Highway To Hell (1991)

Much like our last review, this features the brother of a much more famous actor in a prominent role; but unlike our last review, this movie is really good and entertaining and you won’t want to beat me up if you watch it based on my recommendation.

There’s also a few really interesting names to talk about, which is pretty fantastic for a movie I just picked off my pile of VHS tapes to review without knowing a great deal about it. First up is the writer, Brian Helgeland. Obviously, we know him from “A Nightmare On Elm Street 4” but less horror-literate fans may remember him from “LA Confidential”, where he won an Oscar for his script (he was also nominated a few years after that for “Mystic River”).

Then there’s the cast. Not so much the main names (although they’re all totally decent) but some of the supporting cast, who would go on to much much bigger things. First up, Ben Stiller! A year away from getting his own show on MTV, he plays two small parts and has a whale of a time with them both. His parents, legendary comic actors Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, also pop up in grotesque cameos, as does his sister Amy; and Gilbert Gottfried, who I’m pretty sure got to improvise his own lines, plays Hitler in one scene. Lita Ford acquits herself well in her only acting role too.

Anyway. Two young lovers are off to Vegas to get married, and it was here, before I knew who was going to show up later, that I thought “this is an A-list cast (for us)”. Chad “brother of Rob” Lowe and Kristy Swanson are Charlie and Rachel, and they’re eloping for…some reason. Are they too young? Not really, judging by looking at them. Controlling parents? Who knows. Anyway, with their cute dog Mr Ben in tow, off they go, but because they’re worried the authorities will be looking for them (?) they decide to get off the highway and use the back roads.

When they hit the Last Chance gas station, I noticed that someone had spent a decent chunk of change on this movie and my hopes lifted even further. Real sets! This has that classic old man who warns them against carrying on down that road, and especially warns them not to sleep in their car before they get past a second large tree. Of course, they both fall asleep almost immediately and nearly crash their car, and that’s when they meet Hell Cop, a mute monster with words and symbols carved into his face, with a very unusual pair of handcuffs, who decides to beat the crap out of Charlie, then kidnap Rachel and take her back to hell with him. Luckily, when Charlie wakes up and goes back to the gas station, the old man is full of useful information, giving him a car and a bunch of stuff that will help him out – and off Charlie goes to hell, which you can do just by driving to a certain place and then believing in it, really hard.

It’s at this point where the movie gets both better and worse. Better, because it becomes a funny (if over-broad) grotesque comedy with some superb characters; worse, because it seems a little too episodic, like the various places Charlie goes to find Rachel don’t seem connected to each other. Hell Cop seems to keep stopping at these colourful locations for no good reason other than to allow Charlie to catch up, look around for a few minutes, then have a confrontation and carry on.

But, those places are a heck of a lot of fun. First up is a diner, where cops (one of whom is Jerry Stiller) try and get a cup of coffee from the monstrous Medea (Anne Meara), and there’s a cook outside, frying up steaks on the hot concrete (Ben Stiller). The makeup is great, the look of the place is great, it’s a fine scene.

Charlie’s car breaks down and he meets the curiously helpful Beezle (Patrick Bergin), who fixes it for no charge – his tow-truck has “AAA – Anarchy Armageddon Annihilation” on the side; as he drives further he sees “Good Intentions Paving”, which is…er…a group of construction workers who are all Andy Warhol, feeding people who say stuff like “I only had sex with my husband’s boss” or “I let him drink bleach so he’d learn” into a gigantic grinder and coating the road in them.

And so on. I don’t want to recap the entire plot, because it would just be a rather breathless “and then he went here, and there was this cool reference, and then he went…” but let’s just say it unfolds at a decent pace and while it’s never enormously surprising, it has some good laughs, some good grotesquerie and…well, some of the acting is fine. Chad Lowe is a little too dull a main character to really support, and you kind-of want the smooth, charming, helpful Satan to win, but you’re having a good time so his wet-blanket-ness is less of a problem to overcome.

Hell Cop is a great villain, too. Mute, scary-looking, and with a badass weapon, he does what’s needed. The other main antagonist, Royce (Adam Storke, who was in “The Stand”) could have and should have been the good guy (he might have needed a haircut to look less like a douchebag, I suppose), and did a great job with what he had.

So, I enjoyed it a lot, but it doesn’t quite work. I think the biggest problem is the lack of flow – it’s perhaps more a series of sketches based in Hell than it is a proper movie. Some of the scenes are fantastic, and they’ve really worked hard on the visuals, but I kept wishing it would settle down a little. Helgeland was still honing his craft at this point, but he populates the movie with some memorable characters, if not a terribly memorable story. Perhaps the issue might be the director, one Ate de Jong, who also directed “Drop Dead Fred” (which I really wanted to like, but boy was it bad) in 1991 before going back to his native Netherlands and directing movies and TV there.

Still, this is head and shoulders above the sort of thing we normally cover here, and I recommend it without exception. Funny, odd, and nightmarish in about the right proportion, it’s just got a blu-ray release so you can enjoy it properly now.

Rating: thumbs up

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American Horror House (2012)

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Welcome back to our SyFy Channel review series, this time featuring another writing credit for Anthony C Ferrante, now much better known as the director of the “Sharknado” series. He’s been partially responsible for some of our favourite SyFy movies – “House Of Bones”, “Ghostquake” and “Leprechaun’s Revenge” – and provides a minor example of the odd business practices of low-budget producers. Of the films I listed above, two of them were also released under different titles (Ghostquake as “Haunted High”, Leprechaun’s Revenge as “Red Clover”) and so it is with tonight’s review, which has seen DVD release as “Paranormal Initiation”. I presume it’s to either save money or occasionally trick people into paying for the same movie twice and while it’s not unique to Ferrante’s oeuvre, it’s a puzzler.

 

Luckily, Ferrante’s lightly humourous touch is on display throughout this top-tier SyFy effort, although we start off with a nicely creepy bit as a girl in her early teens is shown in the aftermath of butchering her parents, smiling and singing a nursery rhyme. Flying forward through time to the present day minus a month, we’re in a sorority house where everyone just seems a little mean. Come on everyone, cheer up! Although I did discover that you have to pay to live in a sorority house (I assumed it was free) so lord knows why anyone wants to join one, ever. A girl who can’t mime playing the violin worth a damn is murdered by her violin teacher, then we go forward that last month and are in the present day.

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The protagonist is Daria (Alessandra Torresani, “Caprica”, “The Big Bang Theory”), one of four new pledges to the Kappa sorority, who seems sort of bright and independent and I liked her immediately. We set our stall out early by having her and three other pledges strip to their underwear and go to a fraternity house to steal a 1900-era giant bear costume, which is sort of dumb, but it does introduce us to Daria’s love interest Lloyd, who’s quite good as that sort of character goes.

 

Anyway, “American Horror House” gets going quickly and never really lets up. People drop like flies, after a slightly quiet start, and it all seems to the fault of ghosts, with a link of some sort to the fake House Mother (really, just their landlady, as their old house burned down) Miss Margot, played by Morgan Fairchild. She’s obviously creepy as hell, but clearly has some law-and-order repelling powers, as the only person who shows up interested in the murders and disappearances is one solitary private investigator, who’s sort of rubbish at his job. So we’ve got the ghosts murdering people, the gradually dawning awareness in Daria and Lloyd, and the large party, organised by head of the sorority Colleen (a splendid performance from Jackie Tuttle, despite her looking far too old to be a college student).

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The party is a really fun scene, with lots of well-sketched minor characters and performances, and plenty of murders too of course. It’s around here that I have to throw the brakes on recapping any more as revealing anything would give a few too many spoilers away. Suffice to say, it’s a surprisingly fun and interesting way of doing it, but I will ask one question which you can ponder throughout act 3 – why are all the ghosts evil, except that one time?

 

Sadly, there’s a couple of irrelevant subplots in there to push things to feature length – the sorority girl who paints and the psychic powers manifested by both Miss Margot and Daria (Margot says “you have the gift of sight” – er, shouldn’t that be second sight? I have the gift of sight, it’s not that special you know). Some scenes feel underwritten, like they knew what they wanted but forgot to think about the logic of it all – and, the ending is pretty bad, pulling off the sort of final reveal they do here is tricky, and some movies have managed it, but this one feels pretty weak.

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Overall, I liked it a lot. Not perfect by any stretch, but a good sense of humour, a mostly decent pace, and lots of fine performances. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but these things are a long way from being a given when it comes to SyFy. I also realised while writing this that it’s probably an attempt to cash in on the TV series “American Horror Story”, the first season of which was set in a haunted house – but I didn’t watch that and you don’t need me pretending like I did. Anyway, this is a decent movie! Give it a go!

 

Rating: thumbs up