Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)

Paolo Cavara

Giancarlo Giannini - Inspector Tellini
Claudine Auger - Laura
Barbara Bouchet - Maria Zani
Rossella Falk - Franca Valentino
Silvano Tranquilli - Paolo Zani
Annabella Incontrera - Mirta Ricci
Barbara Bach - Jenny
Ezio Marano - Masseur
Stefania Sandrelli - Anna Tellini

Genre - Horror/Mystery/Thriller/Giallo

Running Time - 98 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini) investigates serial crimes where victims are paralyzed while having their bellies ripped open with a sharp knife, much in the same way tarantulas are killed by a black wasp. As suspects keep dying, Inspector directs his attention to a spa all the victims had a connection with.

As a fan of the giallo sub-genre, it’s always cool when I come across one I’ve heard of but never seen before. Considering it’s still Animal Summer, I was hoping for some tarantula action within this cool sounding giallo flick. Alas, it was not to be even though we see a tarantula and a wasp do their thing for a bit. No, 1971’s BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA [or LA TARANTOLA DAL VENTRE NERO for you Italian readers out there] is one of the earliest giallo films to be released. And in many horror circles, this film is also considered one of, if not, the best of its sub-genre. I don’t think the film is the best giallo I’ve seen [that still goes to 1975’s DEEP RED], but it’s pretty damn solid and an entertaining watch for those who are fans of this type of horror and haven’t checked it out yet.

Probably the thing that stood out the most for me about BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is that it doesn’t really feel like your prototypical giallo flick. In many ways, it feels like I’m watching a crime procedural that just happens to have a gloved killer murdering beautiful women. Besides the murder crimes, there are also subplots dealing with drug trafficking and even blackmail that relate to the main issue. Gialli usually focus on the murder stuff and the mystery of who the killer is and their motive. But this film wanted to branch out from that, giving the audience a full glimpse of a world that is pretty corrupt. The corruption just happens to be related to the killer and his crimes, steering the main inspector, Tellini, in enough multiple directions to frustrate him. I actually thought it was refreshing and it gave reason for side characters to exist in this world. Most of these characters outside of the police force seem to handling in some shady business they’re afraid to discuss or reveal for their own safety. It’s quite fun to connect the dots, leading you right to the killer themselves. 

In fact, it’s through this drug trafficking deal that Inspector Tellini finds this expert scientist who seems to know a thing or two about the killer’s M.O. in the way he murders their victims. You see, the killer uses an acupuncture needle dipped in poison to paralyze their victims by stabbing them into the back of the neck. As their conscious but unable to move, the killer stabs them in the stomach before slicing their torso open. This scientist shows Tellini that the killer was inspired by a wasp preying on a tarantula. Apparently the wasp uses its stinger to paralyze the spider before inserting wasp larvae into the tarantula’s stomach to eat it from within while alive. The funny thing is that the scientist tries to murder Tellini with the tarantula, fleeing the scene since he’s involved with the trafficking scheme. I found the scene rather funny in a good way, because the man did his job before quickly cutting out. Luckily Tellini was in pretty good shape because he did a lot of chasing in this film. 

I also appreciated the subtext in BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA. There’s not many films dealing with the idea of impotence in some way or form, but the story uses this theme to create a parallel between our hero and villain. The villain murders beautiful women because it seems he can’t get it up and do what he wants with them. Therefore, penetrating them with a needle and then a knife is his only way of getting sexual satisfaction. Inspector Tellini doesn’t share sexual impotence, as easily makes love to his wife in the film. But when it comes to solving the case, his lead for answers is a bit limp. His co-workers laugh at him and treat him as a bit of a failure, especially when he [and his wife] easily become targets for the killer. His impotence when it comes to figuring things out comes from his own insecurities as a detective, making him miss things that are right in front of him because of his own low self-esteem. He considers resigning from the force, but his supportive and devoted wife is always there to boost him up and make him see that he’s a good detective if he would just believe in that. I wish the film would have played up this angle a bit more since it’s very effective in giving us a motive for the killer, while creating a sympathetic hero who doesn’t try to be a badass or this cool cop that does everything right and makes everything look good. There’s a nice bit of humanity in Tellini while being impotent creates a monster in the killer. The film is more focused on giving its audience the usual giallo tropes to please them, which is fine. BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA does that very well on the surface. But the subtext adds a different layer that interested me more as a viewer.

