Ghostquake (2012)

Not called "Helville", and it's not a Homecoming dance

Not called “Helville”, and it’s not a Homecoming dance. Oh, and nothing else on this poster happens

The longer I watched this film, the more a peculiar feeling began to overtake me. This film is…dare I say it…pretty good! Whether it’s just the law of the stopped clock, or SyFy got lucky and hired people who could write, direct and act, is as yet unclear.

I like teachers who are supposed to be teaching classes, but are really acting as info dumps for us viewers. This chap is telling his students about the supernatural and how it’s real and open your minds and blah blah blah – I’d have thought that sensible, science-based folk and religious types would have cornered the market on teaching, but it’s good to know a few real oddballs can still get through. He and the main student Quentin seem to have some sort of connection, which I thought might be a gay thing but is sort-of blackmail. No need to worry though, the teacher dies pretty quickly.

But none of you are interested in that! By now, you’ll have seen the picture above and gone “hey! Danny Trejo and MC Gainey are in this!” Trejo is the school’s janitor who clearly knows more than he’s letting on, and Gainey is…well, I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to reveal he’s the ghost of the former principal, an insane child murderer and big fan of all things occult. Thanks to a magic gold coin, he and his…wife? Daughter?…can sneak back across from the other side and resume their killing ways.

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Against this fella are the sort of groups of people you get in a school long past closing time – kids who’ve broken in to hack the computer and change their grades; school band members practising for a show (with teacher Griff Furst, who eagle-eyed viewers will recognise from “Transmorphers” – thank heavens he’s learned to act since then); a librarian (an extremely short cameo from Charisma Carpenter); and the teachers and students who are helping set up the gym for the upcoming prom. So, lots of different groups, lots of different sorts of students and adults. So far, so good. And it looks like they filmed in a real school, as the sets are several orders of magnitude better than the average SyFy film.

I’m about to gush about this film, so I’ll get the negatives out of the way first. Quentin is, for the main character, a pretty weak actor, and he has zero chemistry with his love interest, Whitney (Lauren Pennington). Also, there’s no real rhyme or reason to the people who get killed – it’s nice to know the supernatural has some sort of weird moral code, but our villains just seem to want to kill everyone in no particular order. Oh, and there’s a smidgeon of “haha all our friends are dead” at the end.

But enough of negativity. This is a funny, well-made film! Gainey is clearly having the time of his life, laughing maniacally and spewing the worst, cheesiest, death one-liners imaginable. Trejo appears in one scene shirtless for no reason whatsoever, other than to show his tattoos and old-man-muscles off. Virtually anyone in this movie can act rings round the entire cast of most SyFy Channel movies. The plot moves along at a decent pace, and it’s got a good sense of humour about itself. Towards the end, the way they figure out to stop the ghosts is so wonderfully half-assed that you can’t help but laugh.

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Getting a bunch of teenagers, a few adults and something evil locked in the same place is a staple of low-budget cinema, and there are no new plots under the sun, really. What we look for is films that use those standard building blocks well, to show some basic competence at the art of filmmaking, and this one nails it, I think. And I’m not sure why! Looking at the films of director Jeffery Scott Lando, it’s not a strong CV; perhaps the motivation came from writer Paul Birkett, who’s responsible for some of the SyFy Channel’s funnest films, like “Ghost Shark” and “Arachnoquake”. The other writer, Anthony C Ferrante, is much, much better known as the director of the “Sharknado” movies, so perhaps we’re witnessing the ascent of the only in-house talents SyFy has, both on the same movie.

If you see this on SyFy Channel’s schedule, clear an evening for this and you’ll have a good time.

Rating: thumbs up

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Travelling Salesman (2012)

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The otherwise fairly terrible John Carpenter film “Escape From LA” has a final scene where anti-hero Snake Plissken has a chance to save the world’s electricity. Instead, he – in a gloriously nihilistic moment – flips the switch and plunges the entire world into darkness. This film is, essentially, a debate about whether we should do something very similar.

Four scientists – known as 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the credits – have come together to solve a problem previously thought unsolveable – the P v. NP argument. To put it in terms I could understand, any security system is breakable if you have enough time, but for the really complicated ones you’d need millions of years to go through every possibilty. There is a branch of mathematics that is attempting to work round this, to figure out a solution to extraordinarily complex problems more quickly…if you’d like to read more about this, the Wikipedia page on P v NP is a good start, and if that page didn’t make your eyes bleed then I think this could be the film for you.

