South of Heaven: West of Hell (2000)

Dwight Yoakam’s directorial debut is unsurprisingly a western, South of Heaven :West of Hell. For fans of the offbeat, this is a bit of a find, being closer in tone and content to High Plains Drifter and the TV series Deadwood than anything John Wayne might have appeared in. The characters are often incoherent and randomly motivated, and the pace is uneven: it ambles along uneventfully for an hour or so, then characters start to die unpleasantly with little logic and a heavy debt to Sam Peckinpah.

It’s very well-made for such a cheap movie but is also very patchy, which will be no surprise to anyone who’s heard Yoakam’s albums. The director of photography is James Glennon, who went on to perform a similar role on Deadwood, and there’s an amazing supporting cast composed of Yoakam’s friends, who must have done it for nothing. Vince Vaughn is the only one who takes it seriously, and Billy Bob Thornton is only there to convince Yoakam to appear on his album (which is surprisingly good, but that’s another story…)

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness is John Carpenter’s under-rated shocker from 1987, with the admittedly loopy story of the Devil’s son somehow being trapped under a church in LA in a giant vat of green shampoo.

The budget doesn’t really stretch far enough, the script is dreadfully patchy but some of the imagery is unforgettable, especially the liquid mirrors and the broadcasts from the future. And Alice Cooper kills someone with half a bike.

Carpenter’s score is typically minimal but as always he knows exactly how to use it, especially in the movie’s opening and the frantic finale. The cast do their best with roles that they are palpably unsuited for. Donald Pleasence is no more a priest than he was a US President, Jameson Parker is charisma-free and only Lisa Blount seems remotely credible.

The commentary track also has Peter Jason, one of the regular cast employed by Carpenter and a man who clearly requires a script to be interesting. The comments from the man himself are much better and it’s interesting to see Carpenter now claiming that it’s all a bit of fluff and not the serious philosophical work he seemed to think at the time of its release.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★½☆

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Eight Legged Freaks (2002)

In the early stages Eight Legged Freaks is exactly what you expect and want, as an uncredited Tom Noonan breeds various ugly spiders and local businessmen cause them to grow huge and cover up the plot.

The initial CGI effects are also very good, but eventually the effects take over the movie and you have that rarity, a creepy-crawly movie that’s not creepy at all. It’s never static and is technically well-made, and there are a lot of genre in-jokes, but compared to say, Tremors, the script is flabby and the monsters lack menace. And David Arquette tries hard but the movie requires a real actor to hold it together.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The earliest of the ’70s disaster movie cycle, made before the cliches became too apparent. The concept and sets are great but the execution is not quite right. Maybe it’s the fact that Gene Hackman is a very unlikely minister, or perhaps it’s the lack of any visible bad guy to wish to their death.

Added to that and the ‘70s fashions, you’ve got no actual plot to speak of, apart from a heavy-handed religious subtext.

On the plus side, the Christmas tree scene is terrific and Shelley Winters is funny. As with The Towering Inferno, you get more extras on the DVD than you can be bothered with.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★½☆☆

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Dead Men Walking (2005)

Dead Men Walking bears no relation to the similarly-titled Sean Penn movie. It’s a zombie movie set in a prison and I’d like to know if the title came before the story. The movie doesn’t really live up to the idea, due to a mix of low budget, bad actors and lots of MTV-style strobing lights and jumpy editing, but on the plus side the gore is way over the top and it doesn’t have too many stupid jokes. Hardly Romero but gorehounds will enjoy it.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Starship Troopers 2: Hero Of The Federation (2004)

Brand new, but going straight to DVD everywhere, is Starship Troopers 2: Hero Of The Federation. The budget is noticeably lower than the original, and the whole thing is generally less ambitious with none of the political overtones (although that’s a good thing in my book as I regard Verhoeven’s original as overrated in that regard). FX veteran Phil Tippett takes over as director and we get a basic siege movie which is moderately exciting. The cast is nearly as bad as in the first movie with Ed Lauter being the only recognisable face. Commentary track, 5.1 sound etc etc.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Bubba Ho Tep (2002)

Bubba Ho Tep was an unforgettable short story by Texan writer Joe Lansdale published back in 1994, and ever since then I’ve watched the progress towards the movie with bated breath. The good news is that it’s out now on region1 DVD and it’s an almost perfect adaptation.