What brings down BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA? I guess the fact that it plays out as your typical giallo, with stereotypical characters that wouldn’t fly in 2020. In particular, there’s this butler at the spa where most of the victims seem connected to. He’s very effeminate and flamboyant in his mannerisms in the final act, making us believe he could be using that as a cover for some sort of red herring. But no, he’s just someone’s vision of a stereotypical gay man that makes it hard to take him seriously. He’s not even a character, but really a caricature for whatever reason. I also thought the killer’s identity was a bit of a disappointment, since it’s pretty easy to figure out. And the way the crime is solved and dealt with felt a bit too easy for my tastes. Considering Tellini’s frustration and all the random crimes this killer seems to be the center of, I was expecting more out of the film’s conclusion. The film’s last act was probably the weakest portion of the film for me since everything before that was interestingly told and structured.

The direction by Paolo Cavara, best known for his work on 1962’s controversial MONDO CANE, does a nice job crafting this giallo visually. In fact, Cavara seems more focused on the story rather than his own direction, as the film has a bit more substance than style - which is usually the opposite of what a giallo is supposed to be. The locations are fairly style. The visual style is pretty standard, with subtle camera movements. But Cavara does provide atmosphere in every scene, especially when it comes to the spa. There’s a bit of sexuality and sensuality oozing out of most of the scenes. And the angles in which the killer murders their victims are done quite nicely, with the killer sometimes popping out of nowhere to stab a victim with a needle. And some of the shots before the killer stabs their victim are beautifully creepy. All of this is helped by a very subtle score by the iconic Ennio Morricone, who quietly adds a sensual mood with his composition. BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is, indeed, a good looking picture.

The acting is pretty good as well. The film is carried by Giancarlo Giannini as Inspector Tellini, who really understands his shaky character enough to keep him as grounded and balanced as possible to not make him a stereotypical bumbling detective, like the script sometimes steers towards unintentionally. Instead of rolling our eyes at his ineptness at times, Giannini lets us in on the internal struggle Tellini has with his self-confidence when it comes to solving the case, making us sympathize with him and root for the guy to solve these crimes. After all, Giannini plays the role as a likable guy who does everything in his power to solve the case, while also sharing a nice relationship with his wife that Giannini plays with sincerity and empathy. Is he the most dynamic actor? Not at all, but he says a lot with his facial expressions and body language, which come a long way in a film like this. A very understated performance that worked nicely.

The female cast also elevates the film. Stefania Sandrelli as Tellini’s wife, Anna, plays the supportive, understanding wife perfectly. She’s also quite beautiful, adding to her already warm charm and presence. BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is also well known for casting three actresses who are part of the Bond Franchise. Claudine Auger of THUNDERBALL has a meatier role of the three, playing the boss of a spa who may be hiding some things and acts a bit shady with everyone around her. The other two - Barbara Bouchet [of 1967’s CASINO ROYALE] and Barbara Bach [of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME] - bring their beauty as they play two of the killer’s infatuations and victims. Their presence also provide a neat trick for the audience, as it makes you question whether the killer is a man or not. I like that bit of detail. All the actors play their roles well and help create this mystery that’s easy to figure out if you’ve watched a lot of these movies.

BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is probably one of the finest entries in the giallo sub-genre. While the mystery is fairly predictable if you really think about it while watching, the screenplay still manages to create a solid thriller that engages you from beginning to end. The characters are fleshed out enough to be more than just stereotypes, even if some do fall under that trap. The theme of impotence that parallel the lead detective and the killer is an interesting one that manages to elevate the subtext of the story, even if the film could do more with it. Paolo Cavara directs a straightforward thriller that’s fairly subtle for a giallo, letting the story and the performances tell the story rather than the visuals. But Ennio Morricone’s slow and relaxing score adds a lazy atmosphere that’s enticing. And Giancarlo Giannini’s performance as Inspector Tellini is sympathetic and solid, taking what could have been a bumbling character and making him human and relatable. Plus, having three former Bond Girls in one film makes this one to watch for fans of that series. Not the best giallo film I’ve seen, but it’s definitely a fine one for a fan or for someone just trying to get into gialli. 