Specifically, the “Travelling Salesman” problem relates to a salesman trying to plan his route between multiple different cities. You have a list of cities and the list of distances between them -how do you plan the best route without having to plan every possible route so you can pick the best one?

Those four scientists have, amazingly, solved the problem after several years, and the world’s security systems are now open to whoever has their algorithm. 5 enters, the representative of the Government who have been funding their research. He starts off all sweetness and light, but as they debate the implications, and the changes that have been made to their agreement with the Government, his facade drops very quickly and the debate turns hostile.

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Virtually the entire film is set in one room, around a table, with the 5 people debating (there are a few cuts to a TED talk the main scientist gives, as well as what may be flash-forwards and may just be fantasies). The cast are obviously more stand-ins for strains of thought than real people, but while one or two of them don’t quite have the acting chops to convince as genius scientists, the acting is by and large fine, and the enclosed space works for the big, world-spanning conversation they’re having.

The problem comes with film logic, and everything that isn’t the captivating and fascinating debate they’re having. Take, for instance, the pure science vs. government “reality” debate – if you were of a mind that having your invention controlled by the Government would be a bad thing, why take that same Government’s dollar to do the research in the first place? Initially, the sole threat for not signing the non-disclosure document is withdrawal of stipends, and the actual financial side of it doesn’t seem that impressive. If I could take my skills and make Facebook-level money on the open market, the withdrawal of fairly measly government funding wouldn’t really bother me at all – but this is enough for nearly all of them. It’s when there’s still a holdout that the government man’s response goes from reasonable (if a little aggressive) to completely cartoon villainy.

I think it might reasonably be said that this is a film about exceptionally smart people, written by someone who isn’t quite as smart as they are. There are a few too many obvious bits of dialogue that a group of people who’d been working together for four years would have got out of the way in the first week; and the people who do sign the agreement do so after the Government position has been revealed to be much less pleasant than it was at the beginning of the conversation.

I feel like I’m being a bit too critical about this film, and it’s completely unlike almost every other film I’ve reviewed for this site. It’s a thriller set in one room, with basically no action, and it succeeds where a great many other films have failed – in fact, it works better if you imagine it as just a thriller and not the “cerebral thriller” that the advertising makes reference to. And considering it was shot for around $25,000 in ten days, that makes its achievement even greater.

There is, to the very recent viewer, a rather large elephant in the room. This film came out in June 2012, and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA spying on us all came out in May 2013, meaning that while a key to get round every bit of security would be helpful, our Government doesn’t need it to subject us to illegal, immoral searches. But in a way, that helps the film (the debates could as easily be about spying using traditional methods as they could be about the new technology that the film invents).

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I would definitely recommend this. Making a film as cheaply as they did meant they were allowed to go wherever they wanted, and while I wasn’t on board for every choice, I’m still thinking about it hours later, and the same most definitely can’t be said for 99% of the ISCFC’s other reviewed films.

Rating: thumbs up

Repeaters (2011)

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How long would it take you to notice you were repeating the previous day? Unless something pretty out of the ordinary happened to me, I think I could probably make it through a day without realising it was yesterday again. Breakfast, walk the dog, work, a few downloaded TV shows, bed. Okay, my life’s not that dull normally, but pick a bad day and it could happen.

 

Luckily, the stars of “Repeaters” are a bit smarter than me. Kyle, Sonia and Michael are three recovering drug addicts living in a rehab centre, and we get to see how each of them uses a day pass. Their lives are awful, either as a result of what they did before they went in there, or the thing that caused them to be in there in the first place. Because their lives are so absolutely routine – there’s a not-terribly-subtle metaphor in there somewhere – they pick up on the tiny things and almost immediately start having fun with their new-found gift, in the way that people with a decent knowledge of pop culture would do. In other words, they start breaking the law remarkably quickly, and the first fracture in their happy lives comes when they go to their old drug dealer and Kyle sees his little sister getting high.

 

Michael is obviously going down a darker path, so at this point I was thinking “well, we’ve got about ten minutes to go, with a few apologies to come and lessons to be learned”. When I checked the time and realised we weren’t even at the halfway point yet, I was impressed at what the film had managed to pack into those 45 minutes without it feeling rushed at all.

 

With their fractured lives, things go further downhill with every attempt to do good things leading to misery of one sort or another. Michael realises smoking meth and murdering people is okay, in some way, if you wake up in the morning un-addicted again and the murder victims happily walking around; Kyle tries every way he can imagine to keep his sister from the life he had; and Sonia has revelations about her father.

