Thursday, July 28, 2016

Night of the Zombies (1980)

As a kid, trips to the video store meant many things to me; aside from renting something cool, above all, I absolutely loved perusing the Horror section and checking out all the incredible covers!  Of course, there were many, many covers that stuck out and either slightly scared me or made that internal voice inside me shout "COOL!"  One in particular belonged to Night of the Zombies, a film which I didn't actually get to see until about 1996 or so when I picked up a grey-market bootleg release from Creature Feature.
Of the many titles this movie has, this is the most common.
Let's get something out of the way right off the bat:  Night of the Zombies (or Hell of the Living Dead, as it's more commonly known on digital media) is not a good all.  It's poorly acted, has shoddy direction, mind-numbing dialogue, baffling editing choices (hello random jungle stock footage), a ripped off soundtrack and, depending on which version you're watching, has a horribly murky picture!  But it's oh so much fun!
Dawn of the Dead comparisons be damned!
What little story there is begins at a top secret research facility where some scientists are developing something called Operation Sweet Death.  Of course, all Hell breaks loose and, the entire facility is gassed by their newly created chemical, effectively killing everyone.  This all starts when a zombie rat bites one of the scientists!  From there, we move to an "elite" commando unit (ie: a no-budget version of Dawn of the Dead's SWAT team) attempting to thwart some local hippies who demand research facilities such as the one we just saw get shut down.  Our crew of wanna-be tough guys shoots first and asks questions later, apparently being the best of the best so to speak. 
I can't wait to see Ethel's face when she finds this in her soup!
Our heroes are soon informed that they've been assigned to investigate the facility seen at the start since communication has been lost.   Along the way, the commandos run into a journalist and her cameraman who have just been attacked in a local village by several zombies -- including a zombie child!  From there, our four commandos and their new journalist friends (hmmm...sounds like a familiar combination from another zombie movie we've all seen, no?) continue their journey to the research facility.  Along the way, there are seemingly endless shots of wild animal stock footage, multiple zombie attacks (and decent gore), as the film plods to its inevitable conclusion.
Hey! Anyone got any extra tickets?
Notorious Italian director Bruno Mattei (under the pseudonym of "Vincent Dawn"...see what he did there?) handles the action here, which I guess could be called successful . . . in that I've seen much, much worse films and shot-on-video movies.  However, when combined with a poor budget and a weak script, it's hard to believe even George Romero could've gone for the win here! 
I don't think this is how to make kids' lunches healthier!
While watching Night of the Zombies, the first clue that we're in familiar territory comes in the fact that this film straight-up lifts portions of Goblin's scores from Dawn of the Dead and Contamination!  While I'm not sure exactly how that happened (or how it got by Richard Rubenstein), it does make for some jarring musical cues that ultimately get quite repetitive; much like the Dario Argento cut of Dawn of the Dead, there are only so many times one can hear "Zombi" before it gets boring.  Of course, the team-up of commandos/journalists is also borrowed from Romero's classic . . . why does it seem that so many Italian zombie movies ALWAYS have a journalist involved somewhere and/or start out in New York City? 
Seen here:  Geraldo Rivera speaking with protesters at the DNC.
As I said earlier, this film REALLY plods along . . . in fact, I've often thought about doing some slight editing to it to drop some of the endless stock footage (borrowed from Nuova Guinea, l'isola dei cannibali) and tighten up some of the sequences.  When the group reaches a native village, the film suddenly becomes like a mondo pseudo-documentary due to the abundance of stock footage, which paints the indigenous people as some sort of cannibals.  In fact, this footage doesn't even match the actual footage Mattei shot; the actual natives are clearly emaciated, while the zombified dead who attack are muscular and have current hairstyles!

Do you have a moment to talk about our lord and savior "Uggh"?
At its heart, there's a pretty decent story here, but for me, the action really doesn't start to get good until our heroes encounter an abandoned house -- which is soon overrun with zombies in a pretty cool attack sequence.  Here, the action significantly picks up with glorious zombie attacks and lots of gore! 
"Wait, you mean we're not in a sequel to Dawn of the Dead?"
The Dawn of the Dead "borrowing" continues in the final scenes at the research facility, as the last remaining commandos are picked off (one even in/on some sort of elevator!) and another is bitten and returns, to lead a heard of zombies back to the last survivor!  

Easily one of the coolest shots in the entire film!
The zombie makeups are all over the place.  Make-ups range from the grey/blue skin tones of Dawn of the Dead to purple and green tones and then, some kinda grizzly-looking specials that might be at home in a Fulci picture.  It's almost as if several different effects people worked on the film at different times! 

