Sharktopus (2010)

We’ve covered the latter two Sharktopus movies here at the ISCFC, and splendid fun they both were too – the second one had Conan O’Brien in it and a genuinely funny script. The first one I watched just a few months before I started writing for this fine site so I’ve never written a review of that one – oh no, I hear you cry! How will I know what to think about it? Don’t worry, dear reader, I have you covered (finally).

Probably starting with 2004’s “Dinocroc”, Corman realised he could make a nice chunk of change from portmanteau-word-based monster movies – thus, “Supergator”, “Dinocroc vs. Supergator”, and “Dinoshark”, before this opened the floodgates (and almost certainly inspired the SyFy Channel to try “Sharknado”). Right from the beginning, it’s nice to see Corman realised just how dumb this entire concept was and had fun with it, making sure director Declan O’Brien and writer Mike MacLean kept it light and silly (we’ve met O’Brien before, with “Joy Ride 3”, not remotely funny, or good either).

After plenty of illicit Santa Monica footage, we see a shark get eaten by a creature which is far bigger, tearing it apart before going after the beach-goers. It’s got a radio-control kit on its head! Chief scientist is Eric Roberts, who looks legit drunk throughout, like he was ashamed at where his career had ended up – although, to be fair, it’s got even worse since.

His daughter, scientist and sort of in charge of the whole sharktopus project, is Sara Malakul Lane, a great actor who’s sort of half-stuck in low-budget scream queen hell, as well as being in stuff like the new “Kickboxer” movies. In “women who deserved much better” news, also featured in “Sharktopus” is Shandi Finnessey, who did this, “Piranhaconda” and then pretty much quit the business. Although we’ve always known this, women are treated exceptionally poorly by Hollywood, so I hope Finnessey quit on her own terms and not because of some disgusting producer.

Anyway, we’re wandering away from the “plot”. Genetic experiment to create a sharktopus, a freak accident breaks the control gear, meaning it starts killing everything in its path. It goes to Mexico so Eric Roberts re-hires his old…tracker?…Andy Flynn (Kerem Bursin, an actor more famous in his native Turkey), who’s living down there. There’s an investigative reporter and the drunk sea captain she hires; plus a pirate radio DJ and his glamorous assistant (Finnessey). And, you know, a giant Sharktopus.

I wonder if Roger Corman ever thought, while doing this sort of stuff in the 50s and 60s, he’d still be knocking out cheap monster movies in 2010? I hope he wanted more, but…eh, 99.99% of all people in Hollywood ever would be happy with his career. He can do tightly made, reasonably entertaining with the best of them.

Unfortunately, “Sharktopus” is a title with not a lot else behind it. It’s sort of okay, and has a few laughs in it; plus, if you like model-type beautiful women, then there’s plenty of that for you too. But…it doesn’t really go anywhere? Perhaps it would have been better if Eric Roberts had stayed off the sauce for a few days of filming, or they’d had a bit more plot to go along with the central creature, or something of that sort. I don’t know. There’s just no real development. Plus, there’s one of those central bro-lationships, and I don’t buy for a second that those two men had ever met before, much less were old friends.

I feel like this particular cinematic trend has ebbed considerably in recent years, which is why maybe this feels like a curio. It’s fine, I guess, but I am beyond tired of cheap wacky-ish monster movies, and if someone demands you watch one, just pick part 2, a genuinely funny movie.

Rating: thumbs down

 

PS – I almost forgot, this is a SyFy movie! Pretty good for them, I guess, even if it did teach them all the wrong lessons.

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Living Hell (2008)

While we’re waiting for the next instalment of the “Made In STL” series, and summoning up the mental fortitude to watch another David A Prior jungle-set war epic, we always have our long-running mission to review every SyFy Channel movie ever made, and that brings us to the nicely bleak “Living Hell” (aka “Organizm”, a rather peculiar title).

A military base is being closed down so the land can be given back to the Native American people who originally lived there. No, this isn’t a comedy! This is totally a thing that the US military might do! Anyway, a team of army scientists is gradually clearing out all the old experiments and thoroughly disinfecting everything when a strange guy turns up at the front gate, asking to see the Colonel in charge. When he was a kid, his mother (who apparently worked there, although no record of her employment can be found) lost her mind, carving a message into the palms of his hands before killing her husband and then turning the gun on herself.

