Monthly Archives: March 2012

Monster Ark – “He built one Ark to save us from the flood, the other to protect us from evil”

I’m going to start this entry with a bit of Bible study, just to make sure everyone’s on the same page. This movie deals (loosely; oh, so loosely) with the story of Noah, and the ark he built to save humanity from God’s wrath in the form of a flood. The short version is that people had become corrupted, except for Noah and his family, so God instructed him to build an ark and load up two of every animal, and then he and his family were to get on and ride out forty days and forty nights of rain that destroyed the rest of the world. (As an interesting side-note, the idea of a flood destroying the early world is found in a good many religions.)

Monster Ark is an archaeological tale (meaning inevitable homages to Indiana Jones, some intentional, some incidental) in which Dr. Nicholas Zavaterro (Tim DeKay, White Collar, Tell Me You Love Me) uncovers a long-lost Dead Sea Scroll that contains the original version of the Book of Genesis. Wanting to ensure the best translation is made, he takes it to his ex-wife Dr. Ava Greenway (Renée O’Connor, Boogeyman 2, Xena: Warrior Princess). After some effort (science montage!) they find that the scrolls talk about two arks built by Noah, one that survived translation throughout the centuries and was described in the Bible, and another that was used to transport the last demon to the ends of the earth to be banished. Unfortunately, the forces of darkness managed to cause this second ark to sink as it crossed the ocean, and the cage containing the demon was lost. However, because people are, historically, stupid, someone had written down coordinates (who knew they had GPS back then?) in the scrolls, so the two doctors head out to Iraq with a couple of graduate students and a squad of US Army soldiers to find the ark, predictably unleashing the demon on the world.

Left – Dr. Nicholas Zavaterro; right – Dr. Ava Greenway

Left – Joanna; right – Joanna and Russell

Left – Sgt. Gentry; right – Sgt. Gentry and his ineffectual weapon

The acting in this movie fell into two camps. The first is the scientists – DeKay, O’Connor, and the grad students (Amanda Crew and Bill Parks) are all pretty solid, and are definitely a step up from the SyFy norm. Then the first half-hour or so of the movie ends, and for the remaining hour, we’re left having to come to terms with rather unfortunate impressions of soldiers (led by Tommy Lister). Additionally, the CGI was sparing and, as such, was again an improvement over most SyFy, until the end, when a very sad-looking CGI thunderstorm, complete with very sad-looking CGI lightning, forced its way on screen, as though to drive home the point that this movie is a Sci Fi Pictures movie.

Left side of picture – sad lightning 😦

Lamentably, the cliché count is rather high in this movie. First, there’s the beginning, wherein Dr. Zavaterro and his grad students are at a dig site in Israel; when they find a long-lost chamber, the locals they’ve hired to dig refuse to open it, citing reference to a curse chiseled into the outer stone. This really touches on two clichés, that of ancient curses and warnings being left on doors to tombs and various resting places (which, of course, they were), and that of local diggers being superstitious (which I suppose they might be, but always strikes me as kind of over the top). Second, there’s the recurring theme throughout the movie of the dichotomy between science and evidence on the one hand and religion and belief (separate from proof) on the other. Here’s my issue with this juxtaposition – science and religion really aren’t mutually exclusive. There are plenty of religious scientists, and there are plenty of religious people who trust that science knows what it’s doing (modern-day politicians notwithstanding). The fact that movies, tv shows, etc. continually show scientists as ardent champions of atheism, trying at every turn to disprove all religion, is way too narrow, and way too overdone. (Yes, I realize that there are scientists like this out there, chief among them Richard Dawkins; but, though I may be mistaken about this, I like to believe that scientists actively trying to disprove religion are few and far between.) Finally, surprise surprise, the monster ark is guarded by its very own secret society. The descendents of Noah apparently took it upon themselves to preserve the secret location of the monster ark to ensure that the demon never escaped. Predictably, they failed without much effort on the part of our heroes. Strange how these secret societies always manage to keep a secret for umpteen thousand years, yet always end up looking kinda incompetent when a few people come along and unwittingly bypass their supposedly foolproof countermeasures…

“The cleverly disguised maps to the demon will throw everyone off the trail!”

Now, a riddle for you – if I shoot my Army-issue gun at a demon made of stone, with no noticeable effect, what should I try next? If you answered “the mythical staff that was originally used to subdue the creature”, then you’re better-prepared for such a situation than anyone in this movie, because the best they could come up with was “more bullets”. I seem to recall something like that being the definition (or one of them, at least) of insanity.

