Dirty Pictures: Blood Feast and Scum of the Earth

Sex and Death and Herschell Gordon Lewis

/100

One among very few genuinely terrible films that are also justly famous, Blood Feast is the oft-cited progenitor of a certain strain of American cinema: the slasher film — or, more specifically, the splatter movie. Conceived by the briefly prolific, ultra-low-budget director Herschell Gordon Lewis (who will be forever known as the Godfather of Gore) — along with producer David F. Friedman — as an alternative to the commercially competitive genre of cheap-and-easy nudie flicks, the splatter movie was at the time even more disreputable than the soft porn film, ramping up the T&A with a new women-in-peril component. Gory murder scenes combined fake human blood and real animal entrails to sickening effect. Blood Feast is venerated by gorehounds and has a “so bad it’s good” reputation among horror buffs, but what’s really breathtaking about it is its shameless demonstration that, in the grand cinematic scheme, artistic merit, cultural influence, and commercial success have precious little to do with each other.

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Django Unchained

70/100

Still chewing this one over, and I suspect it’ll take a second viewing before it starts to come into focus. It obviously plays as a variant on Inglourious Basterds, but I miss that film’s ferocious set pieces and, especially, its strong central female character. But what Django Unchained does even better than Basterds is show up the essential timidity of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. Django is singular in large part because nobody else is making bigtime narratives that deal with the history of race relations in America. I like Lincoln a lot, but it’s telling that when Spielberg turns his attention to roughly the same period in history, he comes up with Congress: The Motion Picture. And I’d love to see Spike Lee make a Django answer film, but I doubt he could get the funding.

I Spit on Your Grave

/100

Rape-revenge is the basest of movie formulas. What amounts to a social contract exists with the audience: during the first half of the film, you will experience the sadistic, brutal, misogynistic sexual abuse of an innocent, probably naïve young woman at the hands of cavalier thugs. And during the second half of the film, you will see this broken woman–this survivor–pull herself together long enough to exact a terrible revenge on those who wronged her.

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Death of a Snowman

/100

Ken Gampu in <em>Death of a Snowman</em>
Neither especially well-crafted nor completely inept, Death of a Snowman is less interesting as a film than as an artifact. You might hope that a low-budget crime drama shot in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, during the apartheid years would deal explicitly with political conditions in the segregated country. Instead — perhaps because of government censorship or fears of political reprisals — Death of a Snowman has only the whiff of racial tension about it, as whites and blacks doubt, disbelieve and double-cross one another from start to finish.

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Black Dynamite

/100

Nicole Sullivan, Michael Jai White, and Salli Richardson in <em>Black Dynamite</em>

The 70s exploitation-film spoof Black Dynamite sounds like a fun idea on paper, and it starts to look like a can’t-miss proposition when you see the theatrical trailer, which showcases the technical qualities of this loving pastiche. Director Scott Sanders certainly gets the look right, thanks partly to no-frills era-aware photography by DP Shawn Maurer and partly to some digital tweaking that brings the colors in line with that ruddy aesthetic specific to some film prints of the period, and that’s crucial to the joke. As the titular bad-ass, a former CIA agent with a reinstated license to kill out to avenge the death of his brother, Michael Jai White combines a deadpan-comic screen presence with enough martial artistry to make a fight scenes work on a more visceral level than pure parody. But something about the execution is flat.

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Malibu High

8/100

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Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess

/100

Crummy by mainstream standards, this low-budget martial-arts programmer has lots of charm, starting with the opening shot depicting the inside of a church with saloon-style swinging doors banging against the wind and dust outside, and Tarantino fans will make note of some of the source elements he appropriated for his Kill Bill revenge pastiche. But the real attraction here is Yumi Higaki, playing a talented but reluctant martial-arts disciple seeking payback for injuries to the body and pride of her master (Sonny Chiba, in an extended cameo at the film’s beginning). I had seen her previously in Sister Street Fighter, released two years earlier, but her poise and confidence has improved here. A prototype for any number of femme videogame ass-kickers, from Chun Li down the line, she has an overgrown-kid look to her that makes her determination and eventual triumph in the violent coming-of-age scenario more rousing.

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