Archive | Central to the Plot RSS for this section

The Giant Spider Invasion (1975)

giantspiderinv_festival

Directed by Bill Rebane
Written by Richard L. Huff and Robert Easton
Starring Steve Brodie, Barbara Hale, Robert Easton, Leslie Parrish, Alan Hale Jr., Bill Williams, and Diane Lee Hart

giantspiderinv_title

A lot of horror movies have misleading titles. The Monster That Challenged the World, for example, merely bothered a small boat. One thing I can say in defense of The Giant Spider Invasion is that its title is not technically a lie. There are spiders that are ecologically invasive, and one of them is indeed effing huge. That’s about the only thing impressive about it. The spider, I mean. More on that later.

Read More…

Ticks (1993)

ticks_autopsy

Directed by Tony Randel
Written by Brent V. Friedman
Starring Rosalind Allen, Ami Dolenz, Seth Green, Virginya Keehne, Alfonso Ribeiro, Peter Scolari, Ray Oriel, Dina Dayrit, Barry Lynch and Clint Howard

ticks_titile

There have been several films about minuscule terrors; Phase IV and The Flesh Eaters come immediately to mind. Likewise The Beginning of the End and The Empire of the Ants present the peril of small things vastly enlarged. There is a minor niche in between for films about the tiny grown to not-very-big, and within that the chief example is Ticks.

Read More…

The Spider Labyrinth (1988)

SpiderLabyrinth_cult

Directed by Gianfranco Giagni
Written by Riccardo Aragno, Tonino Cervi, Cesare Frugoni, and Gianfranco Manfredi
Starring Roland Wybenga, Paolo Rinaldi, Margareta von Krauss, and Claudia Muzi

Spiders sold separately.

Spiders sold separately.

There are certain things I just know I have to watch. Giant spider movies, naturally. Italian horror is another favorite. I can’t say no to noir, especially the sort where investigation leads to doom. Anything with Ray Milland in it. So when I learned that The Spider Labyrinth was an Italian horror-noir about a spider cult, I nearly fainted with joy. Good thing Milland wasn’t in it!

Read More…

Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982)

aka Ator l’invincibile
Directed by Joe D’Amato
Written by Joe D’Amato and Michele Soavi
Starring Miles O’Keeffe, Sabrina Siani, and Ritza Brown

Flames... Burning... On the side of my title credits!

Flames… Burning… On the side of my title credits!

The sword and sandal genre once thrived, with heroes like Hercules and Samson knocking down pillars and wrestling lions. Maybe it died off because other cheap fare was more marketable, or perhaps an audience that had rejected tight shorts on men now demanded their heroes wear pants. Whatever the cause, it wasn’t until Arnold Schwarzenegger donned the loincloth for Conan the Barbarian that buff men running around in their underwear muscled their way back into theaters.

Read More…

Summer School (2006)

Do not be fooled by the cast list. Neither Lance Henricksen or Michael J. Nelson had anything to do with this movie.

Directed by Lance Hendrickson, Troy McCall, Mike P. Nelson, Steven Rhoden, and Ben Trandem
Written by Lance Hendrickson, Mike P. Nelson, Steven Rhoden, Pa Chia Thao, and Ben Trandem
Starring Simon Wallace, Amy Cocchiarella, Tony D. Czech, Lance Hendrickson, Troy McCall, and Mike P. Nelson

I do appreciate the 1970s style title.

I do appreciate the 1970s style title.

Anthology movies are always hit or miss. There are only so many minutes in a movie, and each additional story splits the available pot with which to tell a story. Many deal with this by having only about four stories. This allows them to be roughly the length of a half-hour commercial TV episode. Some, like The ABCs of Death, embrace the brevity and present as many thoughts as possible in the hopes that the scattergun will hit. Then too, most have a wrapping narrative to connect the segments. These can be as simple as each title starting with the next letter in the alphabet or as intertwined with the stories as Peter Cushing selling cursed items from his antiques shop.

"Oh, man. That nap wore me out."

“Oh, man. That nap wore me out.”

