Tuesday, October 20, 2015

She'll Give You Such a Pinch: "Queen Crab" (2015)

Billing itself as a throwback to the stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen, "Queen Crab" is a goofy sci-fi/horror flick with everything you would expect from those exploitation pictures of decades past- including promising more than it delivers.

Melissa (Michelle Miller) is a young woman who mostly keeps to herself on a patch of rural farmland near a pond. She has lived there since her scientist dad and harpy step-mother were killed in a lab explosion inadvertently caused by Melissa's new pet crab, Pee-Wee. She had been feeding it some of her father's experimental specimens (he seemed to be working on an early version of GMOs), and the crab started to grow. All grown up, and being raised by her uncle and local sheriff, Ray (Ken Van Sant), Melissa threatens anyone who trespasses on her property. Old high school friend, now B movie actress, Jennifer (Kathryn Metz) stops for a visit, and the two reconnect after years apart. Also stopping in the small Crabbe County town is Stewart (A.J. DeLucia) from the state wildlife commission. Local cattle have been getting slaughtered by an animal that leaves bizarre prints, and Stewart arrives to investigate.

What the cast and the viewer eventually find out is that Pee-Wee, Melissa's crab, has grown to the size of a large pickup truck, and has started to have "little" babies (the eggs are as big as basketballs). Melissa tries to save her pet, Stewart wants to study it, and Ray wants to kill it; and all the while, Pee-Wee wanders from her home pond to wreak stop motion and computer animated havoc across the countryside.

Writer/director Piper is well-versed in the old Harryhausen canon, and does a nice homage to the master. This is not complicated stuff, and neither is it scary or even smart. It does serve its purpose- to deliver surface thrills and chills, while the audience waits for a scene that even remotely resembles the DVD cover art. In this day and age of winking films like the Sharknado series, Piper and his cast and crew jump on the bandwagon.

The special effects are very obvious, although they are a nice mix of old and new school techniques. The sound recording is difficult to hear, but the cast seems to be having a lot of fun and are in on the joke. Old chestnuts from those monster movies are trotted out, and I had a nice time reminiscing.

"Queen Crab" offers the viewer a warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia, and not much else- the gore is just over the PG13-level and there isn't any nudity to speak of. I smiled during most of it, I had fun watching it, but if anything I want to rewatch the original "Clash of the Titans" or "Jason and the Argonauts" over this. Judging from the previews, Wild Eye Releasing will be bringing more of this to a screen near you. This is unrated, and contains physical violence, gun violence, gore, some profanity, and alcohol and tobacco use. (* * *) out of five stars.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Ich Factor: "The Summer House" (2015)

This uncomfortable look at the disintegration of a modern German family is full of malaise and Bergmanesque ruminations on isolation. Peel away the frou-frou, and what you are left with is the story of reprehensible characters who get everything they deserve.

Markus (Sten Jacobs) works in construction with business partner Christopher (Stephan Burgi). I have read that they are architects, but the film doesn't really tell us what they do on projects. Christopher owes over 100,000 Euros thanks to some shady dealings, and Markus agrees to pay some of the tax bill, but not all of it. Christopher tells his son Johannes (Jaspar Fuld) to be nice to his schoolmate, and Markus' daughter, Elisabeth (Nina Splettstober), not realizing that the burgeoning friendship between the two twelve year olds isn't what Christopher should be worrying about. Markus is having an affair with another man (meeting up for a quickie while Elisabeth waits in the car). Markus' wife is Christine (Anna Altmann), a morose woman with a permanently pained facial expression who never seems to leave the apartment the family shares.

Markus eyes Johannes, and invites him to their summer house, a small cottage surrounded by a claustrophobic garden on the outskirts of the city. Markus is grooming Johannes, and trying to juggle his marital problems with Christine. Elisabeth is the victim of Christine's increasingly suicidal nervous breakdown, and Burz forces us to watch the trio watch each other.

Maybe if this family had been semi-normal to begin with, then their eventual downfall would have been more effective. Markus and Christine are vile, exhibiting behavior that the viewer will find repulsive. I might have had some sympathy for Markus and Christine if they didn't engage in partner sexual swapping with Christopher and his girlfriend Anne (a, sadly, clothed Natascha Zimmermann), or Christine wouldn't put her head in a noose while her young daughter watched. Call it what you want, or excuse it how you want, but Markus is a child molester. You simply cannot hope things get better for him as he begins to cover his crimes thanks to Johannes popping into his life at the worst times.

Despite the subject matter, the cast does very well with what they are given. Christine and Elisabeth speak English to each other, so Elisabeth can get into a good school, and their "secret language" is a nice touch (as is Markus' reaction to it). Even in the halting English scenes, Altmann and Splettstober score, and I thought their interaction worked better than anything else here.

Burz did a lot of things- writing, directing, producing, editing; and the film is inexpensive but looks professional and fantastic. The cinematography is bright and beautiful (the characters are dark and gloomy...yes, we get it), and the mournful Chopin-like piano score is appropriate. Burz introduces a thriller element too late in the film, it feels clumsy and added-on, and I feel like his screenplay isn't so much a study of a family in crisis as a study of a family doing things to make you squirm. Burz doesn't try to shock like Larry Clark does, but he comes close.

"The Summer House" is a misstep in Artsploitation Films' canon. This is not rated by the MPAA, but contains profanity, nudity, sexual content, and very strong adult situations. (* *) out of five stars.