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July 04, 2006

Rapid advancements in high-definition digital filmmaking technology have made it a lot easier (or cheaper, anyway) for aspiring filmmakers to actually shoot full-length features that look like movies and not just home videos. Luckily, not only are some of these filmmakers talented, but as devoted fans of the schlocky B-movies of the past, they appear determined to keep the tradition alive with ambitious exploitation efforts that echo the cheesy movies they grew up with.

In the last couple of weeks, two such “retro” DVDs have shown up in my mailbox. And, while neither one knocks it completely out of the park, each has its charms.

It takes a lot of cajones to put your name into the title of your movie. Still, while William Winckler may have a hell of an ego, his heart’s in the right place.

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WILLIAM WINCKLER’S FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE CREATURE FROM BLOOD COVE (2005) is a fun and funny attempt to craft a U-I or AIP-styled monster mash for a modern audience, and while it stumbles occasionally, it’s still pretty damned entertaining.

Three mad scientists (Larry Butler, Alison Lees-Taylor, and Rich Knight) create an amphibious monster with the intention of using it to assassinate terrorist leaders (”In the war on terror, the ultimate terror wins.”). But when it escapes from the lead scientist’s seaside home/laboratory and flees into the ocean, their leader is undeterred. If they’ve lost one monster, they’ll simply get another one. So he and his colleagues set out for “Shellvania” (somewhere East of Transylvania) to dig up the original Frankenstein Monster (former wrestler Lawrence Furbish). They find the brute pretty easily, and after a brief encounter with a wandering werewolf, they haul the carcass back to California.

Meanwhile, a photographer for a girlie mag (played by writer/producer/director Winckler – I guess if you do all that, it’s okay to put your name in the movie’s title) and his crew are shooting a nude model on the beach at Blood Cove when they’re attacked by the scientists’ original creature. They take shelter at the Doctor’s house, but soon find themselves prisoners of the scientists and unwilling witnesses to the ultimate battle between Monster and Creature.

Shot entirely in black & white on digital video, with a cool musical score by Mel Lewis that frequently incorporates the familiar strains of “Swan Lake” (in a melodic nod to Universal horror classics like DRACULA and THE MUMMY), FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE CREATURE is played pretty straight. There’s a lot of humor – some intentional, and some derived from the corny script – but it’s not an outright comedy spoof.

Winckler, frankly, isn’t a very visual director. As we watched the movie, my wife and I kept coming up with ways that various scenes and even specific shots could have been improved (without costing a cent more). For example, while the monster make-ups and creature suits by Rich Knight are quite nicely designed, Winckler rarely shoots them effectively. Everything is too brightly lit and the movie lacks “atmosphere.”

But – while the acting in the film tends to be either wooden or hammy, it’s appropriate to the genre and it works. Knight’s monsters are pretty cool. The various cult actor cameos are cute. And while Winckler’s filmmaking isn’t particularly stylish, he’s certainly ambitious. In one movie, he’s got an amphibious manfish, the Frankenstein Monster, the ghost of Victor Frankenstein, a werewolf, a trio of mad scientists, and a Ron Jeremy cameo. You gotta admire that!

For the most part, FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE CREATURE a fairly successful attempt to recreate the monster flicks of the late Forties and early Fifties. In fact, the only way this movie differs from those he’s paying homage to (exempting the modern settting, of course) is in the area of nudity. There are three T&A scenes in the film that, while fairly tasteful, go further than any of those old creature features would have gone. It didn’t bother me particularly – we all know how much I love naked girls – but it might be a problem for purists, parents or prudes.

The unrated DVD (available from Amazon and other online retailers) includes not only a full-frame presentation of the feature, but a plethora of bonus material as well. Aside from the audio commentary track by Winckler and Director of Photography Matthias Schubert, there’s a blooper reel, audition tapes, deleted scenes, a trailer, and two “Making Of” documentaries, one focusing on the movie’s composer. There’s also a brief clip of the Frankenstein Monster getting a lap dance from porn star Selena Silver at the flick’s strip club location. It’s cute, and would have made a great “Easter Egg,” if the disc’s producers had thought of it.

My only complaint about the disc (and it’s a very minor one) is that the main menu is slow to load and the type is small and difficult to read on my TV screen. Maybe if they had put the special features on their own sub-menu, it would have been easier to read and navigate.

Ultimately, for fans of the genre, it’s worth picking up. I’d like to see Winckler and other filmmakers keep doing these kinds of retro B-films, and I think his efforts are worth supporting.

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And, among the “other filmmakers doing these kinds of retro B-films,” we can include director Jay Wade Edwards. His low budget fright flick STOMP! SHOUT! SCREAM! (2006) is a delightful homage to/entry in the beach party/monster subgenre of Sixties drive-in fare, packed with rock & roll, bouffant hairdos, bikinis, and cheesy monsters (well, one, anyway).

Set in 1966, STOMP! SHOUT! SCREAM! chronicles the misadventures of an all girl garage rock band, The Violas, (Claire Bronson, Mary Kraft, Cynthia Evans) whose car breaks down in a small Southern beach community. Short on cash, the girls agree to play at the young garage owner’s (Travis Young) party in exchange for the necessary repairs. Little do the girls know, however, that a murderous Florida Skunk Ape has made its way to this quiet island community and is racking up a respectable body count. Will the hirsute hominid crash the beach party? But, more importantly, will The Violas’ lovely lead woman, Theodora, find true love with the handsome University biologist (Jonathan Michael Green, in a dead-on performance) or the charming mechanic?

While maybe a bit too talky and short on actual on-camera Skunk Ape action (the creature is played by a guy in a Halloween gorilla suit), STOMP! features surprisingly strong acting, slick camera work and lighting, authentic-looking production design and costumes, a clever animated title sequence, and a kickin’ soundtrack made up of some great, original Sixties-styled rock & roll songs by Catfight, The Woggles, The Penetrators and several other garage bands.

The movie could definitely use a little more action, a few more establishing shots and a slightly brisker pace overall, but it’s a genuinely funny flick with plenty of coolness, a bit more polished than FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE CREATURE FROM BLOOD COVE, and is well worth checking out.

The unrated (though no worse than a PG) DVD includes a solid non-anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen transfer, an amusing, informative group commentary with director Edwards and various cast & crew, over an hour of behind-the-scenes vignettes, deleted scenes and raw footage, as well as a teaser trailer and still gallery. Even the DVD menus are stylishly designed. No chapter breaks, though, and that’s annoying.

If you’re interested in picking it up, the producers are selling the DVD directly from their website at www.stompshoutscream.com.

Recommended.

Short column this week as I try to get my work schedule re-organized (time management is not really one of my skills). I will probably be doing shorter columns from now on, and making a real effort to get them posted more frequently.

Next time…I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll finally get a chance to watch all those MASTERS OF HORROR discs I’ve been promising to review. You never know.

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