Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Don't Panic (1988)

... aka: A Maldição de Ouija (The Ouija Curse)
... aka: Dimensiones ocultas (Hidden Dimensions)
... aka: El secreto de la ouija (The Secret of the Ouija)

Directed by:
Rubén Galindo Jr.

Because of a father who's always away on business, teen Michael Smith (Jon Michael Bischof) has been yanked out of Beverly Hills High and taken down to Mexico City to finish out high school. After his 17th birthday party clears out, his depressed drunk of a mother (Helena Rojo) goes to bed and six of his friends pop out with a surprise b-day present: his very own Ouija board! And it's the same Parker Brothers Ouija board pretty much everyone had back then. Though Michael's more interested in the unibrow charms of sweet new girl in school Alexandra (Gabriela Hassel), he's eventually talked into messing around with the board by his obnoxious best friend Tony (Juan Ignacio Aranda). They ask it a few basic questions and then Tony, who's really into occult stuff, decides to summon a spirit called Virgil, which may or may not be Satan himself. We all know that's gonna spell trouble. But first! The most cliché 80s love montage imaginable that includes balloons, bike rides, pictures in the park, sitting by a lake throwing bread to ducks, feeding each other ice cream and sunset canoe rides. All that's missing is a shot of him giving her a rose as she blushes. Oh wait...

Michael goes to visit Tony, who takes a break from puking to give him a “magic rose” that supposedly will stay fresh and beautiful as long as the love between him and Alexandra is pure. It's enough to get Alex to sacrifice her virginity to him but otherwise things are anything but rosy. Michael begins suffering from terrible headaches, nightmares, blurry visions of things like a bloody hand bursting out of his ceiling and then begins sensing an evil presence is around. His eyes sometimes turn red and then he starts hallucinating a face emerging from a TV set, a girl in his classroom gushing blood and a teacher warning him that he needs to take one of his friends, Cristy Higgins (Melinda McCallum), out of the city before midnight or else she'll die.

After learning from a news broadcast that two of his other friends who messed with the Ouija have been mysterious murdered, Michael rushes to the hospital but is too late to save Cristy, who get stabbed to death with a large sword. He does however succeed in making himself a suspect in her death and making people think he's gone crazy. Michael goes home in hysterics and finds that his mother doesn't believe his story. Instead, she calls a doctor, who comes over and sedates him. Michael's estranged father Fred (Eduardo Noriega) comes back and gets into a huge fight with the mom. While that's going on, Cristy's foul-mouthed brother John (Roberto Palazuelos), who's been bullying Michael in school, sneaks in and kidnaps him. He takes him out in the woods and threatens to shoot him unless he tells him what happened to his sister.

As expected, the night of Ouija birthday fun had left Tony open to possession and now his body's been taken over by Virgil. Tony's spirit however has its own life and sometimes shows up to give Michael advice a la An American Werewolf in London. So what does Virgil want to accomplish? Well, other than killing off everyone who played with the Ouija, hell if I know.

This has clearly been heavily “inspired” by the Nightmare on Elm Street series, from the hallucinations / nightmares to the drunk mother to the “don't make me sleep” scene to the facially-scarred killer having a deep, Freddy-like voice and making dumb wisecracks. The end even takes place inside a dark warehouse / boiler room. What this lacks in creativity it hardly makes up for in other areas as the plotting, dialogue and most of the acting / dubbing is downright terrible. I couldn't even tell what language this was shot in as some of the actors appear to be speaking their lines in English while others don't. Screaming Mad George was imported in to do the special effects and, while he does a typically solid job, the kills themselves (all stabbings and throat slashings) are unimaginative. The man does use a hilarious amount of blood at times, though!

What may save this for certain viewers is the generous amount of 80s cheese on display. The funniest part for me was that our hero runs around wearing dinosaur pajamas (I thought he was seventeen... not seven!) half the time. Like with Dream Warriors, this also has its own title theme song, which is performed by the lead actor (who also wrote it) and is pretty catchy if you're a fan of music from this time. The director also makes sure to plug his previous, and much better, CEMETERY OF TERROR (1985); clips of which are seen multiple times playing on TV sets. The cast also includes Jorge Luke (TREASURE OF THE AMAZON) as a police lieutenant looking into matters, Edna Bolkan (GRAVE ROBBERS) as a teacher and Raúl Araiza. The copyright date in the credits is 1987.

