Thursday, December 31, 2009

All Roads End Here

THE ROAD (2009)
D. John Hilcoat
Dimension Films


This adaptation of the much-loved Cormac McCarthy book about a father and son surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland has been a long time coming. First announced for release in October 2008 the studio claimed it was not ready due to massive amounts of special effects shots left to do. It was reset for a year later, but bumped again to be released during Oscar season during the winter. Then the Weinstein brothers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to roll the movie out in 100 theaters with little to no fanfare, and quietly added a few more in the following weeks as reviews came in. Basically, they dumped the movie.

In some ways, it's understandable. This is a hard film to categorize and even harder to sell. The trailers for it were downright misleading, opening with shots of some sort of global cataclysm, actively showing the world ending. Sort of a darker, more realistic version of the Roland Emmerich movie 2012. Problem being such footage isn't in the film and never was. The entire story of the movie takes place AFTER these events - long after, with the events themselves never names or discussed. The trailers also make the film look like some sort of action, horror hybrid piece. While the movie is indeed horrifying, it most certainly is not an action piece, and not really a horror film either. It's a brooding drama about survival, sustaining life and teaching your young to be a better person than yourself. The story is about preparing your child for the big, scary, ugly world, while not becoming the monsters you want to protect them against. All the apocalypses in this story are really personal ones.

Viggo debates using one of those all important last bullets.

The story begins ever briefly with Viggo Mortinson waking up in his bed to an earthquake. His pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) enters the room, chaos can be heard from outside in the world. We realize this is in fact a dream of a life long before as he's asleep on the cold ground next to a child. They are wrapped in a plastic sheet and filthy to the bone. Clearly they have been here a while.

Then my main bugaboo with the film begins: a narration/inner monologue from Mortinson that explains far too much of what's happening. As he and the boy awaken, the narration tells us there was some apocalypse, though doesn't say what kind, and that everyone died off. Those who were left became scavengers and cannibals, while food, gas and most importantly, shoes, became the only commodities left to fight and search for. This is over a montage that shows the two of them walking around trying to find food, gas, as well as lots of shots of their ragged shoes. They find an old barn that holds a family that have hung themselves, and when the boy asks Viggo why they did it, he replies "You know why. To be together." Moments later, Viggo is showing the boy his revolver and reiterating to him that they only have two bullets left, one for him and one for the son. He shows him how to put the gun into his mouth to successfully kill himself if the time comes.

There is a very strong "Lone Wolf and Cub" vibe going on in the later part of this film.

But mostly they wander about this broken wasteland of gray trees, dank water, and forever rain and snow. They survive on bugs, the sparce remains of picked-over carcasses, and the occasional one soda that was wedged into an ancient machine. All the while, the father tries to explain things to his son as to why they must continue on. Why they must get to the south. Flashbacks show us that the mother wanted them all to commit suicide together years ago to avoid the nightmare before them, but the father refused. So she left him, walked into the cold and presumably died. Now he and his son are sort of doing the same, but fighting the elements to try and survive. Often, the boy seems to want to die - he wants to see his mother again, he's tired of being cold, hungry and alone. He's also very aware that he's the only child left in the world, since the other ones were eaten by roving packs of people who have turned cannibal to get by. When they meet a group of such feral survivalists and the father is forced to use one of the bullets to save his son, there is a paradigm shift in their relationship. The son sees a savagery in his father awaken that he is uncomfortable with. A willingness to resort to violence that he previously thought separated them from "the bad guys".

Eventually, the movie becomes a trial of which one of the main characters is going to die first, since both of them are clearly ill. At this point, the entire movie becomes a bleak spread of hopelessness that's hard to get through. The final curtain call of the film feels like a nice positive wrap up, until you connect a couple of dots from earlier and then it really isn't at all, at least that's how I read it. Movies do not come any more bleak and ravaged as The Road.

But in a way, they don't come as beautiful either. There are moments of unique tranquility throughout the film. This is a rare movie that allows itself the chance to often just be quiet and exist in the world it has created. The vistas while father and son watch the horizon smolder and burn, the miles and miles of fallen dead trees. Many empty houses, alone on a clear landscape in a dead sky. These almost painterly like canvases are punctuated with moments of humanity, like when the duo find a waterfall and plunge in nude and laughing to get clean. Or when they finally stumble on the mother load of food and supplies and hole up for a while and Dad proceeds to smoke some pot and drink some Jack Daniels. Or when the son gets exceedingly upset when he thinks he's seen another little boy in a burned out apartment window, but the father knows this is impossible.