A good portion of the budget must have been spent here!
While Night of the Zombies/Hell of the Living Dead/Virus is often a mixed bag, it's still a gory hoot that is truly a product of its time and must have been awesome to see in the grindhouse theaters of Times Square back in the day!  If you're looking for a tastelessly fun movie night, this is the one for you!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Ride The Lightning: 32 Years of Being Strapped In The Electric Chair

These days, it's possible to find anniversaries in pretty much anything -- and, to be honest, it gets more and more mind-boggling when certain films reach their 20yr or 30yr mark.  The same eye-opening sentiments can be said for records, too, as not a day goes by where I'm not reminding my wife of some musical anniversary.  (take a peek at my piece of Metallica's Load on its 20th anniversary last month)  Hey, time flies, right?  And it's no different for a little record released on July 27, 1984 . . . Metallica's Ride The Lightning. 

I can still remember the first time I met Ride The Lightning; it was a hot, summer day in the early 90s ('92 or '93 perhaps) as The Black Album had already blown up and quickly spread like the black plague among my friends.  We were over at my buddy John's house and he and his brother Dan were raving about "Fade To Black" -- I clearly remember them showing me the clear cassette for the album.  Of course, at this point, I was still pretty hardcore into Guns N' Roses and immediately dismissed it as I went back to pretending I was Arnold Schwarzenegger while listening to "You Could Be Mine".

...and then I bought Live Shit:  Binge & Purge that Fall.  Upon tearing into that set the moment I got home (my best friend Chris and, of course, John in tow), the first Ride The Lightning track I'd heard was "For Whom The Bell Tolls" via the Seattle '89 home video.  Over the next 2+ hours, as we soaked in that legendary performance from the Damaged Justice tour, I was further introduced to "Fade To Black" and, of course, "Creeping Death".   I was hooked. 

A short time later, for whatever reason, Chris actually gave me his Ride The Lightning cassette -- which I still have to this day.  It always stuck out to me since it was an original, white cassette; though, like some idiot, I proceeded to rub off all the info on one side of the cassette!  I studied ever aspect of that cassette's foldout liner notes and lyrics, laughing at the nicknames and in-jokes in the Thanks section and learning all the lyrics.  Hell, at this point, I'm not really sure which record I learned all the lyrics to first, The Black Album or Lightning! This was a record that I soaked in completely from front to back and listened to on many, many car rides for the next few years. 

Not my exact copy...but this is what the sleeve looks like!
Ride The Lightning really laid out the groundwork for Metallica's early formula of: 
  • Kick-ass opening track (with a cool intro)
  • Title Track
  • Mid-tempo Stomper Track
  • Ballad
  • Fast Track To Start Side 2
  • etc.
...of course, this formula would be perfected with Master of Puppets two short years later.  It's a record that doesn't need to contain 14 songs or be a double album -- it's only 8 songs long.  It says everything it needs to say in those 7 perfect songs and "Escape".  Lightning is also the first Metallica record to have an overall theme spreading through each of its songs; Fear...fear of war/death, imprisonment, suicide, addiction, oppression...and the cult of a winged, tentacle-faced god of destruction.

And now, to celebrate Ride The Lightning's birthday today, let's take a look back, track by track shall we?

"Fight Fire With Fire" - In stark contrast to the vows for world domination via breakneck chainsaw-like guitars seen on Kill 'Em All, Ride The Lightning opens with peaceful, acoustic guitar harmonies.  Acoustic you say?  Those sellout bastards!! How could they!!?!?  Of course, this mellow intro is the quintessential "calm before the storm" as its crescendo gives way to a Hetfield riff that personifies the impending doom theme heard throughout the album's next 47minutes and 23seconds.  It's a riff that is both heavy as thunder and fast as, well, lightning.  From there, the rest of the band comes in just as fast and furious before the lyrics begin and paint a picture of a nuclear Armageddon nightmare.  With this one song, everything from Kill 'Em All has been improved upon (no doubt, thanks to Cliff Burton's writing abilities and musical input).  The song continues to build through a verse-chorus x2 repeat into a ripping solo from Kirk Hammett, which gives way to a monstrous breakdown section (that double bass from Lars Ulrich though!!) and straight into one final verse-chorus before a literal nuclear bomb is dropped!  Talk about intense!