Bullets don’t work! Try more bullets!

The aforementioned staff was, of course, buried in Noah’s tomb along with him, but the location was known only to the aforementioned secret society. It’s a good thing someone long ago decided to build a map room straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was the most obvious, and most avoidable, Indiana Jones reference in the movie. (There were others, of course, but they were varying degrees of subtler.) And wouldn’t you know it, but the nonbeliever Dr. Zavaterro has a miraculous conversion along the way. He uses his newfound, hours-old (if that) religiousness to King Arthur Noah’s staff out of a sarcophagus that was supposedly Noah’s tomb, thereby giving him the power to subdue the demon and confine it once again in its monster ark, which brings me to this little gem – it’s difficult to watch this movie and not see the monster as the physical manifestation of Zavaterro’s refusal to believe in God. After all, it was after he had given himself over to God completely, turning to blind faith, that he found the staff allowing him to save the day. Moreover, he only was able to find the staff because he didn’t doubt his faith. He was also able to reconcile with his ex-wife because of it. Which brings us back to the beginning of the review portion of this entry – why can’t science and religion get along?

As a final, parting thought, I want to mention something in this movie that I, as a scientist, appreciated. When Dr. Zavaterro and his team bring the scroll to Dr. Greenway, there is the briefest of science montages, but then a cut-away with the caption “3 weeks later”. I would like to applaud this movie for recognizing the basic fact that science and research are not things that can yield solid results in minutes, and only rarely in hours. Of course, I suspect that three weeks is absolutely no time at all when one is trying to translate an ancient scroll, but it was still good to see some reference to the fact that science, as a discipline, typically takes time. (For a more accurate summary of science vs. montages, click here.)

Tune in next week for more sharks jumping; I can hear the splashing now!

House of the Dead 2 – “All guts, no glory”

Now we come to the SyFy contribution to the franchise in this, the second half of the first installment of our second occasional series, Franchise Week. (It is recommended that you read the review of House of the Dead first if you haven’t, as some comparisons will be made.)

There are a few different types of sequels in moviedom, as we all should know by now. Sequels can be in the form of prequels (as in the case of Tremors 4), they can be remakes (as in the case of Rob Zombie’s Halloween or, arguably, Evil Dead II), and of course, they can be true sequels, as we find in House of the Dead 2.

As was the case with its predecessor, House of the Dead 2 fails to take place in an actual house, being set instead on the campus of Cuesta Verde University where a zombie virus has broken out courtesy of Professor Curien, who is using the zombified Alicia (from the first movie) to try to perfect an immortality serum. Naturally, his experiment escapes, turns him into a zombie, and then proceeds to infect the rest of the campus during the opening credit sequence. In an obvious nod to other members of the zombie genre, a team consisting of six special forces soldiers and two scientists is dispatched twenty-nine days after the outbreak to try to recover a blood sample from the first “hyper sapiens” specimen, as they are called, in the hopes of being able to generate a cure for the disease. The scientists Alexandra ‘Nightingale’ Morgan (Emmanuelle Vaugier, CSI: NY, Saw II) and Ellis (Ed Quinn, Eureka, Young Americans) are joined on their mission by all the classic special forces stereotypes – the eager and patriotic new team member, the nervous talkative guy, the strong female second-in-command, the enormous and sinister jerk, the reliable but stupid guy, and of course the gruff and pragmatic squad leader. As you may have guessed, the soldiers completely ignore the warnings from Nightingale and Ellis (the only two people who have dealt with zombies before and actually know what’s going on), and thus Nightingale and Ellis are the only two people who survive to the end.

Left – Ellis and Nightingale; right – Nightingale; bottom – one of the soldiers. I’ll let you guess which one.

As always, this movie suffers from a lack in just about every area – dialogue, special effects, and acting (although, interestingly enough, the acting seemed to improve as the movie progressed, though that could have just been acclimation on my part). I would also have to say that this movie was somewhat more boring than the first one, as well. As far as makeup went in this movie, the zombies over all looked either a lot better, or very much worse, than in the first movie. There were also two parts with noticeable and somewhat laughable inconsistencies in makeup – near the beginning, Ellis is washing blood off his face from a recent kill; as the angle changes, he alternately has a clean face, then one with blood, then a clean face, then one with blood again, before ending with a clean face. Similarly, later on, when they find Alicia the zombie (Patient Zero), there’s a moment when part of her back is visible through her hospital gown, and is distinctly human-looking.

