Deathgasm (2015)

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fourstar

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At the height of heavy metal’s popularity in the 1980s there was a ridiculous mini-trend of horror movie releases that capitalized on parents’ fears & teens’ transgressive love of the genre. Films like Trick or Treat (the one with Ozzy, not the 2007 anthology) & Shock ‘Em Dead answered paranoid questions like, “What if rock & roll groups are hiding Satanic messages in their records in order to subliminally corrupt our children & turn them into murderers?” with a resounding “Hell yes! That would be bitchin’.” The only problem with these films is that they had the distinct POV of an outsider looking in. They’re fun films, but they’re lacking a self-awareness about the world of metal, playing more off assumptions about the subculture than its actual, true-life nature.

2015’s New Zealand horror comedy Deathgasm, on the other hand, openly displays the insider knowledge of a true metal nerd’s overactive imagination. Not only does it continue the Kiwi traditions of films like Peter Jackson’s classic splatter fest Dead Alive, but it uses that gore-soaked past to deepen & improve 80s heavy metal themed horror schlock like Shock ‘Em Dead. This is the kind of film where D&D jokes fit snugly among casual discussions about metal’s endless list of subgenres– sludge, grind, death, black, etc. Deathgasm holds an obvious reverence for metal as both an artform & a lifestyle, but it’s also more than willing to poke fun at the subculture’s peculiarities, like the incongruity of ultra macho types wearing corpse paint (make-up) & metal nerds’ tendency to pine after potential love interests  from afar rather than, you know, actually talking to them. It also has a metal head’s sense of gore-soaked humor, going way over the top in its cartoonish violence & brutality.

At the beginning of the film, metal mostly serves as a form of escapism for miserable teens with social anxiety. At school & in public the central crew of nerd protagonists are constantly bullied into feeling like shit, but metal transports them to a mythical world (imagine the abstract mountaintop album art from the genre’s typical record covers) where they’re powerful & adored. Metal’s transcendent source of power becomes more literal as the nerds pull together to form a band called DEATHGASM (“all capital letters because lower case is for pussies”), playing a formed of blackened thrash with song titles like “Intestinal Bungee Jump.” Through their idolization of a defunct band wickedly named Haxan Sword they discover an ancient scroll of sheet music for a doom metal song that magically summons The King of Demons (a supernatural force bent on world domination) when played on a guitar. Instead of accepting the resulting gore-drenched apocalypse that ensues, DEATHGASM fights back, destroying The King of Demon’s loyal army of . . . demons with everything at their disposal: axes, chainsaws, drills, car engines and, of course, sex toys.

On the surface, Deathgasm has a lot more in common with the chaotic 1980s horror franchise Demons than it does with zombie fare like Dead Alive. It’s just that the films’ eye-gouging, throat-slitting, head-removing, blood-puking mayhem is played almost entirely for grossout humor instead of the discomforting terror inherent to films like Demons. This is especially apparent in the gore’s juxtaposition with rickroll gags & the goofy image of kids in corpse paint enjoying an ice cream cone. The horror comedy of Deathgasm is far from unique, though. What truly makes the film stand out is its intimate understanding of metal as a subculture. It’s easily the most knowledgeable movie in that respect that I’ve seen since the under-appreciated Tenacious D road trip comedy Pick of Destiny. I mean that as the highest of compliments. The difference there is that Pick of Destiny (besides being relatively violence free) got a lot of the attitude right, but didn’t have bands with names like Skull Fist, Axeslasher, and Beastwars on the soundtrack. Deathgasm not only looks & acts the part; it also sounds it, which is a rare treat. \m/

-Brandon Ledet

Turbo Kid (2015)