Although this version isn't specific to the era of the album's release, it's my all-time favorite live version and, I'll never forget being there, on the rail for it and seeing Hetfield play that insane riff!


"Ride The Lightning" - As far as title tracks goes, this is obviously the first one that Metallica did, but I also think it's their most underrated.  At the time I discovered this record, there weren't too many live versions of this song (along with "Fight Fire With Fire", "Trapped Under Ice," and "The Call of Ktulu" available outside of bootleg tape trading and "import" CDs...neither of which I'd discovered yet).  These days, whenever it's played live -- especially if it's a show I'm at, I'm happy!  While I'm still not exactly sure what Dave Mustaine's contributions to this song are, here we have the first track from the record with his hand in it.  That opening/recurring riff....I'd put it right along side "Enter Sandman" in fact.  It's so iconic and, in terms of earlier material, just as defining as "Seek & Destroy".  Another strength for this track is, hands down, Hetfield's this point in the band's career, these were some of his strongest efforts yet.  Gone are the "leather and metal, crushing the world" type of stereotypical themes found on Kill 'Em All and, here, Hetfield paints the portrait of a man on Death Row as he anxiously awaits his execution via the electric chair.  It's incredibly heavy subject matter for a guy who was just singing about banging one's head against the stage until it bleeds just a year prior!

Here is one of the best live versions of this track (both in terms of performance and overall production quality); from the Through The Never movie...

Metallica -Ride the Lightning (Through The Never) by saskeuchihan1

"For Whom The Bell Tolls" - Easily one of the band's all-time best songs ever recorded.  This is a quintessential Metallica song before there was even a quintessential Metallica song!  From Cliff Burton's opening bassline straight through the fade out at the end, "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is a show-stopper on record and in a live setting!  Riff-wise, this song is all over the place -- in a good way -- and it's capable of making an entire stadium headbang in unison!  Here, Hetfield's lyrics paint the first truly epic Metallica song, borrowing themes from Hemingway's same name novel.  And who knew that such a simple chorus could be so damn powerful?  These days, it remains a setlist staple and always a crowd favorite!

Here, from the Day On The Green Festival in Oakland, CA 8/31/85, one of Cliff Burton's finest moments...

"Fade To Black" - For many, this is a special song; to paraphrase Lars Ulrich, if you put ten Metallica fans up against a wall and asked them how "Fade To Black" has affected them, nine of them will say how it helped get them through some dark period of their lives.  I'm no different, though, these days, I makes me think of my Grandmother who passed away a few years ago.   Sometimes, I wish I could have been around to see what this song's initial reaction was...but then I remember the shit-storm that was surrounded the release of Load, which saw Metallica not just simply recording a ballad.  The first track to feature writing credits from all then-present band members, "Fade" is a beautiful, emotional song from its somber intro to its seemingly hopeless lyrics straight through its violent, never-ending second half highlighted by Kirk Hammett's frenetic solo.  Hands down, this is my favorite track from Ride The Lightning.

Here, I give you the performance from New York, NY 11/15/09 where it was played during a show that I needed to hear it at.  Hell, it was played RIGHT in front of me...with Hetfield doing the verses right next to us and Hammett literally walking right over to me for his closing solos.  "Incredible" doesn't do it justice....see if you can spot me losing my mind during the beginning of the song! 

"Trapped Under Ice" - Side 2 of Ride The Lightning starts with an ominous couple of chords from Hetfield...which is the musical translation of "Oooooh shit!" before Lars Ulrich kicks in with a snare roll and undying double bass!  This is one of those songs that, for me at least, sort of became legendary because of its reclusive nature, as it rarely saw the light of a stage.  It was one of those songs that I'd only heard very poor audience recordings of from the few times it'd been played between 1984 and 2000 (to this day, it's only been played 21 times!).  From top to bottom, this song is just a rager that never quits and makes you want to put your foot through someone's chest!  Lyrically, it's metaphorical in the sense that one can be "trapped under ice" by pretty much anything in life...addiction, stress, their job, a looming deadline, etc.  It's also hella fun to sing along with and lose your mind over!  At the time, I remember thinking it was one of Metallica's fastest songs -- and it certainly is -- but when paired next to something like "Fight Fire With Fire", "Trapped" at least has some breathing room in its bridge.  This is definitely an underrated gem off of Ride The Lightning!  

Here, I give you a performance from the Orgullo, Pasion, Y Gloria:  Tres Noches En La Ciudad De Mexico live album/DVD.  And, no, I don't care if Lars' double bass may have been "touched up" for this still sounds badass!