 

I found this film fascinating, despite a few flaws. Plot threads get dropped and the resolution to the Sonia’s father thread feels weird, like she was being forced to read the lines by some new religious cult she’d just joined. Also, there’s a really fine line in the world of indie drama between playing an emotionally numb character and just not being very good at acting, and I’m not sure that Kyle stays on the right side of that line often enough. Or maybe it’s my mind being numbed by months of SyFy Channel original movies.

 

I am looking forward to seeing what the filmmaker and writer do in the future. This is a dark and complex film which has left me thinking about it a lot longer than I expected, with a tiny post-film coda that adds an extra layer to discussions of it (and more importantly, doesn’t just feel like a clever little bit tagged on for no reason). Okay, there are flaws, but give me something that tries and occasionally fails over something that never tries, any day.

 

Rating: thumbs up

Deathstalker 2: Duel of the Titans (1987)

They aren't in the film

They aren’t in the film

This is as close to a classic as the swords-and-sorcery genre has, I reckon. Better than the first film in every way, a great central performance, not quite as much unnecessary nudity as the first (which, considering the director, is a minor miracle), and real genuine laughs, both in the script and in the performances.

Deathstalker is a really weird name for a wisecracking thief-with-a-heart-of-gold (mercifully, the film acknowledges this), but the way they incorporate the name of this sequel into the film is hilarious – the baddie says “I’ll get her and Deathstalker too!” (BOOM, film title appears on screen). He’s doing his thieving thing when he happens upon the young beautiful Reena the Seer beaten up by some goons outside a bar. He doesn’t seem desperate to endear himself to us with his first line – “Normally, I don’t mind seeing a woman get beaten” but he rescues her anyway, and she spins him a tale, of being cloned by the evil wizard / super-swordsman Jarek, how she’s really called Princess Evie, and how there’s riches beyond the dreams of avarice if he can help restore her to her throne.

They pop into the same bar Reena was thrown out of, and this is where eagle-eyed viewers will start having fun. The first two Deathstalkers were made 4 years apart, so viewers at the time wouldn’t have noticed them just using a load of footage from the earlier one in this; and there are some extremely bored-looking nude dancers added to the mix. Now, if you’re a nude dancer in a bar and a massive brawl breaks out, tradition dictates you duck behind some furniture and occasionally bash someone over the head with a bottle – what you don’t do is just carry on dancing, with the same bored expression on your face. Ah well, they can’t all be winners.

"Hey, shall we bother moving those production trucks out of the back of this shot? No? Okay then"

“Hey, should we bother moving those production trucks out of the back of this shot? No? Okay then”

Deathstalker and Reena head towards the castle, with your typical medieval fun along the way, which for some reason includes zombies, some of whom didn’t bother getting dressed in medieval style clothes at all. My favourite bit is when he’s captured by a town full of women, whose menfolk have died fighting Jarek. Do they use him as a sex slave? Nope, they accuse him of crimes against womankind after his reputation preceded him, set up a wrestling ring and have him take on Queen Kong in a fight to the death. THEN the ruler of the town uses him as a sex slave.

Deathstalker IIC

You don’t need me to tell you how the rest of the film goes, but that’s not why you’re here. Seeing Jim Wynorski’s name attached to a fun, well-made, cheap-and-cheerful film with jokes and a great atmosphere around it is odd, and makes me even sadder at the garbage he’s been churning out for the last decade or so. This is the film that “Your Highness” should have been, with a main cast who barely bother pretending they’re in the olden days, laughs that come from something other than insults, a lightning quick pace and a fun series of fights to keep the excitement levels up.

It’s not perfect, by any stretch. John Terlesky as Deathstalker is great; and Monique Gabrielle (making her second ISCFC appearance, after being the nude lady in “Amazon Women On The Moon”) does surprisingly good double duty, which makes her subsequent career in porn even sadder. But most of the rest of the cast is pretty wooden, even if sometimes that woodenness helps the comedy along.

If you love taint-shots, then this is the film for you. Luckily, it’s not just for taint-lovers, and this ought to be much better known than it is. The DVD is worth buying as well, for an absolutely top-drawer commentary, full of jokes and self-mockery.

