Friday, July 21, 2017

Worth Mentioning - The Rocking, Shocking, New Wave of Horror

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Zombies, werewolves, and super-intelligent apes.


In some ways, the South Korean zombie movie Train to Busan feels like it's writer/director Sang-ho Yeon's answer to World War Z. It plays on the same big blockbuster level, despite largely occurring within one location (the titular train), and the zombies are very much like the ones seen in WWZ - they move at top speed, vicious and spasmodic, the people they bite turn into zombies incredibly fast, and there are times when over-the-top digital effects are employed to bring the flesh-eating horde to the screen.

At the same time, it has stronger characters and more involving drama at its core. The film centers on a divorced father named Seok-Woo, who is more focused on his job than on his young daughter, Su-an. After Seok-Woo disappoints Su-an by missing a school event and giving her a birthday present she already had, he decides to make it up to her by granting her birthday wish: he joins her on a train to the city of Busan to see her mother.

Unfortunately, their train ride coincides with a devastating zombie outbreak in South Korea. Soon the cities and countryside outside the train is swarming with zombies, and people on board start getting infected as well. As the passenger cars start filling up with the undead, forcing the living into certain areas of the train that they manage to barricade themselves inside of, people have to do their best to survive. For some that means going to battle with the zombies and rescuing those in need of help. For others that means screwing over their fellow passengers at every turn, causing the deaths of others to save themselves.

Train to Busan is a story of redemption for Seok-Woo - to ensure the safety of his daughter, he'll have to make up for being a crappy, inattentive father by stepping up and becoming a hero - but he wasn't really the standout character for me. That would be father-to-be Sang-hwa, who is on the train with his pregnant wife. This guy is a total badass who will go out of his way to save someone by knocking the hell out of the zombies going after them. The damage Sang-hwa manages to inflict on the living dead with his bare hands is awe-inspiring to watch. This guy can take on a dozen zombies at once. He can pick a flesh-eater up and slam it into the ceiling. He can even hold off the horde by picking a zombie up and holding it sideways in front of him, basically making it into an undead shield. I don't know anything about the actor who play Sang-hwa, Ma Dong-seok, but he seems like he should be an action star and I would gladly seek out any other movies that feature him kicking copious amounts of ass.

Some reviewers say that Train to Busan is full of social and political commentary, but since I don't know anything about what it's like in South Korea I can't comment on that. All I know is that it's a really cool, thrilling action movie that is packed with exciting action sequences.

It's not without its missteps, though. There are decisions made in the final minutes that I didn't agree with, and I felt that CGI was overused at times. More restraint could have been shown in that area, the digital effects would occasionally take me out of the movie. For example, there's a great, chilling shot of zombies making their way through a train car, moving down the aisle and climbing over the seats - and then the CGI comes in to ruin the moment with the absurd, glaringly fake sight of a fast-moving zombie pile-up happening at the back of the crowd. That was completely unnecessary.

Even with its flaws, Train to Busan was still one of the best horror movies to come out in 2016.


Back in 2011, director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver rebooted the Planet of the Apes franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a film that crafted a brand new origin for the core concept of incredibly smart apes. It centered on Caesar, an ape born in captivity with enhanced intelligence as the result of experiments being conducted at a company called Gen-Sys in hopes of finding a cure for Alzheimer's. The story followed the early years of Caesar's life as he bonded with the scientist (played by James Franco) at the head of this particular effort to eradicate Alzheimer's, as well as the scientist's Alzheimer's-stricken father. Things descended into tragedy when circumstances caused Caesar to be taken away from his human family and placed in a primate shelter, concurrent to a new version of the Alzheimer's drug proving to have a deadly side effect in the form of a super flu.

Rise ended with Caesar releasing his fellow extraordinarily smart apes from confinement at Gen-Sys and giving the intelligence-enhancing drug to his fellow primates at the shelter, all of these escaped apes making a dash through San Francisco in an effort to reach safety in the Muir redwood forest. As the end credits rolled, we were shown that the super flu - which would come to be known as the Simian Flu - was starting to spread all over the globe.