"Escape" - Okay, so Ride The Lightning isn't technically perfect from top to bottom -- hey, it's human, alright?  Here's a track that even Cliff Burton hated almost as soon as the LP was released, as it's a blatant attempt at writing "radio" song.  For years, James Hetfield refused to acknowledge the song, as the other members would tease him and jam on it during live gigs.  It was the one song the band never wanted to play live...until they vowed to perform the entire Ride The Lightning record at the inaugural Orion Music + More Festival in 2012!  Personally, I don't think it's a "bad" song in the sense of, ya know, Bon Jovi or hairband stuff from the just doesn't quite fit in with the other seven, stellar tracks on the record.  Musically, it's not bad, if slightly restrained though, as if the band are consciously trying to not scare potential mainstream radio listeners.  Lyrically, while not Hetfield's best effort, it definitely ranks at the bottom of the Ride The Lightning songs -- even "The Call of Ktulu" has better lyrics than "Escape"! 

Here, is the sole live performance of "Escape" from Atlantic City, NJ 6/23/12...

"Creeping Death" - Ride The Lightning's second, full-band penned tune is, without a doubt, another standout Metallica song.  This will be one of many that the band MUST continue to perform live until the day they call it quits.  From beginning to end, "Creeping Death" is an absolute beast that never lets up!  Musically, it's based around an old Exodus demo penned by Hammett called "Die By His Hand", featuring a riff that he wrote when he was just 16yrs old (and one that he is still proud of today)!  If there was ever a song that was a roller coaster, "Creeping Death" is it...going from insane highs to moody, crowd-singing, fist-pumping lows.  You say you want down-picked riffs?  There are plenty here that are sure to snap your neck like a pretzel stick!  Hetfield and Hammett even trade off dual lead parts near the end!  Lyrically, the song is of course based off The Ten Commandments (both the Bible story and the Hollywood classic) and it is chock full of "metal" images such as rivers turning to blood, plagues, FIRE, and even a lamb's blood painted door!  Make no mistake, "Creeping Death" was an instant Metalli-classic! 

It was also released as a single and featured the original Garage Days Revisited EP (containing the covers of "Am I Evil?" and "Blitzkrieg") . . . which is kinda weird when you think about how "Escape" was the attempt at a single, yet THIS is what got released as such?!  It's also a standout moment on the Mexico City 1993 CD in the Live Shit:  Binge & Purge boxset -- video of which is presented below...

"The Call of Ktulu" - My first impression of Ride The Lightning's closing instrumental epic?  "How the hell do you pronounce the title?!?"  It wasn't until I picked up an import CD of an interview with Lars Ulrich from 1986 where the interviewer asks the same question!  Man...what a song.  Although Metallica would later perfect the art of the instrumental with "Orion" on Master of Puppets, "The Call of Ktulu" is a beast in its own right.  The final song co-written by Dave Mustaine, "Ktulu" is like the soundtrack to a Gothic Horror film!  It's got a creepy intro, distorted bass lines that literally roar courtesy of Cliff Burton, thundering drums throughout, and even the sort of chaotic, frightening guitar solos that I'm sure Dracula would have as a ringtone!  The main guitar riff chugs along to an up and down tempo that suggests the titular tentacle-faced winged beast is closing in on you to seal your doom!  In short, "The Call of Ktulu" is a nightmare soundtrack!  It's one of those songs that I've only seen performed live once, on 11/23/99 at New York's Madison Square Garden on the final S & M promo show; it was a truly unique opener for a show that just as unique! 

Here, without comment is the S & M version of "The Call of Ktulu"...

With the final, crashing moments of "The Call of Ktulu", we come to the end of Ride The Lightning as a whole.  It's a such an amazing record from start to finish, though some may not hold it in quite as high regard as it's younger brother Master of Puppets.  Earlier this year, Metallica began their Remaster project with deluxe remastered boxsets of both Kill 'Em All and Ride The Lightning; each sets contains various LPs, CDs, with live shows, alternate mixes, demos, and even a DVD of rare live footage.  Also contained in the sets is a handsome book detailing the era pertaining to the release of said album and its subsequent tour.  Listen, if you have the means, I highly recommend both boxsets...if you're a Metallica fan, you won't be disappointed!

