Friday, October 5, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Get Ready to Face Your Worst Fears

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.


Slashers, creatures, and grief.


URBAN LEGEND (1998)

I saw Urban Legend in the theatre when it was first released in 1998. I didn't catch up on the 1986 horror film Killer Party until several years after that, and it wasn't until this year that I read internet trivia revealing that the two movies used the same school in Toronto as a filming location. It's kind of perfect that both movies were shot in the same place, since they're both wacky slashers that feature costume parties are are set at colleges where there's a legend that someone was killed there 20+ years earlier. Urban Legend and Killer Party would make for quite a double feature.

Sharing a filming location with Killer Party is far from the only connection Urban Legend has to horror past - director Jamie Blanks cast genre regulars Robert Englund, Danielle Harris, and Brad Dourif, while screenwriter Silvio Horta (who would go on to create the show Ugly Betty) dropped some references in with character names, most notably giving a character the last name Bates.


Urban Legend takes place at Pendleton University, where a slasher whose identity is obscured by the large parka they wear starts picking off students and faculty members, murdering people in ways inspired by classic urban legends. It's pretty impressive that Horta was able to work as many popular urban legends into the film as he did, and how he was able to tie them into the methods of murder... even if the killer has to cheat to make some of them work. Adding drain cleaner into the mix isn't exactly a faithful way of bringing the "pop rocks and soda pop" urban legend to life!


Like the other slashers of this era, Urban Legend owes its existence to the success of Scream at the end of 1996, and it plays a lot like Scream, leaning heavily on the mystery of who the slasher is. As serious, responsible heroine Natalie (Alicia Witt) and student journalist Paul (Jared Leto) try to figure out who's wearing the parka, they have plenty of suspects to consider, from the creepy professor who's played by Englund and is introduced teaching his class about urban legends, to the weird janitor (Julian Richings) who may or may not know something about the massacre that may or may not have taken place on the campus in the '70s, or maybe even one of the prankster party guys played by Michael Rosenbaum and Joshua Jackson. Paul also happens to be a major suspect himself. Other characters who could be fodder or a killer include Harris as Natalie's goth roommate, Tara Reid as the school radio show host, the dean (John Neville), Natalie's best friend Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart), and Lorette Devine as security guard Reese, who idolizes Pam Grier / Coffy.


Urban Legend is a middle-of-the-road slasher for me; it's not one of my favorites, but I find it to be worth revisiting from time to time. It's an entertaining product of its era. I was a teenager when that late '90s slasher boom was going on, so I was part of the demographic they were being aimed at - and yet at the time I would often lament the fact that these '90s slashers just weren't measuring up to the greatest of the '80s slashers. Looking back, I should have been more lenient. There were plenty of '80s slashers that weren't that great either, and I should have been thankful that I was even getting to experience a new slasher boom. I wish we were getting more theatrically released slashers these days.

If you're in the mood to watch a slasher, this is a perfectly serviceable one to put on.



AYLA (2017)

Even if you don't know what inspired mononymous writer/director Elias to make his new film Ayla, which is the fact that he had a sister who passed away as a child, it is quite obvious in the film that he was telling a very personal story here, so personal that he almost even named the lead character after himself.

Nicholas Wilder, star of Elias's previous feature Gut, plays Elton, a deeply troubled man who is obsessed with the sister he lost thirty years ago, when she was just four years old. It seems his mother Susan (genre icon Dee Wallace) kept the sister alive in his mind for a long time by telling him that she was regularly contacted by her spirit. Eventually that contact ended, and Susan believes the girl, who was named Ayla, moved on. But Elton thinks Ayla is still lingering around them. He feels like she's contacting him, and he keeps seeing her image - not as the child she was, but as the grown woman she should be by now.

Elton's grief over the loss of Ayla is so intense even all these decades later that, during a breakdown in a forest, he seems to will his sister back from "the other side". The woman, played by American Mary's Tristan Risk, is birthed from a puddle of slime at the base of a moss-covered tree, and Elton immediately accepts her as his long lost sister. She's a quirky character who doesn't speak, secretes slime, and frequently lets loose with projectile vomiting, but her sickliness just makes Elton even more determined to take care of her.


As he established with the films Gut and Dark (which he wrote), Elias is a filmmaker who likes to take the slow burn approach, and that is certainly the case with Ayla. The story unfolds at a very deliberate pace, and the closest thing to action you get are the sex scenes between Elton and his girlfriend Alex (Wilder's fellow Gut alum Sarah Schoofs). Most of the running time is a trudge through heartbreak, depression, and weirdness.

Elton and Ayla weren't characters I was really able to connect with emotionally; rather, I was just observing them. Watching these strange events play out, wondering what exactly Ayla was. Dreading the moment that Elton might go a step too far with his ethereal sister figure - there is a sexual element to his obsession with Ayla, before the character arrives in the flesh Elton is already having visions of her going around in the nude. So if he were to get inappropriate with this woman, it wouldn't be a surprise at all.

Ayla is a film I was left feeling somewhat ambivalent about at the end. I love the concept of it, and have lost close loved ones myself, so I know the feeling of grief so intense that you wish it could bring them back into the land of the living. I wanted the film to be a more emotional viewing experience than it was, and it would have been if I had been able to relate to Elton more. But instead of getting in tune with his emotions, I found him to be off-putting. The character in the film I most related to was Elton's younger brother James (D'Angelo Midili), who never knew Ayla and finds Elton's behavior and his insistence that this woman from the forest is their sister to be appalling.

I also found the way the film handles the supernatural side of things, especially the "open to interpretation" ending that everything builds up to, to be frustrating.

