Fright Club: Best of Charles Band

Legendary indie horror filmmaker Charles Band joins Fright Club this week to talk about his new book Confessions of a Puppet Master, Marilyn Monroe, spotting talent, and VHS art. He even gives us some advice on our first feature film.

5. Trancers (1984)

Directed by Charles Band, the film follows a hard-boiled Blade Runner style mercenary into the past. Jack Death (Tim Thomerson) must stop a villain from killing off the ancestors of those who keep him from ruling the world. If they’re never born, he will be unstoppable, thanks to his army of zombielike Trancers.

The point is, Helen Hunt. To say that she makes the most of this material is an understatement. She’s adorable, charming, and she carves a memorable character out of less-than-stellar written material. The rest is fun, cheesy scifi.

4. Troll (1986)

The 1986 original Troll boasts a surprising hodgepodge of names in the ensemble: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Moriarty, June Lockhart (the mom from the Lost in Space TV show), Sonny Bono, as well as a who’s who of “Hey, I got to get out of here in time to be on that Love Boat episode” stardom. It’s a grab at the burgeoning genre Joe Dante created in 1984 with Gremlins, comic stuff about a troll king turning San Francisco apartment dwellers into plants.

The other thing that stands out in this 1986 flick is that the protagonist (and his father, come to think) is named Harry Potter. There’s a witch, too. Coincidence?

A good mash-up of humor and gore highlighted by the young Louis-Dreyfus in a small but funny role, it’s the kind of movie that epitomizes what producer Charles Band (who has a cameo) did best.

3. Rawhead Rex (1986)

Clive Barker penned this one. No, he did not like the film it turned out to be, but you might. Band produced this Irish horror that sees a wildly unhappy couple, their doomed children, and a small town on the Emerald Isle accosted by a reincarnated demon with a face that looks like raw meat.

Another memorable VHS cover made this one of those movies you immediately associate with video stores, and though the acting is hardly top quality, the creature design is hideous and fun.

2. Puppet Master (1989)

If any movie capitalized on the VHS box, it was Puppet Master. The tag Evil comes in all sizes looms large above a theatrical trunk, wedged open to show a group of hideous little puppets. And the film didn’t disappoint, because those little evildoers get themselves into all manner of bloody, slug-spewing trouble.

The point-of-view camerawork, fun cameos and inspired creature designs make up for a lot of script and acting weaknesses and the film easily carries that Charles Brand stamp: low budget, funny, campy, gory fun.

1. Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain. Band knew a movie worthy of distribution when he saw one, and this film became a surprising theatrical hit for him.

Jeffrey Combs, with his intense gaze and pout, his ability to mix comic timing with epic self-righteousness without turning to caricature, carries the film beginning to end. His Dr. Herbert West has developed a day-glo serum that reanimates dead tissue, but a minor foul-up with his experimentations – some might call it murder – sees him taking his studies to the New England medical school Miskatonic University. There he rents a room and basement laboratory from handsome med student Dan Caine (Bruce Abbott).

They’re not just evil scientists. They’re also really bad doctors.

Screening Room: House of Gucci, Encanto, Power of the Dog, Bruised & More

Ground and Pound

Bruised

by Hope Madden

It isn’t exactly Michelle Rosenfarb’s writing you’ll remember after viewing the MMA drama Bruised. The story itself offers a rehash of sports cliches that make the film anything but memorable. Still, there is something about it that sticks.

Part of that is the way director Halle Berry embraces the bleakness beneath the underdog sports story. Berry stars as Jackie Justice, one-time octagon phenom who lost it all and found herself drunk and cleaning toilets post-stardom.

Here’s where Berry — both behind the camera and in front — digs into something we did not get with Rocky Balboa or Maggie Fitzgerald or any of the other earnest, down-on-their-luck prizefighters in cinema. There is no scrappy optimism, no unquenchable ambition, no romantic dream.

And Justice only gets back in the game for the money.

It’s a risky move, giving us a less-than-likable protagonist and still asking for us to root for her, but Berry’s up to the task as a performer. She convinces. Justice is weary, angry, vacant and just one step ahead of all the trauma that made her fighting mad in the first place.

Here, again, is where the writing lets Berry down. Random scenes of exposition are wedged in periodically where none is needed, while other information remains weirdly—though sometimes intriguingly—vague. But certain scenes are brilliant, charged with emotion and brutality, and sometimes tenderness.