Happy 32nd Birthday Ride The Lightning! 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Stranger Things (2016)

Binge-watching seems to have become a social norm these days and, for a lot of viewers, this is the way to experience popular shows.  Along with this change in how we experience television shows, the "water cooler" where we all discuss what we've seen has since been replaced by Facebook.  If you're on Facebook these days (because, who isn't?) and either grew up in the 1980s (or came of age in that decade) and are even the most casual genre fan, you've probably heard of Stranger Things.

After quickly binging the series' eight episode first season -- when is Season 2 gonna happen?? -- which premiered on Netflix on July 15th, I'm struggling with trying to find words to express just how much I loved every second of it!  The best thing about this show is actually not knowing anything about it . . . so, please avoid the next three paragraphs....

Set in November 1983, Stranger Things -- at its simplest -- tells the story of a young boy disappearing and his three best friends' search for him.  Underneath that premise, there's a strange Firestarter-esque research group who's been experimenting on a young girl, another dimension, and even a creepy monster thrown in for good measure.  Paranoia, status quo, and fear mix together as the characters of Stranger Things find themselves deeper and deeper into the mystery clouding their sleepy, little town of Hawkins, Indiana. 

Of course, if you have a great story, you need to have a brilliant cast right?  Winona Ryder stars as Joyce Byers, the mother of the lost boy and she plays the part of a frantic, grieving mother perfectly.  Also in fine form is David Harbour as Police Chief Jim Hopper; seriously, Harbour steals practically every scene that he's in, whether he's making you feel safe or tugging at your heartstrings!   Also along for the ride and playing against type on a very different sort of vision quest is Matthew Modine, who channels his inner Conal Cochran. 

At its heart, Stranger Things focuses on the three young boys who are desperately searching for their lost friend.  All three child actors really envelope their roles and instantly remind viewers of themselves at the age of 12 or kids they knew from school.  Anchoring the group is young Michael (played by Finn Wolfhard, set to star as Richie in the upcoming IT remake), a composite of Elliot from E.T., Mikey from The Goonies, and even Sean from The Monster Squad!  Michael has equal parts heart, curiosity, courage, and a never-ending sense of child-like wonderment. 

Of the many points of interest to Stranger Things is its heavy retro feel from the opening credits (film print wear and tear!), its synth-heavy score that would be right at home in a John Carpenter film, to the countless references to films from the late 70s and 80s...this show is chock full of great stuff that will hook you immediately!  I won't go into detail pointing out the references that I caught -- that takes out the fun for you right?! -- but man . . . it's just SO MUCH FUN! 

And, damn . . . THAT score?!?!  As I said before, it'd be right at home in any 80s John Carpenter film, any 80s Horror/Sci-Fi anthology show (hell, the opening credits sequence instantly recalled V: The Original Mini-Series for me!), or any other TV show or movie that I probably grew up on!  The score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is nothing short of brilliant, perfectly setting the mood and tone of the series from the first opening credits sequence.  Check out S U R V I V E on Spotify for more great music.

Listen, I could go on an on about this show and go into further detail about it, thereby potentially spoiling your initial viewing experience . . . take it from me:  if you grew up on Spielberg, Stephen King books or movies, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Fangoria magazine, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Alien, The Goonies, The Evil Dead (there are some fantastic callbacks via shot set-ups and set design), Amazing Stories, The Twilight Zone, Tales From The Darkside or may have been considered a "nerd" when you were 12yrs old . . . you will love this show!  Now that you're finished reading, go check it out right now!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Sugar Hill (1974)

In 1997, I obtained a very crucial book for my collection called Clive Barker's A-Z of Horror.  Compiled by Stephen Jones as a companion piece to a BBC-TV series, the book is an alphabetical treasure trove of information for Horror fans young and old.  Of course, I immediately skipped right to the "Z" section to see what was said about zombie movies and whether or not George Romero was represented with gusto (he is -- I recall photos of both Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead).  However, there were also two hidden gems introduced to me via that chapter:  Ken Wiederhorn's 1977 underwater Nazi zombie classic Shock Waves and American International's Sugar Hill.

Although it took me quite a few years (nearly 10 at least, if I remember correctly) to finally see Sugar Hill in all its Blaxploitation Horror hybrid glory -- the film is currently available on blu-ray from Kino/Lorber and on MOD DVD-R from MGM -- it definitely didn't disappoint from those early images in Barker's book!

Sugar Hill tells the story of Diana "Sugar" Hill who, mourning the murder of her club-owner boyfriend, uses Voodoo and zombies to exact her revenge on those responsible.  Payback unfolds almost in the vein of something like Kill Bill as Sugar and her "zombie hit men" pick off the bad guys one by one until their boss, Morgan, gets his own comeuppance.  All the while, one of Sugar's ex-flames, a detective, is hot on the trail of the mysterious voodoo killings, with all signs pointing to her.