I liked Rise a lot, having been very impressed by the script and how successful Wyatt was at making a deeply emotionally effective film where the most intriguing characters were apes brought to life through CGI and motion-capture performances. I was interested in seeing where the story would go from there, and fully intended to see a sequel when it came along... And yet, for some reason, I didn't get out to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes when it was released three years later. In fact, I didn't get around to watching Dawn until three years after it was released, when I decided I needed to catch up with the series before the third installment in this trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, was released. A week before the release of War, I finally watched Rise for a second time, and then during the week that followed I followed it up with a belated viewing of Dawn.

Word around the campfire had been that 20th Century Fox was very uncertain about Rise before its release, not trusting that audiences would be into it. Emboldened by that film's success, the studio gave director Matt Reeves a stunning amount of freedom to focus on the CGI apes in this continuation. This is a major studio release that is primarily carried by apes that communicate with each other in sign language, and Fox was so confident in the audience's interest in these creatures by this point that they even let Reeves start the film (after a prologue that lets us know the Simian Flu appeared to have wiped out the entire human race) with a 10 minute sequence consisting only of ape characters interacting with each other while surviving in the wilderness.

Dawn is set 10 years after the events of Rise, with Caesar serving as the leader of an ape community. It has been two years since the apes saw any sign of humans... but just one minute after we learn that bit of information, the apes cross paths with a new group of humans who are still surviving in what remains of San Francisco and are seeking to get power back to the city by getting a defunct hydroelectric dam up and running again.

Now that these ape and human communities know of each other's existence, the story by Jaffa, Silver, and Mark Bomback is about the struggle to keep the peace between them. While Caesar (Andy Serkis did the motion-capture performance) and human leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Malcolm's wife Ellie (Keri Russell) find a way to deal with each other, trouble enters the picture due to the distrustful nature of some of the other humans and Caesar's pal Koba (a mo-capped Toby Kebbell), an ape who has a hatred for humanity due to his mistreatment in the Gen-Sys labs. Malcolm's co-leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) arms the humans in case things go south with the apes, perfectly willing to wipe them all out if there are problems. Koba is equally willing to kill humans and apes alike in order to sabotage the peace and have an excuse to attack the humans.

Another human, Kirk Acevedo as a very annoying fellow named Carver, hates the apes almost as much as Koba hates humans, because after all the disease that wiped out humanity was called the Simian Flu. The humans know the cause of the Simian Flu was lab work involving apes, but they were surprisingly unaware of these intelligant apes living outside of San Francisco. You would think that the exodus Caesar led through the streets at the end of Rise would have made more of an impression on them, but I guess the end of the world overshadowed all the monkey business.

Being post-apocalyptic and with a large community of apes established right up front, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very different sort of film than Rise was, but I had a similar reaction to both: I was blown away that Fox allowed these big tentpole releases to be, first and foremost, intelligent dramas. There is no sense of pandering in these films, they're not spectacle over substance. There is plenty of action in Dawn once it gets to the inevitable battle between apes and humans, there's gunfire and explosions, but what really makes the movie impressive is its well thought out and well told story. It just so happens that some of the most important characters are CGI apes.

Rise and Dawn are modern sci-fi classics. It's great to see this franchise being handled with such respect; these films really do justice to the legacy of the original Planet of the Apes.

Elvira's Horror Classics - NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Here we have a combination of perhaps the most famous horror host ever with one of the greatest horror films of all time. George A. Romero's genre-altering classic Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies and probably the one movie I've watched more times than any other. It's my default movie to put on, especially when I'm looking to calm my nerves. It might sound strange to some that the movie has a calming effect on me, my uncle's then-wife stayed up all night with the lights on after they saw the movie when it was first released, but that's how it is. Night of the Living Dead is a cinematic comfort to me.

As for Elvira, she was at her peak popularity when I was a kid, so I used to see her around all the time, hosting movies and starring in her own, 1988's Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. This particular Elvira / Living Dead combo was part of "Elvira's Box of Horror", a DVD series that marked her return to horror hosting after several years.