Even when you are the last brother on Earth you still have a hard time getting any respect.

There are horribly shocking moments too, mostly to do with the cannibalism which is not played down. There are guts strewn on a street, a basement full of emaciated, some limbless, people that are basically being kept as cattle, and sinks full of facial parts that have been stripped from bodies. It never goes full throttle into CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST fare, but is forthright enough to be very upsetting. Especially to those not sure what to expect.

My largest problem here was not the movie but how I saw it. I have been waiting over a year to see this and was really pissed when the release pattern was screwed up. So when it hit our local art theater I was relieved it was gonna play my town at all. But little did I know the theater would stick it in their tiny 50 seat auditorium where the screen is so small someone's home theater set up is probably more impressive. This is a movie where the cinematography is a character, but I was watching it on like a nine or ten foot screen, being projected so low that all the heads in front of me were now players in the movie too. This frustrated me so much that I never properly got into the movie. I felt completely distanced the entire time, like I was always outside the frame trying to get in. This is a movie that should have been big, overpowering and washingover me. Instead it was like seeing it as a postage stamp.

Still it is a powerful, incredibly acted, impeccably shot and directed film. Director John Hilcoat's previous films THE PROPOSITION and GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD are quit excellent work, and this, though not quite as good as those two, still carries on his tradition of top notch production. Only the narration (which I've heard IS partially in the book and partially created for the movie) is annoying and a misfire.

Review © Andrew Copp

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Chas Balun, Rest In Piece(s)

The book was THE GORE SCORE and I was probably 16 or 17 years old. Maybe even a bit younger. A slim tome, not even knocking in at a hundred pages as I recall, but it was a groundbreaking piece of work, especially to mine eyes. To my little mind who was only exposed to FANGORIA and what horror movies I had the forethought to rent because of that magazine, THE GORE SCORE was a fucking revelation. I just assumed movies like GATES OF HELL or those other lower end imports sucked because I had not heard of them. I saw no coverage, knew nothing of what they were about. And didn't care, I was all about Freddy, or the latest movie. RomeroChas Balun trepanned my skull and poured in a world full of new horror with that one book. And he didn't fucking stop for many years. MORE GORE SCORE, HORROR HOLOCAUST, THE DEEP RED HORROR HAND BOOK, DEEP RED MAGAZINE and most importantly his column in GOREZONE magazine (the most missed magazine of the mainstream horror genre in my opinion). That motherfucker laid his tracks into the genre and let a lot of people like me know that horror only BEGAN where most of us thought it ended.

This trail blazing old hippie of horror died December 18th, 2009 after a long fight with cancer. For reasons I am not privy too (nor should I be, I am not family) this was not made public until today. Though his writing about the genre had trailed off, the loss felt from his passing is still a huge one. His presence was important with his working meaning a lot to an entire generation of us out here. Hell, him and his work meant a hell of a lot to me.

Without his work I sincerely doubt I would be making films today. I mean that in all honesty. There is a direct connection between his raw enthusiasm for the upcoming independent filmmakers and my not only wanting to be a filmmaker, but having the courage to actually do it, when the hurdles in my life would become too large. His writing would often help me to believe that people out there could find the kind of work I wanted to make. He often wrote of the new artists in his books and columns, reminding us that the old guard, the Romero's, Cronenberg's etc had to have come from somewhere and that probably reading his shit right then were people that had that edge, that burning desire to break the genre wide open and be heard. This was a consistent theme in his stuff and it meant a fuck-ton to me.

I read HORROR HOLOCAUST so much that it literally fell apart. I still have that copy with the pages loose. I proudly have all the issues of DEEP RED, which is where. like many others, I discovered the work of Buddy Giovanazzo who now stands among my favorite filmmakers. I still read those issue to this day, having read them more times than I can honestly count. The enthusiasms for the genre always apparent.

