If I learned one lesson from my film-watching habits in 2012, it was to keep faith in my favorite directors. There were several times this year where I finally got around to seeing a film I didn't expect to enjoy from a director who I normally enjoyed very much, only to be surprised at how much the film appealed to me. I spent a great deal of my film watching time in 2012 hunting amongst the VHS relics of the 80s looking for hidden gems to champion. And while I managed to walk away with a few genuinely satisfying discoveries, it did come at the expense of sitting through a fair amount of garbage. But when the rewards include a shot on video horror film populated entirely by cocaine-fueled scantily-clad non-actors, and a Canadian thriller about the most self-destructive horror writer in history, sitting through hours of crummy Halloween knock-offs and rubber-suited monstrosities is a price I'm willing to pay.
Here are my top twenty favorite personal discoveries from 2012:
THE STRAIGHT STORY(1999)
As a massive fan of David Lynch, I had been semi-consciously avoiding this film for awhile, mostly due to the Disney logo and my understanding that it was considered very non-Lynchian. This was a mistake - the film is remarkable. Farnsworth paints a rich character here that instantly ranks among the very top of my favorites. Badalamenti's score exhibits occasional shades of Twin Peaks and his other work for Lynch, but is largely unique amongst his work, expertly channeling a quietly proud strain of Americana that fits the film perfectly. Lynch is more restrained here than in any other film, but no less effective in crafting something entirely unique and wonderful. The performances he captures are uniformly amazing, the scenery is ripe with nostalgia, and the set designs ring of authenticity. Based on a true story, this film hits the nail on the head so hard and so effortlessly that it almost feels like a documentary, albeit one that is gorgeously shot. Regardless of your opinion on David Lynch, The Straight Story is absolutely worth the time of anyone who enjoys film.
THE DEADLY SPAWN(1983)
A true VHS classic, one that I've been crossing paths with since the videostore days but never had the chance to pop into the VCR until now. This is a smartly paced 80s monster movie, a bit rough around the edges but all the more charming for it. Fantastic, slime-covered alien puppets are more than a cut above the actual budget for this film. Director Douglas McKeown recently appeared on the Junk Food Dinner podcast (ep. 98) to discuss the film, and after hearing the ingenious methods devised to produce such memorable special effects on a shoestring budget, I have even more respect for this offbeat horror flick.
Classic, somewhat early John Carpenter film that catches him in-between the much more widely seen HALLOWEEN and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Fantastic cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Tom Atkins. A rare example of a film with all females in the top three billing places, although I would argue that Tom Atkins deserved higher billing; his character here drives the action primarily (and is portrayed well by the underrated Atkins). Still, the actresses here are impressive and suit the film well. Boldly shot and atmospheric, with another effective score from Carpenter.
One of the weirder entries into one of the weirdest genres in all of film (shot on video horror films) - Boardinghouse manages to scare up exactly zero frights in its 98 minute running time, which to be honest is probably about 20 minutes longer than it needs to be. But legitimate scares are not the reason to see Boardinghouse - it's to wonder at the bizarre choices made throughout the obviously cocaine-addled and amateurish production, from the primitive Amiga-based video effects to the stilted dialogue, to the freakishly bizarre non-actors cast in the film. This is a tough one to rate, because it's undeniably a poorly executed film, but it's an interesting watch if you have any affection for this genre, even if the reasons for doing so are a combination of rubbernecking and nostalgia.
THE BOXER’S OMEN(1983)
Holy shit. Hong Kong produced some really strange films in the 80s and 90s, but this might be the most bizarre. Imagine a CAT-III interpretation of Jodorowsky's THE HOLY MOUNTAIN interspersed with elements of Japanese gore films, low-budget atmospheric Italian horror, and a hint of Bloodsport, and you might have some understanding of what to expect.
I've long been a fan of Woody Allen (particularly his early stand-up comedy years and his first few films) but I've been cautious about approaching those films considered by most to be his masterpieces (this film, Annie Hall, etc), perhaps out of a fear I would not yet be mature enough as a film watcher to fully enjoy them. Case in point: I certainly attempted to watch THE SEVENTH SEAL (by Allen's idol, Bergman) at far too young an age (about 18) and was unable to derive any enjoyment from the experience. This was not the case for me here, as I really loved MANHATTAN. It really draws you in from the start, with those beautiful black and white images of the city and the great jazz score. The setting really is the star of the film, and as a result this film probably resonates a little better with viewers who have been to New York before (and I would imagine even moreso with those who have lived there). Much more grounded and realistic than something like BANANAS, this film finds Woody exploring serious themes with believable characters. And although it's not as madcap or goofball as his early films, there are more than enough laughs here to be found in the interactions of these characters.
TIGER ON THE BEAT(1988)
How this Chow Yun Fat buddy copy action/comedy is not more well known is beyond me! It knocked me right on my ass with my first viewing - great action set pieces and a hilarious portrayal by Chow Yun Fat. The topper is a lengthy chainsaw duel between Conan Lee and Gordon Liu! Amazing!
Stanley Kubrick was the first director I can remember giving allegiance to, falling in love with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY at precisely the same age where I was discovering my own tastes in art of all types and right around the time where I figured out what a director even did in relation to a film. Over the years, I sought out and similarly loved the rest of his films, only stopping short of BARRY LYNDON and FEAR AND DESIRE (an early Kubrick film that he later disowned, and I've heard is not good) - I even tracked down his rare early short documentaries, and found them interesting. What prevented me from seeing LYNDON up until this point was probably my fear that a Kubrick film stripped of all cult-like elements would not be as interesting as me, and I did not want to believe there was a major Kubrick film I wouldn't enjoy. All of his previous films are centered around settings or ideas that are inherently interesting to a cult movie fan like myself, but the backdrop for LYNDON is the relatively staid world of 18th century Ireland/England. It was actually with minimal surprise but much relief that I discovered of course that Kubrick had not led me astray - even without any futuristic ultra-violence, psychedelic interstellar journeys, or elevators bursting with blood, he still captured and retained my interest for the three hour plus running time. Everyone always speaks of the cinematography in LYNDON, and rightly so - those candle-lit shots and epic battle scenes are gorgeous. But I found the structure of the story to be of particular interest, particularly the manner in which it chronicles the entire lifespan of the title character, while obviously skipping over some events in his full life, but still feeling like all of the important emotional development for an entire lifetime was kept intact.
I usually do my best to see all films in a series in the correct order, and to never see a sequel before the original. Last year, however, I found myself inexplicably unable to avoid HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS - and while it had some fleeting moments of batshit good times, I think even the most ardent fans of that film would admit that it's a fairly big mess. Never being too much of a werewolf devotee (I was more of a zombie kid, and find myself now drawn more to the periphery of horror films rather than the classic monsters), and always having heard that THE HOWLING was inferior to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (released just four short months later), I was never particularly excited to see this film, despite my strong appreciation for many of Joe Dante's films. Of course, the original in the series is significantly more enjoyable than the late-period Ozploitation MARSUPIALS, and Dante's trademark blend of humor and horror works much to his advantage here. One of the highlights viewing this film today is the amazing roster of character actors and cameos: Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Dick Miller (as Walter Paisley), Forrest J Ackerman, Roger Corman, and John Sayles all show up at one point or another in this film!
Another VHS era relic that deserves better recognition. I was lucky enough to score an original release Paragon VHS of this film (the big box version, no less) after spending several long nights after closing time battling pink fiberglass insulation, large spiders, and mounds of rat poop in the VHS-stuffed attic of a dying video store. The owner of the store, who had taken to sleeping overnight at the cashier's desk, allowed me to raid his 30-year old videotape collection, and while 99% of it was copies of JERRY MAGUIRE or THE MIGHTY DUCKS, after investing a significant amount of sweltering attic sweat, fiberglass skin irritation, and dust-born sneezes I was able to walk away with a handful of tricky-to-find gems. Among those tapes, this might be the best discovery I made. It's a fairly insane Canadian horror/thriller from '84 about a horror novelist/screenwriter, and would make a perfect companion to MISERY and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS for a "Horror Movies About Writers" marathon. While definitely low budget, the downbeat, downward spiraling vibe of this film reminded me a bit of Cronenberg's DEAD RINGERS, and although this is a not a body-horror film by any means, it has more than a fair share of shocking moments.
Frank Henenlotter is a filmmaker I've had minimal exposure to up until this point, but one whose back catalogue I expect will provide me with several films that align perfectly with my tastes. After seeing his recent documentary HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GODFATHER OF GORE (pretty damn good) and now FRANKENHOOKER (as part of an all-night horror film marathon at the New Beverly Cinema), I decided to make a commitment in 2013 to erradicate my lack of experience with his films. This film was a laugh riot, one of the funniest horror/comedy films I can remember seeing. Although it boasts no real star power, the young actors Henenlotter selects are wisely chosen, in particular James Lorinz is perfectly suited to the smart-alec lead character.
CLOAK & DAGGER(1984)
Dabney Coleman is a goddamned pimp.
DRUNKEN TAI CHI MASTER(1984)
Yuen Woo-ping creates a new version of his 1978 film Drunken Master, six years later and this time with Donnie Yen instead of Jackie Chan. Chaotic, hilarious, and action-packed, this was a real surprise for me. I don't typically think of comedy when I see Donnie Yen, but I was pleasant surprised to see how well he pulled off this Chan-style comedy/action flick.
Death Wish taken to the extreme. Typical vigilate story of disgruntled average joe taking to the streets to clean up the riff-raff. This time, however, the revenge killings have more in common with a creatively gruesome slasher film than an action movie. The death scenes have an intense feeling to them not unlike last year's Hobo with a Shotgun. Suffers from a couple of boring subplots and at times bizarre editing (including a couple of abrupt scene transitions and a couple of oddly placed fades to black), but the action is intense and singular enough to make up for it. If you enjoyed Death Wish and have the stomach for some gore, this is worth a watch.
OPERATION PINK SQUAD II(1987)
Criminally underwatched gem of a CAT-III film from Hong Kong. This movie blends horror, comedy, and action not unlike Evil Dead 2 or Re-animator, and remains consistently fun throughout. Don't worry about the mostly unrelated Operation Pink Squad 1, just hunt this one down and settle down for a fun time.
An all-in-one-night slasher film set in a small grocery store, with awesome gore effects, directed by Scott Spiegel. Basically an Evil Dead II reunion (with Sam Raimi, Ted Raimi, Scott Spiegel, Bruce Campbell and Dan Hicks returning), it's interesting to note that this film is also in some ways indirectly responsible for Tarantino's film career, as this was the first film Lawrence Bender produced, which lead to his involvement in Reservoir Dogs (Bender also makes a brief appearance here as a cop, alongside Bruce Campbell).
THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE(1973)
Still shocking after all these years! This gritty 1973 Swedish exploitation/hardcore rape/revenge flick remains compelling throughout despite the brutality. Christina Lindberg is perfectly cast here as the fetishized "One Eye". Obviously a major inspiration for Kill Bill, this is requisite viewing for any Tarantino fans.
THE ETERNAL EVIL OF ASIA(1995)
One of those bizarre CAT-III films from Hong Kong, the plot of this horror/sex/comedy is hard to describe, and doing so would probably spoil half of the fun. Suffice it to say that if you're in the mood for inexplicable Chinese/Thai mythology, bizarre transformations, strangely explosive violence, and freaky sex scenes, this movie should deliver for you. Likely best very late at night.
80 BLOCKS FROM TIFFANY’S(1979)
Absolutely effective in capturing the reality of an extremely bleak time in the South Bronx, a stone's throw from the affluence of Manhattan. Those who did not live through it may have a hard time believing they are watching a documentary, as the colorfully dressed (but deadly serious) gang members are so incongruous with todays street culture, and the images of the Bronx literally in ruins are difficult to reconcile with the NYC of today. The subjects of this documentary, on both sides of the law, were such interesting characters that I find myself wondering what happened to them further down the line, after this small window of time had come to an end. A must-watch for any fans of THE WARRIORS - you may be surprised to find that film is more realistic than you might have expected.
On Youtube here:
A wonderfully unique animated film. Quietly epic and strange in all the right ways. This is probably a love-it-or-hate-it affair, and the tone of the film is uniquely early-70s. The original title, Savage Planet, is actually a much more apt description of the film and probably should have been retained.
I had a few honorable mentions as well that didn't make the cut: GO WEST (1923) (seriously, just watch this on YouTube ( http://www.facebook.com/l/1AQHiLUU9AQGylnJyU4l0e8Q7k_5uQefUedAZZ77PW-By8A/www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pa6hfwMXD3Y), it's only 12 minutes and it's a Western film cast entirely with animals), The Boneyard (1991), Deathdream (1972), Miami Connection (1987).