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fourhalfstar
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Functioning as an unassuming but surprisingly elegant eighties nostalgia vehicle, Turbo Kid is a New Zealand-Canadian co-production starring Munro Chambers (formerly Eli of Degrassi TNG) as “The Kid,” an otherwise-nameless survivor of a nondescript apocalypse fighting to stay alive in the distant, irradiated future year of 1997. His hero is comic book character Turbo Blaster, master of the Turbo Punch, and he obtains water (which is becoming less drinkable by the day) by trapping and trading mutant rats. His life changes when he meets and reluctantly befriends Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), a strange girl who comes from the other side of the wasteland, and discovers an underground bunker containing the Turbo Blaster’s real armor and weaponry. The master of this domain is the implacable Zeus (Michael Ironside, because of course), a warlord who is attended by his masked lieutenant Skeletron (Edwin Wright), a voiceless monster with a metal skull mask and razor-studded football pads. When Apple, the newly christened Turbo Kid, and renegade cowboy Frederic (Aaron Jeffery) are captured by Zeus to compete in his murderous bloodsports, the trio learns that the water they’ve been drinking is made of the same stuff as Soylent Green; they escape and begin to take the fight to Zeus.

This is an eccentric movie, and it’s definitely not for everyone. Simon Abrams of RogerEbert.com refers to the film’s aesthetic as an “infantilizing vintage fetish,” which isn’t inaccurate but fails to account for how much joy a properly attuned viewer can derive from the film’s strange blend of innocence and gore, born from nostalgia for a time when films like this were more commonplace. The late eighties and early nineties were a strange time, when R-rated films like Robocop, Police Academy, and Rambo were made for adults but marketed to children in the form of action figures and cartoon adaptations, and the peculiarity of that idiosyncratic time acts as a kind of unstated thesis or leitmotif at the core of this film. So much of the movie plays like something that a group of kids would make in their backyard, with the prominence of playground equipment in the areas where Kid spends his time, his eighties kid dream bedroom in the underground station where he has made a home, and the fact that the only apparent mode of transportation is by bicycle (presumably due to a lack of fuel); with this in mind, it would be easy to assume that the movie would feel like it was made for children as well, until the ludicrous blood squibs start popping off.

The film’s darker comedy elements come from the fact that this flick is very, very violent. And bloody. Underneath the primary colors of the Turbo suit and the Punky Brewster by-way-of Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure sartorial choices, there’s gore to satiate even the most bloodthirsty viewer. At one point, a person’s body is blown in half, and his torso and head land atop another person’s shoulders, effectively blinding him and turning the 1.5 men into a human totem pole; it’s so over-the-top that it crosses a line… until the bottom half of said mauled fighter also lands on yet another person’s shoulders, and skips right back across the line to be bloody hilarious once more. Skeletron’s weapon of choice is a gauntlet that shoots saw blades (like the makeshift weapons from Blood Massacre), which provides plenty of opportunities for fountains of blood, and even Turbo Kid’s overpowered gauntlet causes people’s bodies to burst like giant hemoglobin balloons. And I forgot to mention–these are practical effects, at least for the most part. That’s dedication that you don’t see often anymore, and it’s best to appreciate it when the opportunity arises. It’s silly and farcical and oh-so-wonderful, and I can’t recommend it enough.

From the throwback rock & roll music that Kid listens to on his walkman (when he can scavenge some batteries) to the sound effect cues and overall usage of color and depth of frame, this is a movie that made me so happy that I immediately watched it a second time on the day following my first viewing. As noted above, it’s not a movie that everyone can love; you have to be of a certain mindset and have a certain fondness for films of yore. It’s a solid film predicated upon a familiarity with films of the Cold War, featuring homages to Terminator, Star Wars, Mad Max, and everything else your Muppet Babies-loving heart has dreamed of combining into one narrative. The only potential problem that I can foresee for this film is that it could become a surprise indie hit that crosses over into mainstream saturation; check it out now before the Napoleon Dynamite-like hype and inevitable backlash destroys your capacity to love it for what it is.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Blood Massacre (1991)

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twohalfstar

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On the last Sunday of each month, the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in downtown Austin screens straight-to-VHS movies for their “Video Vortex” series. For August, this film was an almost forgotten flick helmed by venerable Baltimore-based director Don Dohler. Dohler was a cinephile from an early age who took a brief career detour into working on the underground comix circuit before founding Cinemagic magazine, which was purchased by long-running genre mag Starlog in 1979. In 1976, Dohler made his first film, The Alien Factor (released in 1978), with a reported budget of less than $4,000; the film was a Ted Turner cable staple throughout much of the 1980s. The Alien Factor, like most of Dohler’s work, was a B-grade creature feature about an alien crash-landing in/near Baltimore and proceeding to be a murderous nuisance. After going in a slightly different direction with 1980’s Fiend (in which an evil spirit possesses the corpse of a piano teacher in order to wreak havoc), Dohler returned to the “alien crashes, deadly hijinx ensue” mold with 1982’s Nightbeast and 1985’s Galaxy Invader (the former of which featured an original score composed by sixteen-year-old J.J. Abrams, who corresponded with Dohler after becoming a fan of Cinemagic and essentially begged to be involved in a future production of Dohler’s).