The high concept for Summer School is that a kid falls asleep in an empty classroom, where he keeps waking up from one scary dream into the next. His name is Charles (Simon Wallace), and he has apparently binge-watched a bunch of horror movies for his review site. As the title suggests, he seems to have come to school for a summer class — Physics, if the dreams aren’t lying about non-horror facts. Every story centers on Charles and involve some or all of the pool of school characters: a few close friends, a girl he fancies, the teacher, the security guard, and the nameless fodder that fill out the cast roster. There are seven stories (including the wrapper), and altogether Charles wakes up no fewer than 9 times.

This is playing with the difficulty set on Hard. Four experienced and talented directors teamed up to make Four Rooms with a shared character and setting, and it did so well that it’s never spoken of. Five directors — including Orson Welles — and a legion of largely uncredited writers worked on the endearing fiasco that was the 1967 anthology film version of Casino Royale. What I’m saying is that five directors working on seven stories with the same characters and setting is ambitious, particularly when the “it’s yet another dream” premise removes any and all emotional investment in Charles’ adventures.

Dennis (Lance Hendrickson) stops Charles from questioning events.

Dennis (Lance Hendrickson) stops Charles from questioning events.

So I give the many directors and writers of Summer School credit for reaching too high, while acknowledging that the result of their collective effort is not very good. On average each story only had 12 minutes to work with, so the majority of the scenarios are fairly trite without much room to stand out in any way. There are still some fun moments; the segment “Vampires” features an entertainingly improbable staking, and “Slasher” sees Charles finally snap and go on a stabbing spree. Largely though, it’s a collection of genre beats without any context or weight.

Perhaps the worst section is the one that the greatest chance to break free of the limiting nature of the setup. “Hill Billy”, written and directed by Mike P. Nelson, puts a backwoods redneck family living directly outside the school. It’s the most overtly dreamlike setting detail in the film, and it gets us out of the building, so it’s a promising start. Sadly, all we get is recycled homosexual hick panic with a predator played by an actor too scared to actually touch Charles. It’s… not good, and the double-fake end of the segment does nothing to clear the air.

We call them... Monsters.

We call them… Monsters.

So why am I even reviewing Summer School then? Because, dear readers, the second interior story contains that most rare and horrible of arachnids: spider men! The segment “Monsters” is co-written by Steve Rhoden and Ben Trandem (who had a writing and/or directing hand in all but two of the stories) and directed by Rhoden. It’s my favorite part for two reasons. First, of course, is that it features arachnothropes. That’s a word I just made up, because a cursory search turned up nothing else that fit. There’s zoanthropy, but even if you ignore the fact that it’s intended meaning is for people who only think they’re animals, it’s still usually restricted to mammals. Not a lot of people think they’re creepy crawlies, apparently.

The other reason I like “Monsters” is that it chose to avoid cliché. Sure, there’s nothing too unusual about infectious monsters, cocooned victims, or going down in a swarm, but instead of trotting out werewolves or making giant spider puppets someone thought “You know what? Spider masks would look sweet with gorilla suits”. I love that kind of thinking! The overall effect was rather silly, but I have to say that the masks look good. They’re only seen in quick shots or at a distance, so they come off well even with their immobility. Plus, how many times have arachnothropes appeared on film? Without poring over my notes on spider movies I can only come up with three: Horrors of Spider Island, Curse of the Black Widow, and the execrable Lost in Space. I’d also accept Mesa of Lost Women, although none of the humans looked spidery, and the spider just got big. I’m not prepared to discuss Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula. It’s still too soon. Okay, and there are a few adaptations of Monkey that have spider women… My point is that it’s fun to see such an underexposed monster type in a movie that’s otherwise merely a tour of familiar scares. I mean, they even hauled out Nazis, for crying out loud.

It's got them crazy eyes!

It’s got them crazy eyes!

Overall, Summer School does little more than prove the technical competency of the filmmakers. That’s not a knock. While I was generally unengaged with the movie, I couldn’t fault the production values. The camera work, lighting, most of the sound, and even the effects are well above average for such a low-budget project. This kind of showpiece can be a nice entry on a CV, and indeed many of the film’s workers have since worked on technical and makeup capacities on TV, including some directing. Not bad.

