Thursday, April 26, 2018


Downrange (2017 premier, but 2018 for non-festival-goers)
Dir. Ryûhei Kitamura
Written by Joey O’Bryan, story by Ryûhei Kitamura and Joey O’Bryan
Starring Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez, Anthony Kirlew

            As they’re driving down a bucolic country highway, a group of those damn college kids pop a tire and roll to a stop. The girls pile out, chit-chat, and relax on the car’s shady side while the guys nervously eye the flat tire, poke at it, agree that, yup, that’s definitely a flat tire that needs to be fixed, all right. The spare doesn’t look great and they idly discuss whether to divert to get a new tire, which Jodi (Kelly Connaire, THE END OF THE TOUR [uncredited]) would rather not do, since she’s on her way to a surprise birthday party for her sister. While the new tire is leisurely installed, they make fun of social science majors, take bathroom breaks in the woods, discuss whether or not the hunky guy whose name no one can quite recall (Jason Tobias, apparently set to play hunky Jesus in the upcoming THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST [!]) is flirting with Jodi, post pictures on beloved utilitarian social media app “Socialize” and attempt to amuse themselves while they wait.

            And the longer they dawdle, the more unbearable the tension becomes, because the characters naively do not realize something that the audience knows only too well: they’re in a horror movie called DOWNRANGE. This idyllic afternoon is about to take a sudden and highly unfortunate turn for them.

            It’s almost a relief, then, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they find themselves under lethal sniper fire from a hidden gunman somewhere in the surrounding countryside. They can’t drive away because of the tire, but the bullets cannot pierce the mighty hide of the imposing SUV (the gunman must be using an older rifle, speculates “army brat [from a], hunting family” and good final girl prospect “Keren” [sic] [Stephanie Pearson, 14-year-old Michelle Monaghan in KISS KISS BANG BANG]), leaving the survivors stuck -- unable to run without becoming targets, but temporarily protected while crouching behind the vehicle. And of course their cell phones get no signal.

            This, then, is to be one of those survival-thrillers I spoke about so unethusiastically in my review for THE RUINS, where a small group gets stuck in a dangerous situation from which they can’t escape, and must endure a crucible of suffering to survive and get out alive (or not). These films seem to be something of a recent phenomenon; I first noticed the trend with 2010’s FROZEN (not the “Let it Go” one, the “Stuck on a ski-lift” thriller from HATCHET director Adam Green), but there’s also BURIED, HIGH LANE, THE CANYON (not the Lindsay Lohan/Paul Schrader debacle, but a 2009 lost-hikers deal), BACKCOUNTRY, BLACK WATER, the upcoming THE WELL, and an ever-increasing number of shark movies (OPEN WATER, OPEN WATER 2, THE SHALLOWS, 47 METERS DOWN, THE REEF). You might even make a case for 127 HOURS. As I pointed out with THE RUINS, these movies tend to be tense, and sometimes downright grueling, which are definitely elements of a horror movie, but something about the essential problem-solving nature of the conflict seems to undermine the most fundamental essence of the horror genre. These are films about being helpless, about a spiraling loss of control, which, at least to me, instills the experience with a fatalism which is more disspiriting than terrifying. It’s the difference between the visceral fight-or-flight adrenaline rush of a slasher movie and the punishing slog of a torture movie. Both subgenres find colorful villains imaginatively mutilating pretty young women, but the mechanics of the conflict --and, consequently, the horror-- are so different that they’re nearly antithetical.

            Fortunately, DOWNRANGE has two significant advantages not usually enjoyed by this genre, which make it much more my pace. First, the danger menacing these kids is not some faceless, irresistible natural force; somewhere out there is a villain, someone who can be fought, and, just maybe --if they’re clever enough-- beaten. That adds a galvanizing personal element to the usual formula, focuses the danger into a single malevolent antagonist. You can’t really hate hungry sharks or cold weather, but when the danger takes the shape of a single, discreet adversary (however obscure), we have an object on which to focus our anxiety and our rage at being made helpless and vulnerable. That helps immensely, --at least in my book-- to solidly locate the film’s narrative and emotional landscape into a distinctly horror mode.

