Monday, December 1, 2008

Into The Woods

A while back in my review of Toxic Zombies, I professed a weakness for backwoods horror films. Films that can easily be described as such have a few common symptoms; low-budgets, sets that scream "we shot where we wouldn't get caught", actors who are clearly just friends of the director, one make-up effect repeated many times over, and a lot of unintentional humour. Depending on your mood, these films can be a blast or they can simply bore you right into third cycle REM sleep. I'm about to go on something of a rant, so let me preface by saying that, despite appearances, I do love these films. The Evil Dead has yet to be surpassed as the backwoods' film's reining champion, but there are many other fine ones. If I didn't love these films, could I have sat through all of Don't Go Into The Woods....Alone or I Drink Your Blood. If I didn't love backwoods horror films, would I have watched The Children, having recently seen Garden of the Dead? No. Sometimes I wish I didn't love backwoods horror films so much.

Garden of the Dead
by John Hayes
Garden of the Dead looks a lot like I Drink Your Blood made for a third of the budget of that film. It also makes Zombie Aftermath look like I Am Legend where budget, professionalism, and ambition are concerned. The plot, when you can tell what's going on is this: all but a few prisoners in a tiny, backwoods prison have two things on their mind. The first, reasonably enough, is escape. The second is getting high by inhaling the fumes from the pesticide they've been given to tend garden as part of their rehabilitation. Wouldn't you just guess that the two are going to mix with calamitous results. Sometimes watching a zombie film is like watching Wile E. Coyote get up to it again with his big box of Acme products; everyone who's seen but one episode knows that there's only one place he's going, and it's the bottom of that cliff, followed by a minute puff of smoke. And so the prisoners stage the least successful prison break in history and most of them are shot and killed. Do they stay dead? No, and they've got blue face paint to prove it.

If you want to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, either make the perfect zombie movie or don't go near zombies. Stay the hell away from zombies! Don't touch zombies if you're being threatened with a machete! John Hayes makes a case here for himself as the director to make as little use of a field full of zombies as possible. When you have one zombie, as many directors found themselves with in the 40s and 50s, restraint could work for you. When you have a chain gang's worth of them, don't spend half of the movie getting to their arrival, and then get coy. Most profound among this film's missteps is the zombie behavior. For the most part they run in and out of the frame swinging tools around in an effort to...I don't know, be scary and kill people, I guess, but they only halfway achieve the latter effect. All it ever really looks like is a bunch of guys in denim jumpsuits prancing around in near darkness. I guess it makes sense that we see so little of the zombies, as they aren't even close to frightening. They don't even come close to not being an embarassment. But still, that's no excuse to sidetrack into the story of the prisoner who has to earn the warden's respect, or the prisoner with the floozy wife. Not when the movie's not even an hour long. Did I mention that?

Garden of the Dead comes with a good deal more head-slapping moments than your average American zombie movie. First of all, the film is so poorly lit it's impossible to tell what's going on for a lot of the film's conclusion. And the fact that John Hayes set the camera up a hundred feet from all the action doesn't help at all. Then there are moments like when the guards come up with the zombie solution involving a nuclear garden light or some nonsense. Our heroes try to run from the main guard house to the barn, for reasons no one bothers to explain, and have to stay in the beam of said light. With these things established, you'd expect some running, right? Well they get halfway between the house and the barn and just watch as the zombies keep trying to stick their hands in and out of the beam. No one moves a goddamned INCH until the light burns out! Not foolish enough for you? How about the ending where the zombies confess that all they want is that prisoner's floozy wife? That's what I thought. So, if you're ever so bored you might hang yourself and literally every other movie on netflix is engaged, prepare yourself for 58 minutes of sheer, unbridled mediocrity! And the saddest part is that clearly someone thought highly of this because the same plot showed up in no less than two other zombie movies over the course of the following decade. Tell me it's a coincidence that both Mutant and Grapes of Death follow rugged losers fighting pesticide-driven zombies!
The reason perhaps that this movie is so outstandingly bad is that it was produced by Troma. I hate Troma. Troma is the production house responsible for trash like The Toxic Avenger and Redneck Zombies, and if I had known that to watch Garden of the Dead I would have to sit through half a fucking hour of executive producer Lloyd Kaufman acting like a shithead during the introduction, I'd have snapped the disc in half and sent that little red envelope right to his house. Troma has what has to be the least success of any production company given their massive body of work. While I'm on the subject, let's take a look at some of their other fare, shall we?