Rating: thumbs up

DS2-Bananna-Required

Sand Sharks (2011)

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This film is part of three different review series here at the ISCFC. First up is “Shark Movies”, following “Deep Blue Sea”, “Dinoshark”, “Jersey Shore Shark Attack”, “Swamp Shark”, “Ghost Shark”, (of course) “Sharknado”, and “Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast”. Along with “Snow Shark” it’s part of our “sharks moving through stuff they shouldn’t be able to move through” film series; and finally it’s the second in what I hope will be an ongoing Delpaneaux Wills (@DelpaneauxWills) series. He was in the sadly forgettable “Android Cop” but has a much funner part in this and if you look at his IMDB page, he’s in some films that sound great.

This film is amazing! Straight up, no fooling. Every ludicrous cliche in the monster movie handbook is dialed up to the maximum and the entire cast look like they’re having a blast. But I suppose you need me to tell you a bit about the film anyway? Okay. Corin Nemec stars as Jimmy Green, son of Mayor Greenburg and all-round sleazy douchebag. He has quite the past – dumped the Sheriff’s sister, leaving her with a ton of debt and skipping town; organised a party at some point in the past that left 15 people dead; and is now back because he’s had the idea for a Sand Man Festival, a bit like Burning Man crossed with Spring Break. Amazingly, for someone with such a poor track record at party organisation, the Mayor agrees!

We have, equally importantly, the disbelieving Sheriff, who doesn’t think the bodies they find initially are from a shark attack, and insists they keep the beaches open. Brenda, the Sheriff’s sister and now his Deputy, is a little less sure so she calls on a “scientist from the mainland” to help them identify the shark-like creature. Now, Denise Richards has always been the poster-girl for “unconvincing scientist” after her turn in “The World Is Not Enough” but this film has that one beaten comfortably. Brooke Hogan!

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Brooke damn Hogan! Famous for being Hulk Hogan’s daughter, for him trying to buy her a music career, for him trying to buy her a wrestling career, but not sadly for having any appreciable talent in any field of the arts. She’s a marine scientist of some sort, and I really hope the film hired her as a joke.

Jimmy’s helped with his organising by Willie (Delpaneaux) who’s the social media king, and the nakedly ambitious and wonderfully named Amanda Gore (Gina Holden). While these guys are trying to rustle up some interest in the Sand Man Festival (I can’t help but think they ought to have advertised this a little better beforehand), the townspeople are gradually realising they’ve got a very ancient and very deadly shark in their midst. There’s the grizzled local hunter that lovers of “Jaws” will recognise, there’s a very unlikely developing relationship between the Sheriff and Dr. Brooke, and there’s the increasing realisation that Corin Nemec is history’s greatest monster.

There’s a scene in this you’ll all know and “love”. A group of people are walking along, arguing. One of them separates themselves from the throng and is shown in their own shot. They start talking about how there’s no such thing as monsters, or they’ve all been killed and everyone is safe, or something. They’ll have a green-screen behind them so you know you’re about to get a special effect, and without fail that person gets eaten. I feel like I’ve seen that exact scene in 20 movies – at least in this one there’s a good chance they’re mocking the convention.

The climactic beach party is a masterpiece of low-budget filmmaking. They’ve got maybe 100 extras, and they try their very hardest to make it look like a huge event, with overhead shots, weirdly precise spacing, and so on. Someone makes a shark out of sand on the beach, and guess where the real sand shark decides to make his appearance? People start running in panic, as Nemec makes his way through the crowd, trying to get everybody to keep dancing…if sharks were coming out of the sand, I’d have to assume after a few seconds of panic, everyone would run in the same direction – away from the sea and the sand. But no! People are still running towards the water minutes after the initial attack, perhaps again to make it look like a bigger event.

Add on the final battle between humans and sand sharks and you’ve got yourself a movie! I absolutely loved this. It doesn’t take itself seriously for one second, and Corin Nemec is funny as hell (his last scene with the Deputy is a highlight). The Mayor is marvellously odd, played by a chap called Edgar Allan Poe IV – presumably not a direct descendant, as the famous Poe never had children (he’s played Poe in several films and TV shows down the years, too). The mystery of the previous party is never revealed, Brooke Hogan makes references to Roger Corman and “Dinoshark”, and it fulfils three of the four rules of shark movies.

There’s never a dull moment, which makes me ponder the fairly bad reviews it’s received. I think too many people are expecting a “serious” movie when it comes to stuff like this, with good reason, so when one comes along which gleefully ignores the rulebook, I think some find it difficult to get their head round. But if you love monster movies and are in a good mood, this funny, stupid film will win you over.

Rating: thumbs up

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