            That’s all well and good, but plenty of total pieces of crap have clear antagonists. Fortunately, DOWNRANGE has a second major advantage: it’s directed by AZUMI, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, NO ONE LIVES and MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN director and certifiable madman Ryûhei Kitamura --the man who once knocked Ted Raimi’seyeballs out of their sockets directly into the camera in slow motion*-- who is constitutionally incapable of not being outrageous and entertaining. He’s on his best behavior here, mostly yielding to the script’s insistence on tense, gritty realism (it's written by Joey O’Bryan, co-writer of Kitamura’s LUPIN THE 3rd and Johnnie’s To’s FULLTIME KILLER), but you know you’re in good hands early on when Kitamura is unable to resist zooming the camera into a gaping bullet wound, through someone’s skull, and out the other side. That kind of irrepressible exuberance is absolutely crucial to the film’s careful balance of tones, livening a scenario which could very easily slide into gloomy misery-porn. The situation is dire, certainly, but the films never gets dour; it stays focused and nearly fanatical about insisting upon a new wrinkle every few minutes which subtly inches the story forward and the tension higher. Grueling it may be, but it’s never a grind.

            It’s clearly Kitamura’s intent to keep this one grounded and plausible, banking on the victims’ vulnerability and the could-have-happened-to-anyone paranoia of the scenario. Most of the action scenes center around small-scale, practical efforts (pulling open a car door to grab a bottle of water, using an improvised dummy to distract their tormentor) that draw their impact from clean, clear execution and effectively communicated stakes. But even restrained Kitamura is still Kitamura, and every now and then, he simply cannot suppress the urge to indulge in some kind of over-the-top tick. That serves him well with the violence, which is lavish, squishy and lingered upon with the kind of pornographic joy that only a true horror director could summon.*** It serves him less well when he gets into showy frenetic editing, or kinetic camera chicanery. There is one POV shot from a rotating tire nut which is worthy of Scott Spiegel --and obviously I mean that as a high compliment-- but also some whooshy drone stuff and choppy wham-bang editing (by Shôhei Kitajima, second editor on LUPIN THE 3rd) which seems unnecessarily insecure about the film’s ample ability to maintain excitement in its microcosmic single setting. It has a whiff of desperation about it -- at its worst, it smacks of the kind of flop-sweat editing kineticism you’d see in a low-effort DTV Steven Seagal money grab, to paper over how little action there is-- which is a shame, because DOWNRANGE is anything but lacking in whammy. There’s not much of that kind of tomfoolery, and it’s certainly not too dire even when it happens, but it’s a noisy distraction from a movie which is mostly tightly controlled, and a good example of how Kitamura’s kitchen-sink ebullience can get in its own way. Case in point: his worst instinct of all is to show the killer. If you’re going to commit to the single-location, boxed-in concept, it’s folly of the worst kind to leave your characters’ perspective and reveal to the audience something they can only wonder about, and even more dire folly to do it for so little meaningful payoff (the killer is just some guy, it’s not like he’s a bigfoot or a giant spider or something that we’d be glad to get a look at).

Never one to worry about overreaching, Kitamura also adds to the pot a few gestures towards poignant human drama, with lulls in the savage assault filled with some quieter existential reflection. I tend to favor embracing the inherent absurdity of a good horror premise, but can also appreciate some genre fare done up as earnest character drama (THE MONSTER, SPRING) given the right execution. DOWNRANGE walks the tightrope between those poles, at times seeming to really commit to the idea that this is a heart-wrenching drama, at times giving in to pure splatterhouse glee. It’s a tough dance to get right, and for my money it stumbles just a few times into maudlin melodrama it can’t possibly support. Though the actors commit to it with a laudable sincerity, the film simply isn’t built to handle lachrymose soul-searching; we need to care about these characters enough that we root for them and fear that they’ll come to harm (which the movie handily accomplishes) but this is a machine build for ratcheting up tension, not morose eulogizing. Its brief forays into earnest pathos are well-enough executed, but are too tangential to have the kind of emotional impact that would justify them, and moreover they sit uneasily with the film’s impulses towards anarchic, irresponsible provocation.