But Chas was never one to back down from his opinion either. He didn't like the direction he saw the genre going in the late 80's and was very vocal about it. The whole horror comedy bullshit that was the studio's answer to being bullied by various censorship venues was something he rallied against often. He screamed about sequels, the lack of originality, the sacred cows of the genre selling out and getting lazy. He had no personal stakes in the genre so he could say what he wanted. He made his living as a graphic designer, so he was not beholden to the industry to be nice. this only endeared him more to the people who counted. The fans. The people who agreed with many of his opinions, and began to champion the older films he was helping to dig up and rediscover. The first place I read about LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END ST. was in Balun's PIECE 'O MIND Column. Same with FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. These amazing grindhouse films that we all talk endless about online now, that have special edition DVD's were once only mentioned in hushed whispers and tones and gotten through illicit bootlegs and trading of tapes. And it was Chas Balun who was championing them. He was among the first people to tell horror fans to wake up and get laser disc players, to start buying Japanese import tapes, to start looking in your local ethic shops for alternate cuts of movies and to start embracing Foreign movies such as Hong Kong cinema. All of which became standard operating procedure a few years later for the true horror fanatic. But Chas was there first leading the way.

Then there was the controversy. Oh yes the controversy. It was Chas Balun who was the first to introduce to these shores the work of Jorg Buttgereit, Andreas Schnass, and the GUINEA PIG films. This stuff would have eventually filtered in anyway I suppose, but it was the writing in his books that woke people up to this stuff first and for-most. Realistically I think few people jumped on the Andreas Schnass stuff outside of the catchy title of the VIOLENT SHIT trilogy, though they remain popular to this day for some reason. But Buttgereit's NEKROMANTIK became a certified underground sensation thanks to one very small review in Deep Red magazine (and then later another mention in one, now defunct SLAUGHTERHOUSE magazine). Tapes got traded, the movie was bootlegged as it was not available any other way at the time. It lived up to the hype and made a splash in the underground. Eventually Film Threat home video picked it up as well as Buttgereit's other films. To gain favor and public attention they went after Chas Balun as a "bootlegger" starting a war. Balun never advertised as a tape source, though he would send you a list if you asked. He would gladly trade instead of sell you anything. It was pretty far from his vocation and only something he did as a way to expand the collection and get stuff that others could not see out to them. If it was not for Chas Balun, NEKROMANTIK would have not had the fanbase to even been a title worth distributing at that point (I am sure it was Film Threat's flagship title). This all climaxed with Film Threat Editor Chris Gore getting a beer poured on his head in public at a Fangoria convention. Nothing much more ever came of it than that.

The Guinea Pig thing went a little deeper after Chas had made a few tapes of those movies for friends. Fellow writer Dennis Daniels (who was writing for Film Threat at the time) showed one at a party that included some Hollywood "names" including Charlie Sheen and Adam Rifkin (can Rifkin even really be called a Hollywood name though) who were both convinced what they saw was a legitimate snuff film. Now, Sheen I can forgive, he was probably really high at that point in his life, but Rifkin is a filmmaker who has made movies with lots of special effects. He fucking well should have known better. They went to the FBI and reported it. Somehow pretty much the entire DEEP RED "Family" was thrown under the bus in the process to the feds as having actual snuff films. Of course once the Feds investigated and saw the episode that was behind the scenes footage it all became a moot point. And a rather embarrassing one at that.

Not too long after that Chas started drifting away from the Genre. His writing became more and more sparse, with only a couple of books in the late 90's and 2000's. His discouragement with where the genre went was obvious in those tomes. His enthusiasm was almost gone it seemed. If you watch the incredible documentary IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST about the 1997 FANTASIA film festival there is some telling footage of Chas in there really taking to task filmmaker Nacho Cerda for his movie AFTERMATH which Balun basically considered to be just "gorenography". He also didn't appreciate the raw footage shown of festival organizer Karem Hussain's SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY either. Chas seems honestly distressed by the films on display there. Later some of his writing expounds upon how the newer wave of filmmakers seem totally intent on just out-doing each other. Going for the gore shot and nothing else. Who can be more brutal and vile than the other guy at the expense of everything else. At the time I disagreed with him violently about that. I think AFTERMATH is a fine film. But as time has wore on, I really have gotten what he was talking about now. After seeing this current generation of independent horror filmmakers that are doing just exactly what Chas was saying. Complete and utter shit like A BLADE ABORTION have shown that he was right about where this was all going.