The presentation begins with Elvira notifying us that we're going to be watching Night of the Living Dead, but unfortunately her "redneck family" is coming over to join us. Clips from the movie are presented as if the characters and ghouls are her redneck relatives - when she asks her uncle for a cocktail, we see a character throwing a Molotov cocktail. She doesn't want that, she wants a flaming zombie; we see a zombie on fire.

Once Elvira has her drink in hand, the movie plays out with our host popping up here and there to make an observation or crack a joke. Most of the jokes are made at the expense of Barbra, the character who is so freaked out over the zombie siege that she goes catatonic. Elvira is clearly not a fan of Barbra, wanting to slap her around and telling her to drop dead. It all wraps up with Elvira encouraging viewers to adopt a zombie.

There wasn't a whole lot of Elvira here, but it's always fun to see her and I always enjoy watching Night of the Living Dead.

I'm posting this write-up this week for a sad reason: the world of cinema lost one of the greats last Sunday, and I lost a hero, when Romero passed away at the age of 77. I wrote an article about his passing on ArrowintheHead, you can read that at this link.


The Howling is widely considered to be one of the best werewolf movies ever made, but the Howling franchise is not very highly regarded at all, and I can see why when watching Howling II: ...Your Sister Is a Werewolf (also known as Howling II: Stirba - Werewolf Bitch). There was already a substantial decline in quality between the first and second movies.

The Howling started as a novel written by Gary Brandner, who went on to write two sequel novels. Brandner was brought on to write the screenplay for Howling II with Robert Sarno, but while the film is credited as being based on Brandner's Howling II book, it actually has nothing to do with the story Brandner wrote for that novel, which is kind of odd. Since the first movie strayed from the source material, you'd imagine Brandner would try to steer the films back closer to his prose when given creative input, but that's not the case.

The Howling II novel found heroine Karyn Beatty being tracked down by two surviving werewolves - her former husband Roy and his wolfen lover Marcia, who is suffering some terrible side effects from having been shot with a silver bullet in the previous book. Given the changes the first Howling movie made from what was on the page, it would have been tough to make the sequel a faithful adaptation of the Howling II book; in the film, heroine Karen's husband Bill was killed with a silver bullet, werewolf Marsha got away safely, and Karen transformed into a werewolf on a live news broadcast before getting shot down on the air.

Karen went through the televised transformation because she was trying to expose the existence of werewolves, but ...Your Sister Is a Werewolf says that she wasn't successful, the transformation didn't seem to have much impact on the public and the tape of the broadcast has been hidden away. The story begins with her funeral in Los Angeles (a location card is kind enough to inform us that this is the "City of the Angels"), which is being attended by her brother Ben (Reb Brown) and one of Karen's co-workers from KDHB News, Jenny Templeton (Annie McEnroe), among others.

We'll come to find out that Karen's brother Ben is a country boy from Montana, where he works as a police officer. Karen was from Los Angeles, as her husband told her in one scene in the first film, "the wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack", so I'm not sure how she got such a countrified brother. Actor Reb Brown is from Los Angeles himself, so this Montana character element was just randomly tossed in there.

After the service, Ben is approached by horror icon Christopher Lee as occult investigator / werewolf hunter Stefan Crosscoe, who is actually the first character we see in the movie, in a cold open that is likely to make viewers happy to see Lee at the same time that the context is somewhat baffling: standing in front of the backdrop of space, a skeleton lurking over his shoulder, Lee reads the "Great Mother of Harlots" passage from the Bible. It's an odd start, and why is he floating in space?

Stefan kicks off the story that follows by giving Ben the information contained in the film's subtitle. He also points out that one of the women among the mourners, Marsha A. Hunt as Mariana, is actually a werewolf, and one of a rare breed - she's immune to silver, the only way to kill her is with titanium. The silver bullets Karen was shot with did the job of killing her; problem is that the bullets were removed in the morgue, a fact which will allow Karen to come back from the dead. Rather than allow her to be rescued from her coffin by werewolves, Stefan intends to sneak into the cemetery after hours and impale her with a titanium stake.