According to Alamo art director and programmer Joseph A. Ziemba, Dohler’s early work on the film that would become Blood Massacre was shot on video but piqued the interest of several film investors, who asked that he shoot the rest of the picture on film, including reshooting the 45 minutes that had already been produced. He later presented them with an incomplete working print of the film in 1988, and was told that they would get back to him. They never did. After quite some time, Dohler walked in to a video rental outlet in 1991 and discovered that the incomplete film had been released on VHS without his knowledge when he saw it sitting on a shelf. Dohler wouldn’t make another film for eleven years.

This is, presumably, the reason that the plot structure of Blood Massacre seems so out-of-joint. The transitions between scenes are often abrupt, and it sometimes feels that there is more filler dialogue than final dialogue being spoken onscreen. Consequently, the anti-hero protagonist of the film (Charlie Rizzo, played by frequent Dohler collaborator George Stover) suffers from inconsistent characterization, which isn’t helped by the fact that portraying jovial everymen is well within Stover’s acting range—Rizzo’s post-‘Nam grizzled nihilism, not so much. Stover’s not a bad actor, but he fails to have the kind of screen presence required to make Rizzo believably disturbed, and the inconsistency in the movie’s tone doesn’t help. Rizzo kills two people in the film’s opening scene with little provocation and for virtually no consequences in order to steal a small wad of bills; later, his bank-robbing partner has an emotional crisis after the collateral death of one person during a robbery that nets barely $700 dollars. In another scene, Rizzo supposedly murders a woman in an extremely violent way, but it’s hilariously apparent that he is repeatedly stabbing the table next to her, complete with repeated wooden thunks. There’s a pretty decent story in the film, which might have been saved with proper editing, but the reach far exceeds the grasp of the film’s budget and troubled production, and it’s a shame that viewers never got a chance to see Dohler’s complete vision of this narrative.

The film opens with Rizzo, a Vietnam veteran, being thrown out of a bar after aggressively berating a waitress for collecting his not-quite-empty beer can. He waits in the bar owner’s car; after they close for the night, he murders the man and his wife. After the title, we meet a young woman (Lucille Joile) approaching the home of the Parkers, a farming family with a room for rent. She introduces herself to the family’s daughter, Chrissy (Grace Stahl), and explains that she is an art student who has come to the countryside for the landscape painting opportunities it provides. She also likes the family matriarch’s stew, which seems like a throwaway line but becomes important later. (This character does not appear again before the final act, and it would seem that most of her scenes were planned but not shot, although I can only infer that this is the case.) Elsewhere, Rizzo returns to his fellow criminals:Jimmy (James DiAngelo), whose life Rizzo saved in the war; Pauly (Thomas Humes), Jimmy’s brother; and Monica (Lisa DeFuso), Jimmy’s girlfriend, who openly despises Rizzo. Following an aborted bank robbery, the foursome robs a video store (Rizzo picks up a copy of Nightbeast, which is a nice touch), killing a female clerk in the process. Their car breaks down, and Pauly and Monica take off on foot to find gas before flagging down a car being driven by Elizabeth (Robin London), who happens to be the elder daughter of the Parker family. The gang takes her hostage and forces her to take them back to her home, and the interesting part of the film, obviously inspired by the late Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, begins.