One of the better-looking zombies in the movie.

I’m a biologist by training. As such, when I watch a movie like this, I take special note of the explanation for the various biological phenomena. Insofar as things were explained, they definitely seemed to go off the deep end with the virus in this movie. First of all, they talk about the virus causing mutations in the victims. This is possible, as viruses in the real world are known to cause genetic mutations. However, in a deceased host, the virus would have no way to go about effecting physical change – a virus cannot, in general, cause protein expression independent of the host cell. Normally, when a cell gets infected, part of the infection is the insertion of virus DNA into the host chromosome, to be turned into protein and more viruses as the cell does its normal cell things. In a corpse, though, there are no processes occurring – the virus would have no way to cause genetic insertions to be expressed in the host.

There’s also a moment when one of the soldiers gets bitten by a mosquito and thus is presumed infected. However, the method by which mosquitoes feed on humans prevents the transmission of blood from the mosquito to the human. (For a discussion of why mosquitoes cannot transmit HIV between humans, follow this link – without further knowledge, I have to assume that a theoretical zombie virus would be similar in character.) Therefore, although possible given the virus’ fictional existence, based on real-world observations transmission of the virus via mosquito is extremely unlikely.

This movie uses the idea that zombies can tell each other from live humans through smell, and so when Ellis needs to try to help the remaining people escape, he cuts open a zombie corpse and smears the guts on himself, then safely walks through a room full of zombies. For there to be a sense of smell, the brain of the zombie must be functional, at least in part. Here I would like to give credit to the movie, because there is also a moment where one of the soldiers (at this point a zombie) seems to recognize Ellis, suggesting that some memory remains in the zombies. This idea is also supported earlier in the movie, when Nightingale notices that the zombies seem to be falling into old, ingrained routines. (Both these ideas are considered in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, of course.) Therefore, it seems that this movie has consistent, if unsupportable, amounts of brain function in the zombies. Of course, assuming that metabolic processes are necessary to access memory and recognize smell, and given that metabolism stops after death, brain function of any sort is highly unlikely.

As I mentioned, the mission to the campus was to recover a sample of blood from the initial zombie infection. Along the way, Nightingale and Ellis test several blood samples from zombies, all of which turn up negative. But I have to ask, to what were they comparing these samples? In order to know whether blood was from Patient Zero, they would have needed to have a sample of blood from Patient Zero already on file; in other words, it seems to me that, unless there was some other marker that went unmentioned in the movie, the entire premise makes no sense, as they would already have the blood they need to collect.

Finally, this movie brings back harbor patrolwoman Casper from the first movie, in which she gets her legs severed by a zombie hoard. Accepting that she didn’t get bitten (and therefore she was not zombified), her leg stumps were bleeding for at least ten or fifteen minutes, before the house she was in exploded. She may have survived the explosion (highly unlikely), but I do not see how she could have survived the blood loss, as no tourniquet was applied and it takes only a matter of minutes for a person to bleed out after severing their femoral arteries. So I’m sorry, SyFy, but there’s really no way she could have survived the first movie.

Moving away from pseudoscience now, I must chastise the characters for ignoring the golden rule of situations like theirs, namely don’t get separated. There’s a moment when one of the soldiers hears something, and so goes off on his own to investigate. Naturally, he ends up a zombie. But seriously, he should have known better than to wander off on his own. Also, people in this movie showed a surprising lack of awareness of surroundings. At one point, Ellis and Nightingale meet up with two students who had been living in a science lab for weeks. Initially, the students believe the scientists to be zombies, which makes a lot of sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is the way that five minutes in the company of other humans causes the students to forget every rule they must have developed in order to stay alive for twenty-nine days, because not long after they show up, the students get swarmed by zombies who attack from behind. How did the students live that long if they never kept an eye to what was going on behind them?

Why you shouldn’t wander off alone.

Moreover, the final piece of the plot is that the campus is going to be destroyed by cruise missiles, meaning that the mission to find the unnecessary blood is on a tight schedule. But when the missile actually strikes, it turns out to be just that – missile. Singular. As in, one building gets blown up, but somehow someone somewhere thought that would be enough to end the outbreak? I can’t promise that this would be my answer, but I think that, were I the one to make that call, I would say “kill it with fire” and carpet bomb everything within a certain radius, then add napalm, then maybe bunker busters, before ending it all with a very, very, very large boom device. But that’s just me, and maybe I’m more thorough than I need to be.