It would have been interesting if Mariana had been the Marsha character from the first film, and then Brandner could have kept the story a little closer to the book. Maybe Karen's husband Bill could have been brought back as well, and he could be the one suffering side effects from having been shot with silver - which seemed to kill him the previous movie. Then it could be said that Marsha was immune to silver, she turned Bill and he wasn't quite as immune, and since Bill bit Karen it passed this wonky immunity on to her. But that's not the case; despite surviving The Howling, Marsha never did return for a sequel.

Mariana is part of a group of werewolves who have recently been mutilating people in the Los Angeles area, and we get to see them claim some fresh victims. The fact that Mariana and her victims are dressed up in the punk rock style, rip around on motorcycles, and hang out at a New Wave club - where the incredible cheeseball song "Howling" by Stephen Parsons is first introduced - is the most appealing this about this movie to me.

An older member of the werewolf group is named Erle, which makes me wonder if he was meant to be John Carradine's character Erle Kenton from the first film. Either way, the Erle in Howling II is played by Ferdy Mayne.

Not believing all this talk of werewolves, Ben is not pleased about Stefan's plan to stake his sister's corpse, so he and Jenny follow Stefan to the cemetery to stop this guy from messing with Karen. They quick come to believe what Stefan has been saying when werewolves show up and attack them.

With Karen (played by Hana Ludvikova, who looks nothing like original Karen Dee Wallace) staked and put out of her misery, Stefan now has a bigger objective to deal with. In "the dark country" of Transylvania, the werewolf leader Stirba will soon be celebrating her ten millenia birthday. On this special occasion, every werewolf in the world will reveal themselves. Stefan needs to crash Stirba's birthday party before this can happen.

When we first see Stirba, she's played by Valerie Kaplanova and does indeed look like someone who's been alive for ten millenia. Her followers offer up a young girl to her as a human sacrifice, and after sucking the lifeforce out of this girl Stirba takes the form of model / B-movie icon Sybil Danning, who alternates between wearing the most '80s outfit you could hope to see and being nude. The editor was obviously quite fond of the latter condition. During the end credits, a montage revisits various moments from the film. During this montage, a shot of Danning tearing off her top is replayed seventeen times.

Mariana heads to Transylvania so she can have a threesome with Stirba and her man and get to work making "sons and daughters" for the werewolf queen. Now convinced that werewolves are a real threat, Ben and Jenny accompany Stefan on his mission to put an end to all of this. Once in the Transylvanian area, the heroic trio set up in the town called Vlaka (Vlaka means "The Place Where Wolves Live") and prepare to perform a raid on Stirba's lair with the help of a few other companions. Of course, Ben and Jenny also fall in love in the midst of all this.

Before the group springs into werewolf hunting action with their guns, blades, blessed ear plugs, consecrated oil, holy water, and a chalice that once held the blood of Christ, there is an out of nowhere, unnecessary revelation: Stefan is revealed to be Stirba's brother. How has he been alive for millennia? Is he some kind of creature as well? The movie doesn't answer any questions you might have about him.

Directed by Philippe Mora (The Beast Within), Howling II is for the most part an atrocious mess of a movie that plays like it's just a collection of random ideas that were slapped together without much thought being put into how much sense the resulting mixture made. There are some awful elements within this hodge podge, including poor acting and sub-par special effects - although some of the gorier effects are so bad that it actually enhances how gross they look.

The movie does work better for me on DVD than it did on VHS. The movie never looks great in any format, but the VHS I had access to was very low quality, which made it even more off-putting to me. Cleaned up for DVD, it's more watchable.

Howling II does also have some charms that save it from being a total write-off. The presence of Christopher Lee is always a plus, and I would be the same for Reb Brown and Sybil Danning, in different ways. Drop them into a movie that has such ridiculous scenes, such terrible writing, so much cheese, and so many scenes of werewolf action, and you end up with a movie that provides a decent amount of entertainment in a "so bad it's good" way.

If you asked me how Howling II is, I would say it's awful. But that won't stop me from continuing to rewatch it from time to time.

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