Having just read 80s speculative fiction classic “Blood Music” by Greg Bear, I had high hopes for this movie, but it takes a similar idea and spins it in a more traditional SyFy Channel way. Buried inside the wall of a remote sub-basement is a tank, and inside the tank is a corpse. One touch of the corpse is all we need for a super-virulent…plague?…organism?…to break out, and for all hell to break loose. It almost immediately takes over the entire base, then starts spreading out to the nearby town, where the native peoples are waiting patiently to take back their land.

It’s down to the strange guy, who it turns out is a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher called Frank (Jonathan Schaech), and one of the army’s top decontamination people, Carrie Freeborn (Erica Leehrsen), to save the world. And it’s the world, too, because this stuff spreads quickly and feeds off energy, so bombs are no good, and when dawn hits and the sun starts shining down, it’s all over for humanity. Luckily, there’s a bizarre bit of good fortune that allows them to fight back, a friendly Army guy, and so on.

There’s two ways these movies can go, as I’ve hinted at. First is, the world ends, but a few lucky survivors make it through to start the world afresh. This is about 20% of potential apocalypse movies; the other 80% is either a last-minute scientific breakthrough, or some chosen-one style nonsense (this is the latter, I guess). I like the bleak nature of it, though, as one character is prepared to sacrifice himself and even, based on his rather sad upbringing, seems okay with doing it; there’s an “Aliens” style ending as he walks back through the origin of the mega-organism to find its source and end both their existences. It aims a little higher than your average SyFy movie, is what I’m badly getting at.

It’s fairly “blah”, in all other respects, though. Effects are really cheap, and although the main two characters are strong actors, everyone else seems a little embarrassed to be there, or a little too pleased. There’s no romance element, as Carrie’s husband is one of the other army guys, and he dies quite quickly into proceedings, so there’s a slight hollowness at the centre of things too. They have a curious moment where she gets entirely naked to “protect” herself against the encroaching organism, like it was a scene left over from a previous version of the script (put the protective substance in a jar and let her apply it herself, maybe?)

Anyway, I complain when the nudity is gratuitous and when it isn’t, so perhaps I’m just bored of nudity (even in SyFy Channel movies, which leads me to believe this is a special DVD edit). But if I ever get bored of cheap special effects, bizarre plots and interesting denouements, then I’ll stop writing for the ISCFC, and I hope that day never comes. “Living Hell” is definitely in the top half of all SyFy movies, and should be enjoyed if you ever happen upon it one evening.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Heebie Jeebies (2013)

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You know a movie’s really held your interest when you have to look up its title the next day, so little has remained in your memory. The only way I could do this was via the name of its writer, one Trent Haaga, who was the face of Troma for a while (he wrote and starred in the later “Toxic Avenger” entries, as well as being the presenter of “Troma’s Edge TV”, the surprisingly decent show they put together to attempt to get them some mainstream notice). He was around at roughly the same time as James Gunn, who went on to make “Guardians Of The Galaxy”, so one could assume he’s at best not thrilled to be writing shockingly poor SyFy Channel movies.

Spirit of Vengeance. It’s one of the classic B-movie templates (along with “monster on the loose” and “nature is rebelling”) so as soon as you figure that out, you can just relax and watch the people who should get eaten, get eaten.

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This particular flavour is down to mining, way back when. A bunch of Chinese miners died due to utterly unsafe working conditions, and now a descendant of the old owner wants to re-open it and continue the search for a new seam of gold. I’m pretty sure you can guess 90% of what comes up. There’s a Chinese-American family in the town, with the two daughters wanting a different life to their strict mother; Marion Ross from “Happy Days” as an old drunk; Jennifer Rubin (“Nightmare On Elm Street 3”), who’d largely retired from acting in 2001 or so, making an odd little appearance as an extremely easily bribed mine inspector; and there’s also a member of the Belushi clan proving that acting is not a genetically transmitted talent.

I’m really going to struggle to fill up a normal-length review with discussion about this movie, as it’s so completely generic. There’s a weird scene where a bunch of people, filming the monster as it emerges from its hiding place, just wait around and get slaughtered without bothering to defend themselves, run away or any of that nonsense. There’s a nice easy to spot romance on the boil. There’s a curious gimmick (the sheriff’s deputy who suffers from panic attacks).

