Van Damme is hunted, hornets sting, Death learns its ABCs, and the rich feed off the lower classes.
HARD TARGET (1993)
After dazzling audiences with the jaw-dropping, violent, spectacularly shot and choreographed action sequences in the movies he made in his native China, director John Woo was hired to make his English language debut with this Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, written by Chuck Pfarrer and inspired by Richard Connell's classic 1924 "humans hunting humans" story The Most Dangerous Game. However, the studio, Universal, did hedge their bets, bringing Pfarrer's Darkman director Sam Raimi and his producing partner Robert Tapert on board to executive produce, with Raimi overseeing the production, ready to take over the helm if Woo's transition to American filmmaking didn't go smoothly. Ultimately, things went fine with Woo on the set, with most of the troubles on Hard Target coming in post-production.
The film is set in New Orleans, largely to try to explain away Van Damme's Belgian accent. Here he plays a Cajun man named Chance Boudreaux (why is he named Chance? "My mama took one."), a former military man who is now a merchant seaman with a horrendous hairstyle and the ability to kick some mighty ass. Chance first displays his fighting skills when he sees a group of guys attempting to mug Nat (Yancy Butler), an outsider who has come to New Orleans to see her father.
The mugging isn't the only bad thing Nat has run into in New Orleans. She has also discovered that her father, who was homeless, unbeknownst to her, has gone missing. Since the police don't offer much help in searching for a homeless person, Nat takes the matter into her own hands, and asks Chance to help her make her way around the city. He needs some cash to pay union dues so he can get back to work after being suspended for breaking an unscrupulous captain's jaw, so he agrees to be her guide.
Sadly, Nat's father soon turns up dead - which we already knew he was, because the movie starts with him being hunted by a relentless group of men led by Lance Henriksen as Emil Fouchon and Arnold Vosloo as Pik van Cleef (Raimi would go on to cast Vosloo as the hero in the direct-to-video Darkman sequels). These guys chased Nat's father down on motorcycles, knocked him around, and did their best to kill him with bullets, fire, and arrows. The arrows did the trick. What's strange about this sequence is that Nat's father, Douglas Binder, is played by Pfarrer himself, and given the physical requirements of the role you would have expected it to be filled by a veteran stuntman rather than the screenwriter.
Chance suspects foul play as soon as Douglas's charred corpse turns up, a suspicion that's confirmed when Fouchon's men attack him.
Fouchon runs a business where wealthy clients pay for the privilege of getting to hunt down human quarry. The hunted are supposed to be combat veteran transients with no family, but Nat's father slipped through thanks to a dimwitted lackey. Now that people have been inquiring about their latest victim, Fouchon needs to get them off his trail. Of course, since Chance is played by Van Damme, Fouchon's men find it very tough to get rid of him, and Chance doesn't appreciate their attempts to do so.
Fouchon and his men have Chance and Nat on the run for pretty much the entire second half of the film, allowing for Woo to present us with copious amounts of fights, explosions, shootouts, chases involving cars, motorcycles, horses, and helicopters, and general mayhem. Not even snakes are safe in this movie. At one point, Chance punches out a rattlesnake and bites off its rattle to leave a "surprise" for the men pursuing them.
Hard Target has some very hard-hitting, brutal violence in it, which was one of the issues in post-production: the MPAA felt the movie deserved an NC-17 rating. Woo had to edit down the violence seven times, whittling down twenty moments, before the ratings board agreed to give the film an R. The MPAA wasn't the only reason the film was edited down, either. Woo's director's cut was around twenty minutes longer, featuring not only more action but also a love scene between Chance and Nat and more scenes with Fouchon. Van Damme felt there was too much focus on Fouchon in Woo's cut, so he brought in his own editor to supervise a cut that emphasized Chance over his enemy. While you can tell at times that the violence isn't quite at the level it was meant to be (people still get plenty messed up), it still works, and I'm not convinced that the movie would have benefited from even more Fouchon. I'm satisfied with the amount of screen time the villain gets.
The action/violence in Hard Target may not be as impressive as it was in Woo's The Killer or Hard Boiled, but it is still the primary draw and, despite being cut down, still delivers, aiding in making Hard Target an awesome, entertaining movie to watch. Some of Woo's stylistic choices, like slow motion and over-amped sound effects, can come off as being a bit cheesy here, especially more than twenty years later, but who doesn't expect a little cheese in this sort of film?
Adding to the fun the movie provides is the late in the running time arrival of the great Wilford Brimley as Chance's Cajun Uncle Douvee, who raised him in the bayou. Putting on an over-the-top accent and swigging alcohol from a flask, Brimley increases the enjoyment factor big time with his presence, and Douvee proves to be much more of a badass than you might expect. I can't say I ever thought I'd see Brimley riding a horse away from a massive explosion.
Hard Target isn't all it could have been, but it is a really good time.
THE HORNET'S STING AND THE HELL IT'S CAUSED (2014)
It has been quite a while since I last wrote about a movie directed by Ohio-based filmmaker Dustin Mills. Although I did review Cameron McCasland's short film Tailypo and Dave Parker's movie Slimy Little Bastards, both of which Mills was involved with in some way, it's been two years since I covered one of his own movies, the last one being Snuffet. This despite the fact that he has released six movies since Snuffet. Although I remain a fan, I drifted away from his work a bit once the focus shifted from the more fun and polished Dustin Mills Productions he started out with (The Puppet Monster Massacre, Zombie A-Hole, Night of the Tentacles, Bath Salt Zombies, Easter Casket, Kill That Bitch, Skinless) to the darker, meaner, sleazier Crumpleshack Films output - Her Name Was Torment, Snuffet, and this movie The Hornet's Sting and the Hell It's Caused. I watched The Hornet's Sting as soon as it came out in 2014, but for the first time I didn't know what to say about a Mills movie.