There's some confusion and misprinted information about the home video releases for this one so hopefully I can clear that up right now. Mogul released a video titled Don't Panic here in America (above, top) in 1987, but it wasn't this Don't Panic. Instead, that was their new title for Carlos Puerto's trashy Satanism flick Escalofrio (1978), which is better known now as Satan's Blood. However, in the UK, another company called Colourbox used the same exact cover art and tag line (above, bottom) Mogul used for Escalofrio for their release of *this* Don't Panic. Several other countries (including the Netherlands) did the same. Though an English language version was always available (this appears to have been at least partially shot in English), I'm not quite sure if there even was an official U.S. release until the 2008 DVD from BCI / Eclipse.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Vampires (1988)

... aka: Abadon
... aka: Vampiros

Directed by:
Len Anthony

At a prestigious New York art college called the Abadon School, construction workers using a jackhammer unleash some kind of deep-voiced spirit that promptly goes upstairs to the dorms and sucks a topless girl and her boyfriend down the toilet. Don't worry, it remembers to flush afterward. However, it won't be for another fifteen painfully disjointed minutes, which includes an art show, a tarot card reading, a woman wandering around foggy corridors, a narrated prologue (“Wouldn't you like to live forever?”) and some guy attacked by the spirit, that an actual plot starts to take shape. The pretty Orly Benyair, a real-life artist from Israel who has a beautiful smile but issues stumbling her way through her awkward lines, stars as foreign student Ione. Ione's just arrived at Abadon to study photography and film and already has one acquaintance there; a music major named Gary (Thomas Ostuni), who she was once romantically involved with. Because she's a scholarship student, Ione gets to stay on the third floor of the main building on campus. As she's getting settled in, she's befriended by a kooky but friendly girl named Helen (Vicki Richardson), whose room is right across the hall from hers.

It doesn't take Ione long to discover the staff is as strange as they are unfriendly, the students are a little more immature than she'd hoped and her former flame has a reputation for being king man-whore on campus. What else could possibly go wrong? Wellll... For starters, Gary was the guy who already got sucked down the toilet along with fellow student Tracy (Karen Nielsen). Then, during orientation, Ione feels dizzy at the mere presence of stern headmistress Madeline Abadon Avernus (Jackie James), who gathers the new students together to explain not only the school's history but also the school rules. Built in the 17th Century, the Abadon estate has been in Madeline's family nearly as long, was once used as a mental asylum where unorthodox experiments took place and was almost destroyed in a fire several decades earlier that claimed the life of Madeline's father. As for the rules, they're simple: The fourth floor and the basement are both off limits. Break those rules and you'll be “punished."

Ione starts hearing voices, including those of her dead former boyfriend, and feels general unease being at the school so she seeks help from tarot card reader / psychic Dr. Charles Harmon (Duane Jones). Another scared student named Deborah (Robin Michaels), who was also involved with Gary (damn, he really got around) also goes to Charles for help. Deborah begins snooping and finds a few books authored by Madeline's late scientist husband with titles like “Making the Fountain of Youth” and “Experimentation in Energy.” Prior to dying, Dr. Abadon had created some kind of machine that can be used to extract positive energy from victims that can then be transferred to someone else to keep them from aging. Two guesses as to who's been using it.

As much as I love when some unknown 80s title like this suddenly pops up, some things were buried for a reason the first time around. Vampires is most definitely one of those instances. From what I can gather, this was never even finished and what's been cobbled together for this release is a dull, confusing and completely incoherent mess from start to finish. Supposedly some of the footage seen here came from another unfinished film called Negatives, which had also starred Jones and featured future Scream Queen Debbie Rochon in an early role. About half of that film was shot before production closed down due to the producer passing bad checks.

We never once get to see the machine (a major part of the premise) at work, never learn how it works nor do we really get to see Madeline even using it. Characters also come and go without rhyme or reason and keep saying they're going to do something or go somewhere and it never seems to happen. One actress is our heroine one minute and a voice-over is describing her mysterious death the next. A groundskeeper character (John Bly), who's been promised sanctuary and safety by Madeline's late husband, is introduced and given a revenge motive and then vanishes. The evil Madeline also is gone for long stretches of time and isn't even present at the big finale! There's talk of positive and negative energy, fields of energy and threats of people being “neutralized” and none of it really makes a lick of sense.

If this is remembered for anything, it will be for containing one of the final film appearances of Duane Jones. Jones, who broke barriers in the horror classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), worked as an acting teacher, an English professor and a stage director after appearing in Romero's landmark film. A theatrical association with Bill Gunn also landed him the lead role in the black-cast vampire film Ganja & Hess in 1973. After that, he wasn't seen onscreen for around a decade. Perhaps finally being recognized as a horror icon and star of a horror classic in the video era, Jones was in the middle of staging a film comeback when he appeared in this and a few other films before unexpectedly passing away in 1988 at the age of just 52. What makes his appearance in this film extra sad is that his talent still manages to shine through something that's otherwise incompetent. The only other known name in the credits is Ernest R. Dickerson, who shares cinematography credit with Larry Revene.

IMDb and many other websites currently list this movie as having been released in 1986. That's incorrect. Though parts of it may have been shot as early as 1986, it has a 1988 copyright date and was screened at the Cannes Film Market that same year. Instead of receiving a traditional home video release, Vampires was shortened considerably in length, re-edited (again!) and paired up with another shortened horror feature (which also supposedly contains additional footage from Negatives) to make up Fright House, which was released to home video in 1989. To my knowledge, Vampires was not widely available in its current 80-minute form until it finally popped up on DVD in May 2016 on the Film Chest Media Group label, which uses a strictly VHS quality print. Seeing how the cast list in the end credits lists characters who aren't even in this “full” version, clearly not all of the footage from the original shoot made it into this cut either.

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