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So consider this time off for good behaviour. You save half the normal time of reading one of these, and definitely all the time of watching this movie. I don’t struggle for more stuff to write. We all forget that “Heebie Jeebies” ever existed and get on with our lives. Cool?

Rating: thumbs down

Killer Mountain (2011)

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None of this happens

Perhaps the side of the Atlantic I’m on has affected my enjoyment of SyFy Channel movies, or perhaps I’ve just picked a couple of really rough ones to review recently. But never fear, because we’re sticking with this ludicrous plan to review them all to the very end, and today is “Killer Mountain”.

This has what I would refer to, if I thought about it at all, as a “classic” SyFy Channel lineup. You’ve got one guy from a famous sci-fi show, Aaron Douglas (Chief Tyrol from “Battlestar Galactica”), a couple of genre TV regulars – Emmanuelle Vaugier (“Lost Girl”, dozens of others) and Andrew Airlie (“Reaper”, “Intruders”); and lots of other people you’ve never heard of, unless you’ve watched way too much Canadian TV.

And you’ve also got a classic plot – the estranged couple! Ward Donovan (Douglas) is an expert mountaineer, who’s now working as an instructor; he’s asked by eccentric billionaire Barton (Airlie) to climb a mountain, somewhere in the Bhutan / Tibet region of the world, which has been declared illegal to climb by its government, to rescue his ex-wife Kate (Vaugier), who went up there for reasons which are left a little vague at the beginning. Reference is made to Aaron Douglas not exactly looking, physically speaking, like a typical mountain climber, which I liked – not that I’m one to talk, I look like a potato with a beard – and to some ancient curse, which is the real reason the government has banned all climbing, and we’re off for “adventure”.

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It’s a welcome return for the disused boat yard which has been seen in a few other SyFy movies. Yes, I appreciate how sad it is for me to notice when they re-use sets. This is Barton’s base of operations, and they film very carefully there because it’s on relatively flat ground and if they showed the far distance, you’d quite legitimately wonder where all the mountains were. Ward gets a new team, including a few old friends and Barton’s douchebag son, who has a pair of computer goggles that can apparently track anyone, yet are never used for that purpose at any point in the movie, or for any purpose at all (but I am prepared to say I might have nodded off for a second, and missed it).

There’s also a guy flying a helicopter, who gets himself killed a little later on because he goes too high. I mentioned this in my review of “Yeti: Curse of the Snow Demon”, but helicopters have rescued people from the very summit of Everest before, and while it’s certainly dangerous to fly in air that thin, it’s do-able. If you’re a billionaire, you’re going to be able to afford the very best in helicopters, is what I’m saying. Ah, dammit, I hate getting bogged down in these dumb details, but not as much as SyFy Channel love getting these dumb details wrong.

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Turns out the real reason they’re all up there is the mystical city of Shamballa, and the fountain of youth, as Barton has incurable brain cancer. When the local army gets wind of what’s going on, they go up there too, and as our couple are re-united in one thread of plot, Barton fights off the army guys in the other. Lots of mountain-climbing footage taken from a steep hill somewhere in Canada, you know the sort of thing.

I haven’t even mentioned the monster! I was expecting a Yeti-style beast, honestly, but it’s some sort of lizard-looking thing. If you’re wondering how a decent-sized family of large carnivores have survived way up a mountain where humans have been forbidden to go for…decades?…and it’s too high up to support other large life, then you’re in about the same place as I was. The CGI is, of course, absolutely terrible.

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The more I think about it, the more I feel I missed a chunk at the end, where they actually go into Shamballa (they see it in the distance at one point, deep down in a cave) and resolve their storylines. It all feels tacked on, like they got to a certain point and went “this’ll do. Main couple are back together, bad guys are dead. Done”. Writer / director Sheldon Wilson seems like one of SyFy’s most dependable movie hands, though, having previously given us “Red: Werewolf Hunter”, “Snowmageddon”, “Mega Cyclone” and “Scarecrow” – and a recent, amazing-sounding, movie called “Shark Killer”, so that seems unlikely. Perhaps it’s just a terrible movie and no-one really cared about making it good.

Rating: thumbs down

 

PS – If there’s anyone out there who collects “movies where the star makes reference to the TV show that made them famous”, then add this to the pile. Aaron Douglas says “let’s get the frack out of here”, frack being the PG-13 space-alternative to a slightly ruder word that “Battlestar Galactica” used.