Almost as good as killing it with fire.

But of course, despite the best efforts of our heroes, they fail to contain the spread of the virus. In fact, they even fail to leave the campus with a sample of blood; but that’s okay, because it turns out that while they were in the campus (for all of maybe six hours), civilization ceased to exist.

I think there’s a pretty clear moral here – don’t try to reanimate corpses. It won’t end well.

House of the Dead – “You won’t last the night”

So this is going to be the first installment of the second occasional feature here at Jumping Sharks – Franchise Week! It’s important to remember that not all the movies of a given franchise will be SyFy Originals; but it’s just not right to start watching a franchise partway through. You’ve got to watch them all to get the full flavor of the series. And as always, I will try to avoid giving away plot points, but it’s going to happen, mainly because there is just so much that I need to talk about for this movie. So let’s just jump right in and try to outrun the sharks, shall we? Because it’s gonna be a long swim…

House of the Dead is directed by Uwe Boll. For those who don’t know who he is, follow that link. For those who don’t follow that link, he’s a German director who has made many movie adaptations of video games. Some of his directing credits include BloodRayne, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and Alone in the Dark. And, significantly, his movies have the tendency to be universally regarded as awful, awful creations. House of the Dead is basically classic Uwe Boll, complete with occasional clips from the source material.

Before I continue, I need to confess that I have never played any of the games in the House of the Dead series. Therefore, my commentary cannot make any firsthand comparisons between the movie and the source material. However, a quick search of Wikipedia shows that the movie is actually set as a prequel to any of the video games. The film opens with five college students trying to get to a rave on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Having missed the scheduled boat, they charter Captain Kirk (Jürgen Prochnow, 24, Das Boot), a local smuggler, to take them over, ignoring the warnings from his first mate that the island is cursed (after all, it’s called Isla del Muerte; there’s no way anything good can come from having a rave on an island with that name). As they pull out of the harbor, they choose to ignore calls to stop from Casper (Ellie Cornell, The Thirst, Halloween 5), an agent with the harbor patrol who then follows them to the island. Once on the island, the students head into the woods to find the rave while Captain Kirk and his first mate unload the contraband on his boat to prevent Casper from confiscating it.

Left – Rudy; right – Alicia

Left – Karma; right – Liberty

Top left – Simon; top right – Casper; bottom left – Captain Kirk; bottom right – Captain James T. Kirk

When the students arrive at the rave site, the find it trashed and abandoned. After looking around a little for anyone who might still be there, Alicia (Ona Grauer, Intelligence, Catwoman) finds a bloody shirt, causing her to go off looking for people in the woods accompanied by Simon (Tyron Leitso, Being Erica, Wonderfalls) and Karma (Enuka Okuma, Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, Dragon Ball Z); the other two students stay at the rave site (given the number of characters in this movie, I’m trying to only mention by name those who survive for a significant portion, which these last two fail to do). Alicia, Simon and Karma find a decrepit church and graveyard in a clearing in the woods, wherein they find Rudy (Jonathan Cherry, Goon, Final Destination 2), Liberty (Kira Clavell, Frankie & Alice, Saban’s Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation) and another ravegoer who videotaped what happened. His tape shows zombies attacking the rave and killing everyone. After seeing the tape, they all decide they have to get off the island as soon as possible, resulting in the next hour or so of the movie being about what would be expected – people killing zombies in all kinds of new and creative ways (kill it with fire!) while the humans slowly die one by one.

Now, on to the good stuff.

First off, for those whose first reaction is ‘why are there islands with Spanish names in the Pacific Northwest?’ (I know that was one of my first thoughts while watching), it turns out that not only did Spanish lands go that far north, but they also had explorers sail up the coast into present-day Alaska. So I’m willing to accept the plausibility of islands in that region having Spanish names, regardless of the likelihood of those names being Anglicized over the years.

Moving on, there were two words that kept coming to mind during this movie – act harder. Act harder. For the love of God and all that is holy, act harder! Most of the actors were about what you would expect from this caliber of movie, but every now and again there would be a truly wooden, bland and completely forced line delivery that made it impossible for me to not ask them to act harder. Also, the makeup effects left a lot to be desired – the zombies typically looked like either they just had white/pale blue face paint on or they were wearing burlap bags over their heads that then had decaying faces painted onto them. Beyond all that, the soundtrack was nothing special, though by the same token it wasn’t distracting. Nothing worse in a bad movie than a distracting soundtrack that takes focus away from the awful acting, dialogue, and special effects. However, the opening credit sequence in this movie does deserve a call-out as a refreshingly new, if trippy and psychedelic, visual sequence. It was a sort of neon silhouette of images from the game, which was definitely a nice retro touch, in my mind.