It's a strong artistic and technical achievement, and there will be viewers who will be swept away by the cinematography, the editing, the score, and the strange, dark atmosphere. The less you question what's happening, the better. I was just left wishing that I had been able to feel more for the characters, and that I had been able to get a better understanding of what exactly was going on.

The Ayla review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com



THE ZERO BOYS (1986)

The Friday the 13th franchise is my favorite horror franchise, and Friday the 13th Part III is my favorite of the bunch. Along with my appreciation for that film comes a fascination with its filming location, a cabin at the Veluzat Motion Picture Ranch that no longer exists, having burnt down several years ago. Thus, most of the enjoyment I get out of director Nico Mastorakis's 1986 slasher The Zero Boys comes from the fact that it was shot at the same cabin as Friday the 13th Part III. Four years after iconic slasher Jason Voorhees stalked those grounds, Mastorakis took his cast and crew to that exact same cabin to make a movie about paintball enthusiasts being stalked by snuff film producing rednecks.


Chopping Mall's Kelli Maroney stars in The Zero Boys as Jamie, who the titular paintball team wins for the weekend in a match against her boyfriend and his pals. Given the fact that her boyfriend likes to play paintball while dressed in a Nazi uniform, I think Jamie is better off with the Zero Boys than with him, although she's not much of a prize herself.

Heading off into the wilderness, Jamie and the Zero Boys soon find themselves stranded at the Friday the 13th Part III cabin, which has been remodeled a bit between movies and is also shot from some different angles here than we saw in the Jason movie. Even though it looks different, the cabin is still recognizable, it's really cool to see it in another slasher movie. Characters start a fire in that familiar fireplace (which ended up causing the cabin's destruction), sit in a familiar swing, wander down the dock to the lake that didn't naturally exist there (it was created the crew of F13 3 and is only glimpsed in The Zero Boys through cutaways to a different location), and even venture out to the barn where Jason spent a lot of his time.


The villains of this film are also quite fond of that barn; it happens to be where they film their snuff videos. Once the Zero Boys have seen that stuff, it's guaranteed that the cabin's inhabitants are going to be hunting down and trying to kill them very soon. The Zero Boys do have an advantage over most slasher movie characters, though: these kids are packing semi-automatic weapons. And they're so trigger happy that one character even reacts to the sight of a human skull lying on the ground by unloading a pistol into its face.


The Zero Boys isn't great - it leaves the cabin too soon in my estimation (even though about half the movie takes place there), and there aren't enough kills along the way - but it's a decent time waster, and is especially entertaining if seeing the Friday the 13th Part III cabin in another movie is as thrilling to you as it is for me.



MERIDIAN (1990)

It shouldn't have taken me twenty-eight years to get around to watching Meridian. It's a Charles Band-directed Full Moon production from the company's glory days, I should have seen this movie a long time ago. It doesn't help that, unlike so many other Full Moon movies of the time, I never found showings of Meridian on cable, but I can't really use availability as an excuse. The VHS copy was there to be rented at a local video store, the case was prominently displayed in the horror section, I had the opportunity to rent it many times. I just didn't. The subject matter and perceived style pushed me away - somehow not even the fact that the movie stars Sherilyn Fenn and Charlie Spradling was enough to make me want to watch what appeared to be a European fractured fairy tale about a woman being romanced by a beast man.

It was a given I would watch the movie someday, I just put it off. But recently this particular someday finally arrived.


The film centers on Fenn's character Catherine Bomarzini, an American woman who's the descendant of Italian nobility, so her family owns a castle in Italy - giving Band another chance to use his own Italian castle as a filming location. While checking out the Italian countryside with her friend Gina (Spradling), Catherine watches a magician's performance in a small carnival. Catherine and Gina are so charmed by magician Lawrence (Malcolm Jamieson) that Catherine ends up inviting the entire carnival to her place for dinner. The small dining room does seat thirty, after all.

This invitation turns out to have been a terrible idea, because Lawrence's dwarf buddy who's credited as Dwarf (Phil Fondacaro) roofies the girls' drinks. I'm certain Lawrence could have gotten either of them into bed just by asking, and they're shown passionately returning his advances even while drugged, but he's not your average sleep creep. It's worse than that. While Lawrence has his way with Gina, he sets his masked twin brother Oliver loose on Catherine... and when Oliver is sexually aroused, he turns into a hideous, hairy creature.


After her encounter with this beast, Catherine starts seeing frightening visions of her late aunt, who also fell prey to this thing when she was young. Meanwhile, Lawrence and Oliver keep returning to her - Lawrence being violent, Oliver swooning over her, having falling hard for her while they "made love". Oliver believes Catherine is "the one", the woman he's been seeking for centuries. When Oliver, in hairy creature form, defends her from Lawrence, Catherine realizes he's not the monster he appears to be.

So it's a Beauty and the Beast love story that begins with a drugging and rape. Isn't it romantic? Yeah, more like wrong-headed on the part of Band and screenwriter Dennis Paoli, but I guess it was made "in different times".

As expected, the presence of Fenn and Spradling in the cast was the most appealing thing about the movie for me, so I found it a bit strange that Gina basically just disappears from the story after that night with Lawrence and Oliver. There are occasional cutaways to what she's doing, but they're not that important. The film as a whole was more interesting than I had anticipated, but I was always troubled by the rape drug aspect of it all, baffled that the story expected me to go along with the idea that such an event could lead to love.

I should have watched Meridian a long time ago, but when I did watch it I found that it's really not a big deal - there's not a whole lot to it.

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