Burial of the Rats

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“That whirring sound you hear, is Bram Stoker spinning in his grave.”

This can only be described as utterly mad. Bram Stoker is kidnapped by a group of bikini-clad female vigilantes, ruled over by “the Pied Piper’s twisted sister” (Barbeau), who can control rats with her flute (when not decapitating them in her rodent-sized guillotine, I kid you not). He is coerced into becoming one of them because the Queen decided his writing skills could aid their PR skills, striking fear into their targets with his eye-witness accounts of the raids where the extract vengeance on evil men. Of course, one of the clan (Ford) falls for him, but when she is captured by the authorities, her colleague must mount a raid to rescue her. Meanwhile, Stoker’s father is trying to find his son. Oh, and I did I mention the topless ballet which is apparently the women’s chief source of entertainment? No wonder Barbeau permanently wears a pained expression. [Though she now looks back and says, “It was great fun but even at the time I was able to stand back and think, this is bizarre.”]

Obviously, it’s stupid as all get out: I didn’t realise Bram Stoker had a heavy American accent, while these rats apparently have piranha DNA, judging by the speed they turn their victims into skeletons – actually, I think they’re all the same skeleton… Still, as a lurid B-movie, it’s entertaining nonsense. Might have benefited from more OTT direction, to lift it up into the realm of something like The Perils of Gwendoline – I can’t help wondering what someone like Ken Russell might have done with this. As is, it boasts good production values [Corman was among the first to take advantage of cheap Eastern bloc labour and materials] and a couple of half-decent swordfights – especially when you consider most of the cast were likely chosen for their physical attributes more than their physical ability. There’s cameo appearances from B-movie icons Nikki Fritz and Linnea Quigley, but I didn’t notice them until the end credits. Taking it seriously would be a huge mistake: taking it with some beers and a pizza makes much more sense.

Dir: Dan Golden
Stars: Kevin Alber, Maria Ford, Olga Kabo, Adrienne Barbeau

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant

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“Based on real events. Yeah, righ…oh, heck! It is!”

Most Aussies won’t thank you for mentioning it, but the colony was originally populated largely by the dregs of British society. Prisoners were shipped Down Under, thereby alleviating jail overcrowding and providing a cheap labour source for the new world. This mini-series recounts the story of one such unwilling emigrant, Mary Bryant, shipped off to Oz for a petty theft. She gives birth to one child en route, and has another there, but when starvation threatens her family, she plans a daring escape, and convinces her co-convicts to help, even though they’re 3,000 miles from the nearest safe haven.

It’s a compelling story; we intended to watch the two parts separately, but we had to carry straight on (though the cliff-hanger it contains is a huge cheat). It’s a solid period drama, enhanced by Garai’s fully-committed performance as the heroine, and captures the wretched conditions of life below deck on the transport ships. Similarly, it’s fascinating to see early Botany Bay life, with the rigid division between haves and have-nots – Neill plays the governor, while Davenport largely reprises his Pirates of the Caribbean role as straight-faced Navy officer Lt. Clarke; both are good in their roles. There’s one nasty sequence of anarchy, where the guards just sit back and wait for things to burn out, which says much about the pragmatic approach adopted.

Would have liked to see Mary do more; she’s a bit passive, not feisty enough to be a truly memorable action heroine. And this does lose pace; early in the second half, once the escape has taken place, it occasionally verges on dull – something of a surprise, given the potential for tension of six criminals in a small boat. It’s set up that treachery is the name of the game, but that angle is never explored at all. Things perk up again later, and overall, this is an entertaining three hours, with a rousing finale, which’d frankly be very difficult to believe…if it wasn’t actually based on fact. This brings me to:

Here be historical spoilers I was surprised how close this was to the truth. Bryant was a Cornish convict, transported to Australia, who did take part in a break-out. Though captured in Timor and returned to Britain, there was indeed a public outcry, and those involved were pardoned. The main dramatic invention is Clarke’s relationship with Mary; he certainly didn’t kill her husband, who actually died of natural causes during the voyage back to Britain. The nod to James Boswell is legitimate too, as he was among those who campaigned for her release. Various books have been written about her; Google is your friend if you want to find out about these.

The DVD was released in the US on March 27th by MTI Home Video.
Dir: Peter Andrikidis
Stars: Romola Garai, Alex O’Loughlin, Jack Davenport, Sam Neill

Illegal Aliens

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“Anna Nicole’s last film. It’s probably her best, though that’s not saying much.”

Okay, her swansong won’t be up there with James Dean’s or Bruce Lee’s, but this does at least sense its own idiocy, rendering the movie somewhat bullet-proof, critically speaking. It’s supposed to be dumb, wildly implausible and hideously over-acted. So condemning it for these flaws is complaining because your hotdog tastes of meat. A trio of shape-shifting aliens land on Earth to protect it from the scum of the universe. Thanks to their first encounter with our culture coming in the shape of a porno mag, they opt for the form of attractive women. Two end up getting jobs as FX/stunt people in Hollywood – a sadly underexplored angle – while the third is…Anna Nicole Smith. Then their nemesis (Laurer, the actress formerly known as Chyna) turns up, taking over the body of a mobster’s wife, and prepares to bring about the end of the world. Can she be stopped?

We do have a huge tolerance for “bad” movies in this house, not least Smith’s earlier efforts, so maybe appreciated this more than most. However, for every neat idea, such as the trio taking Cameron, Lucy and Drew as their human names, another doesn’t work at all, or is just creepy, like the director’s apparent obsession with AN’s toilet habits. The film also swings from decent production values – some stunts and chases are large-scale, though I suspect may come from other flicks – to cheapjack as hell. For instance, at one point there’s a ‘Super Villain Monologue Timer’, an amusing idea…except they spell it “Villian”. Ouch. Laurer channels Vincent D’Onofrio from Men in Black to an embarrassing extent, but is still oddly fun to watch, though there’s a strange difference in approach between her or Smith, and the other two leads, who play it almost straight.

There’s no doubt this film is, if not cashing in on her death, certainly shrugging its shoulders and taking advantage of an unfortunate situation. I don’t really blame them for that, even if anyone looking for skin will be wasting their time here. In sharp contrast to her previous, ah, body of work, AN’s clothes remain on; as exploitation goes, this is tame and restrained. And that may be the main problem: a failure by the makers to decide which way to go. SF/action or all-out comedy? There’s enough of each to suggest, with greater commitment, either might have worked better. Instead, it comes off as somewhat lukewarm – can’t say we were ever bored, yet I can’t say I was ever more than mildly amused.

The DVD was released in the US on April 22nd by MTI Home Video, and includes a commentary, deleted scenes and bloopers.
Dir: David Giancola
Stars: Anna Nicole Smith, Joanie Laurer, Gladys Jimenez, Lenise Sorén