Tales Of Halloween (2015)

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Nothing says late March like a Halloween movie! We have the enormous good will built up by Mike Mendez with “Big Ass Spider!” and “Lavalantula” to thank for us watching this movie – he directed one of the segments in this, which is our first proper portmanteau / horror anthology movie. I mean, we suffered through “Red Lips: Eat The Living”, but that doesn’t count because it was so terrible it made me want to invent a time machine so I could go back and stop all movies from being made, ever.

 

Anyway, producer Axelle Carolyn had the idea, so she assembled a decent crew of actors and directors – most prominently Neil Marshall, but he is married to her so it was probably an easy “get”. Ten different stories, billed as “interlocking” but not really (it’s not much more than the star of one segment being in the background of another), are they any good?

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I’m not going to list the ten stories, because you could just go to Wikipedia for that stuff. Also, I’ve just looked at it myself, 24 hours later, and I can’t remember one of the segments. It must have really been no good! Anyway, the first is “Sweet Tooth”, about a neighbourhood legend of a kid who had his candy stolen by his parents, so killed them and turned into a monster, who must be appeased every Halloween with the gift of candy outside your door. This is the segment which features the return of Greg Grunberg and Clare Kramer as their characters from “Big Ass Spider!”, and…I wish they’d not bothered, for their 20 seconds on screen and the exceedingly miserable “end” to their story.

 

The only good segments were the ones that had a beginning, middle and end, non-coincidentally enough: “Ding Dong” (about a man discovering the evil witch spirit that lives in his wife); “The Ransom Of Rusty Rex” (a couple of criminals kidnap a millionaire’s son, only to discover he’s a bit different); and the last, Marshall-directed segment, “Bad Seed”, about a killer pumpkin. The others were little more than fragments, really.

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Think of the classic horror anthology movies – “Creepshow”, “Dead Of Night”, “Tales From The Crypt” and “Cat’s Eye”, for instance. What did they all have in common? Well, they didn’t have ten segments, for one thing. Five stories seems like a limit (and most of them have only three or four), because when you’re getting into the single figures of minutes for your story, something serious is going to have to be jettisoned, and with most of the stories from “Tales Of Halloween”, that something is the endings. And the “why is this happening?” parts.

 

I feel bad being down on this. It looks great with strong special effects, and I like the cast (as well as Grunberg and Kramer, there’s Barry Bostwick as the devil, standup Dana Gould, Lin Shaye, Joe Dante and John Landis). It just seems like a pointless experiment, and answers that critical question “can you make an effective horror short film that lasts five minutes?” with a definitive “no”. One of the more positive reviews talks about the “EC Comics” attitude, but with their stories, you always knew why the characters were getting the punishment they got, but this asks you to fill in too many blanks. Oh, and the one movie based explicitly on EC stories – “Tales From The Crypt” – had five segments and gave them all chance to breathe.

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Rating: thumbs in the middle

 

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Big Ass Spider! (2013)

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First up, thanks to reader and fellow movie blogger newguy87 for suggesting this – I saw posters for it when it first came out, but for some reason I decided to ignore them. The name didn’t intrigue me enough, maybe? But I’m here to tell you I was a fool, this film is absolutely fantastic and you should all go and watch it immediately, if not sooner.

 

It’s a welcome (and immediate) return for the director of “Lavalantula”, Mike Mendez. After debuting with “Killers” in 1997, he’s been busier as an editor for TV and movies, but has directed from time to time – plus, he’s got three movies in post-production right now, and I hope they bring him back for the sequel to last year’s Steve Guttenberg classic, so he’s doing okay. It’s also a welcome return for star Greg Grunberg, who we loved in “End Of The World” (he was in “Witchcraft 5” as well, but we won’t hold that against him).

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How to sum up such a movie? Grunberg is Alex Mathis, an exterminator (we first see him helping out little old lady Lin Shaye) and after getting a bite from a brown recluse spider, has to go to hospital. Somewhat unlucky in love, he hits on the nurse but she turns him down; at the same time a bodybag in the morgue starts moving, and out pops a very big spider. It bites the mortuary attendant, so the hospital administrator asks Alex to go and exterminate it, and sends security guard Jose (Lombardo Boyar) to help him out.

 

Nice and simple, characters sketched out well, and then it suddenly expands its universe by bringing in the Army, in the shape of Major Tanner (the great Ray Wise), Lt Karly Brant (Clare Kramer) and their unusual scientific adviser Dr Lucas (Patrick Bauchau). Turns out the hospital should have never received the bodybag, and the spider is a result of experiments with alien DNA! Are you on board yet? So, they chase it through the hospital, Alex and Karly do a bit of mild flirting, but the spider grows extremely quickly, eats (a lot) and soon decides to head downtown – I am happy to report “Big Ass Spider!” does not skimp on its premise.