Kraken: Tentacles Of The Deep (2006)

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After a minor delay due to me emigrating, the ISCFC is back with…what’s the opposite of a bang? Our campaign to review every SyFy Channel original movie continues with a relatively star-studded entry about a creature which is 100% not the creature described in the title.

 

Okay, the creature in the title never really existed, I suppose; and some people have linked the mythological Kraken to the then-undiscovered Giant Squid, but…if you, the modern movie-goer, think of the word at all, you’re going to have a picture something like this in your mind:

THE KRAKEN CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)

And not a bloody normal (albeit grossly oversized) sea-creature. But getting annoyed about this stuff is a fool’s errand, and it’s not like it’s the worst part of the movie either. So let’s continue and talk about a cast list with one genuine future star in it, a couple of sort-of-stars, and plenty of Canadian cast-filler, those people familiar to us odd folk who watch genre TV shows filmed in Canada and little else.

 

A ways down the cast list is a young Cory Monteith, a couple of years before “Glee” would briefly make him a superstar. Had it not been for him being a pretty naff actor, and unfortunately being a drug addict, he was in a perfect position to launch a huge career for himself; sadly, he died of an overdose in 2013. Then you’ve got Victoria Pratt, who I love from “Mutant X”, and has previously been covered by us in “House of the Dead 2” and “Mongolian Death Worm”; she ought to have had a better career than she did, but she’s still out there. Charlie O’Connell has done pretty well for himself, considering he’s a less talented and attractive version of his brother; and Jack Scalia is clearly upset he never got that big break after appearances on “Dallas” and other network TV shows back in the day. Rounding things out are Canadian regulars Aleks Paunovic (“Continuum”, “iZombie”, “Arctic Air”) and Elias Toufexis (“Alphas”, “Smallville”, “Eureka”, and way more importantly for me, the voice of Adam Jensen in the last two “Deus Ex” computer games).

 

ISCFC IMPORTANT TIP: Never trust villains in movies. You know that thing when the third or fourth-billed good guy is actually selling secrets to the villains? And the villain always, always double-crosses them, or kills them, but no matter what, it never works out well for the “good guy”? But they still do it, and we still wait for them to get found out and murdered, and they always do.

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I suppose we ought to talk about the actual movie! After a cold open where a family gets murdered in “Desolation Passage” in 1982, by an enormous tentacled creature, leaving only the child to survive, we flash forward 25 years to a boat of people who are there on a sort of scientific expedition, although they just seem like treasure hunters to me. Nicole (Pratt) is after a mask which was last seen in a shipwreck in the passage, and which will prove…who cares? That all of recorded history is wrong, or something. She’s helped out by Michael (Monteith) and Jenny (Kristi Angus), who are probably students, but her captain is killed by the Kraken fairly early on, so she needs more help, and luckily into the picture comes Ray (O’Connell), the grown-up kid from 1982.

 

Add in a couple of villains, led by Maxwell (Scalia) and Ike (Paunovic), who are also looking for the treasure for almost noble purposes (doesn’t stop them from blowing up boats and murdering people, though); and an enormous amount of diving footage (which, to be fair, looks like it’s being done by the cast themselves) and you’ve got yourself a SyFy movie. The centrepiece of the shipwrecked collection is a giant opal, and every time it’s changed hands down the centuries it’s caused a massive maritime accident, and the implication is that the kraken is guarding it, although why is a question never answered.

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It’s a completely ordinary, average SyFy movie. It’s let down by two awful performances in central roles – O’Connell just can’t act, and has never been able to, and Scalia can’t decide whether he wants to be the genial villain or just a straight-up psychopath. His motivation, to get back in his family’s good graces, is also never really explained.

 

It does have a classic “Haha all our friends are dead” at the end, where the obvious final couple, despite their co-workers having been eaten by a giant sea monster or shot by a scumbag hours previously, get down to some sweet loving in the bottom of a small row-boat. That they’re waiting to be rescued, despite being an easy row from the shore, with oars, is never commented on by the movie either.