Left – a probable zombie; right – an unfortunate man in a burlap hood.

One of the early scenes in the movie features a woman skinny dipping in the ocean while her fling watches from the beach. When she comes out of the water, he is no longer there, so she heads into the woods to look for him, finding the decrepit church and graveyard that our heroes later discover. Now, I’m a sane, rational person (or so I like to believe) who has never been in a situation like that, but I do believe that I would feel nervous to the point of going to look for someone else to help me find my lost companion before I went into the church. So I have to ask – are horror movie characters crazy or particularly irrational? It’s like when the basement lights go out in the middle of a storm and the flashlight batteries die and there’s a mysterious thumping and an unknown smell rising up the stairs – you don’t go down there! It’s a similar thing here – we have a woman on her own, already lost in the woods, walking blindly into a very creepy-looking church with an ancient graveyard out front. Did she think things would end any differently than being torn apart by zombies?

Another probable zombie. Possibly also a Buffy: the Vampire Slayer reference.

As I’ve mentioned, a hallmark of Uwe Boll movies is various homages to the video game inspiration for the film. In this one, those homages start with the credit sequence, then continue throughout the movie, often using clips taken directly from the game. But there’s also a great scene in arcade-shooter style wherein Captain Kirk is on his boat shooting zombies as they appear from around doors, or over the side of the boat, or from the rigging, just like in a classic light gun arcade game (which is the classification for House of the Dead). There are also a couple moments when characters die where, instead of showing them getting ripped apart, motion freezes and they drift upwards in a red mist, another classic video game influence.

DEFINITELY a zombie.

But all this brings me to a series of very important points that made me rather angry at this movie. Captain Kirk was shooting zombies as they came onto his boat. But how did they get there, you ask? They swam. That’s right. Zombies in this movie are incredibly agile – they can swim, they can run, they can (and do!) use weapons, they are able to actually fight (block attacks, strike back with attacks of their own, etc.), and they can jump seven to ten feet in the air in a single bound. I’m something of a purist – I realize that allowing zombies to run adds something to the tension, and is arguably biologically defensible, but I do prefer slow zombies (I’m a sucker for inevitability; what can I say?). But I cannot, in any way, defend the ability of zombies to swim, to jump, or to show evidence of intelligence in combat (blocking attacks, using weapons, etc.). I’m sorry, but part of the point of zombies is that they’re mindless. If you give them back their minds, even in a rudimentary regard, they cease being zombies and instead become something else, like a Wight or a ghoul or something (not to be confused with the ghouls from Ghouls). So there’s that, which I would argue takes away from the zombies in this movie, at least to a certain extent.

Apparently, reanimated corpses can swim…

At one point, our heroes (Rudy, Alicia, Karma, Liberty, Simon, Casper, and Captain Kirk) are making their way through the graveyard to hole up in the church, trying to find the most defensible place they can. What follows is a ten to fifteen minute shootout in which the camera speeds are constantly changing between real time and bullet time, while our heroes do all kinds of acrobatics and martial arts and general cliché action movie badassery. I think the best way to describe this scene is a completely unapologetic, shameless, totally self-indulgent action sequence that almost borders on mockery through imitation of movies that include such scenes in a completely serious manner. If you are at all interested in bizarre, over the top action sequences, it might – and I can’t stress that might enough – be worth looking into, as it really is a fascinating example of gratuitous self-indulgence. It’s almost otherworldly.

…and use weapons.

Then, during the aforementioned sequence, we have some interesting questions arise. For one, how is it that Liberty (who spends the whole movie in an American flag jumpsuit and go-go boots, as I’m sure you guessed) manages to do all kinds of martial arts, acrobatics, and running, given that she spends the whole movie in an American flag jumpsuit and go-go boots? I’ve never worn the things, but I can’t imagine that go-go boots would allow someone to high-kick a zombie in the face, especially when that person is standing on loamy, graveyard soil. Furthermore, before they storm the church, Captain Kirk dips into his personal supply of smuggled weapons to make sure that each and every person has at least three different kinds of guns and two different kinds of explosives, then they have a brief montage wherein Kirk and Casper show the others how to use the various weapons. Then they storm the church like they’ve all spent ten years or more in special forces. How do they go from five college students who have no clue how to turn the safety off to stone cold killers who can hit their target every time when using such weapons as an Uzi and dual-wielded Desert Eagles? Which also raises the question of who would ever choose to voluntarily shoot two Desert Eagles at the same time in an actual life or death situation? (If you believe this is a rational course of action, I would direct your attention here, which is a bunch of anecdotal evidence as to why that’s a bad idea.)