Campbell as The King

Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame stars as an aged Elvis Presley, living out his last days in an East Texan rest home where no-one will believe his story. Ossie Davis co-stars as a fellow resident claiming to be JFK (dyed black in a CIA cover-up), and together they take on an Egyptian soul-sucking mummy who is bumping off the residents…

Now this might sound like a wacky comedy, but it’s played dead straight and somehow manages to be a moving and sincere plea on behalf of old and forgotten people everywhere. Campbell and Davis are both brilliant, and it’s directed with surprising restraint by Don Coscarelli, although Lansdale’s earthy dialogue is mostly retained and may well offend many people.

The DVD contains loads of extras, including a serious commentary by the star and director, and a second commentary by Campbell in character as ‘The King’ which isn’t quite as sincere. By some miracle this DVD has sold in huge numbers and hopefully we’ll get Bubba Nosferatu in a year or two, as well as a deserved boost to Lansdale’s profile. Buy it, you know it makes sense.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★☆

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Spartan (2004)

Another new R1 DVD is Spartan, due for a UK cinema release later this year. Val Kilmer plays an undercover agent working for a shadowy agency, and the plot involves a bid to rescue the President’s kidnapped daughter. It’s written and directed by David Mamet in a confusing Michael Mann-lite sort of way, and there’s a fine supporting cast including Bill Macy and Ed O’Neill. There’s also an impossible twist about an hour in to the movie which probably makes no sense but keeps you on your toes.

The DVD is basic but well-made, with the only notable extra being a solo commentary by Kilmer, who loves everyone involved and is obviously keen to put his ‘difficult’ image to rest.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Omen (2006)

The original version of The Omen never struck me as a particularly good movie, and I couldn’t see much point in doing it again. Having seen the remake, I’m even more puzzled.

It’s more or less a straight copy, with some of the set-pieces changed and with some real-life incidents dragged in to give it some dubious relevance. The casting is a bit strange; Liev Schreiber is a good actor but lacks Gregory Peck’s age and authority, and Mia Farrow has a pointless cameo. It’s directed by Irishman John Moore, who is always good value on DVD extras, and it will pass the time without ever surprising you, whether or not you’re familiar with the original.

Out now in R1.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★½☆☆

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Very Bad Things (1998)

This is Peter Berg’s first movie as writer and director (you’d recognise his face, as he’s appeared in lots of movies as an actor, for example The Last Seduction) He shows a good clear eye for visual detail, but that’s the only nice thing I have to say.

It feels a bit foolish ranting about the amoral stance of the movie, as that’s obviously the ‘idea’ behind the movie. If I was being charitable, I’d guess that it’s meant to be a story of men discovering their moral sense after unthinkingly going too far (kinda like A Simple Plan, which I watched just before this). But Berg’s movie leaves a very bad taste, so I see no reason to be charitable.

The only other possible excuse is that it’s meant to be a black comedy, but that’s ruled out by the simple fact that there are only one or two mildly amusing moments in the whole thing. The fact that’s it’s very competent on a technical level (apart from breaking into rock-video mode every few minutes), glossily photographed and stars some of the most popular new stars in Hollywood only makes it more reprehensible. Not to mention the fact everyone involved seems to be smugly revelling in their own ‘outrageousness’, like spoilt teenagers. Jon Favreau scratches out all the goodwill he earned in Swingers, Cameron Diaz continues her efforts to make herself unattractive against the odds, Christian Slater continues to believe his own caricature, and only Daniel Stern seems to have the grace to be embarrassed. And he starred in the Home Alone movies. Totally worthless.

Come on BBFC, if you’re going to ban anything, start here. (Well, I reckon I’m the first one to get to the end of writing a review without commenting on the title…)

Mild Peril Rating: ★½☆☆☆

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