Rizzo and company meet Mr. (Richard Ruxton) and Mrs. (Anne Frith) Parker, and there’s some general strangeness about them. Pauly searches the rest of the house and says that there’s no one else there aside from the family, and there’s no mention of the young painter from the earlier scenes. Elizabeth in particular is an odd duck, displaying no apparent fear and seeming, if anything, bored (and slightly aroused) by her captors. She showers and seduces Rizzo, and the two exchange in a truly kinky sex scene (Google “bloodplay fetishism” if you’re curious–on second thought, don’t). A detective (Herb Otter, Jr.) comes to the Parker farmhouse, but Mr. Parker convinces him to leave while a gun is held to his back. Realizing that the heat will be on soon, the thieves prepare to skedaddle, but not before checking to see if the Parkers have anything of value worth stealing. What they actually discover, however, is the young art student from the beginning of the film, who is locked in a closet. They free her; she warns them that the Parkers are cannibals, then runs for her life. She doesn’t make it far, however, as she is captured and killed by Mr. Parker, as is the detective. Only Rizzo survives long enough to hide overnight in the woods, where he sets to work crafting homemade mines and building an impromptu long-range weapon that is basically a sling shot that shoots blades for a handheld circular saw. He returns the next night to exact his revenge.

Like I said, there’s a some decent plotting on display here, and it’s impossible to look back after two and a half decades and say how much better the film might have worked if Dohler had been allowed to smooth the film’s rough edges. As it stands, there are some neat visual elements (Rizzo’s nightmare sequence in the woods is a standout montage of experimental editing) and some that are… not so great (Dohler couldn’t resist revealing that the Parkers are monsters of some kind, although the pulsating air bladders in the Mr. Parker monster head are sickeningly effective). The film’s score is also quite good, featuring great snare drum work and an early synth leitmotif that really deserves to be in a better film. As a whole, however, Blood Massacre shows its seams as an aborted feature. The only reason you or I have access to this movie is because of a broken promise, and above all else, it really shows. If you manage to catch it on late night cable or it materializes on Netflix, check it out, but don’t go out of your way to track it down.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Pieces (1982)

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“You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre” declares one of the taglines for 1982’s exploitation horror film Pieces, although you would have had to be in Austin this week to see the screening of the 35mm master print, cobbled together by Grindhouse Releasing from the extant copies of the film (and from which their remastered 2008 DVD was produced). The film’s other tagline, “It’s exactly what you think it is,” is also accurate–Pieces is a solidly hilarious and gratuitously gory flick about a campus killer who murders women with a chainsaw, full of ridiculous and unrealistic dialogue that would give a more modern postmodern horror spoof a run for its money. Shot largely in Spain and set in Boston, Pieces will leave you breathless, but from laughter, not fear. This movie is a camp masterpiece, and has set the bar high as my new standard for horror comedy.

In 1942, a ten year old boy is caught red-handed putting together a jigsaw puzzle featuring a nude pin-up. Furiously, the boy’s mother tells him that she is going to burn this filth, but he returns to the room with an ax and a hacksaw and chops her into, well, pieces. Forty years later, a rash of murders-by-chainsaw are perpetrated against a number of co-eds at an unnamed Boston university, and Detectives Bracken (Christopher George) and Holden (Frank Bana) are sent to investigate. The suspects include surly groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, best known for playing Bluto opposite Robin Williams’s Popeye a few years earlier), reserved closeted anatomy professor Arthur Brown (Jack Taylor), and the helpful but absent minded Dean (Edmund Purdom). Kendall James (Ian Sera), the boyfriend of one of the victims, is also treated as a suspect initially, but is ultimately enlisted by Bracken as his on-campus liaison, leading to the younger man acting as the primary investigator of the murders despite the fact that he is even less suited to this role than he is to being the campus stud. I mean, Sera’s not an ugly guy, and his awful hair is one thing, but there are no attempts to hide the fact that he’s wearing lifts throughout the movie, and still stands a head shorter than almost everyone on screen. Rounding out the cast is Lynda Day as Mary Riggs, a former tennis player turned undercover policewoman, although she ends up having to be saved by Kendall far more often than she should.