The sort of thing one could realistically do in a jumpsuit and go-go boots.

There are, of course, a variety of other moments here and there that make no sense, like seeing a weird zombie-eel-thing in a tank of red liquid (“blood”, or so they would have you believe) and deciding that shooting it makes the most sense, ignoring the fact that it can’t hurt you in the tank. Or like hearing your former first mate whistling for you and then going to him despite knowing that he must be a zombie. Or like watching zombies swim towards your friend who stupidly jumped in the water, then stupidly deciding to jump into the zombie-infested ocean yourself for some absolutely unexplained reason. Or like finding a book explaining everything that’s happening on the island, but deciding to leave it behind, because how can actually knowing what’s going on help you? Basically, this movie is a series of bad choices with just enough good ones to keep the plot moving forward.

“It can’t possibly harm me! I must destroy it!”

So there you have it. The first installment in the new Jumping Sharks occasional feature Franchise Week. Stay tuned for the conclusion of the House of the Dead series, and keep swimming – the sharks might give up eventually!

I’m sensing an Evil Dead nod…

Cyclops – “The rise of Cyclops… is the fall of Rome”

For this installment of Jumping Sharks, we examine the film Cyclops, which forces us to flip our viewpoint of the world completely inside out, begging the question which is more inherently savage, humankind or the natural world.

I’m kidding. It’s about a Cyclops that goes on a killer rampage.

“Are you not entertained?!”

(Before I continue, please be aware that there are definitely spoilers in this blog entry. I generally try my best to not give everything away, but this time, the themes I wanted to explore required describing events at the end of the movie. On the plus side, most of you reading this either never will see this movie, have already seen this movie, could guess what will happen if you ever did see it, or don’t care whether you know what will happen if you ever do see it.)

The Magi ain’t got nothin’ on these guys.

The movie opens with a trio of merchants lost in the woods on their way to a city. They spy some sheep, and decide to take what they can while the presumed hunters who own them are away. Naturally, the sheep in fact belong to the Cyclops, who comes back to his camp and sees the merchants trying to steal his sheep. He kills two of them while the third escapes and reports what happened to Rome. Emperor Tiberius Caesar (Eric Roberts, The Young and the Restless, Less than Perfect), on the advice of his nephew Falco (Craig Archibald, Capote), sends popular centurion leader Marcus (Kevin Stapleton, Gossip Girl, One Life to Live) to subdue the Cyclops to stop its attacks on Roman citizens. Marcus chooses to capture it and bring it to Rome, realizing that the merchants were the aggressors. He also starts to wonder about the possibility of intelligence behind its baby blues; sorry, baby blue. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Gordian (Mike Straub, Cold Fusion, The Grudge 3) and Barbara (Frida Farrell, Behind Your Eyes, Contract Killers), slaves belonging to a man working for Falco, begin to organize a revolt against the Emperor and his nephew. Several Cyclops escapes and a bad Gladiator rip-off later the good guys win, the bad guys die, and the Cyclops kills a bunch of people.

Top left – Emperor Tiberius Caesar; top right – Falco; middle left – Marcus; middle right – Marcus and Gordian; bottom – Barbara

I suppose that, in a movie like this, bad CGI is par for the course, and, as the pictures should make apparent, the CGI in this movie was as expected. Sadly, the poor acting was also expected – Eric Roberts, easily the best actor in the movie, did the whole thing with a half-smile on his face that seemed equal parts contempt for the Roman citizens as his character and contempt for the movie itself as his person. (Admittedly, he brings that trademarked smirk to most of his roles, at least as far as I’ve seen.) However, what always disappoints me beyond the normal in this sort of movie is what I’ve come to think of as Anaconda syndrome, wherein the size of the beast (be it snake, Cyclops, or Sharktopus (coming to this blog at an indefinite time in the future)) changes nearly at will, as best fits the scenario. Take, for example, the way the Cyclops seems to tower over the merchants and centurions at the beginning of the film, but then continually shrinks in height throughout the course of the movie, ending at around 6’8″ or 7′. Clearly very large, but definitely not huge. (Although there is some error that can be argued, as the Cyclops hunches over throughout the whole movie.) I understand that there is something to be said for artistic license, if you will, and that larger monsters work better for certain situations and smaller ones work better for others, but could we please at least try to have some consistency between scenes? I, for one, would appreciate it.