Fortunately, it mostly eschews this kind of hubris; in fact, considering everything it attempts, it’s almost miraculous in its ability to thread the needle between serious, focused tension and occasional moments of over-the-top flamboyant grand guignol spiked with pitch-black gallows humor (particularly in the climax, wherein the devil on Kitamura’s shoulder clearly wins the day and allows him to give in to pure horror movie zeal). It’s not always elegant, but it gets the job done, managing to expound a minimalist scenario into something thrilling, visceral, and wholly absorbing. If it’s not always immaculately tuned to the right tone, it compensates with the gusto it applies, and that’s certainly a trade I’m more than willing to approve.

DOWNRANGE opens 4/26 (that’s today!) in select theaters, including NYC’s Nitehawk Cinema, where the director will be in attendance this weekend. For the rest of us slobs, it starts streaming on the horror streaming service Shudder which it’s probably time to start subscribing to.

* And then another victim slips on the eyeball, and then there’s a decapitation from the severed head’s POV! If I could identify the single most heartbreaking tragedy of the entire modern horror era, surely it is that this scene was not shot in 3D.

** Or, OK, you can, but then it’s GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, and you’ll probably want to lie down and moan for a while afterwards.

*** At one point, I noticed a severed head demurely lying on the bloody ground in a wide shot, whose original owner I could not identify with any degree of confidence. That alone would be sufficient to make this movie an easy one to recommend.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Dead Pit

The Dead Pit (1989)
Dir. Brett Leonard
Written by Brett Leonard, Gimel Everett
Starring Jeremy Slate, Cheryl Lawson, Stephen Gregory Foster

            In recent years I’ve become rather inured to the self-destructive futility of routinely (well, a few times a month, anyway) grinding out 5000+ words about some godforsaken 80’s video cheapie I watched on youtube and have already mostly forgotten by the time I post the final product. But it needn’t always be that way! THE DEAD PIT is a movie which could easily merit a word count comfortably in the range of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason if I had any inclination to walk you through the plot in detail, but to do so would almost certainly require a commitment of time and energy so spectacularly in excess of the time and energy which went into the original creation of the story that it would completely defeat the purpose of the thing. THE DEAD PIT was, according to a typically unsourced IMDB “trivia” section, written by director Brett Leonard and Gimel Everett (both of everlasting LAWNMOWER MAN infamy) in a mere three weeks, and I’m betting that even at that they weren’t exactly putting in 9-hour workdays. And in fact, “written” is probably a little strong in this case; “assembled” might be more fitting, as THE DEAD PIT seems to have been not so much written as a narrative story as grafted together from basically every hoary movie cliche available to an aspiring z-movie auteur in 1989.

            If that sounds like a condemnation, though, you may rest assured that it is anything but. Genre filmmaking is built on wholesale thievery, and that’s one of its charms. I consider it a feature, not a bug; after all, I think we would all agree that this world would be significantly poorer without the approximately 87,000 HALLOWEEN ripoffs which proliferated in the early 80s, or the uncountable millions of Italian MAD MAX ripoffs which, by volume, may well constitute the the greatest overall percentage of total films in existence (see the convenient pie chart, below):

 And I mean, the standard format for a Hollywood movie pitch is usually framed as “[famous movie A] meets [famous movie B],” so it’s not like it's just hustling weirdos and Italians that think this way. As in, “It’s INDIANA JONES meets LADYBIRD” or “it’s STAND AND DELIVER meets HOLY MOUNTAIN!” It’s crazy, but it’s true: more often than you’d think, honest to god hard American currency has moved from the hands of some Caligulan plutocrat to the grubby mitts of an enterprising cinematic huckster, with merely the utterance of the words, “it’s STAR WARS meets THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.” Or, in THE DEAD PIT’s case, “It’s HALLOWEEN meets NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD meets ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets INFERNO meets DR. GIGGLES meets AMITYVILLE HORROR meets EMPIRE STRIKES BACK!” Nothing with that many competing impulses was ever going to “work” in the traditional sense, as a functional piece of art. But you know what, I’m betting Everett and Leonard weren’t exactly throwing the word “art” around a lot in the pitch meetings for this one. They want to entertain, not enlighten, and, in its own, goofy, daffy way, THE DEAD PIT is indeed pretty entertaining. Anyway, it’s definitely better than LAWNMOWER MAN.