Like all of AIP's output in the early 1970s, Sugar Hill is truly a product of its time; there's minimal production values, creepy (if not "cheesy") make-up effects, casual racism, dated costumes and hairstyles, topped off with a funky short, it's just so cool!  While it may not be quite on par with say, Blacula (or its sequel) or Foxy Brown, it's definitely head and shoulders above Blackenstein and Penitentiary . . . it hovers in its own sort of space which, ultimately, makes it stand out and shine.

Marki Bey (of Starsky & Hutch fame) stars as Sugar and she's great throughout; she goes from mournful lover to cool and collected business woman to puppet master dishing out punishment with ease.  One of the cooler aspects of Bey's performance is whenever she's dealing with her zombies or setting up a trap for the bad guys, her long, straight hair is replaced by a crucial Afro hairstyle.  Early scenes where Sugar contacts Voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully from The Jeffersons) and conjures up ruler of the dead Baron Samedi (played by The Dukes of Hazzard's Don Pedro Colley) show Bey's dramatic range and she yearns for nothing but violent revenge.
Marki Bey owns the titular role of Sugar Hill

Don Pedro Colly as Baron Samedi
As Sugar's nemesis Morgan, Count Yorga himself, Robert Quarry is as excellent as he ever was in an AIP film.  Quarry plays Morgan like a typical gangster bad guy seen on countless TV shows in the 70s and 80s; he knows what he wants and will stop at nothing to get it, all the while bossing around his henchmen and dumb as bricks trophy girlfriend. While it's never really made clear exactly why Morgan wants the Club Haiti (this is why Sugar's boyfriend, Langston, is murdered), Quarry still plays him straight.  Since the film is set in Louisiana, Quarry affects Morgan with a bit of a Southern twang that makes him somewhat charming.  
Robert Quarry, as Morgan, tries to intimidate "Sugar".
Valentine, Sugar's former beau turned police detective, is played by Scream Blacula, Scream's Richard Lawson (in one of his early roles).  As the bodies start piling up, Valentine digs deeper and deeper to uncover the truth behind all the voodoo murders.  Lawson plays Valentine as a man with a job to do, but also with the hope of rekindling with Sugar, as he dishes "friendly" advice/banter with her about the murders and seems to implicate her role in them. 
Richard Lawson as Valentine
At the helm as director is Paul Maslansky (notable producer of the Police Academy franchise), who does a serviceable job here in is sole Director credit. One of the film's weaknesses is that the revenge scenes feel a little out of place with the rest of the film; again, the change in Sugar's hairstyle for these sequences is puzzling, too.  Each murder set-up feels like a vignette of sorts with Baron Samedi appearing in a sort of disguise and Sugar revealing herself in some ghoulish manner that would be right at home in an AIP-era Vincent Price picture.  There's also no real ending to the film as, once all of the bad guys are dead, Baron Samedi takes his part of the brokered deal and Sugar is left all by herself in the swamp . . . with only the slightest indication that she and Valentine might get back together.  There's no real wrap-up with the Club Haiti either or any resolution to the murders on the police side. 
Zara Cully as Mama Matriesse
The real reason to check out this movie though is, of course, the zombies themselves.  They look cool all covered in cobwebs and white/gray blue paint that accentuates their muscular structure.  The only odd thing is their silver, ping pong ball eyes . . . hey, two out of three ain't bad, right?  Since these aren't the Romero type of zombie, these hit men uses tools and don't eat their victims -- but they do quite a few numbers on Morgan's hapless henchmen including decapitation, stabbing, strangling, and window-smashing!  Granted, on blu-ray and DVD, I'm sure the cleaned up picture quality probably isn't doing the zombie special make-up effects any favors, but this is an easy pothole to overlook.  There are also some cool makeups on the dead bad guys when they show up in the last real as re-animated corpses themselves!

They're coming to get you, Morgan!

Morgan's dead henchmen return!
In the end though, Sugar Hill is an enjoyable -- if not underrated -- entry in the early 1970s Blaxploitation subgenre.  It's got everything where it counts and deserves to be seen by more people! 


Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille: 1928-2016

Hey folks, this one comes as a major blow for Horror fans as Pittsburgh Chiller Theater host and Night of the Living Dead actor, Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille passed away today.  Cardille's daughter Lori reported his passing on Facebook.

