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Featured Post - Mystery Movie Marathon

I thought I'd kick the new year off with another movie marathon. I thought it was time to check out a few old school mystery flicks. Som...

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Doctor Hackenstein (1988)

The eighties had a lot of attempts at horror comedy. Some of them like Return of the Living Dead or Frankenhooker worked really well. Others not so much. Horror movies can be hard but nothing is harder then making an audience laugh so trying to jam them both together isn’t an easy task to take on. How well did Doctor Hackenstein handle this? Lets take a look.

The movie opens with Hackenstein hosting Dean Slesinger, his boss at University, for supper. They talk a bit about him returning to campus and moving his lab and experiments there. There is talk about his research involving reanimation of dead tissue and bringing things back to life. Yeah, this is another comedic take on Frankenstein if you haven’t figured it out yet. The good doctor wants to return the love of his life back to the land of the living. All he has is her head though so he will have to make her a body. Though due to the incompetence of his body snatchers he is all out of spare parts to make that happen.

Luckily, a car full of young ladies gets stranded and have to spend the night at his house. Shenanigans ensue as the doctor picks the ladies off one at a time to rebuild his wife. There is also a subplot with a local police detective who is looking for the girls after arresting the body snatchers. Eventually things wrap up with some Animal House type updates on what happened to our characters after the events of the movie. The end.

I had some hope for Doctor Hackenstein but for me the movie failed as both a comedy and a horror story. They lean heavily into the jokes and while I found some of it okay like the mute housekeeper and some of the slapstick physical gags it at most elicited a snicker from me. If the point of your movie is to make the audience laugh, then you have to do much better than that. Since so much effort was spent on the attempted humor the horror elements fall flat. Other than some blood splatter there is zero gore. And while I suppose this may be a spoiler, we find out in the end that no one died! Again, I understand that they weren’t trying to be a gory and/or nasty flick but you can do both. The previously mentioned Frankenhooker walks that line perfectly combining laughs as well as horror tropes/gags.

Before anyone sits down to compose an angry email to me about how it isn’t fair that I compare this movie to others like this please stop. While I won’t debate the legitimacy of using similar flicks as a baseline, I do want to point out that this movie is referencing and lifting gags from other comedies. From the Animal House like updates to the mute housekeeper which is very similar to the Ruth Buzzi character from Murder by Death the filmmakers keep reminding us of much better movies. Hell, they even use the name pronunciation joke from the very similar and far better Young Frankenstein. This reminds me of watching independent zombie movies that insist on showing characters watching Night of the Living Dead. Stop showing me something in your movie that I would much rather be watching!

Now it isn’t all bad. There are some familiar faces including married couple Logan Ramsey (Walking Tall, Scrooged) and Anne Ramsey (Throw Momma from the Train, The Goonies) so the filmmakers had some money to hire talent. I had forgotten how funny that Anne Ramsey was. Her dialogue and delivery are top notch. Legendary Phyllis Diller shows up for a hot minute, though she is wasted here. I also wanted to mention actress Cathy Cahn who played the mute housekeeper Yolanda. Her scenes involve a lot of physical comedy and are over the top. When she is on camera there is a different energy, and the movie is simply better. Unfortunately, all of their efforts are wasted with the uninspired script and direction.

Is Doctor Hackenstein a terrible movie? Not really. I’ve seen much worse but that doesn’t mean I’d recommend spending any time on this forgettable attempt at a horror comedy. There are much better options to scratch that itch.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Specters (1987)

Time for some Italian eighties horror that I’ve not seen before. The movie opens with some workers using a large boring machine to extend a subway tunnel. The vibration disturbs a nearby archaeological site which uncovers a hidden tomb beneath the ruins. This excites the leader of the expedition, Professor Lasky, who declares it as the mysterious pagan site they have been looking for. It predates even the Christian catacombs nearby. This all seems fine… right?

Well after meeting Alice, an actress working on a horror movie nearby, and her boyfriend Marcus, who works for Lasky, we then see something is wrong. There is some evil force that rises from beneath the ground terrorizing the locals. What is it and why does it start to kill? In a bit of a dialogue dump from Lasky we find out that the pagan site was a place where sacrifices were made to an ancient god of evil. So I’m figuring it is that guy getting up to bad stuff now that he has been released/disturbed. More bodies pile up, Alice is kidnapped by the god of evil, and Marcus saves the day by blowing up the site and rescuing Alice. Though it may not come as a surprise when someone tags along on their honeymoon… oh yeah I forgot to mention after saving her Marcus proposes to Alice because that is what you do in a horror flick.