            We begin our tale 20 years ago, at the imaginatively named “State Institution For The Mentally Ill” (state unspecified). The inmates are jabbering and shrieking and banging their heads into things, but honestly the whole facility looks surprisingly clean and progressive considering that the year must be 1969, an era not known for its overwhelming abundance of professionalism in the field of mental health treatment. Unfortunately, things are not going so great amongst the staff, as the smug-looking surgeon Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnaeur, THE DEAD PIT) skulks away down a secret flight of stairs hidden in a broom closet, with a patient slung over his shoulder. When his colleague Dr. Swan (Jeremy Slate, TRUE GRIT) protests that this is not the kind of by-the-book mental health care those stuffed shirts up in corporate will stand for, Dr. Ramzi just derisively brushes him aside and and goes straight about his evil business, which of course involves walking down a series of eerie corridors lit by a curiously unsourced green light.

Standard medical practice, so far. But when Dr. Spoilsport follows this brazen young rebel of medicine, he discovers that he’s been carving up corpses with bizarre occult symbols and wiring up their brains to do god knows what. And, uh, this may not be an isolated incident, from the look of the “dead pit” (that’s a medical term, I believe) next to the operating table, which must have at least a dozen bodies in it. “My god, you’re a doctor! You’re supposed to be saving lives,” Dr. No-Fun eloquently protests. “I’ve done life. Now I’m doing death,” says the blood-spattered killer, matter-of-factly. “You’re a fucking maniac!” his colleague rejoins, somewhat less eloquently, perhaps, but not without a certain blunt charm. As enlightening as this lively philosophical debate is, they obviously can’t keep it going forever, so our hero does the one reasonable thing he could do: blow the villain away with a handy revolver, smash cut to title, seal off the hidden door to the laboratory, paint over it, and forget the whole thing ever happened.* Problem solved, right?

            Well, twenty apparently uneventful years pass, so maybe this was a better strategy than I gave it credit for. But alas, as many a chagrined medical institution has discovered, sealing off rooms filled with murder victims for twenty years is not always the practical long-term solution one might assume it to be. There might be an earthquake which opens the long-sealed door and sets the evil doctor free in zombie form, for example. Which is exactly what happens here. In this particular instance, the earthquake coincides suspiciously with the arrival of Jane Doe (“introducing Cheryl Lawson,” “Palmer’s Wife” in J. EDGAR [!] but most notable as a stuntwoman with nearly 40 credited films!) a young amnesiac who protests in the most hysterical manner possible that she’s not crazy and that “I didn’t lose my memory IT-WAS-TAKEN-FROM-ME-I-TOLD-THEM-IT-WAS!!!”

"I know you think I'm crazy, doctor, but..."

            For some reason, this perfectly sensible line of argument does not convince her caretakers to release her, and so she’s stuck in a mental institution, and to add insult to injury they seem to be out of hospital gowns, or maybe they don’t have her size or something, because she’ll be spending essentially the rest of the movie hanging around the mental institution in her underwear, which is a totally normal and medically necessary arrangement I assume.

            The semi-heroic Dr. Swan, apparently still around after 20 years, believes he can cure Jane’s amnesia by using hypnosis to access her deep-seated memories, despite her repeated incoherent shrieking rants that she’s perfectly fine, she just had her memory stolen by mysterious vaguely-defined shadowy enemies who lurk around invisibly menacing her at all times. Swan’s theories about hypnosis and repressed memories sound scientifically dubious, and we already have reason to entertain serious doubts about his crisis-time decision making, but he seems like a pillar of sanity next to Jane, who does not help her case that she is fine by running around in her underwear hallucinating and screaming about an evil doctor with glowing eyes constantly watching her. Could it actually be, for once, that the highly trained medical professionals are right and the woman in underwear shrieking about how she needs to be released from a mad house to escape invisible enemies is wrong? Of course not, don’t be a dope. This is a horror movie from the creators of THE LAWNMOWER MAN, so obviously she’s right: not only has the long-dead Dr. Renzi returned from beyond the grave as red-eyed ghoul, but he’s skulking around the hospital picking off the staff one-by-one as they wander around vulnerably in the eerie, empty abandoned wing of the old madhouse. And you’ll be surprised to hear that he has a shocking secret which relates to her mysterious past.