Recently, fans from all over the world sent letters and cards to Cardille and his family, showing him just how many lives he touched in his nearly 60yr career. 

The crew here at Constriction Pictures sends our deepest sympathies to the Cardille family. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

John Carpenter: Live in Chicago, IL 7/16/16

If you're a Horror movie fan, chances are that you have your list of favorite soundtracks and scores and, no doubt, there's one man who you own multiple works from...

When it was first announced that legendary filmmaker John Carpenter would be playing a show somewhere Europe, performing some of his classic film themes and selected tracks from his twin Lost Themes records, I never dreamt that I'd be able to see it myself.   However, that all changed when the John Carpenter Retrospective tour made a stop at Chicago's Thalia Hall this past Saturday night (the US leg of the tour wrapped up last night in Milwaukee, with a European run starting in August).

Having missed similar performances by Goblin (still kicking myself for missing their live score of Suspiria at The Metro), I wasn't quite sure what to expect going into this show.  If Horror had the equivalent to Thrash Metal's "Big Four", it would arguably consist of George Romero, the late Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, and of course, John Carpenter;  I've met or seen all of those guys in a convention setting, but always missed out on Carpenter, so this was definitely surreal proposal to say the least.

Had this been done back in the late 70s or early 80s, the John Carpenter Retrospective would likely have been one of those "you had to have been there" moments for Horror fans; there likely would've only been a few photographs from such an event, with only those who were there passing down stories of it to the next generations. 

With a stark stage production consisting of a four-paneled movie screen, some amazing lighting, and minimal special effects (that dry ice fog during the main title from The Fog though!), Carpenter and his band took the stage promptly at 9pm to deliver over an hour's worth of music and visuals that rocked those in attendance.   Starting with the "Main Title" from Escape From New York, the evening started on a high note which only increased as the show went on; the film montages started brilliantly with Escape From New York's 3D map of Manhattan island before giving way to the bevy of classic film clips as the track went on.  The crowd ate it up as the opening one-two punch continued with the "Main Title" to Assault on Precinct 13!

The set continued with Carpenter -- clad all in black, looking like Lee Van Cleef in Escape no doubt! -- remaining center stage at his synth rig, only pausing to read from a scripted banter as he introduced each track.  Along with the ten film themes performed, the band also threw in several cuts from the Lost Themes records, which fit in perfectly amongst their motion picture brethren. 

It's difficult to single out any one particular film theme as "the best of the night", but the "Main Title" from The Fog stepped up the game big time, as the combination of the film's visuals playing on-screen and the dry ice fog creeping across the stage made for one hell of an all senses experience! 

Another standout was "Coming To L.A" from They Live, which saw the band donning familiar black sunglasses as the film's large, subliminal messages flashed across the screens, garnering the night's biggest cheers thus far!

The highlights just kept on coming with an Ennio Morricone cover of "Main Theme - Desolation" from The Thing -- wherein I found myself STILL marveling at Rob Bottin's phenomenal practical special effects -- and "Pork Chop Express" from Big Trouble In Little China, which Carpenter introduced citing that, out of the five projects with Kurt Russell, was their favorite.

Being that the crowd was made up of mostly Horror fans -- everyone sporting t-shirts of their favorite Carpenter classic -- it was expected that the night's biggest reaction would go to only one theme . . .

The night's main set ended perfectly with the title track from In The Mouth of Madness, again accompanied by intense visuals from Carpenter's 1994 shocker.  There was a brief break before the band returned for an encore consisting of "Darkness Begins" from Prince of Darkness and two more Lost Themes cuts.  As the second installment to his "Apocalypse Trilogy", seeing Prince of Darkness in a live setting just reaffirmed that film's underrated power and overwhelming sense of dread. 

The night ended with Carpenter wishing everyone a safe drive home and an ominous warning about an evil '58 Plymouth Fury named Christine before launching into "Christine Attacks (Plymouth Fury)" from 1983's Stephen King classic! 

Overall, the show was incredible; the music was timeless, the visuals and presentation were nothing short of spectacular, and the band was on fire and an well-oiled machine (the Maestro himself throwing some awesome dance moves throughout, too)!  There was quite a selection of merch available at the show as well; limited edition vinyl, numerous t-shirts, tour posters,  and even a They Live tote bag (complete with CONSUME screened across the back)!  Post-show, Carpenter eventually came out to his tour bus and happily greeted the handful of us waiting to meet him (1 item signed or 1 photo op).