Okay that sounded snarky, but I actually had fun with Specters. I mean the plot doesn’t make a ton of sense as this is your typical Italian horror movie leaning into stylistic visuals and sound design rather than a cohesive plot. Think Argento’s non Gialli efforts and some of Bava’s more esoteric movies, though I’d never say Specters is on that level. Those are the gold standard, but I’d say this one is a solid second tier example beneath them. I only mention those filmmakers as an easy comparison to let you know what you are in for if you sit down with this one. And to circle back around to the beginning there is a basic plot to follow. Dig a hole, let evil out, blow up the hole to seal it back in. There are just some hoops that you have to jump thru along the way for it to work and some of those can stretch the audience’s imagination to the breaking point. Hopefully that makes sense.

The kills in the movie are a bit tame but are creatively staged. We get a man falling thru stained glass with a throat cutting, a few folks getting ripped up by a claw appearing out of nowhere, another gets his heart ripped out, but my favorite has to be the dude in the wall. We see something grab him and later he is merged or hanging halfway out of a wall skinned. That is the best effect of the movie by far and will stick with me. We don’t see much of the evil god on screen other than the random clawed arm, but there is one reveal in backlight that hides much of the costume but gives enough for it to be satisfying. If you don’t have the budget for a creature be creative and let the audience fill in the blanks. They do that really well here.

Speaking of creative much of the tension is created with liberal use of industrial fans to create a creepy wind effect to let you know evil is present as well as some nifty sound design. The musical stingers as well as the odd sounds create an atmosphere that supports the ideas the story is attempting to sell to the audience. I like it when all the parts of a production work together like this. We also have some fun visuals including a nifty bit with the moon reflecting on the surface of water, the glowing yellow eyes to signify someone has seen something horrifying, as well as the way the tunnels and caverns are lit. Though the best is a Nightmare on Elm Street style bed attack on Alice. Yeah, I’ve seen it before but done this well it still works.

If I’m being honest the reason that I grabbed this VHS, and yes like all eighties oddities this was best watched on VHS, was the one recognizable name in the cast. Starring as Professor Lasky is the late great Donald Pleasence. I love the guy and mean no offense, but he did occasionally phone it is for a paycheck. Here in his limited screentime he is the highlight. Using his dialogue to help along the muddled plot makes a huge difference and the movie is way better when he is on screen. Unfortunately, he isn’t in much of the movie, which was a disappointment. But since I found myself on the fence with Specters his presence alone pushed it into the positives for me.

In conclusion if you dig Italian horror that leans into style (visuals, sound design) over substance (plot, narrative) then you might enjoy this movie. It certainly has that vibe and is worth a chance. On the other hand, if this sort of thing bugs you, I’d anticipate you hating Specters. Armed with this information I figure you can make your own decision. Personally, I’m glad to have watched it. Probably won’t need to ever revisit it, but still not a bad way to kill an hour and a half.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Friday, February 23, 2024

The Evil Below (1989)

I’ve been in the mood for some oddball eighties movies so I’ve started digging thru my stacks of tapes to see if I can unearth any gems. I had a VHS copy of The Evil Below, which I have no idea where I acquired it, and thought I’d give it a chance. Though I’ve not had much success with South African lensed flicks other than maybe Hardware and even that wasn’t a favorite of mine I was willing to give this one a chance. Was that a mistake? Let us find out.

The movie opens with a sailing vessel, or rather a decent looking model of one, being tossed in some rough seas. Thanks to a helpful bit of text on the screen we know this is the past, specifically the sixteen hundreds. Then the action moves to a man and woman diving. They find the wreck of the ship and are killed by a giant fish. Not a shark but a toothy barracuda looking scaley bastard! I’m guessing those aren’t our main characters otherwise this was a short movie.

Now we meet our main characters. Max is a fishing boat captain that is having difficulty paying the bills. He meets a lady in a bar named Sarah in a bar and they head to her room for some groping and brief nudity before she starts to cry, and he leaves. The next day she comes to the docks to hire a boat to go looking for a treasure ship named The El Diablo. Guess who has the only available boat? Now do we get some explanation as to why she cried when they started to hook up? Hell no. This sadly will become a familiar theme.

"Thrilling" bar scene 27...
Be warned spoilers follow. As they look for the treasure they visit Max’s Dad, who is murdered. By whom and why? I can only guess that it was the bad guy a local expert on antiques named Calhoun, who also has a random henchman named Barlow. Both of whom are basically immortal supernatural creatures. Wait… why and how? It must not matter because the movie makes zero effort to explain what the hell is going on. Eventually Max and Sarah blow up the wreck which ends the curse… I think… and the movie ends.

