Basement Jack (2009): Corman-esque Schlock

Cover of "Basement Jack"

You know you have divided feelings about a film when it takes you twenty minutes to think of a title for your review. Basement Jack fits firmly in the ‘ambivalent’ arena for me. After watching the film (for the second time, I have to add, so I could pay a bit more attention to it) I decided that I really did like it. I also wondered where the money went from their estimated million dollar budget, it certainly wasn’t spent on special effects.

Directed by Michael Shelton this is his maiden voyage into the directing field. Basement Jack has a competent cast.

Michele Morrow as Karen Cook

Eric Peter-Kaiser as Basement Jack

Lynn Lowry   as Basement Jacks Mum, Mrs Lowry

Sam Skoryna as Chris Watts

Nathan Bexton as The manager

Tiffany Shepis as Officer Armando

The plot is fairly straight forward and is an amalgamation of several different horror classics in the slasher genre.

Basement Jack is Jack Riley. A boy whose father died in the electric chair. A fact that his ‘mad as a hatter’ mother tells Jack as she repeatedly abuses him. The fact that she likes to shock Jack, starting with a battery when he’s really small and graduating to an electric lead when he’s bigger, shows how nutty this woman is.

Fast forward quite a few years later and Jack is no longer the blond cherub who was the target of Mom’s loving torture. He’s now tall, dark-haired and homicidally nuts. At the beginning of the film he murders Karen Cook’s family and she narrowly escapes, wounded, but alive.

Fast forward a lot more years and Jack is out of the booby hatch and on another killing rampage. Karen is following him across the country tracking him by his trail of murdered families.  She thinks that Jack is searching for her to finish the job he started when she was a teenager.

The plot devices work pretty well. We know from Basement Jack’s frequent flashbacks that electricity was a pretty dominant factor in his young life. Whether it was Mom shocking him, or Doctors applying ‘shock therapy’, or Mom handcuffing him to a metal clothesline pole during a thunderstorm, electricity ran through Jack’s veins.

I really cannot praise the cast enough. Their efforts made the film work. The interaction between all the characters was believable and real. The only exception to this was Nathan Bexton as the manager.

Bexton acts like Johnny Depp ‘acting like Ed Wood Jr‘  in Ed Wood. His manager is campy, weird and ‘hammy’, unbelievably this works well for Bexton as it made the manager a weird enough character that he actually stood out. In one scene, he answers the door wearing oven gloves and a kitchen apron. He’s talking on the phone and is clearly covered in blood. As he is admonishing Basement Jack for banging on his door, he gets stabbed. As stand-out moment in the film.

While the film works well in its apparent homage to just about every slasher film ever made and its characters. The film falls down, unfortunately, with its poorly executed ‘bargain basement’ special effects.

The scenes where Jack has to run someone through with his ‘rubber’ machete are laughably bad. In one scene he ‘buries’ the machete in someone’s head. when he removes it, it has been clearly ‘stuck’ to the side of the actors head. In another scene, as he is ‘running’ the blade through someone’s neck it is clearly behind the victim and nowhere near them.

At another point Jack hits policeman Chris Watts with an odd sword and it clearly bends showing that it’s made of rubber.

Unfortunately it is not just Jack who has the misfortune to have his stunts so badly filmed. An English detective (a quick note here. It is never explained why this ‘grunge-punk’ looking Englishman is on the force or how he is even allowed to be a policeman, let alone a detective) has to shoot Jack mid-rampage. With his gun obviously pointed just to the side of Jack, it is clear that the crew were playing it safe with the blanks in the gun. The detective fires and misses but Jack dutifully flinches as the ‘bullet’ still magically hits him.

Most of the laughably bad effects could have been avoided if  director Shelton had not opted for a close-up each and every time. Because the camera lens was right on top of the action the illusion was effectively shattered.

But…But…  The fight scenes were choreographed brilliantly for the most part. Both of Karen’s battles with Jack are masterfully done and very entertaining to watch. The interactions between characters were, as I said before, very well done.

This ‘straight-to-video’ production made me think of the old Roger Corman classics with a bit of Ed Wood thrown in for good measure. Both of these film makers specialized in the ‘B’ features that you had to watch as well as the main ‘A’ listed feature you really wanted to see at the theatre.

