Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Let's Scare Jessica To Death

For more overlooked films go here.

When I was a kid I used to flip through the entertainment section of my local paper and ogle the lurid ads for movies that I wasn't anywhere near old enough to see. Thanks to the magic of home video I've since been able to track down most of those films that I thought would be forever out of my reach, with the result being that most of the time the movie I imagined in my head turned out to be more exciting than the real thing. I can only thank the movie gods that they made me wait thirty years before finally seeing LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) because if I had seen this movie as a child I'm sure I would have hated it. First of all, the movie doesn't feature any skeletons crawling out of lakes. There aren't any memorable set pieces and the horror depends entirely on the character's perceptions of what is happening to them. These things would have combined to make my childhood head explode. Yet despite all this JESSICA manages to be quite frightening, albeit not for those with short attention spans.

Jessica, recently release from a psychiatric hospital after suffering a breakdown, is looking to make a fresh start with her husband Duncan and friend/hanger-on Woody. They move to an isolated country farmhouse and when they arrive they find the house is already being inhabited by Emily, who apparently has been squatting there for some time. Since she seems nice enough and Woody seems to dig her they ask her to stay and join their extended family. It's not long before Jessica starts hearing voices and seeing people following her. Not wanting to be thought crazy she keeps it to herself. Of course the farmhouse has a tragic history. Nearly one hundred years before a young girl living in the house drowned in a nearby lake shortly before her wedding day. Jessica soon finds herself drawn to a photograph of the girl and her family that she finds in the attic. Hmmm, that dead girl sure looks a lot like Emily....

This movie is the very definition of a slow burn. Very little actually happens yet director John Hancock is very good at building a sense of dread that increases throughout the film's running time. the film also avoids giving easy answers. Is Jessica being driven mad? Is Emily a ghost? Or is Jessica just imagining everything? In any case, it's hard to imagine things turning out well for Jessica, which brings me to the other nice thing about this film: The characters are likable and you actually root for them. In an age when horror movie characters are usually just set up to be killed it's nice to see a movie where you hope the main character will escape alive and in one piece. A lot of the film's running time is invested in building character development and it pays off. Slow but never boring, LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is a movie to seek out. For me, it was worth the wait.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Raw Force (1982)

For more overlooked films go here.
Simply put, RAW FORCE is one of the most entertaining films of all time. It doesn't have great acting or beautiful cinematography or a nuanced screenplay. What is does have is the perfect combination of weird and stupid, which should be enough to keep anyone from checking their watch for this film's entire action-packed 83 minutes. 

The film involves a group of instructors from the Burbank School of Karate who book a bargain cruise around the Phillipines in the least seaworthy-looking ship since Gilligan took his three hour cruise. The ship, captained by Cameron "No Paycheck Too Small" Mitchell, is headed for a new destination: Warrior Island, which the brochure refers to as the home of disgraced martial artists. This doesn't sit well with crooked jade trader Thomas Speer (Ralph Lombardi, made up to look exactly like Adolph Hitler for no discernable reason). You see, he has a business arrangement with the monks of Warrior Island. He supplies them with women kidnapped from local brothels and in return they give him all the jade he wants. But like everything else in this movie, all is not what it appears to be. The monks don't want the women for sex, but for food. It turns out that human flesh gives the monks the power to raise the dead and command an army of (disgraced) zombie martial artists.

When Speer learns of the ship's destination he hires a squad of goons to dispose of all the passengers, leading to the priceless piece of dialogue over the ship's PA, "Maniacs have boarded the ship. Go back to your cabins." However, Speer and the goons have underestimated the martial arts prowess of the karate instructors as well as the ship's cook, who is also a martial arts master, and a female passenger, Cookie, who just happens to be a vacationing member of the LAPD SWAT team.  The goons succeed in destroying the ship, causing our heroes to become shipwrecked on Warrior Island. However, the monks aren't too happy about intruders invading their home so they force them to battle to the death against their (disgraced) kung fu zombie army.

The above description doesn't even begin to convey how crazy this movie is, and I mean that as a complement. Everything in this movie, from the dialogue to the sets and costumes, is just insane. Just when you think it can't get any nuttier, it does. It also helps that it's really well paced and doesn't overstay its welcome. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a good cannibal monk movie but in my opinion RAW FORCE really hits the spot if you're looking for some no brainer fun. 

The trailer may not be work safe, btw.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: I Need That Record! (2008)

For more overlooked films go here.

Anyone who has browsed the shelves of a big box retailer such as Best Buy in the past few years will surely have noticed that the shelf space devoted to music and video media has drastically shrunk. In addition, the selection of titles being offered for in-store purchase has also dwindled. When this is taken into account along with the disappearance of local "mom and pop" stores it creates a cause for concern for those who want to be offered something other than the latest releases from the major labels. I NEED THAT RECORD! is a documentary that examines the reasons why local retailers have vanished and how the closing of these stores have created a void in the lives of collectors and possibly the culture itself.

The film begins with a history of the record industry, including the payola scandals of the 1950s and the rise of formatted radio. It then looks at the emergence of corporations like Clear Channel, with their rigidly enforced playlists and emphasis on advertising dollars over music. The film then turns to its true subject, the independent record store, run by fans and seen as a place where like-minded collectors could gather, meet and turn each other on to music to music they wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to. Store owners and customers are interviewed, each explaining how these stores have created a sense of community among their customers.

Unfortunately, by the mid to late 1990s many of these stores had begun to close their doors. The film examines several reasons for this including the buying power of the big box stores, who were willing to sell music at a loss in order to increase store traffic, and especially the rise of Internet file sharing, which caused an industry wide slide in record sales that continues to this day. The film also looks at the greed of the major labels, who continue to try to charge almost $20 for a product that costs less than a dollar to produce, as well as the rise of Internet stores like Amazon, which is able to sell music at a much lower price point than the indie stores. 

While the film doesn't make many points that haven't been made elsewhere regarding why people are shunning the record industry, it does make a convincing case regarding the loss of a place for fans to gather and socialize. While much of this socialization has moved to online bulletin boards, it's not the same as being able to meet people face to face. Likewise, while just about every album is readily available on Amazon, the thrill of the hunt is gone. A large part of the fun of collecting is sifting through countless bins full of junk, looking for buried treasure. That's one experience that the Internet just can't replicate.