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I don’t know. I think I ought to re-evaluate my ranking system for SyFy. If you see it in the listings, will it cause you actual physical pain to watch? Or will it pass by and be pleasant enough? (Actual good SyFy movies are rare beasts indeed). So let’s re-purpose our three grades for that.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Battle Planet (2008)

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SyFy Channel has, thankfully, stopped making quite so many original movies (I think they were up to one a fortnight in 2014), so I’ve got half a chance to catch up, thus completing one of the ISCFC’s grand projects. To that end, I suggested a SyFy review to my wife, and she said “can you make it a funny one?” This, dear reader, represents my best shot, with a main actor who’s famous for one of the most beloved comedies of all time, and…well, no-one else you’ve ever heard of. But that’s par for this course!

 

That comedy actor is Zack Ward, a name you might not recognise but a face you definitely do. “A Christmas Story”, hugely beloved in the USA, features him as a young kid, playing the neighbourhood villain and doing such a great job that he gets recognised by kids who are upset with him to this day. He also starred in Uwe Boll’s “Postal”, which he had a hilarious story about – after watching the first cut of the movie, he spent an entire weekend going over it, offering suggestions of edits and alternate takes they could use, and…Boll just released that first cut, entirely unaltered. In this movie, he’s Jordan Strider, one of the heroes of the New World Alliance, a multi-species grouping that’s been at war with the Aquarians, a sea-going species (they have suits full of water for the fight scenes) for some time. He completes a tricky mission and during his commendation by the rulers of the Alliance, is given an even trickier one, to go to Terra 219 and arrest some traitors who are passing on Alliance secrets. Because they’re not sure about the atmosphere, they give him a powered suit which completely encloses him and provides for all his needs.

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But there’s a problem, in that he’s not really there to “do” anything. He’s a military experiment, to see how long a soldier can survive in the suit, entirely separated from the environment, and to take all sorts of readings from him in order to create the perfect future-soldier. The ticket is one-way, and he could theoretically die of old age inside it. He doesn’t learn this til quite a way into things, of course.

 

His only companion is the suit’s computer, which has a bit of an Iron Man vibe to it, who he picks a nice friendly female voice for. She injects him with adrenaline when he’s tired and provides food when he’s hungry, although I’m not entirely sure where it stores a lifetime’s supply of these things. Then he encounters the alien warrior Jun’Hee (Monica May), who befriends him but she’s considered an enemy of the Alliance, so they decide to send some troops down to kill them both. I didn’t really understand this, either, as she vanished from the radar some years ago…bit of a coincidence that the planet they picked for this experiment had public enemy no.1 on it.

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The extremely low budget of “Battle Planet” manifests itself in a number of ways. The makeup on Jun’Hee and her people is pretty good, but everything else isn’t, including military outfits, weapons (look like spraypainted toys), and sets – if you’ve seen one movie where they just walk through the wilderness and pretend it’s an alien planet, you’ve seen em all.

 

And the acting! Ward is fine, but everyone else is miserable, like they’ve barely ever acted before. Ward’s friend at the beginning, who might as well have “obvious villain” painted on his forehead, is just shockingly bad, the worst of the bunch, but it’s not like he’s got anything to play against. And the people you think might be good, like the voice of the suit (LA improv comedian / puppeteer Colleen Smith) are terribly badly served by the script.

 

Why make up an elaborate plan to get rid of their best soldier? What does, say, 50 years of data give you that a month wouldn’t? What sort of war requires soldiers to stay inside completely sealed suits for the entirety of their natural lives? It’s quite an art-house concept for a sci-fi movie (even more so for a SyFy movie) but it feels like they dreamed it up but couldn’t think of a good reason why a guy would be required to spend his entire life trapped in a suit. Or perhaps they were going to do a version of the Iain M Banks short story “Descendant”, which also features a man trapped in a suit on an alien world, but they were refused permission and had to jury-rig what they could. Or maybe they were going to make a TV-movie sequel to “Enemy Mine” but didn’t get the rights to that either. Ah, who knows?

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The tone doesn’t help proceedings, flipping from fairly broad comedy to hard sci-fi to a sort of Shakespearean tragedy by the end. The ending could have been beautiful, too, but it didn’t feel earned. None of it did. I kept wondering if I was watching a particularly confusing edit, or the second half of a mini-series, but apparently not. A bunch of interesting ideas desperately looking for a coherent narrative to put themselves in.

 

Rating: thumbs down

Jack Hunter And The Lost Treasure Of Ugarit (2008)

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Welcome back to our SyFy Channel reviews, after a few weeks of odds and ends. This is classed as a mini-series in some places, but there are three parts, they all have different titles, they’re all feature length and it’s not like quality, lack of proper endings and so on, has ever stopped us reviewing stuff before!