The story centers on Rose (Minnie Grey), a photographer who seeks out models on the internet, and once she meets them she drugs them and keeps them captive in the attic of her isolated home, where she tortures and degrades them, strips them nude, and murders them, taking pictures the whole time. The film starts out with a sequence in which we see Rose do her thing to three victims, and then we meet her latest victim, Joni Durian as Freya. The bulk of the film's 59 minute running time consists of Rose doing awful things to Freya. There are times when Freya is awake to be tormented, and there are times when we simply watch Rose pose and photograph her unconscious, naked body... then she goes off, takes some drugs, and masturbates. It's a twisted tale full of strange, trippy visuals.
I want to get back into watching Mills' films, and to do so I had to go back to The Hornet's Sting and the Hell It's Caused. Now that I've watched it again, it's clear that it's simply not a film that's for me, I don't find it appealing. I do commend the bravery and commitment displayed by everyone who collaborated on this project, though. This was very odd and revealing, and they went for it.
The ABCs of Death was a 2012 horror anthology featuring twenty-six short segments by twenty-six different directors (or director pairs), each segment representing a different letter of the alphabet as the filmmakers took us from "A is for Apocalypse" to "Z is for Zetsumetsu". When the producers set the ball rolling on The ABCs of Death 2 soon after, they chose almost all of the twenty-six directors/pairs that would eventually take viewers from "A is for Amateur" to "Z is for Zygote" in the 2014 release, but they left one slot open. A contest was conducted where filmmakers from around the globe could submit their own short to represent the letter M. Over five hundred submissions were received, and from those a winner was chosen: Robert Boocheck's "M is for Masticate".
When you get five hundred submissions, there has to be more than one good one in the bunch, and in January of 2014 it was announced that twenty-six M runner-ups had been chosen to be assembled into their own separate anthology, to be called ABCs of Death 1.5. That movie was supposed to be released in early 2014, but something delayed it for a year and a half. Finally, that anthology of submissions made its way out into the world in the summer of 2016, now titled ABCs of Death 2.5 rather than 1.5.
You might think that a movie composed of submissions might be of lower audio/video quality, but the filmmakers who crafted these segments did a fine job in making their shorts look and sound as good as possible. Some may not be quite ready for the big screen, but overall I was impressed. That isn't to say that I liked all of the segments, regardless of technical proficiency. Like the other two ABCs movies, this one has its ups and downs. Some segments I enjoyed, others I didn't like at all. Some I didn't get. Quite a few of them I didn't get, honestly. Others were right up my alley.
If you've seen the other ABCs of Death films, I see no reason to skip this one, even if you may not be familiar with most, if any, of the filmmakers involved. It's a worthy entry in the franchise, and I'm glad the producers decided to give twenty-six more of the M makers their time in the spotlight.
The best thing about it? While it took the other movies a few minutes beyond two hours to get through their twenty-six segments, this one wraps up in a refreshingly brief 85 minutes.
Back in 1989, Re-Animator producer / Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator director Brian Yuzna made a horror film called Society, which was written by his Bride collaborators Rick Fry and Woody Keith. It's a movie I have intended to get around to watching for decades, but never did until my job at ArrowintheHead.com gave me a specific reason to - to write a review of it for a series called Unseen Halloween Returns where AITH contributors finally got around to watching popular horror movies they hadn't seen yet. (Click on this link to see the longer review I wrote there.)
Society is about Beverly Hills high schooler Billy Whitney (played by Billy Warlock), who has everything going for him on the outside - he's a popular jock from a wealthy family who lives in a mansion and dates a cheerleader played by Heidi Kozak of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood and Slumber Party Massacre II - but on the inside he's struggling with paranoia and fear. A fear of most of the people around him. He is beginning to think that he might be adopted, and that the people he knows aren't who they appear to be.
Who might they be? Billy doesn't have any theories, he just has a feeling that something isn't right. And very soon, evidence that he's correct starts to present itself, as he begins seeing very strange things and gets his hands on an audio recording that was made at a high society party - audio that seems to indicate that his parents and sister had an orgy with the other people at the gathering.
As Billy tries to figure out what the hell is going on in Beverly Hills, and what's going on with his family, people start turning up dead around him and things become increasingly bizarre. We might not be able to trust what Billy's eyes are showing him, he is a troubled young man, but some of the things he witnesses fall under the label of "body horror", as some of the rich people around him seem to be able to contort their bodies in ways that a human body shouldn't move.
The climactic sequence is the part of Society that gets the most attention, and if you've seen it you know why. Once you've seen it, you'll never forget it. This sequence, in which Billy is brought into one of high society's private parties, is packed with nightmarish, disgusting imagery provided by special effects artist Screaming Mad George - an FX master who doesn't get as much attention (or work, but maybe that's by choice) as he deserves. George has made some appalling things over the course of his career; his most famous effect is probably the cockroach nightmare in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.
I was nearly thirty years late to seeing Society, but I'm very glad that I finally did. I was impressed, I was disturbed, I was grossed out, and I was pleased to find that the film's story holds up very well, as the theme remains very relevant and timely.