Unless they’re still dreaming!

"Please, still be dreaming!"

“Please, still be dreaming!”

image

This review is part of the Adult Onset Lycanthropy roundtable; we’re taking a look at films were people become inhuman. The links below are for reviews from other participants. Give ’em the ol’ clicky, would’ja?

Checkpoint Telstar observes The Bat People

Cinemasochist Apocalypse honorably faces Kibakichi

Micro-Brewed Reviews bogarts Curse of the Black Widow (but I’m totally not jealous or nothing)

Las Películas de Terror scans The Beast Within

Psychoplasmics rounds up An American Werewolf in London

The Terrible Claw Reviews slithers up to Sssssss

The Tomb of Anubis tracks down Romasanta

Spiders (2013)

Directed by Tibor Takács
Written by Joseph Farrugia, Tibor Takács, and Dustin Warburton

We start in space, with the title appearing against a starry background.

In space, no one can hear you sigh at the spinning title.

In space, no one can hear you sigh at the spinning title.

I don’t have a 3D set, but if the title hadn’t mentioned it I wouldn’t have known I was missing something. So, good going titles.

The camera pans until the Earth comes into view. Then we see our planet covered by a spider. As our view pulls back we see that it’s actually on a view port of an orbiting space station. From the dead astronaut and many loose spiders, we may assume that something went wrong. Further, the Cyrillic letters on a clipboard indicate it was a Russian vessel.

If you were thinking that a meteorite would strike the space station, I congratulate you! You’ve seen a movie before.

Meanwhile, in New York City, our hero arrives at a rail transit control hub. Patrick Muldoon (“Starship Troopers”, “Days of Our Lives”) plays Jason, who seems to be some kind of district chief. One of the workers hands him an iPod. This is a gift purchased on Jason’s behalf for some young girl. Like a lot in this film, the details are murky.

When there’s a problem at the Noble Street subway station, transit worker Jimmy goes into the tunnel to investigate. He finds that something has penetrated the tunnel, but his experience fighting in Iraq tells him it wasn’t a bomb. Homeland Security is called anyway. Given that Jimmy fails to notice the large blue spider that crawls out his pants seconds after he’s bitten, it’s probably wise not to trust his observations.

Jason breaks contact with Jimmy to watch a news report on the incident. It identifies the cause as debris from a Soviet satellite launched in the 1980s. Jason decides to see the damage for himself, so he heads out. He tries to reach Jimmy again but gets no response. This is hardly surprising, as Jimmy has passed out from the toxins in his system and landed on the infamous third rail.

Jason pulls up to a subway entrance in a New York Transit van. A body is being loaded into an ambulance, and our hero asks callously if it was a jumper. A woman some kind of uniform who seems to know Jason informs him that it’s Jimmy. She is Rachel, played by Christa Campbell (“Mansquito”, “Day of the Dead”), and we’ll find out more about her later.

Down in the tunnel people in hazmat suits inspect the area with various equipment. They declare it’s free of radiation, and a bunch of officials enter — Jason and Rachel included. A Dr. Darnoff identifies a piece of wreckage as a disposal unit from the satellite. Homeland Security is satisfied, Rachel says the Health Department is not. ‘Waste’ sounds like something potentially hazardous. While everyone bickers over who’s paying for what and when the subway can re-open, nobody notices rats fleeing the area.

Later that night Rachel arrives at a Chinese restaurant where her daughter Emily has been waiting with (presumably) a babysitter, who promptly leaves after being paid. Rachel tells Emily that her father means well, and from their mention of his subway and the presence of gifts we can start to infer that Jason and Rachel might be more than friends.

Jason stops at a hospital, where a Dr. Stella takes him to the morgue. There she confirms that Jimmy died of electrocution. What’s interesting is what hadn’t killed him; she found the spider bite and worse — marble-sized eggs in his abdomen! Jason asks to take them to City Health, which probably violates all manner of procedures, but Stella readily hands them over.