 

There’s a moment, about 20 minutes in, where our hero Jack Hunter walks out of Damascus airport, and he’s dressed like he’s about to do some Indiana Jones cosplay, where I got a bit annoyed with SyFy Channel. Imagine you’re a fan of Dr Jones, and you see a picture of Ivan Sergei as Jack Hunter, with a title supposed to bring the more famous film series to light. The only possible response is “well, this’ll be a cheap ripoff, probably won’t bother watching it”! I’m prepared to admit there are other stories to be told about heroic male archaeologists / treasure hunters, but do they all have to wear the fedora / khaki gear combo? It’s one of the reasons I like the computer game “Uncharted” so much (which, by the way, would make a fantastic film series), that lead guy Nathan Drake doesn’t stick to the Indiana Jones dress code.

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The most important word from that previous paragraph was “Damascus”, as the first of the Jack Hunter movies takes place in beautiful friendly Syria. It’s extremely weird, just 8 years on, to see pictures of President Assad everywhere and realise that, at the time, he was sort of okay in the West’s eyes. At times, it operates as a tourist information video for the country, as the beautiful rock formations in the North of the country are given prominence, with the characters staring open-mouthed in amazement at them; also, every local they meet is incredibly friendly. Now, this is fair enough – you could be forgiven for not realising how bad Syria was in 2008. But think about “The Interview”, the Seth Rogen / James Franco film where China is treated as paradise on Earth, despite everyone knowing just how poorly the regime treats its citizens, and how it’s a far greater threat to world peace than North Korea. Or “Red Dawn”, where the Chinese invasion force was digitally altered to be North Korean after filming had finished, because they didn’t want to upset the Chinese. “Jack Hunter and the Lost Treasure Of Ugarit” is very small beer in comparison.

 

The plot is entirely standard, in every other respect – a mysterious clue stolen from a museum, an evil gang of treasure hunters following our heroes every step of the way, dozens of red herrings about who’s really in on it, exotic locations, a special artefact, fights, colourful locals; you know the score.

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ISCFC FAVOURITE THING: the exposition lecture! We’ve talked about this before, but if you ever see a college lecture in a movie, it’s guaranteed to be pitched at an embarrassingly easy level, and to give the viewers a background on what’s going to happen later. It’s not limited to low-budget movies, either, as it’s literally the only reason to have this sort of scene (minor qualifier: erotic thrillers where a student becomes obsessed with a teacher). Imagine being halfway through a random Archaeology degree and your professor starts talking about some dumb myth, saying “no-one knows if it’s true or not”. You’d riot!

 

SyFy Channel did well with the casting, though. Ivan Sergei is a solid leading man, but far better is Joanne Kelly (from “Warehouse 13”, among many others) as Nadia Ramadan, a representative of the Syrian government who thaws to Hunter very quickly. If you’re thinking that Joanne Kelly is Canadian, probably with Irish ancestry, and doesn’t exactly look like your mental image of a Middle Eastern woman, then you’re at the same spot as me. She doesn’t even bother doing the accent, saying she was brought up in the US, but there’s times when she’s talking to other Syrians and just speaks English – was she a last minute replacement? Anyway, Kelly is great, even if her range is a bit limited, as she’s basically the same character as she was in “Warehouse 13” – the combination of awkward physicality and a powerful sense of feminism. Or perhaps that’s just how she is and she doesn’t act at all. Who knows? Add in a fine scenery-chewing villain turn from Thure Reifenstein and you have a movie.

Crucial to the plot, one would imagine

Crucial to the plot, one would imagine

Well, you have part 1 of a 3-part miniseries. And you know what? Part 1 has me actually looking forward to 2 and 3, which is a great deal more than most, say, slasher film part 1s can manage. I’m not sure there’s three full reviews worth of things to say, but I’ll put this up and I might just edit any thoughts on the rest of the mini-series in later.

 

Rating: thumbs up

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Man With The Screaming Brain (2005)

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Our mini-season of SyFy reviews concludes with Bruce Campbell’s directorial debut. It’s as unlike a normal one of their efforts as it’s possible to get, and after the hyper-generic “Ice Quake”, that’s refreshingat least. Whether refreshing = good is a conundrum the next 800-1000 words will unlock for you!

