even elderly ladies in wheelchairs ridicule him. His father wants to write him off as a “nutcase.” What is it that repulses people so about Jamie? The answer becomes pretty apparent when becomes hot for his babysitter Sandy (Jeannie Elias). Jamie is also taking orders from a strange looking teddy bear.

Jamie”s parents take a cue from this especially difficult time in his life and decide to go on vacation without him. Sandy claims to be something of an expert babysitter having experience with troubled children. She exemplifies her expertise by parading around in towels and nightgowns. Jamie steals from her and stares at her chest while he asks how old her boyfriend is. The two form a real love/hate relationship.

With all this going on, you might forget the movie is called The Pit. It turns out that the kid has a pit. He feeds it. It eats things. It’s full of monsters. While the film’s tone is somewhat dire up to this point, this horror film takes on a Dennis the Menace quality as bodies start disappearing around town. I don’t wanna give too much away regarding the pit and its actual contents, but the movie is good clean fun in the vein of the 80s heavy metal inspired classic The Gate (1987) and wholly worth seeing because someone actually says, “come on in, the water’s great.”


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