This one is a mess. I’m not sure if the script was poorly written or if the editor didn’t know what they were doing but the results are the same. The characters jump from scene to scene without any connective narrative between them. We literally get people talking in a bar, then suddenly underwater in scuba gear, to being back on the boat talking about going to the bar. The action jumps around like this not once but throughout the entire runtime. It makes for a jumbled mess and kills any momentum that the movie might have created. Then again that was an unlikely hope for a movie that is filled with unnecessary characters. I mean what is up with the priest characters who apparently are there to die and not add anything to the story. And that is plural as in the first one dies and then his replacement also dies in the same basic way. Toss in some underwater footage that is nothing more than padding for a miserable way to spend ninety minutes.

"Thrilling" SCUBA scene 14.
The Evil Below also tries to sell itself as horror in addition to mystery and adventure. Other than the immortal bad guys and hints at a curse there is very little horror to be had here. That might explain why the kills are all offscreen and lame. There is also zero mystery here… other than me asking myself why I was watching this that is. I suppose the best way to describe the movie is as an adventure flick with little to no adventure.

I’m still struggling to find a South African produced genre flick that I dig. And yes I’ve seen Dust Devil in addition to Hardware. The Evil Below is one of the slowest and most pointless exercises in cinema that I’ve seen in a quite a while. I can’t recommend anyone spending their time and/or god forbid their money on it. This is a VHS that I should have left on the shelf collecting dust.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Monday, February 19, 2024

What Waits Below (1984)

Nothing makes me happier then finding an oddball eighties science fiction or horror flick that I missed growing up. I watched a lot but with the boom of VHS there were so many movies getting made it isn’t shocking that I’ve not seen them all. That is one of the reasons I love the hobby of tracking down and reviewing so much. What Waits Below is one of those flicks that I could have eagerly grabbed off the shelf as it’s cave exploring mutant underground albino tribe story was and is right in my wheelhouse. So, what did I think? First let’s talk about the plot.

The movie opens with our hero Wolf spying on some soldiers scuba diving in what appears to be a small pond or stream. They spot him when an old friend, George, shows up to talk. This leads to a high speed chase, lots of shooting, and a crash. No worries though as our adventurous mercenaries are fine. George then tells Wolf of a high paying job with the U.S. Military. Seems they need help setting up a communication device in a cave system but need their expertise to pull it off. Why? Something about nuclear submarines and secret Cold War stuff.

None of the above really matters to the story other than to get the characters in the cave. Along the way Wolf and George pick up a couple of army guys and some anthropologists interested in the artifacts found in the cave system. When the gear is stolen and taken deeper into the cave system this group goes after it. They find some cave monster, glowing moss that is perfect for lighting a scene, and albino humans who have been isolated from the surface for thousands of years. Some folks die, lessons are learned, and the end credits roll.

The tribe
What Waits Below isn’t a good movie. The pacing is off as they meander to set up the story and when they do set off in the cave we get way too much wandering around in the “dark”. In reality this is about the brightest cave I’ve ever seen on film. Now they actually shot in a cave and not sets which you would think was a good thing. Instead it had the odd effect of them having to choose locations where they could fit their gear rather than have a flexible artificial setup. All the scenes are in the more open sections where stuff could fit and be lit. The end result is a movie set underground that doesn’t feel claustrophobic, which was a disappointment.

I also was a bit bummed that they spoil the albino underground tribe by showing them in the first attack. A little bit of mystery before a big reveal later on would have likely helped hold my interest in what I was watching. On a positive note, I did dig the rubber monsters that they encounter. They are small dog sized worm creatures but I’m always down for some latex monster mayhem.

I appreciate a good rubber monster!
The best part about the movie is some of the supporting cast. We get Timothy Bottoms as the army major who has a beef with Wolf and is going to accomplish his mission at all costs. I was also completely unaware of the fact that legendary genre actor Richard Johnson (The Haunting, Zombie) appears as one of the scientists. I was also pleased to see Lisa Blount (Prince of Darkness, Blind Fury) in a smaller role as a scientist. There was some talent involved in this one, at least in front of the camera.