As we know, both Wood and Corman were ‘cheap’ showmen who delivered an entertaining film for a fraction of the cost of a ‘big-budget-film.’ Although. it has to be said, Wood’s films were entertaining for a much different reason. Corman’s brand of schlock was a completely different animal. Basement Jack felt almost like vintage Corman to me. Although the direction of Shelton felt very ‘woody.’

That the director is a horror fan is evident by the inclusion of two of tinsel towns better known ‘Scream Queens’ Sherpis and Lowry. That fact combined with the many ‘nods’ to now familiar films like Halloween and Friday the 13th drive this home.

I can only mourn the passing of the Drive-In. Oh I know there are a few left, but if ever a movie was made for Drive-In viewing, it would be this one…Basement Jack.

*I would like to point out that the one million dollar budget I quoted was incorrect. Mr O’Toole very kindly pointed this out to me. I am grateful that he did so and I’ve included this ‘post script’ to correct my mistake. I can only blame incorrect sources.*

English: American filmmaker Roger Corman.
English: American filmmaker Roger Corman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rango (2011): Animated Animals Re-Create Spaghetti Western Chinatown

Rango (2011 film)
Rango (2011 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The alternate title for this review was going to be, “Silly rabbit these Trix are not for kids.” But it sounded too trite and perhaps eclectic, even though the film is definitely not for the younger members of the audience. Wikipedia calls Rango a ‘ computer-animated family comedy film‘and that’s not too far from the truth. IMDb comes a bit closer with simply categorizing it as an ‘Animated Adventure Comedy.

The marketing for Rango was abysmal. It was advertised as (like the Wikipedia entry) a family film. One that you could take your toddlers to and they would enjoy it whole heartedly. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on whether you are a toddler or not) the film is too sophisticated and clever for the younger audience members to “get.”

Trailers for the film focussed on the more ‘slapstick’ aspects of the movie and left out the sly nudges and winks that the creators intentionally put into the film to pay homage to just about every spaghetti western ever made. In fact the entire film pays homage to just about every western ever made.

What transforms the film from just being clever, witty fun and propels it into the realm of genius was the decision make the entire cast animated animals who, in essence, are re-enacting the plot from Roman Polanski‘s Chinatown. But that isn’t all the film pokes fun at.

The casting of the real actors who voice their animated counterparts is another nudge and wink, not only to the actor’s themselves but to the stereotypical roles that they usually play.  Alfred Molina the English Actor has been cast as a ‘Mexican’ heavy  a lot. Casting him as the ‘Mexican’ armadillo who starts the whole story moving was slyly funny.

Johnny Depp as the chameleon lead Rango was again another great touch and pointing out that Depp the actor was just that, a chameleon.  Ned Beatty as the villainous and scheming Mayor was another brilliant touch and the second ‘villain’ role for Beatty as an animated ‘baddy.’ Beatty had voiced the cruel teddy Lotso in Toy Story 3 so well in 2010 that I’m sure that’s why the creators chose him for the Mayor.

The rest of the cast are all equally impressive with pedigrees that cannot fail to impress. Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Timothy Olyphant (in what has to be the coolest and best cameo in the world as ‘the spirit of the west’ aka Clint Eastwood) and Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake who almost literally steals the film in his portrayal of the Lee Van Cleef-like character.

Johnny Depp’s Rango accidentally ends up in a western desert.  Stranded, alone, and out of his depth Rango meets Roadkill (Alfred Molina) who tells Rango that he needs to find the ‘spirit of the west’ in order to find his way (way meaning his purpose in life and also the way to survive). While running from an eagle Rango finds himself in the town of Dirt.

Dirt is a ‘dry-town’ in the literal sense. The town has no natural water supply as it suddenly and mysteriously ‘dried up’ and now the Mayor (Beatty) and his thugs rule the town with an iron fist.

Rango manages to annoy the Mayor’s thugs and accidentally kill the eagle (who terrorizes the town more than the Mayor and his thugs). He tells the townspeople that he is the notorious badman Rattlesnake Jake’s brother. He is then made the town’s sheriff by the Mayor.

Rango must now help the townspeople find water, hope and solve the mystery of the missing water.

This animated feature was so well written and executed that I completely forgot that the cast was made up of cartoon animals. It became a western, plain and simple.

A western that was funny, exciting and moving.

I am sure that Roman Polanski never realised that his film Chinatown would work so well as an animated western populated by animals.