Left – a towering, man-eating Cyclops; right – a man-sized, man-eating Cyclops.

On to clichés. First, this movie brings back the idea of scheming, entitled Roman senators who see the citizenry as their playthings. We saw it in Gladiator, we saw it in 300, and we even saw a version of it in History of the World: Part I. We get it – Germans are evil; eastern Europeans are evil; Roman politicians are evil. Can we please try something original for once, like Canadians or Australians or something? Second, we have an action movie staple of incredibly stupid guards. We have the guy guarding the Cyclops who decides to taunt it, until it knocks him against the cage, takes his keys to let itself out of said cage, and decides to eat his legs for good measure. We have the guy guarding the slaves, who, despite suspecting that Barbara is sneaking through some sort of aid, decides to not inspect the bread she brings them. And we have a teen who, although not a guard, decides to taunt the Cyclops by dangling a dead rat in front of its nose with his bare hand, then turns around to laugh before crying out in excruciating pain because the Cyclops bit off both the rat and his hand. (The saddest part about this last is that we all know someone who would do that.) Third, this movie goes well beyond what it should and attempts to bring some level of social and political commentary to the plot, namely that the rich don’t care about the poor and that eventually, the poor will rise up and fight back. While this is a valid observation, especially in light of the Occupy movement of the past year, such a theme has little if any place in a Sci Fi Channel original movie. And yet they always try…

“Those chains will hold it, and if not, I don’t need my hand!”

My biggest complaint with this movie is that it tried to do too much. It starts as a fairly standard monster movie – there’s a monster terrorizing the countryside, our hero goes out to stop it, and after a few setbacks, the monster is vanquished. At some point, though, it also takes on a fairly standard political intrigue tone – our hero is too successful and ends up being feared by those in charge, finding his life destroyed as they attempt to hold onto their power. The movie tries to weave these two plot lines together, adding into the mix a third sub-plot wherein our hero realizes that the Cyclops is as human, albeit “uncivilized”, as any Roman and thus begins to try to make it understand its situation as a prisoner in the gladiator arena. So by the end of the movie, we have the Cyclops killing the Emperor in a ‘creation-can’t-be-controlled’ idea; Falco killing the Cyclops in a ‘savagery-and-the-natural-world-must-be-tamed’ idea; and Marcus killing Falco in a ‘the-monster-is-actually-man’ idea. And that’s just the last five minutes or so.

Good idea; good idea; inevitable King Kong parody.

Another part that’s been done to death is the idea that our hero has magical make-women-fall-in-love-with-him powers. Barbara gets captured and arrested after the slaves fail to escape from Rome, and she ends up as a prostitute for the gladiators. When she arrives, Marcus defends her against the aggression of another gladiator, saying “I like a fighter.” Clearly all class. After a bit of talking, wherein she reveals that the Cyclops will remain a prisoner until the citizens tire of it, at which time it will be executed, she sleeps with him. She then spends the rest of the movie devoted to him, staring at him with big fawning eyes, hoping against hope he’ll earn his freedom, etc. I can’t claim to be an expert on such matters, but does this sort of thing ever happen, ever, anywhere in the world? Because I can’t imagine it does.

“You’re the only man who talked to me before having sex with me. I am now yours.”

Finally, a minor complaint that is really just because most English-speakers in the world get this point wrong – there’s a moment in the movie when Falco asks every second centurion under Marcus’ command to step forward, to be executed unless Marcus agrees to become a gladiator slave. Falco and Tiberius refer to this as “decimation”. Although modern usage of the word “decimate” means to destroy a large number of something, the actual original meaning, which would be understood at the time of the Romans, being invented by them and all, is to reduce something by one tenth. That is, to truly decimate Marcus’ unit, every tenth man should have been threatened with death, not every second. (If you don’t believe me, either look it up for yourself or check it out here, here, here, or here.)

So that’s it for Cyclops, a densely layered philosophical movie questioning both what it means to be human and the true definition of savagery. With a Cyclops killing a lot of people.