Here is where things are difficult for me. Objectively What Waits Below isn’t a good movie, but I sort of liked it. It is just the sort of bad flick that I remember renting all the time when I was in high school. I don’t know if that will translate to anyone else so I can’t recommend it. That said if you like oddball eighties movies that probably lived on the VHS aisles of your local Mom and Pop rental store then maybe you will dig this one like I did. The good news is that there is a VHS rip of this currently on YouTube, so it isn’t hard to find and won’t cost you anything other than your time.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Friday, February 16, 2024

Gangnam Zombie (2023)

The movie opens with a man and woman, who we later find out are Hyeon-seok and Min-jeong, fighting a running battle with some zombies. He tosses her into a car before kicking some zombie ass. Though it doesn’t take long for him to be overwhelmed so it doesn’t seem to end well. The action then jumps back twenty four hours. Here we see that the outbreak starts when some criminals are breaking into a shipping container to steal some jewelry. There is a cat that scratches one of them and he turns. So, I guess it was a zombie cat?

Here we meet Hyeon-seok and Min-jeong as they both work for the same YouTube company. Is that a thing? Basically, they make prank videos, although not well since the boss hasn’t paid them or the rent in a while. We also meet the landlord who is obsessed with her building. So much so when the zombies attack, she has security lock the building down and refuses to allow anyone to call the police. You know because it will hurt the property values and stuff… The rest of the movie are the zombies killing folks until we catch up to the opening scene. After that the zombies kill folks until the survivors make their escape. That is pretty much all we got.

This is clearly a very low budget Korean zombie movie. The filmmakers do a few things correctly. They hired actors that can deliver dialogue and our leads have some chemistry. They also understand that they don’t have a large budget so other than a few scenes at the beginning the majority of the movie takes place in a single office building which I’m assuming they had during off hours. They kept the zombie makeup basic with black or bloodshot eyes with a bit of blood around the mouth. These are all good things.

Though the lack of a memorable kill or two is a hindrance. Despite a lot of people being attacked all of the bits are offscreen and what we do see is the zombie or zombies looking up with blood coming out of their mouth. When I sit down to watch a zombie movie I’m expecting some gore and here we get nothing much in that area. But the biggest issue that I have with Gangnam Zombie is the dreadful pacing. This movie is only an hour and twenty minutes long. Other than the one brief post cat zombie attack nothing much happens for over half an hour. Well, I mean we get some drama about Hyeon-seok having a thing for his co-worker Min-jeong which seems unrequited. We also find out that it is hard for a woman to work in their field as there is some inappropriate touching of her by the boss. There is even a bit of class warfare in the way that the lady landlord treats the “poor” people. All of this is set to a Christmas background that feels right out of a Hallmark movie… a bad one.

Notice what is missing? Zombies! I signed up to watch a zombie movie not some lame ass Korean drama about modern society and the challenges of those living in it! Now you might be saying “well at least things get better when the zombies attack” and you wouldn’t be totally wrong. But between scenes of Hyeon-seok karate kicking the crap out of the shuffling dead we get periods where the characters talk to each other. These “getting to know you” bits of dialogue slam the brakes on what was already not a fast paced zombie story. This seems like a movie that decided to shoot itself in the foot whenever the chance to do something entertaining came up.

Throw in the inexplicably odd plastic vampire teeth on the zombies (think Sprit Halloween level costume here my friends) and the non-ending conclusion to the story where they escape the building full of zombies and leave the giant garage door behind them dooming the city to the fate they narrowly escaped and you have a movie that made me feel like I wasted my time. I don’t recommend that you also waste your time on this one.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Throwback Thursday - Horns by Joe Hill

note: This review was written over twelve years ago for another project I was working on. After rereading it and doing a bit of clean up before posting it here I have to say that I still really enjoyed it. Joe Hill has gone on to become one of my favorite authors and has certainly carved out his own path separate from his famous father. I should also get around to covering the movie adaptation as well since I also very much enjoyed it. Now onto the review.

This is the second book that I’ve read from Joe Hill and I have enjoyed the heck out of both of them. In this one we follow three main characters, Ig, Merrin, and Lee. Ig and Merrin are a couple and when the book opens up it is a year after Merrin’s body has been found. In that year everyone believes that Ig killed her. He wakes up on the one year anniversary of her death with a set of horns on his head. These horns make anyone that he talks to admit their deepest secrets, no matter how terrible. Quite by accident this leads Ig to the surprising truth about her death (just a hint he didn’t kill her…). So who killed Merrin? What will Ig do with this information? And just what the heck are up with the horns growing out of his head? All this unravels in a satisfying and enjoyable way.