by Chad Ferrin

Are you fucking kidding me? A guy in a black, Matrix-y coat goes on a killing spree cause his daughter dies and...KILL ME! I watched Unspeakable because it was on the same disc as Garden of the Dead and because my netflix envelope told me there would be zombies. This movie, shot on video for saturday's allowance, looks like Boondocks Saints if Troy Duffy's friends and associates had actually abandoned his selfish, southie ass when Harvey Weinstein did and he was forced to make it himself for no money. This is the worst kind of dime horror there is. It doesn't look like Chad Ferrin cared in the least how his movie came out.

Want something a little more lucid? Let's see what else Lloyd Kaufman sank his money into.

by Norman T. Vane
That poster is literally cooler and scarier than the movie it advertises, a trend I'm beginning to pick up on in horror marketing in the 1970s (see Garden's poster above). Not be confused with Pete Walker's film of the same name about a woman who inherits canibalism from her mother. In this one, an aging horror star murders his director in a Giallo-inspired opening, then some reprehensible film students break into his tomb, steal his body, start dancing with it and...oh, sorry, I fell asleep and my head landed on the fast forward button. That was easy. What could have been a decent movie mires in a full half hour of these college kids wining and dining a corpse with classical music playing. No one feels remorse, no one says "hey, we're going to jail and then hell," and no one has any qualms about leaving the man's body in the attic of their frat house. Frat house? Yeah, that's a frat house those SIX FILM STUDENTS are living in. I think their greek letters are Pi Delta Never Gonna Get Laid. This movie, whose plot is a mishmash of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, Theatre Of Blood, and any black-gloved killer movie, is so confused that it hardly matters when the first body gets hacked up well into the second act. Does anyone care why this guy pretended to be dead? Not when his only victims are even more obnoxious than he is. Not a zombie film, not even a half-decent film. Anyway, back to the original point of this review: backwoods horror. So, what's fun is when good ideas make their way into tiny productions, even if they are somewhat poorly executed. Take the main effects used in our next film.

The Children
by Max Kalmanowicz

A school bus carrying five children drives into a cloud of nuclear gas after two careless plant workers shirk their last minute screw-tightening in favor of getting a beer. The sheriff, our dusty protagonist for the evening, spies the school bus, notices that no one's inside, and goes to inform the nearest parent of one of the missing kids. She goes to investigate and when she finds her son, she hugs her boy out of relief, only to have his fingers reduce her to a smoldering, melty corpse. This pattern continues until the only people left in town are the father and pregnant mother of one of the other spooky children and the clueless Sheriff. The Children could have been much better than it is, but I guess I'll settle because of a few points. The first is in its simplicity. The plot is a great one, and the idea that the only thing that changes are your fingernails is not bad, but it looks pretty amateurish and stupid on film. The black talons i was promised by the synopsis would have been cooler, but what can you do? Kalmanowicz clearly had no money. What he did have was a pretty decent melting corpse effect. Or anyway he thought so, cause it shows up every few minutes. As the saying goes "we spent money on this, we're gonna film it!"
The Children has more shortcomings than it does points in its favor, but, I like the idea that all this bedlam goes down because two guys went to lunch when they weren't supposed to. I live near a lot of vaguely named factories and that's one of my bigger fears. Screenwriters Carlton Albright and Edward Terry know about small-town fears well enough as they seem to harp on everyone that I can think of. When you only know a few things and they all turn on you, that has the potential to be pretty terrifying. Like The Evil Dead, this film has a few jump-scare moments; the ending is a good one, even though you'll see it coming the second the character it concerns is introduced. I was embarrassed to still find it scary, but, I guess its to The Children's credit and I'm glad that I can still get scared by something, no matter how simple. You don't need a budget to frighten people and this little movie makes a showing of itself in that regard, even if it does get kinda silly. Still the yokel 'actors' do a decent enough job and the children are suitably creepy when they need to be. Is it just me or have my standards hit rock bottom? I have to go watch the new Gus Van Sant film now and cleanse myself of low-budget trash for awhile. I'll be back soon enough, though.

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