Ghouls – “The dead are waiting”

Ghouls represents the what I see as the fourth and last major sub-division of the horror genre (the four being, in the order they are presented in this blog, thriller/suspense, creature, disaster, and supernatural/paranormal). And while it is true that many genres share some of these themes and characteristics, I would argue that it is also true that any movie within the wide and welcoming genre known as “Horror” fits relatively easily into one or more of these categories.

Ghouls is a modern retelling of a time-honored classic. Jennifer (Kristen Renton, Sons of Anarchy, Days of Our Lives) travels to Romania with her father Stefan (William Atherton, Life, Die Hard) and his girlfriend Liz to attend the funeral of Jennifer’s grandmother, Stefan’s mother. As she meets his family, she soon realizes that something is amiss in the village. One of the men at the funeral asks to meet her, but when he fails to show up, she goes looking for him, finding him being eaten by one of the ghouls. Enter Thomas (James DeBello, Cabin Fever, Scary Movie 2), the last of the Druids, a group dedicated to fighting the ghouls and stopping the release of the Ancients from the spirit world that has held them for 1500 years. As she learns more about the history of the village and her family, she soon realizes that she was brought to Romania to become the earthly incarnation of the ghoul-queen, bringing about the return of the Ancients and the destruction of the world. Just like the stories your parents probably read to you growing up.

Top left – Jennifer; top right – Stefan and Jennifer; bottom left – Jennifer and Liz; bottom right – Thomas

Although SyFy Channel is known for really bad CGI, this movie had some of the worst I’ve seen in a long time. The ghouls can take two forms, one of them corporeal, the other as phantoms flying around. For this latter form, it looked as though SyFy was aiming at a throwback to one of the old Star Trek episodes, “Catspaw“, only with lower production values. So there was definitely plenty of poorly-done special effects. The acting was also noticeably sub-par, though not as terrible as other movies reviewed on this blog. And, in classic cliché fashion, our last remaining Druid recently came into possession of a mystical knife that was used in the original battle to defeat the Ancients. Except it’s hard not to look at this knife and wonder how many times you’ve seen the same thing at costume shops come Halloween, though probably more lifelike in the shops.

Top left – witches from “Catspaw”; top right – phantom ghouls from Ghouls; bottom – corporeal ghouls from Ghouls

Speaking of clichés, what is it with eastern Europe having all of the ancient secrets and terrible curses? Romania alone has been stuck with vampires (including Dracula), werewolves, zombies, and all manner of other creatures and beasties. Can’t we agree that, as far as places of the occult go, Romania’s pretty much been done to death?

Anyway. There’s a moment in the movie when Jennifer starts to figure out what’s going on, and then she meets Thomas. After he rescues her from a ghoul, he takes her to a secret room in a crypt in the village cemetery, wherein she voices her concerns about the presence of spiders in the crypt. She just saw a guy getting his arm eaten by an undead ghoul, she’s in a crypt standing next to a sarcophagus with a skeleton in it, and she’s with a strange man dressed, as she put it, like he’s attending a Lord of the Rings convention, and she’s worried about spiders? Moreover, once she realizes that her entire family, father included, is working to make her the carrier of the spirit of the ghoul-queen, she maintains remarkable composure. I’d imagine that, were I in her situation, I’d be freaking out hard core. But she keeps a very level calm, almost like she knows she’s in a movie…

Because eight legs is freakier than this.

Though this does bring me to one of the pleasant surprises in this movie – our heroine is more than a helpless woman who needs to be rescued by the strong, heroic man (though Thomas does rescue her on multiple occasions) – when it comes to protecting herself, she goes so far as to shoot a guy with a shotgun. So she’s not completely helpless. Also, when she and Thomas take refuge in a church, she has sufficient wariness to not trust the priest just because he’s a priest. It was refreshing to see some modicum of common sense in a horror movie, however fleeting it may have been.

Though honestly, with ghouls for servants (top left), who wouldn’t want their daughter to become possessed by a ghoul-queen (top right) to help cause the destruction of the world (bottom)?

In the end, Ghouls is more than a clichéd, unoriginal made-for-tv movie; it’s also a cautionary tale for parents. Specifically, it warns that, if you don’t want your daughter to rip your heart out through your chest while her undead servants feast on the flesh of your extended family, don’t encourage her to take in the ethereal essence of a hellish ghoul-queen for the purposes of allowing her to bring down a reign of terror onto the entire world by releasing a primeval race of undead demon-spawn from their eternal prison.

Who knew?