And I do mean that. This is one of those books that had me hooked right away. Hill tells the story in a series of flashbacks wrapped around what is presently happening to Ig. Not only do we get some of the story from those telling Ig terrible secrets, but he also discovers that when he touches someone he can experience their memories. This is a neat narrative trick for Hill to use because it allows us to see the story unfold thru the eyes of several different characters. In the case of one of them it becomes quite obvious that while they are delusional, we the reader can see how they twisted things around in their head. I found that this made the characters all the more interesting.

Since I’m on the subject of the characters I have to say that Hill does a great job of making them feel real. They jump right off of the page and I as a reader felt invested in their fates. There were times when I was actually worried about what was going to happen to Ig. I’m not easily taken in by characters, even when I like a book, so I was obviously hooked. This was one of the reasons that I was glued to the book and unable to put it down. I cared and wanted to see what happened to them next. Even the supposed “bad guy” had a backstory where it was not forgivable but sad to see what life had done to put him or her in that situation. 

At first, I didn’t like the story jumping around from past to present back to past, but without giving anything away there is a good reason that this happens. There is a point where the action very cleverly wraps back around on itself as a couple points in time intersect. Between this, the identity of the killer, and a twist that I should have seen coming but didn’t had me smiling and satisfied when the last word was read. 

I don’t know what else I can say about Horns without spoiling what makes the books so much fun to read. Joe Hill is quickly becoming a must read author for me and I look forward to checking out his collection of short stories which I have on my eReader already. If you get the chance to check out either Horns or Heart Shaped Box, I encourage you to do so. He is a talent that we all will be hearing about for years to come so get in on the ground floor! 

© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Monday, February 12, 2024

Charley Varrick (1973)

The movie opens with a small gang of thieves being led by the titular Charley Varrick. As we meet them they are about to knock over a small town bank to score a few bucks. Along with Charley is his wife Nadine, Harman, and another man who doesn’t really matter much. Spoilers he gets shot right away. See their plan goes sideways on them when a deputy checks the plates on the getaway car only to discover it is stolen. This means when they leave with the bags of cash the cops are there and a gunfight/car chase breaks out. The gang gets away but like I said one of them is dead in the bank and unfortunately Nadine is fatally wounded as well.

Here is where things get really interesting. First, we see that Charley might be sentimental as he takes the wedding ring from his wife but doesn’t seem that broken up when they leave her in the getaway car with a bomb to cover their tracks. Second, they tear open the bags to find a cool seven hundred and fifty thousand when they expected maybe twenty grand. Turns out the bank was mobbed up and not only are the cops hunting them, but a nasty hit man named Molly is on their trail as well. The rest of the movie is Charley dealing with the surviving gang member, the cops, and the mob in his efforts to get away with his life and maybe the cash.

I’m a huge movie nerd and have spent my entire life tracking down and watching all sorts of genres. Being a child of the seventies one of those genres that I’ve always loved is the crime drama. I like nothing better than watching plans being made and going awry with sometimes terrible results. The more twists and turns the better. So it was sort of a shock for me when I stumbled over Charley Varrick streaming on Netflix. This is just the sort of thing that I would have expected to have caught on HBO back in the day. Hell it stars Walter Matthau who I know better for his comedies and am a huge fan of.

The story is solid and stays on track unfolding the twists and turns as Charlie does his best to not get killed or caught. There are a lot of characters that get introduced like the mobster from Reno (played by John “Go Fuck an Iceberg” Vernon!), the crooked bank manager, and a bank examiner played by Norman Fell. This is all in addition to the surviving gang member Harmon (Andrew Robinson) and the hitman Molly (Joe Don Baker). You would think that would be too many characters muddling up the story but in reality they all serve a purpose to move the plot along nicely. Each of them has their part to play and the action quickly connects back to the primary plotline of Charley and the money.

How do they manage this? Well, it is a nice bit of storytelling thanks to a screenplay that is balanced and well thought out. The story knows exactly where it wants to go and keeps things on track. It also doesn’t hurt that the movie has a legendary director in Don Siegel. You may not recognize the name, but the man was responsible for some amazing movies. From the classic fifties science fiction movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers to later efforts with Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz, and my personal favorite The Beguiled) as well as John Wayne (The Shootist). When you are the preferred director for actors like this then you have to be great. Hell he even worked with Charles Bronson on Telefon.

There was a lot of talent both in front of as well as behind the camera. When that happens you normally get excellent results and that is what happened here. Charley Varrick is a movie that wasn’t on my radar until recently, but I can guarantee you that I will be revisiting it in the future. This is a nifty crime drama/thriller that has me looking at Walter Matthau and what he could do as an actor in a totally different way. I highly recommend everyone check this one out.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer