WORST CUSTODY BATTLE EVER

Produced by Guillermo Del Toro, director/co-writer Andy Muschietti’s feature film debut Mama is a nerve-wracking exploration into parental rage from beyond the grave. Five years after a ruined businessman named Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) fatally shoots his wife and dies at the hands of an unseen entity after attempting to kill his kids in a secluded house in the woods, his twin brother Lucas locates the two girls and brings them back to civilization, where he and his punk rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) attempt to re-socialize them. Unfortunately, the girls’ spectral watchdog keeps tabs on them by making secret visitations to their house and playing with them. Spooky things start happening all around—the children both love and fear their long-time protector—and Annabel must embrace her maternal instincts and inner warrior as the ghostly guardian seeks to remove her and take back her adopted daughters. Mama is a somewhat familiar spooky tale elevated by intense performances, genuinely scary moments, and creative digital effects. The actual Mama is an effectively creepy combination of a live actor with digital doctoring. You won’t soon forget her.

 

BACK FOR THE ATTACK (AND A NAP)

For the first 45 minutes of The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger raises a gun once, but we never see or hear him fire it. Yet once this tale of a small-town New Mexico lawman who must stop a Mexican drug lord (the charismatic Eduardo Noriega) in his high-speed race to the Mexican border revs up into high gear, it serves up crazy car stunts, gunfire, and explosions galore. (And don’t worry if you wonder why Johnny Knoxville is here; his role is minor.) Arnold’s first post-Governator lead part is in a dark modern Western punctuated by mirthful moments that lampoon his elder statesman hero status. It may not rival Schwarzenegger’s great ‘80s roles, but Jee-Woon Kim’s film has its moments, including a clever hostage rescue at the start and a sports car game of cat and mouse in a large cornfield. While some action heroes might not seem believable onscreen when they hit their 60s, Arnold’s still an imposing guy. He may be a little slower, but he’s still tough. When asked how he feels after crashing through a diner door and hitting the floor, Schwarzenegger’s beleaguered sheriff replies, “Old.” But he gets up, dusts himself off, and keeps pounding away. It’ll be interesting to see which roles he takes on next.

 

PRIEST’S LAST STAND?

Some fans misinterpreted the announcement of Judas Priest’s farewell world tour as one of retirement, but the British metal legends are working on a new studio album and will continue to play live, but only selectively. Just not 50-week long tours like this one, of which the final London date was captured live in front of 5,000 fans for Epitaph. Playing at least one song from each of the band’s 14 studio albums with singer Rob Halford—who doubles here as music professor by discussing many of their classic tunes before they play them—Priest bring the thunder for nearly two and a half hours, which is far longer than their usual sets. It’s weird not to see guitarist K.K. Downing playing on stage, but young gun Richie Faulkner injects some new energy (and some extra licks and solos) into the show, and he interacts well with six-string maestro Glenn Tipton. Priest may not be bouncing around on stage like they did 30 years ago, but the performances here are still strong and Halford’s take on Joan Baez’s “Diamonds And Rust” is incredibly emotional. It’s also refreshing to see him spend so much time talking to the audience. There are cameras near, around, and above the band, although there really seem to be none on stage, so while we get some close shots of the group, I feel like this concert video could have gotten a little more intimate despite the large venue size. The fans recede into the background here, and sometimes it’s cool to get those reactions up close. But this is all about the spectacle, of which there is plenty. Epitaph looks and sounds great and is a nice tour send-off for the metal gods and their disciples.

 

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN

British cult film director Pete Walker made some entertaining exploitation pictures during his tenure between the mid-1960s to early 1980s. You may know some of his films, like Frightmare and The House Of The Long Shadows, and Kino Video has nicely restored and collected four of them in The Pete Walker Collection with three commentaries and four short, illuminating documentaries. These films are essentially psychological thrillers with some horror tossed in for good measure. Walker cast some interesting actors in his roles, picked some fabulous locations, and had an eye for good cinematography; these are all hallmarks of worthy cult flicks.

Going from best to worst, The Comeback (1978) stars “The Love Boat” singer Jack Jones as successful vocalist Nick Cooper, whose wife pulled him out of the industry while he was on top. Six years later, they are freshly divorced and he is planning a new album, and his agent (David Doyle, aka Bosley from Charlie’s Angels) is riding him to do well while his assistant and “aging groupie” (Pamela Stephenson, who appeared on Doctor Who in the ‘70s) helps ease the tension. But unbeknownst to anyone, the singer’s wife has been murdered by a masked figure, and he is experiencing nightmares in the creepy old house he now resides in. Is she haunting him, or is he being set up for something terrible? The Comeback is a terror-tinged whodunit with an edgy ending and a good performance from Jones.

The House Of Whipcord (1974) chronicles the imprisonment of a sexy model (Penny Irving) whose “boyfriend” drops her off at a private correctional institution run by religious crazies seeking to cure promiscuous young women of their desires. Unlike many women in prison movies, this one doesn’t really revel in flesh that much. It stays focused on the twisted psychological motivations of the captors and the efforts of her friends to find and save her. This thriller more than a bit unsettling and is “dedicated” to those who miss the days of corporal and capital punishment. Joy.

It’s too bad that Schizo (1976) has that title since it foreshadows the key dilemma of the story as a famous young figure skater (Lynne Frederick, who was once married to the late Peter Sellers) fears that the man who killed her mother, newly paroled, is coming to get her. Is it real or is she nuts? Or is he the crazy one? Regardless, this taut thriller has its moments even as it telegraphs its climactic confrontation, and the ending offers a good surprise.

The only movie of the bunch that is disappointing is the inappropriately titled Die Screaming, Marianne (1971) starring the super gorgeous Susan George (Straw Dogs). It’s a crime thriller about a young woman on the run from an uncle who seeks to gain her inheritance after he was swindled out of it by her late mother. It’s not a horror or terror film, and I almost wonder if this was put together to film the opening credits sequence with George dancing seductively in a bikini. But it has some good scenes, including one where her boyfriend nearly gets killed by two thugs masquerading as cops. It’s a genuinely tense sequence.

 

EASY ON THE SAUCE

The man behind Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm franchise, writer-director Don Coscarelli adapted the book John Dies At The End into a cinematic acid trip. At its most simple level, the movie is about an alleged spiritual exorcist (Chase Williamson) who recounts to a curious reporter (Paul Giamatti) his personal tale of his adventures with a living drug called Soy Sauce that allows everything from precognition and psychic powers to interdimensional awareness. Saying any more would just spoil the fun of this tongue-in-cheek B-movie homage that will certainly titillate many film geeks with its various genre send-ups. That said, there are some metaphysical meditations in the dialogue that will genuinely make you think about time, self, the universe, and everything else. This one’s not really about the climax, it’s about the journey. One really fucked up, mind-melting journey.

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