Jason’s next stop is Rachel’s apartment. He gives Emily the iPod, and she happily flees the scene. Jason hands the eggs to Rachel, and she gives him divorce papers. At least we finally understand their relationship.

From here the plot spins into the well-worn patterns of government conspiracy, re-uniting family, and experiments gone wildly out of control. The area around the Noble Street station becomes overrun with spiders the size of people, and it’s up to Jason to stop the enormous queen.

It’s not what you’d call a good movie, but it’s largely entertaining and has some really nice touches. Some of the minor characters actually have significant plot beats, and even the soldiers that enforce the quarantine are shown to be people with their own motivations. The thinnest characterization is Colonel Jenkins, played by veteran actor William Hope (“Aliens”). He’s the villain of the piece, responsible for many of the named-character deaths and difficulties, but the script doesn’t give him any motivation or personality other than the face of pitiless government.

The true joy of this film is the spiders themselves. They’re goofy looking and abundant, growing to the size of a horse in roughly a single day. Then there’s the queen… But first let’s talk origin.

We’re told by Dr. Darnoff that the soviet scientists had tried to splice alien genes into several different animals but that only the attempt with spiders had succeeded. Why would they do this? To produce military-grade silk for making armor. The colonel, of course, wants to drop spider eggs on enemies.

All of which begs several grade-school level questions.

1. Why would you cross anything potentially dangerous with a spider? You know what you cross spiders with? Tomatoes! Tomatoes never killed anybody.1

2. When did the silk plan enter the picture? Did the dead aliens have a gold-plated record that told of the wondrously strong silk their genes produced? It seems more like something the scientists made up when they were caught making alien-hybrid spiders.

3. Why did they stay relatively small in the space station? Granted it’s not like there was a lot of food, but it’s not as though they spent enough time eating to grow as big as they did so quickly on Earth.

4. What did they eat on the space station? A cosmonaut, obviously. But then what? The station was essentially abandoned for decades.

5. After the giant spiders wipe out your enemy, how do you get rid of them? The Orkin army?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that all mysteries are explained by “alien
DNA” and that the queen is the size of a nice house in the suburbs.

One of these two is very smart. The other splices alien DNA into spiders.

One of these two is very smart. The other splices alien DNA into spiders.

While it’s not CGI on the level of “Jurassic Park” or Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”, the effects in this are a darn sight better than the typical fare in modern spider movies. For the most part the spiders interact reasonably well with the environment, and the design is fun. They have big humanoid eyes and multiple sets of jaws. Best of all, the queen shows accumulated damage from all of the bullets and general artillery that have hit it. When so many details are omitted, glossed over, or otherwise left to the viewers’ imagination, this demonstrates that genuine care went into the production.

Overall I found “Spiders” entertaining and a touch above the average monster flick. Despite a run-of-the-mill plot and some standard failings, it’s a movie that I can go back to again and again.

And maybe one day I’ll manage to see it in 3D!

RANDOM THOUGHTS

Patrick Muldoon is no stranger to fighting giant spiders. Even if you don’t count “Starship Troopers”, he starred in the direct to TV “Ice Spiders”.

I actually appreciate that the script leaves Jason and Rachel’s relationship undefined for so long. It seems more natural that they don’t talk about it all the time.

Of all the people in the film, I feel sorriest for the babysitter. It sucks for all the victims, but here’s a girl who was just picking up some spare cash, and she gets put in quarantine and killed almost as an afterthought.

FOOTNOTES

1. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” doesn’t count.

1000 Misspent Hours: Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula

There’s a movie that’s been passing around my circle of friends, testing their mettle and their willingness to continue speaking to me. It’s a movie that I discovered because of my fascination with two things: big damn spiders and the nearly contractual obligation for Linnea Quigley to remove her clothing on camera.

The movie is a DTV Jess Franco production, amusingly titled “Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula in Eight Arms to Love You”. It’s the story of a were-spider (Lina Romay) who, well, has a lot of sex. It’s the sort of cinematic effluvium that defies description, but El Santo of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting came the closet to explaining the experience of watching Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula in Eight Arms to Love You.

I’ll eventually post my own review, someday when I can bring myself to watch it again.