There appears to be some contention among the fanbase as to whether or not the film was intended to be a comic film or a more straightforward example of schlock cinema; it surely features the titillating nudity and gory gross-outs of other films from the latter genre (and equal opportunity nudity at that!), but I can’t imagine anyone involved in the making of the movie could have been under the impression they were making anything other than a humorous exercise in bad taste. Some of the scenes feel like the crew was in such a rush that they couldn’t afford the time to do more than one take. The dialogue syncing is awful, the lines themselves swing wildly from tonally dissonant purple prose to over-the-top shrieks and alien approximations of police procedural patter, and one of the murder victims pisses herself. That’s not even getting into the killer reconstructing his pornographic jigsaw puzzle in the film’s present while also assembling a jigsaw woman from his victims, the running gag of Bracken and his eternally unlit cigar, an extended aerobics class sequence, and even a woman skateboarding into a sheet of glass being carried across the street by two men. This film is comedy gold, and I loved every minute of it. Just try to watch this scene and tell me that Pieces is meant to be taken seriously.

As for the plot, it’s a fairly standard campus murder spree grindhouse-era flick, and there’s gruesomeness to spare here in addition to the comedy. The mystery, such as it is, isn’t resolved until the finale, although a set/location detail we see in the killer’s house is also present in another locale that is frequently seen, meaning that sharp-eyed viewers will figure out who the killer is before the halfway mark, but that makes the film no less fun. Special mention here should go to Day, who was well known at the time of release for her role on TV’s Mission: Impossible; at no point does she break character or the fourth wall, but she’s also obviously delighted to be participating in this production. She’s a very magnetic screen presence, and I was glad to see that she is still alive, even though I wish she hadn’t retired from the screen so long ago.

My viewing experience of the film was somewhat unique, so I can’t say for certain that the 2008 DVD will recapture the same magic; I can say, however, that I intend to find it and purchase it for my personal collection ASAP. I recommend you watch this movie at the earliest opportunity. You won’t regret it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

American Ultra (2015)

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fourstar

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It’s not exactly accurate to say that the bloody stoner action comedy American Ultra is completely without precedent. It’s at the very least possible to see echoes of the film telegraphed in properties as wide in range as Pineapple Express, Hot Fuzz, Hitman, Spy, Clerks, MacGruber, and the Borne franchise. What we have here instead of a wildly idiosyncratic picture without predecessor is the distinct sense that director Nima Nourizadeh & writer Max Landis have a deep love & appreciation for movies, especially for the violent action comedy as a genre. American Ultra currently isn’t doing so hot in terms of ticket sales or critical reception, but it has the makings of a future cult classic (like a Near Dark or a John Dies at the End) written all over it, because that love for irreverent action cinema shines through so brightly. Although Landis has been recently been making an ass of himself on Twitter complaining about the lack of immediate returns on a screenplay he’s obviously proud of, he can at least take solace in the fact that future blood-thirsty stoners will be greedily streaming his film on loop as they reach for the nearest bong & nod off in their respective piles of empty two liter bottles & Cheetos.

Plotted over just three event-filled days, American Ultra follows the panic attack stricken stoner/amateur cartoonist Mike Howell as he transforms from a pathetic loser to an inhumanly capable killing machine assassin. Played by Jesse Eisenberg with the exact neurotic fragility you’d expect from a performance from Jesse Eisenberg, Mike is a pitiable weakling who relies on the emotional strength of his partner-in-crime stoner girlfriend Phoebe Larson (played by Kristen Stewart, of whom I’m becoming a not-so-secret dedicated fan) for any & all basic life functions. What Mike doesn’t know is that his frailty is actually a safeguard invented by the government to protect his well-being (and potential danger to others) as a discarded “asset” (read: killing machine assassin). Once Mike is re-activated by a well-meaning CIA agent gone rogue he finds himself capable of killing even the most menacing of threats (including other “assets”) with items as ordinary as dust pans, cookware, extension chords, and spoons, when he was just minutes ago not capable of doing much more than rolling joints & tending a corner store cash register.

What’s so unique about American Ultra is its ability to avoid the more pedestrian lines of thought you’d expect from that kind of plot. For instance, Phoebe is much, much more than the girlfriend accessory you’d expect from a male-helmed action film. Her role is constantly active & vital to the surprisingly layered plot, making for a deeply engaging love story once the full details of her relationship with Mike is revealed. Besides Phoebe’s active role & the satisfying romance narrative, the film also surprises in its distinct style of comedy. Although there’s no shortage of glib jokes on hand, most of the successful humor is anchored in its over-the-top violence. American Ultra is shockingly violent, completely giddy in its comic blood lust. It’s likely that audiences’ mileage may vary depending on the viewer’s love of action movie gore, but I personally had a really fun time with the film’s outrageous brutality.