Bruised also contains a slew of really strong performances, the most interesting of which is delivered by Sheila Atim as the sage mentor/manager. Adriane Lenox, Adan Canto and Shamier Anderson also shine in supporting turns, as does Danny Boyd Jr., who has the unenviable task of creating a character out of a shameless trope. He manages.

There are workout montages. There are emotional subplots. There is backsliding and heartbreak. It wouldn’t be an underdog sports film without them. But every so often, Berry gives us something raw and surprising. The performance makes you realize her range is wider than we may have expected. The film points out that her talent is greater than expected, too.   

Nuthin’ But a G Thang

House of Gucci

by George Wolf

Just four years ago, director Ridley Scott deconstructed the Getty family’s wealth of dysfunction in the masterful All the Money in the World. House of Gucci shows he’s still got money on his mind, and his mind on the rot that can take root in such mind-altering luxury.

Based on the true events detailed in Sara Gay Forden’s bestseller, the film dissects the complete unraveling of the Gucci family dynasty, a fuse seemingly lit by the unlikely relationship between Muarizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and commoner Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga).

Though the Gucci name gets Patrizia’s attention at their first introduction, Muarizio didn’t seen to have much interest in the empire shared equally by his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and uncle Aldo (Al Pacino). But once he puts a ring on it, the mix of Patrizia’s ambition and Aldo’s invitations finally bring Maurizio into the family business.

Aldo’s own son Paulo (Jared Leto in some nifty makeup) is the Fredo in this clan, and it isn’t long before Paulo is trying to form his own back door alliance with Rodolfo, and Patrizia is Lady Macbeth-ing it everywhere from Italy to New York (complete with bewitching help from Salma Hayek as psychic Pina Auriemma).

You may have noticed that this is a pretty impressive cast. True, and even with their wheel-of-accents there’s little doubt that watching them all try to out-Italian each other in this trashy mash of The Godfather, I, Tonya, Shakespeare and The Real Housewives of Milan is the film’s biggest pleasure. But Scott and screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna can never establish a consistently compelling tone (overly random soundtrack choices don’t help, either), and the two and a half hour run time takes on curious contrasts. Even as the overall narrative has moments that drag, Maurizio’s transformation to the dark side still feels too rushed and convenient.

But Gaga proves worthy of another Oscar nom, and though the film never reaches the level of crackling relevance Scott mined in his look at the Gettys, she proves a fascinating window for the legendary director’s latest foray into an iconic family’s arc of greed, suspicion, betrayal and worse.

And if your Thanksgiving ends up going completely off the rails, House of Gucci is a star-powered and entertaining way to feel a whole lot better about your own family.

Tick, Tick, Boo!

Autumn Road

by Cat McAlpine

Riley Cusick does it all. He is the writer, director, and plays two leads in Halloween-themed horror Autumn Road. The film focuses on twin brothers Charlie and Vincent (Cusick), running a haunted house in their small hometown, and struggling actress Laura (Lorelei Linklater, Boyhood), who returns home for the anniversary of her sister’s disappearance.

Cusick establishes a wonderfully quiet but chaotic tone for his film. As a director, he has a great eye for establishing his shots, wonderfully capturing a small town filled with lonely people. A long shot of a spinning cup of cocoa. A lingering look at a dark parking lot. A masked man sprinting down a sunny highway. Cusick leaves a strong visual mark painted in warm tones.

It’s a good feature film debut done on the indie scale. But there’s room for growth. The script is weak, resulting in unrealistic dialogue that performs poorly paired with a handful of mostly wooden performances. Meanwhile, Cusick’s owl theme is haunting but heavy-handed.

Autumn Road still shines though, mostly when Cusick allows himself to become a little unhinged or when his monologues have time to ramp up into the insane. One such moment is when Vincent holds auditions for the haunted house. The scene is just the right mix of silly, campy, and genuinely disturbing.

Linklater does best with the more realistic dialogue, which allows her to be vulnerable and broken. She glows in a flashback scene with her sister. But she’s often saddled with difficult moments like suddenly mentioning her roommate’s recent death while making it about herself. “I’ve got bad luck in my bones. It follows me around like a dark cloud.” She says, conflating the disappearance of her sister with her roommate’s violent end.

Despite the genre, the violence of Cusick’s film is always shocking. Much of that violence never meets a resolution. In fact, most of the tension in the film remains unresolved, both painting a bleak picture and leaving the watcher unsatisfied. There seem to be no real-world consequences for the actions in Autumn Road.