3 Howls Outta 4


[Animal Summer 2020] Bait (2012)

Kimble Rendall

Xavier Samuel - Josh
Sharni Vinson - Tina
Julian McMahon - Doyle
Richard Brancatisano - Rory
Alex Russell - Ryan
Phoebe Tonkin - Jaime
Martin Sacks - Todd
Yuwu Qi - Steven
Adrian Pang - Jessup

Genre - Horror/Action/Thriller/Bad Animals

Running Time - 93 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
A group of people get trapped in a supermarket after a tsunami hits the coast of Queensland, Australia. But they soon find out that they have more to worry about than being in a flooded grocery store - there are 12 foot sharks swimming around them, and they’re hungry.

Figuring we’re near the end of 2020’s edition of Shark Week, I felt it would be more than appropriate to review a film dealing with a killer shark or two. 2012’s Australian and Chinese collaboration, BAIT, is a film that had been on my radar for a while now considering it had two actors I’ve enjoyed in other projects - Sharni Vinson [YOU’RE NEXT] and Julian McMahon [Charmed, Nip/Tuck, those 2000’s FANTASTIC FOUR films]. Considering not many people talk about this one when it comes to killer shark films, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. I knew for sure that it would never reach the level of JAWS. But could it be better than most SyFy fare at least? The result is that BAIT is a pretty generic shark flick with enough decent moments to make it worth a watch at least once.

The best way to describe BAIT is sharks hunting and eating people inside of a supermarket and the parking garage connected to it. There’s nothing really more to the narrative other than that, even though the film tries its hardest to make you care about certain characters and the relationships some of that have with each other. That’s honestly one of the big problems with BAIT - we don’t care all that much for the heroes of the story when the script doesn’t bother to develop them. 

Our main hero, Josh, works retail at the supermarket after a traumatizing year. You see, Josh was a lifeguard with his best friend, Rory. Josh also happened to be engaged to Rory’s sister, Tina. Josh and Tina were planning on leaving Australia to Singapore until a shark attack murdered Rory - an attack Josh was close to stopping but was too late to save his friend. This separated Josh and Tina, until they reunite at the supermarket a year later with Tina introducing her new boyfriend, Steven. Then a massive earthquake and tsunami hits their town, flooding and destroying everything - but also bringing in two Great White Sharks who are hungry for live flesh. Josh, having dealt with this and wanting to make up for what he couldn’t do a year prior, steps up as the leader and tries to save as many survivors in the supermarket and parking garage as possible. 

Josh being a hero is understandable because it’s quickly set up for his character to want to erase the sins of his past so he can move on from his trauma. But that’s really his main character trait, unless you count him still being hung up on Tina [who seems as hung up on him still as well]. He doesn’t have much of a personality and while we want him to save the likable survivors, it’s hard to care if something happens to him at the same time. It doesn’t help that his relationship with Tina isn’t built all that much and don’t really care if they get back together. The relationship feels as if it’s there just because there needed to be a reason for Josh and Tina to have this tension with each other. It’s very predictable what will happen between them, so there’s not much suspense going there either. It doesn’t help that Tina isn’t much of a character either, playing more of a damsel-in-distress than anything else.

Actually, all the characters are written without much depth. Doyle may be the only one who has something going on, as there’s a backstory there that’s dying to be explored as he starts as a reluctant villain who proves that he’s really a decent human being as the film reaches its end. There’s a moment at the end of the second act where he tells a bit about himself to a supermarket worker he’s attracted to, Naomi. But it only lasts about two minutes and nothing more is added to it. So what’s the point?

Other than that, Steven is the token new boyfriend. Todd is the token police officer. Jamie is the token police officer’s bad girl daughter who is rebelling against her father over her mother’s death. Jamie has her moments near the end, making me wish she was explored as a character more. Jamie’s boyfriend, Ryan, is the hero of the parking garage segment helping two annoying characters [Heather and Kyle] and their daughter so they can survive. Jessup is the ignorant and jerk of a boss, while Kirby is a random customer who isn’t so random if you really think about it as you watch the film. It was a decent attempt at a twist at least, so I’ll give all six screenwriters that. Yes, that’s right - six screenwriters wrote BAIT, yet none of them thought it would be nice to develop a couple of the characters for us to latch onto. I mean, the deep characters in JAWS didn’t add anything to the story or film, am I right???