The movie’s standard action movie palette of G-men, satellite surveillance, and drone strikes may not scream the height of creativity, but there’s plenty to play with between the lines to make it a unique property (besides propensity for violence & an active female lead). American Ultra‘s very specific world of CGI pot smoke, black light dungeons, illegal fireworks, bruised & beaten leads (despite action films’ tendency to show their battered heroes with only the lightest of scratches), and refreshing ability to shoot extended sequences in grocery stores without succumbing to grotesque product placement all pose it as the kind of distinctive property destined to gain a cult audience likely to overshadow the narrative of its lackluster theater run. Max Landis might be squirming (or, more accurately, throwing a temper tantrum) over what’s currently perceived as a commercial (and critically middling) failure, but I believe a little patience will eventually lead to American Ultra finding its proper (drug-addled, gore-loving) audience, who are perhaps currently a little too intoxicated to make the trek to the cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

WolfCop (2014)

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twohalfstar

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I really wanted to love WolfCop. A low-budget, crowd-funded Canadian indie horror comedy about a werewolf cop is just begging for my adoration, especially considering the glowing reviews I’ve given titles like Zombeavers and Monster Brawl. As James pointed out earlier today in his review of Housebound, “Horror comedies are always a high wire act.” It’s difficult to strike the right balance between terror & humor and WolfCop is all the more frustrating because it’s so close to getting the formula right I can smell it even without superhuman/canine scent. The film’s premise is killer; its bodily gore is impressive; there’s a plot-summarizing rap song in the closing credits (which is always a plus no matter what anyone tells you); there’s just something essential missing in the final product.

If I had to pinpoint exactly what’s lacking in WolfCop, my best guess is that there just isn’t enough werewolf policing. The origin story segment of the film lasts entirely too long as we follow Sergeant Lou Garou through a series of wicked hangovers that eventually lead him to awaking a changed man. Lou struggles to suppress his newly found werewolf form in long stretches, which is fine for a man who’s trying to survive, but not too exciting for the audience that follows him. Becoming a werewolf does little to curb Lou’s drinking, but it does make him a better cop, but initially only in the sense that he starts doing paperwork & researching the history of the occult in the town he polices. By the time Lou is busting up meth labs & preventing armed robberies in werewolf form AND a police uniform, which is essentially the main draw of the film, the runtime is more than halfway over. There are some great exchanges in those segments, like when a gang member asks “What the fuck are you?” and the WolfCop responds “The fuzz,” but they’re honestly too few too late and soon fade in favor of a story about an evil cult that doesn’t really amount to much more than a distraction.

There are certainly more than a few glimpses of brilliance in WolfCop. The practical effects in the gore are the most winning element in play, featuring gross-out bodily horror like close-ups of hair growing like porcupine quills, several disembodied faces, pentagrams carved into bellies, a switchblade piercing an eyeball and the most blood I’ve ever seen pass through a urethra in a particularly brutal scene where Lou transforms into a werewolf dick-first. There’s also a hilarious sex scene seemingly inspired by The Room that marks the first time I’ve ever seen a werewolf go down on a bartender or enjoy a post-coital cigarette. A couple of these moments are spoiled by some winking-at-the-camera gimmicks (like the much-hated-by-me CGI blood spatter on the camera lens effect), but for the most part the main problem is that they’re isolated highlights and the film that surrounds them is kind of a bore. I get the feeling that WolfCop works better as a highlight reel than a feature, seemingly peaking with its trailer or its poster. That’s not even that big of a deal, though. The trailer & the poster are honestly true works of art at a level a lot of horror comedies fail to reach even in advertising. There’s so much promise & potential in WolfCop as a concept, that even though I wasn’t completely sold on the first installment, the post-credits promise of a WolfCop II arriving in 2015 still excited me. My hope is that now that the origin story has been taken care of, we can get straight to the business of werewolf policing. Give the people what they want. Our demands are simple: we merely want more wolf-cop in our WolfCop.

-Brandon Ledet