Ultimately, Cusick’s feature-length debut is a fine effort. But his future endeavors may be best served if he dedicates his focus to a single role.

Every Little Thing She Does

Encanto

by Hope Madden

No one wants to believe themselves ordinary. Not even calm, supportive Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz). But ordinariness happens to be her defining quality because she is the first Madrigal in three generations who has no magical gifts.

Her mother can heal with food. Her sister has super strength. Her cousin can shape shift. But when the day came for Mirabel to receive her magical gift, nothing happened. When the magic of the Madrigal family — magic that has kept the entire town of Encanto in peaceful enchantment for decades — starts to crack, is it all because of Mirabel?

One of many reasons that Disney’s 60th feature Encanto charms is that this unsure adolescent does not find out she’s secretly a princess. She has no makeover. It isn’t romance that helps her see her own specialness. Thank God.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music is another reason. Infectious, upbeat and surprisingly insightful, the songs in Encanto speak to individual insecurities in a way that hardly suggests the magical nature of the film. Lyrics illustrate sincere worries about letting people down, living up to expectations and other universal and yet intimate worries.

If you worry the film sounds a bit drab and reasonable, fear not because the vibrant color, lush landscapes, intricate interiors and clever, high-energy animation keep the magic popping. Set in Colombia, Encanto reflects the magical realism favored in the literature of the land and that, too, makes for a unique cartoon experience.

John Leguizamo and Maria Cecilia Botero join Beatriz in a voice cast that brims with pathos, love and energy, just like the family they depict. Much about the complex interactions within the family feels like honest if uncharted territory for a Disney outing — flawed heroes, loving villains, and the notion that selfishness and selflessness as equally problematic.

The flip side of that coin is that the world of Encanto doesn’t feel very big and the stakes don’t feel very high. If that were the only drawback to co-directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith’s approach it would hardly be worth mentioning. Unfortunately, they undermine the complexity they find in familial love with a too-tidy ending that robs Encanto and its inhabitants of some hard-won lessons.

Leader of the Pack

The Power of the Dog

by George Wolf

Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

Psalm 22:20 pleads for protection from pack animals that attack the vulnerable. And in the first film in 12 years from writer/director Jane Campion, the leader of the pack is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Phil and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy ranchers in 1925 Montana. George is soft spoken, well-dressed, polite and empathetic. Phil is none of those things.

So Phil is nothing but resentful when their family dynamic is upended by George bringing home Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and introducing her as his new wife. Though Phil doesn’t hide his suspicions of the new Mrs. Burbank, it is Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), that becomes his new favorite target.

Peter is quiet, gentle, and artsy, the perfect foil for Phil to belittle in front of his ranch hands. A master at exposing vulnerabilities, Phil doesn’t hesitate to loudly question Peter’s masculinity and his worth at the ranch – if not in the world.

So it surprises everyone – most notably the resilient, cautious Rose – when Phil seems to reverse course and take the young man under his wing. Peter needs new skills to be accepted into the ranch life, and Phil begins taking extra time to personally mentor him, passing on lessons that Phil himself learned at the feet of local legend Bronco Honey.

Even if you haven’t read the celebrated source novel by Thomas Savage, Campion’s adaptation unfolds with enough subtle poetry to convince you that it must be a wonderful read. Onscreen, the Oscar-winning Campion (The Piano) contrasts the vast majesty of the American West (kudos to cinematographer Ari Wegner) with delicate details that shift the nature of love, trust and strength within a family.

Campion gives Plemons, Dunst and Smit-McPhee the room to craft indelible characters, and they each respond with tenderly restrained excellence. But Cumberbatch is also the leader of this pack, delivering a magnificent, completely immersive performance sure to get awards season attention. Phil is unclean, both physically and spiritually, and Cumberbatch makes him a darkly compelling character, a feeling that directly feeds the unease that comes when Phil reasses his relationship with Peter.

What made Phil such an unforgiving brute? Are his new intentions truly kind, or is Peter in danger? And maybe Peter is seeing Phil more clearly than we realize.

The Power of the Dog finds its own power in what it shows but never truly tells. It’s a film that is hauntingly lyrical and masterfully assembled, with a beauty that lingers like an echo in the Montana wilderness.