Instead, we get your typical modern shark tale but in an environment that is so outside the box, it should have made BAIT a bigger hit than it actually was. While SNAKES ON A PLANE didn’t light the box office on fire or anything, at least we still remember it because it has snakes on a mother f’n plane! It’s like the writers of BAIT thought having sharks terrorize people in a supermarket and parking garage was a neat idea, but barely did anything with the locations to justify the film taking place there. Besides a few characters trying to swim to power generators, certain aisles for supplies and towards this van that’s blocking the exit, the rest of the film after the tsunami is mainly the survivors stranding themselves on top of shelves above the water to stay out of the shark’s way. Besides hooking a shark by its mouth into a trap so they could swim the opposite way, the characters don’t really move from this position to really use the location to its fullest. Even the parking garage scenes involve two groups of characters standing on different cars trying to get to each other to unify against their own dangerous shark, never really exploring the area. It seems like a wasted idea, but mostly this was probably done for monetary reasons. It sucks because a lot more could have been done with these locations to make BAIT stand out above the rest, especially when the characterization was weak to begin with. But at least having a shark film in a different setting was a cool attempt.

Another thing - for a B-movie plot, BAIT sure takes itself seriously. There are moments where the film wants to have fun and sort of make fun of itself. But then, the film just gets serious again and wants to be this action-thriller we’re not supposed to laugh at or with. Considering the premise, BAIT should have been humorous enough for audiences to be amused. But the change of tones was a bit jarring at times. It doesn’t have to be SHARKNADO, but this ain’t JAWS either.

One of the six screenwriters, Russell Mulcahy - famous director of many 1980s music videos, as well as directing the first two HIGHLANDER films and RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION - was originally going to direct BAIT. However, Mulcahy was busy directing episodes of Teen Wolf for MTV at the time and didn’t have time to direct a feature. So the director’s chair went to Kimble Rendall, mostly known as a Second Unit Director even though he had directed music videos and 2000’s CUT starring Kylie Minogue. Rendall does the best he can visualizing a generic script, adding as much tension and suspense as possible while using CGI to visualize a tsunami and eager sharks swimming in the water waiting for a survivor to make a dumb move. The CGI is really questionable, as it looks mostly fake to be honest and something SyFy would present on a Saturday night for laughs. At times, the sharks do look convincing enough and I believe animatronics were mostly used for the killer fish. But the huge wave looks silly and the end shot of BAIT with cartoon planes and helicopters actually made me laugh out loud at how video game-y they looked.

Other than that, BAIT is directed better than it probably deserves to be honest. There are genuine moments of tension, especially during the film’s final half. Sometimes you think a shark is going to get someone and they’re saved at the last second. The sound design, especially, helps build suspense and atmosphere during these moments. The death sequences are pretty good, not going to lie. Those who want to see limbs floating in the water and sharks leaving victims with half of a body will be satisfied with BAIT. There’s one well-directed scene in particular where someone tries to save another from an attacking shark by holding their hand. Seconds later, they’re still holding the hand, realizing the rest of the body is floating away. I thought that was really cool and well thought out.

And if you look up this film, it was originally called BAIT 3D. And the film doesn’t bother hiding its gimmick, especially when body parts, sharks, and weapons fly towards the screen without a care in the world. Not sure if the 3D would have made this film a better experience, but I get easily amused watching a shark spear vertically through a jet ski with someone on it, with everything flying towards the screen in a “jump scare” moment. The look of the film also has that “this film doesn’t look all that bright because of the 2D to 3D conversion”, but it honestly didn’t bother me. I thought it was also very good in terms of pacing, as BAIT went by quickly.

The acting is probably the best part of BAIT. No one really stands out, but all the actors play their roles well. Julian McMahon is probably the big name here and he’s more than fine. I liked the ambiguity with his character, wondering if he was good or bad. He had some good action moments as well and I didn’t mind him here at all. Sharni Vinson doesn’t get a whole lot to do, unfortunately. But as the worried girlfriend with a bit of toughness, she’s alright. Watch 2011’s YOU’RE NEXT for a dynamic Vinson performance because it’s not here. Xavier Samuel, best known for the TWILIGHT franchise and THE LOVED ONES, is very good as main character Josh. He had a lot of emotional beats to play and he pulled them off. I bought him as the main hero too due to his presence. The rest of the cast do what they need to do and no one is terrible in BAIT. Honestly, I think the actors saved this film and made it watchable.