My own personal contact with Balun started in the mid to late 90's when I traded some tapes with him. He was the first person that I got some "underground" and uncut movies from. I got an uncut copy of MEET THE FEEBLES from him that I went on to were the hell out. I later when working at the local art house theater, booked a 35mm print of because I had loved that tape so much. I also got MEET THE FEEBLESLAST HOUSE ON DEAD END ST. (which I would go on to write a sequel to many years later that came "this close" to getting made with orignal LHODES director Roger Watkins before he too passed away) and some other compilations that Chas had done himself among many other things. I made my first compilation tape ever and sent it to Chas. He sent me my first copy of THE HOLY MOUNTAIN as I needed it for a film class (my obsession for Jordorowsky then exploded). I finally met Chas Balun in 1997 at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in Las Angeles. I was there with my friend Terek Puckett who had just moved to L.A. and Jim VanBebber who was about to move there. That weekend was crazy and I met a LOT of other people such as Buddy G. (who said the trailer for my then in progress film THE MUTILATION MAN was "fucking sick and twisted" one of the best compliments I have ever gotten), Bill Lustig and John Lazar aka Z. Man Bartel himself. But getting to sit down with Chas Balun at the hotel restaurant and have a 1:00 am dinner, just he, I and Terek was probably the highlight of the trip. Just calm, cool, no bullshit or pretension chillin out talking about movies. I remember he confided that at that point he had really gone back to his roots and was into the 50's Sci-Fi movies like EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCES and INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN. He was even jacked up to see INDEPENDENCE DAY! The next day one of the big panels at the convention was for the BLADE RUNNER reunion (one of the last appearances of Brion James unfortunately) and William Sanderson was there. Chas Balun was among the first people to ask a question and naturally he asked Sanderson about FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. Sanderson squirmed and hemmed and hawed but answered the question, but then another one from the crowd, came. Soon the Q&A had been derailed from BLADE RUNNER to FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE with Balun leading the charge. Sanderson went from being embarrassed of this quasi racist bit of his ugly past to willing to openly talk about it as he realized the crowd loved the movie and appreciated his work. All because of Chas Balun.

I regret that I lost touch with Chas over the years. I often thought to myself that I should send him my latest movies, but then didn't. I think I was afraid he would lump my work in with the generation of people who are just in it for the shock for shock's sake. Now I regret it. I should have let him know that I am making movies because his writing kept me consistently enthused enough to continue. When I was basically kicked out of film school for making content they disapproved of, it was Balun's writing that convinced me it didn't matter that my heart was true to what I was doing. I DID tell him that when I met him. So at least I got that much right by him. I started my fanzine because I admired what he was doing, and I still write this blog for that same reason. Last year we lost the great writer Bill Landis (as flawed as some of his views may have been he was a hell of a writer) and now we've lost Chas. We are clearly at the end of an era. Michael Weldon better go get a health check up stat!!!

© Andrew Copp

Below is the trailer for "CHUNKBLOWER" a film that was written by Chas Balun and to be directed by Jim VanBebber. This trailer was all that ever got made. I read the script for it, and it could have been described as THE HILLS HAVE EYES meets GUINEA PIG in an urban setting. Truthfully in the climate that horror films were at in the 90's, this was NEVER going to get made.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Leo Fong is looking for REVENGE!

D. Jay Wertz

Media Blasters/ Code Red/ Rare Flicks Box Set #3 1.85

My Leo Fong obsession continues. This revenge fueled swordplay movie was made in 1977 but looks to have not been actually in theaters to maybe as late as 1980 (I could be wrong about that). This time our dearest hero Mr Fong takes a creative backseat, only acting and producing, allowing for other folks to take the reigns. But his reliable acting troupe is here and accounted for as Stack Pierce, Cameron Mitchell as well as several very familiar faces in the background and stunt teams pepper the area. This is a Fong production through and through.

Leo Fong in the house! And lookin' for revenge!

The story starts out in the Philippines circa 1945 as an American platoon is about to liberate a jungle plantation occupied by the Japanese. Inside the Commanding Japanese officer is actually shown to be a rather upright, honorable man, with a son and wife. One of the American Soldiers in particular, a dude named Steadman (no relation to Oprah's stud apparently) knows he is gonna face a court marshall after this raid and is not a happy man. So he goes in guns blazing. He and a couple of other soldiers kill the Japanese officer and rape his wife, in front of the kid, then killer her too. When an American soldier finds them, the motherfucker panics and kills that cat too! All the while another soldier has cowardly stood by and watched the whole mess go down, refusing to participate or stop the madness. Steadman manages to spin the whole mess to look like the Woman attacked them and killed the soldier, and had to be killed.