             The movie comfortably idles in slasher mode for much of its runtime, as Dr. Renzi racks up his body count and only Jane seems to suspect anything is wrong. It’s nothing special, but the movie benefits immensely from director of photography Marty Collins (a modest career of mostly video shorts and tech credits) who takes the opportunity to indulge in plenty of gaudy visual styling, from noir-ish abstract hard light geometry to Argento-esque impressionistic colored lighting to more esoteric conceits like shooting through a stylized keyhole. It’s perfectly ridiculous, of course, but so’s the movie, and the histrionic visual style deliciously reflects the ludicrous hodge-podge of story and the over-the-top performances (particularly by Lawson) which drift across the line to camp early enough to qualify to vote there by the time the credits roll. In fact, from the gaudy visuals to the alien performances to the slasher structure to the basic dramatic premise about a young woman who is witness to a crime no one believes, it’s got most of the essential ingredients for a perfectly respectable giallo, albeit an unmistakably American one. It even has some laudable gore, though sprinkled perhaps a bit too stingily throughout to compete with its Italian brethren.

            And then the zombies show up. Now, nothing leading up to this point suggests zombies in any way, and by the time they show up nearly everyone in the supporting cast has already been killed by the slasher, so they don’t have much to do but shuffle around grabbing at without ever quite grasping our protagonists. But zombies there must be, so zombies there will be, dammit, and I fear I do not have it in me to criticize that logic. There isn’t quite the budget for gnarly grotesqueries (they’re saving it for not one, not two, but three pretty awesome head meltings -- literally the same amount as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, an alpha dog move if ever there was one) so the undead shufflers are pretty much just bald guys in hospital robes with gray facepaint and blood smeared on them, lurching around in a pack. They’re fine, but not independently cool or important enough to the plot to warrant much discussion... except for two small details.

First, though they seem to struggle with opening doors, they apparently manage to successfully disable an entire parking lots’ worth of automobiles in about two minutes flat (“Damn, the distributor's gone! For dead people, they sure are smart,” bemoans the British guy who I forgot to mention earlier [Stephen Gregory Foster, LAWNMOWER MAN]). I dunno if they were all resurrected car mechanics or what, but good job on that one, fellas, that’s some real hustle. Secondly, these may actually be the only cinematic zombies I have ever seen in a non-parody who actually do want to eat brains. Or at least take them out and hold them.** Can it really be that a mere four years after RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, this idea (absolutely not found in any of Romero’s zombie films) had already taken hold so firmly that something like THE DEAD PIT felt obliged to throw it in there with no explanation or narrative purpose?

Anyway, all this leads to some ridiculous business with an insane nun blessing a water tank full of holy water and the world’s most unexpected WHITE HEAT reference. It’s a bit too dreamy and dawdling to quite manage an adequate climax, but at least the Killer seems to be having a good time. One time he’s holding a severed head and then says “I’m the head of surgery.” Later, he hands Jane a bloody disembodied brain and says, “Dr. Swan wanted to give you a piece of his mind!” These dad jokes actually make perfect sense when we discover Jane’s horrible secret: the awful Dr. Ramzi is, in fact: her father! How exactly this works and what happened to her memory and what it has to do with an earthquake or a dead pit or experimental brain surgery, let alone zombies, is never a question the movie even briefly considers (in fact, that British guy even points out the obvious: “that earthquake was a natural phenomenon, this [zombie doctor situation] is supernatural!” to a room which falls awkwardly silent, and then changes the topic), but come on dude, just go with it, it’s way too late for anything to make sense at this point, so why not savor one last inane, inexplicable flourish?