 

Campbell wrote “Man With The Screaming Brain” some years ago, and set it in LA, but when SyFy got on board, they suggested Bulgaria as it was cheaper to film there. Well, by “suggested”, I mean said ”film it where it’s cheap or we’re out”. So Bulgaria is the location where stereotypical ugly American William Cole (Campbell), the CEO of a drug / research company, has decided to take advantage of some juicy investment opportunities. He and his wife seem to hate each other, and she immediately falls for their taxi driver – who they pick because he’s the only one who can speak English – Yegor (Vladimir Kolev, “Dungeons and Dragons: The Book Of Vile Darkness”). He mocks Cole when they first meet, and as he’s quickly shtupping Mrs Cole in the back of his taxi, there’s clearly something less than respect there. But we don’t really get time to drink this in. There’s a lot of stuff in this movie!

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Tatoya (Tamara Gorski) is a woman with a confusing backstory and motivation, a problem she shares with every other character. She kills her boyfriend when he decides to dump her, then steals some stuff from Campbell, then when he confronts her, kills him with a lead pipe, and shoots Yegor, who was coming to help. An impressive amount of work for the first half-hour, I’m sure you’ll agree.

 

This leads to the last spoke of the movie, the mad scientist and his assistant Pavel. Ted Raimi, friend of Campbell’s since childhood, starts at OTT and just keeps dialing it up as Pavel, and Stacy “what the hell is he doing here?” Keach is Dr. Ivanov, who’s invented a serum that allows part of one person’s brain to be transplanted into another person’s brain, to heal damaged areas and so on. If only he had a couple of recently killed people, one of whom had a head injury, to test his invention on! That he tried to interest Cole in his invention before is what counts for irony in a movie as bonkers as this.

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Anyway, the majority of proceedings is incredibly tiring slapstick, as Cole, with Yegor riding shotgun in his brain, with one of them sort of in control of one half of the body, the other the other, trying to track down and stop the woman who killed them both. Campbell gives it his all, but he must have realised this was pretty weak sauce compared to the stuff he used to do with Sam Raimi (and they really try to remind you of those movies with some of the physicality). They seem like a pair of friends who are mildly annoyed with each other, rather than strangers who met ten minutes ago.

 

His wife, unhappy with her husband and happy to turn off his life support, then finds Tatoya (lord knows how she knew where she lived) and tries to kill her. You think she’d be thanking her? But of course Tatoya kills her too, and this allows Ivanov to put her brain in a robot’s body and all the wackiness that ensues from a crap immobile robot wandering about. There’s little worse than unfunny comedy, because when the jokes fail you’ve got nothing to fall back on.

 

I’ve perhaps been overly unkind to it. There’s a weirdly prescient reference to “Donald Trump” when discussing the worst excesses of Americans; there’s some real and completely unvarnished Bulgarian locations, very much unlike anything you’ve seen of Europe in most movies; and the casual attitude of Raimi and Campbell to deaths all around them is pretty funny too.

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That above paragraph is, as I’m sure you noticed, pretty much the definition of damning with faint praise. Campbell clearly recognises where comedy should go in a movie, but he seems unable to provide it, giving us sections that in another pair of hands might have us creasing up with laughter but here just leave you, full of goodwill for his amazing career, just short of smiling. He’s not much of a director, which might be why he and Sam Raimi divided up the jobs the way they did back in 1980. And if I had to guess, I’d say he let Ted Raimi write his own dialogue, and he’s even less funny than Campbell is. He obviously loves old B-movies the same way I love them, and peppers the movie with references and plot devices from them, but…well, a lot of them sucked, too.

 

The thing is…there’s no reason for any of this stuff to happen. It feels like Campbell had an idea after watching “The Man With Two Brains”, wrote a bunch of slapstick but then couldn’t really be bothered with the rest of it. There’s a long list of “why is this happening?” questions you’ll ask yourself as things go on, and none of them will be answered.

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If you want to feel embarrassed for these folks, listen to the end credits, where Raimi gives us a rap song, in character, about how he’s stealing bodies and doing brain surgery. As much as I love songs written from the perspective of the people in the movie, or performed in character, this is miserable. Then I remembered the other passion project “My Name Is Bruce” that you’d expect to be hilarious but was actually, much like this, all sound and fury signifying nothing, and thought perhaps this is as good as we can expect?

 

Rating: Thumbs down