One more bonus to the night's festivities?  There were a handful of cameras on-hand filming the show and interviewing several fans for, what will hopefully be, an eventual DVD/bluray of the show! 


Friday, July 15, 2016

Gordon's War (1973)

Blaxploitation films have been a favorite of mine since at least the 7th Grade when I first saw Shaft and bought a 45" of the theme (I used to listen to it on my Walkman while I walked to school then to get pumped up for the day) and also after I caught Scream Blacula, Scream on cable during a sick day.  My eyes were then open to a new sub-genre that I've spent the last 20+ years appreciating! 

Lately, I've been discovering some gems of the genre that I maybe hadn't heard of outside of the odd trailer popping up on a compilation disc; titles like Cotton Comes To Harlem, Cool Breeze, Trouble Man, Hit-Man, Black Fist, and of course Gordon's War.

"Say, aren't the dude from The Terminator?"
Gordon's War is a revenge film with an anti-drug message, so it was a no-brainer for me to check out!  The late, great Paul Winfield (Lt. Traxler in The Terminator) stars as Captain Gordon Hudson who, upon returning from Vietnam, learns that his wife became a junkie and died while he was away.  Talk about a heavy homecoming, right?  He vows to rid the streets of pimps and drug pushers and, along with three of his old 'Nam buddies, Gordon sets up recon on several of Harlem's key scumbags.   Gordon's team screws over/robs/shuts down/beats down a pimp called Big Pink, another dude called Luther The Pimp, and drug kingpin "Spanish" Harry Martinez (played by genre vet Gilbert Lewis -- you might know him as Detective Frank Linto in 1992's Candyman). 

"We're loaded for bear...if bear was a pimp and a pusher man."
It takes a while, but soon "Spanish" Harry and his men are onto Gordon's team; there's a great, tense sequence where the crew is separated while waiting for "Spanish" Harry...only he's got the upper hand on them and it's obvious that the hardline crew is in trouble!  A lot of cross-cutting and near montage work makes this a really effective sequence actually! 

The film is directed by the late, great Ossie Davis (long before TV's Evening Shade and Grumpy Old Men, Davis was a prolific civil rights activist, along with his late wife Rubie Dee; he directed several, early Blaxploitation pictures, including one of the genre's first, 1970's Cotton Comes To Harlem). Davis shows a great knowledge for film-making here, keeping the story moving and the action/drama flowing. One cool bit that I picked up on was how much Mario Van Peeples' New Jack City paid homage to this film -- this has to be one of the first anti-drug films to show near naked people cutting/bagging heroin under a black light. 

Soundtrack-wise, I wouldn't say the music was as memorable as most other Blaxploitation films, but I was still bobbing my head and shaking my hips while laying in bed watching. 

And, hey, I'm all for a movie where drug dealers are hunted and killed . . . though this one is not as on the nose about it or quite as violent as 1973's Coffy. Instead of merely killing the pushers and pimps, Gordon and his crew hunt them and keep tabs on them via some innovative (for the time) methods before ripping them off of their product and their money.
Luther the Pimp ain't so bad with a switchblade in his face!
Par for the course with the genre, Gordon's War has some scenes of brutal violence:  a pimp has his legs hobbled, a local scumbag is forced to shoot his own product into his veins (much like that great opening scene in Coffy!), a henchman gets his face burnt off via an ingenious lighter and underarm deodorant spray combo, and there are several bloody shotgun blasts to the chest.  While it's not the most violent for the genre, it still delivers! 

Take that sucka!
Speaking of Gordon's crew, they're a lot like The A-Team or Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible teams; each guy brings his own flare and strengths to the group. One cool scene involves one of the guys undercover as a shoe shiner on the streets, accosting a fly dope-pusher; he insists on shining the dude's platform leather boots that only a member of KISS would wear today....of course, he coats the boats with a UV paint so that they can track him at night with a set of UV binoculars! 

I'd probably try and rock these boots.
There are also some slight echoes of this film in 1977's Rolling Thunder, where William Devane stars as a Vietnam vet returning home, only to have his reward ripped off from him as he is forced to watch his wife and child get murdered....and he loses his right hand in the garbage disposal. Like, Gordon's War, Devane vows revenge and recruits his old Army buddy (Tommy Lee Jones) for recon and blood-spattered revenge!

In the end, it was another fun Blaxploitation film that I hadn't seen before. I'm actually surprised that it hasn't been remade today....

PS:  Also look for a "blink and you missed it" cameo from Grace Jones!