If THE DEAD PIT has any real flaw, it has to be… well, OK, basically everything, from the idiotic dialogue to the hilarious performances to the free-associative narrative to the chintzy tiny homemade model of a hospital that bravely stands in for the establishing shots. But if it has a flaw that actually hurts it, it’s unfortunately the antagonist, who can’t seem to summon the discipline to stick to a gimmicky MO or offer even the barest gesture towards what he’s actually trying to accomplish or what his deal is. I mean, is he back for revenge? If so, what does that have to do with his secret daughter’s amnesia, and for that matter how was he responsible for her memory loss when it happened before the earthquake which we’re explicitly told set him free? What was he trying to do with all that experimental brain surgery, and does it have anything to do with his supernatural return? And what’s up with all those zombies, was this somehow part of his plan, or is that just a happy accident? And do they work for him, or are they just unrelated zombies who don’t interfere with whatever he's got going because he’s a ghost or wizard or whatever and has no brain for them to remove and fondle? And what’s the deal with the bodysnatching final stinger? Is that what he’s been trying to finagle all along, or was the nun in on it the whole time, or what? Lots of things don’t matter at all in a movie like this; narrative logic, believable acting, realistic dialogue. But you gotta do a better job selling the basic conflict, and the only way to do that is to successfully define who your villain is, what he wants, and how he works. Without that, you’ll never make it to THE DEAD PIT 2: RAMZI’S RAMPAGE.

Still, it’s an easy flaw to overlook in light of the rest of the bounty THE DEAD PIT provides. It’s chock full of colorful weirdness, gratuitous violence, and misguided ambition, and all that combined with its gaudy visuals and dreamy plotting adds up to an agreeable cocktail indeed. In fact, this is exactly the sort of thing which is absolutely ripe for rediscovery by Arrow Video, or Grindhouse, or Scream Factory or somebody who wants to give it a handsome Blu-Ray release with a bunch of interviews with the actors (who, with the possible exception of Lawson, clearly know what kind of movie they’re in and look like they’re having a good time with it). And if all that ain’t enough to make you look more kindly on the creators of THE LAWNMOWER MAN, let me sweeten the detail: the original VHS box featured a zombie with goddam glowing eyes. Not all of these reviews need to be 5,000 word long, but sometimes, just sometimes, a movie really earns it.

This is weird, because it's actually a plot point that Dr. Ramzi's eyes glow red, but there's no green eye glowing or glowing zombie eyes of any kind in the film. They came so close to getting it right!

(Bonus: IMDB reviewer Molly Celaschi apparently believes there are such things as "Brett Leonard fans interested in his filmography" and manages to pick out the three most mundane logical gaps in a movie which features extraneous zombies) 

*“Hadn’t thought of it in 20 years,” says Swan 20 years later, apparently having taken his Yoga instructor’s advice to “live in the moment” perhaps a hair too literally.

** Alas, they do not moan braaainnns, BRAAAAINNNS, but there’s no denying that the removal of this organ appears to be their main goal. Besides taking distributors out of parked cars, anyway. Wait, do they think that’s the car’s brain?

The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

They’re Out, says the VHS box, noncomittally. But the theatrical poster is better: When the Dead Start To Walk, You’d Better Start Running… THE DEAD PIT… Drop In Anytime.
There’s a dead pit, sure, why not.
Sadistic nurse chains our hero up in her underwear and sprays her boobs with a firehouse until her shirt comes off. But this is revealed to be a dream -- in fact, our hero’s dream -- so we can assume that it’s not just shameless T ‘n A, because who would dream about their own boobs for purely prurient reasons?

She does spend nearly the entire movie walking around in her underwear, as is totally normal in a mental institution.
No animals
Definitely zombie, although I’m not quite sure how to categorize the undead Dr Ramzi, who seems to be some sort of ghost wizard but was apparently solid enough that a locked door kept him quiet for 20 years.
I think it’s the implication of the final shot?
Well, it is a mental institution
If you’re ever involuntarily confined to a mental institution because invisible supernatural enemies are attacking your brain, stay strong and remember YOU’RE RIGHT AND EVERYONE ELSE IS WRONG.