I Leo Fong Bless this motherfucka killin blade in hopes that this scene will be lifted for Kill Bill in twenty years or so...

Flash forward thirty years later and the little boy is now Leo Fong, so you know asses are gonna be fucked up. He is seen practicing with a Samuria sword and mumbling about Bushido, which is a Samurai code of honor and vengeance. He goes to his job as the head of a trading company and says his goodbyes to his super hot secretary letting her know in no uncertain terms it is up to her to run the show and leaves for Manila.

Meanwhile all over the USA older dudes are leaving and heading to Manila as well. Seems there is a big reunion of soldiers going down there. Six of the big bad soldier boys from the big WWII are getting together to rehash old times. The commander has grown up to become a chain smoking Cameron Mitchell (rather subdued in this movie for once) and his right hand man Washington is now Stack Pierce. The evil fucker Steadman is now played by Hol Bokar and the coward is Phillip Baker Hall who simply owns his role. The plot from here is simple Leo Fong will hunt them down one by one, and kill them, Samurai style. Along the way we will get two barroom brawls, lots of disco dancing, and incredible disco styled lounge number about the Zodiac sung by a Philippino duo, Stack Pierce enduring far too many racial slurs from the Steadman character, and more than a few sequences that seem to have been revised for the KILL BILL movies. Oh, yeah and some cockfighting too, with the most amiable cockfighters in the history of the sport. These guys are just so happy to be doing something, anything, that they are filled with simple, JOY to just be spending time together. Very weird.

But in the last half hour, the movie changes. It goes from being a kind of weird, but fun action romp, to having a rather serious, even dark, edge. The film finds its footing and heart beat, with the writing getting intensely better. From the moment Fong's character confronts the Coward, well actually the moment before that. When the Coward is with the kind hearted Hooker, and he cannot perform with her because of the years of guilt and alcohol he has abused himself with, the movie hits a melancholy note. A note that is, just right. When the Coward starts to beg Fong not to kill him because he IS a coward, then stops to ask for a drink and tells him, he has "been dead for years, that he is not a man, hasn't lived as a man, and wants to finally die like a man", it is some poetic shit. Some Peckinpah, poetic shit. And Fong's acting in the moment when he HAS to kill him is up to par too. The whole scene is just fucking sublime. It is stuff like this, moments like these, that keep me combing through these exploitation movies. This is the kind of stuff that in mine eyes, is BETTER filmmaking that the crap that is shoved down our throats in the multiplexes today.


There are plenty of good things after this scene. A beautiful double montage as Cameron Mitchell visits the war memorial/graveyard in Manila for American soldiers, while at the same time Leo Fong visits a war torn, rusting monument to a major battle field where many Japanese lives were lost. It is a montage with no narration just images and war sounds and a ton of emotional impact about how wars kills indiscriminately. The film has a rather sad, but tidy wrap up, and a final line delivery by Mitchell that at first seems kind of maudlin, but soon as he is done saying it, the truth to it weighs in. the final walk off line of the movie, though clearly over stated, is actually pretty profound.

So what you end up getting is a revenge/action film, that is less action and more philosophical, anti-war film. With bar fights, decapitations, lounge singing, and lots of 70's actors boozing it up. I'm in exploitation groove heaven here guys. And this is a fucking great movie.

"What's for dinner? Oh I've already had some head today..."

The DVD here in the Rare Flix box set #3 is in bad shape though. Clearly taken from either a 1 inch video master or several different masters, it is a mess. The color timing is all over the map, with is shifting from one scene to the next, sometimes one shot to the next. The video rolls during several scenes (tipping off that it is from a video master), the sound levels are mixed for shit (though that could be the low budget of the original production). Even with bad materials, there was clearly very little effort put into cleaning this up. There are two trailers for the movie, one under the original title and one with the REVENGE OF THE BUSHIDO BLADE title dubbed in. Some "deleted" scenes that amount to roughly ten seconds of alternate shots. best of all is that there is a Leo Fong commentary, which I had not listened to as of yet. But considering how stone faced he can be during his movies, I fear he might be as well during a commentary. But I bet you can feel him staring at you if he is. Just waiting to kick your ass.

Review © Andy Copp

I could not find a trailer for this movie, so this classic one for Fong's LOW BLOW will have to suffice.