Screening Room: Ghostbusters Afterlife, King Richard, Tick Tick Boom, Zeroes and Ones and More

Remember 1984? Be a Lot Zuuler If You Did

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

by George Wolf

Have you tried to branch out, only to end up with a revolt on your hands? Perhaps fan service is right for you! In other words, if 2016’s Ghostbusters was The Last Jedi, Afterlife is The Rise of Skywalker. With a side of Goonies.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a fun trip down memory lane.

Director/co-writer Jason Reitman picks up the 1984 baton from dad Ivan, crafting a new adventure that casually ignores the 1989 sequel.

Egon Spengler’s long-estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) is being evicted from her Chicago apartment, so she takes daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace – just terrific in a completely heroic arc) and son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) to the only thing Dad left her when he died: a dilapidated farmhouse in small-town Oklahoma.

Ah, but this farm holds secrets, and it isn’t long before science whiz Phoebe is getting familiar with proton packs and Trevor is checking to see if the ECTO-1’s engine might actually turn over.

Good timing, too, because Phoebe’s teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd) has been noticing some serious seismic activity in town that he cannot explain. Turns out the Sexiest Teacher Alive is also a big fan of the original Ghostbusters, and he clues in Phoebe and her conspiracy-happy friend “Podcast” (a charming Logan Kim) about Grandpa’s heroics back in the day.

Once Trevor’s crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor from Freaky) makes it a quartet, it’s up to the kids to figure out the real reason Egon abandoned the GB’s all those years ago, what’s brewing under the farmhouse, and just how to wrangle a stage 5 apparition.

This is a film so steeped in the nostalgia for its source material that you cannot imagine it existing on its own. Is that a direct result of the savagery that greeted the female (and for what it’s worth, underrated) reboot or a natural reaction by a son following in his father’s footsteps?

Either way, the benchmark callbacks come early and often, with Reitman frequently holding the shot an extra beat just to make sure you pick up what he left for you. And while the Bill Murray zany-ness is replaced by Paul Rudd sarcasm and wisecracking from a cast of wonderful young actors, there is humor here, enough to justify the “comedy” label (which honestly, the original trailer had me questioning).

But is it fun? Oh yeah, with some slick CGI and high points that are zuuler than the other side of the pillow.

You’ll want to stay through the credits for two extra scenes, but there’s a good chance you’ll still be thinking about all that Reitman has in store during that finale. It’s plenty – maybe even enough for your eyes to stay as pufty as a certain marshmallow man.

And so it goes…

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

by Hope Madden

Closure is hard for a lot of us. Take Robert Weide. The Curb Your Enthusiasm producer and director has been working on a Kurt Vonnegut documentary since the Nineties.

A rabid fan since his first introduction to Vonnegut’s work by a high school teacher, Weide went on to teach a class on the author at the same high school. When Weide began producing documentaries for public broadcast some years later, he hand-wrote a letter to his hero, offering to make Vonnegut the subject of his next project.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote him back.

Very often, when a documentarian inserts themselves into the film, it’s hard not to wonder why. In this case, seeing Weide’s face as he recounts opening the handwritten note from his idol (which he still has) explains everything.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is not a simple biographical doc on an icon of American literature. This is a real-life depiction of one of humanity’s most common fantasies: becoming close friends with your celebrity hero.

The illuminating doc is there, too, but even that is affected by the friendship. You can see it in the trusting relationship between Weide and Vonnegut’s children, who describe a distant man they got to know more through his writing than through time spent with him.

That very intimacy likely helps Weide and co-director Don Argott (Last Days Here, Believer) uncover a rarely captured side of the famously acerbic and funny author.

A chronologically unmoored approach (very Billy Pilgrim, sans the aliens) lets the doc ease you into the subject matter. We get to know Weide, we meet Vonnegut, we find what we might hope to find about Kurt. (It’s OK to call him Kurt, we’re friends now.) He’s funny, charming, goofy, brilliant, friendly. How awesome would it be to meet [insert your name of choice here] and have them respond to you like this?

It would be awesome.

From there, Weide is as likely to gush over some act of camaraderie, fawn over some new accomplishment, or dig into a Vonnegut misstatement in hopes of greater understanding — as you would with a loved one whose behavior concerns you.

Little by little, the film peels away what we may have assumed about Kurt Vonnegut to find what was underneath it all — most of which we should have guessed at given the words he committed to the page. And though the film is overlong and perhaps slightly too wrapped up in Weide himself, it warmly and bittersweetly answers one of life’s most relatable questions.

What if my hero wanted to be my friend?