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I really have absolutely nothing negative to say about this movie. It starts off with a beautifully edited little sequence, set to a slowed-down cover of “Where Is My Mind?” by Pixies, and does my least favourite trope, “12 hours earlier”, but I can’t even fault it for that. It hides its presumed very low budget well, keeping action inside the hospital for the first act, which gives them more money to spend on the giant spider effect, which looks really good, and the spider-acid eating peoples’ faces effect, also good. The chemistry between the main characters is great, with Grunberg a great lead, both comic and romantic. There’s no stereotypical bad guy either…I’m completely at a loss. I don’t normally get to review movies I enjoy this much!

 

A lot of the dialogue was based on improvisations, apparently – Grunberg and Boyar got on like a house on fire and came up with many funny interactions for their characters; same with Grunberg and Kramer. Proper comic monster movies are difficult to pull off, almost always falling more on one side than the other (and usually neither being all that funny or all that exciting), but this one absolutely nails both. We’re talking “Tremors” and “Slither” territory here – although “Big Ass Spider!” is a bit lower budget than either.

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A quick word about monster movies and sexual politics – long term readers (or just people who know me and have to hear me bang on about this stuff in real life) will know that I’m very tired of movies which just crowbar in nudity, or have men ignore a “No” from the main love interest and go to psychotic lengths to win her over, with sex used as a reward for being good at your job. While there’s a brief scene of young women playing beach volleyball, it’s very brief, and the main women manage to dress appropriately for their job and the situation. Amazing, I know! Plus, the central relationship is more believable because it doesn’t start from rejection, and the attraction is there on both sides. Okay, Alex puts himself in danger because he wants to kiss Karly, but…people do dumb stuff to impress other people from time to time; and we see him accept a “No” immediately, at the beginning of the movie from the nurse character, and move on. It’s little stuff, but having respect for all your characters works.

 

Turns out these reviews are pretty short when I don’t have to mock the actors, director, special effects, or the plot, so there you go. If it’s available via the streaming service of your choice, you should definitely check this out.

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Rating: thumbs up

End Of The World (2013)

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I had a dream the other day where the Asylum launched a series of films where comedians would insert themselves, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” style, into their back catalogue. Imagine “Transmorphers” with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk tagging along behind the human soldiers! Anyway, this film isn’t quite that, but it’s a great idea and it’s loads of fun.

Greg Grunberg (“Heroes”, “Alias”) is Owen, the owner of a video shop specialising in disaster movies, and his primary employee is Steve (Neil Grayston, “Eureka”). The two of them spend too much time talking movies, planning for various apocalypses, so Owen’s girlfriend Selena (Caroline Cave) is about ready to dump him. That is, of course, until an actual apocalypse swings into view! Balls of electricity or energy caused by something or other in the outer solar system.

From the off, there’s a decent sense of humour running through this. The video shop (already an anachronism in 2013, unless it spent a lot of years sat on the shelf) is primarily stocked with…SyFy Channel original movies! The posters on the wall feature several films we’ve already reviewed for this site (including one of the “Project Shadowchaser” films, which I loved), and they reference several others in dialogue. It’s such a simple idea that I’m surprised it’s taken them this long to come up with it. Brad Dourif, as a scientist / filmmaker of some sort who knows everything about disaster preparedness, is a welcome addition to the cast as well, and has a rather excellent sendoff.

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We do get quite a lot of the typical SyFy Channel things, though, just to let us know where we are. The cast gets split up and spends the majority of the film apart, presumably to save money; a couple of the cast are perfectly qualified to fight the exact problem that’s come up; and people remain skeptical about what’s going on long past the point when it’s sensible to do so.

The other typical thing we get – a nuclear weapon being the answer to the problem – leads into the subject of an impassioned speech at the end. Owen and Steve communicate, like so many geek-culture-obsessed friends, in shorthand based on their favourite films, so the big fiery comeback speech near the end is lifted from three or four different genre films. A nice touch, and a sort of friendship that nearly always gets messed up by movies. Then, when they’ve been captured by the Army (after trying to get their help to launch a nuke to save the world, naturally), they launch into a speech about how watching disaster movies has prepared them for all this, how embracing these films has made them better people and how there’s lots of useful knowledge in these movies. That they undercut this with a joke about how it’s almost always nukes that save the day is a nice touch too.

So, lots of positivity about this film. A strong sense of humour (even if I don’t think it was quite funny enough), and a well-acted, good-looking disaster movie on top of it. It’s not perfect, of course – for a film that feels so packed with incident, there’s a fair chunk of filler towards the end – but it’s a positive way of becoming self-aware, the other route being a straight-faced take on ridiculous monsters, Robo-sharks and so on.

If this pops up on SyFy, I’d definitely recommend it. Not a single trigger for my “lazy sexism in movies” alarm – a strong woman, in charge of her life, good and useful job, kicks ass and remains fully clothed. Admittedly, only one female in the main cast, but we need to take what we can get.

Rating: thumbs up