2012’s BAIT is a really generic, yet watchable shark film that ought to be better than it actually is. Considering most of the film deals with sharks terrorizing survivors of an earthquake and tsunami in a supermarket and the adjacent parking garage, the film doesn’t use either location enough to create much suspense or tension for majority of the movie. The characters have no real depth - all token characters you’d expect from a survival film like this, which is more disappointing when you realize that six people actually wrote the screenplay for BAIT. The film also wants to take itself seriously for the most part, only showing hints of humor and self-awareness every now and then, creating a tonal shift that can be jarring. That being said, while the CGI is dated even for 2012, the direction by Kimble Rendall is visually good considering BAIT is a 2D conversion from its theatrical 3D version. The death scenes are actually inventive and the gore will please those who want that in their horror film. It’s also well edited and well paced. And the acting saves the film with all good performances that elevate a script that probably doesn’t deserve it. BAIT isn’t as memorable or fun as JAWS, DEEP BLUE SEA or even SHARKNADO. But it’s definitely watchable if you’re in the mood for 90 minute killer shark diversion. 

2 Howls Outta 4


[Animal Summer 2020] Roar (1981)

Noel Marshall

Noel Marshall - Hank
Tippi Hedren - Madeleine 
Melanie Griffith - Melanie
John Marshall - John
Jerry Marshall - Jerry
Kayla Mativo - Mativo

Genre - Family/Horror/Thriller/Adventure/Bad Animals

Running Time - 102 Minutes

For the last few years, there has been one film I’ve been wanting to review during Animal Summer. That film is 1981’s ROAR - a film so notorious that I didn’t believe the hype until I finally sat down and watched it a few days ago.  ROAR is a film that’s not easy to review since it’s really just a movie where a bunch of animals [mainly big cats like lions] scare the actors and attack them as naturally as they can since they’re not trained professionals. This film isn’t a film you watch for it’s technical and storytelling aspects. This is an experience that must be seen, with a behind-the-scenes story that’s more interesting than what was put on screen. How the hell ROAR was even made and given the chance to see the light of day is a question many who have watched it still ask to this day.

PLOT (from IMDB)
A naturalist (Noel Marshall) living with big cats in East Africa expects a visit by his family of four from Chicago. A mix-up leaves him searching for his family, who have been left in the clutches of wild lions.

Before 2020’s phenomenon over the lunacy that was Netflix’s Tiger King, we had 1981’s ROAR. Like I mentioned previously, trying to review this as an actual movie isn’t really possible, or the point for that matter. While there is a story, it’s so basic that it’s not worth even mentioning. I mean, the film even forgets about it for 85 percent of the time. The direction is just someone filming people getting scared and mauled by lions, to the point where you start to wonder if Noel Marshall was developing his own snuff film here. And the “acting”… I mean, how else is one going to act when a hungry lion is swiping their big paws at them at all sides? These people were scared and nervous to death and it’s plain to see on film.

What makes ROAR still so appealing is the gall everyone involved had in thinking this was a good idea in execution. For those unaware, filmmaker Noel Marshall and actress Tippi Hedren [famously of THE BIRDS] were married and actually lived with a bunch of wild cats after they were inspired by a game warden [who also lived with big game cats] on a safari. Along with their children, Marshall and Hedren would collect felines they felt were being mistreated at zoos, as well as breeding new cats in order to live this game warden’s life for whatever reason. Thinking it would be cool to document this life, Marshall and Hedren created ROAR - a film that pretty much took eleven years to complete due to funding issues [gee, I wonder why?]. While the idea of a loose documentary/thriller about living with lions, tigers and panthers isn’t a bad one, it didn’t help that nobody in the family had any idea how to train or even raise these wild animals without fearing that someone would get hurt, or even possibly get killed, while cohabiting with these beasts. It was just normal life for the family, as they slept with lions and played with them as if they were house pets. 

Even though the film was obvious staged to create this family adventure film with wild cats, behind the actors’ fears is a lot of affection for these animals. After all, these pets were a major part of their lives and they just wanted to capture genuine scenes of emotion and thrills to entertain mainstream audiences. Even the animals, themselves, seem to understand they’re in a film and act accordingly, even showing to be playful and affectionate towards the humans. But wild animals are just that - wild, unpredictable, and most importantly dangerous. Without personnel who could control these cats, you knew bad things would happen. 

While no one shockingly died behind-the-scenes, the amount of injuries between the crew and even the cast themselves, is probably unheard of for any other film in history. Seventy people suffered filming ROAR - and you can see some of the brutality onscreen. Melanie Griffith, in one of the most nail-biting moments in the film, actually gets mauled by a lion as it clawed her face. The damage was so bad, she had to get facial reconstructive surgery. If I hadn’t known that, I would have never guessed since she still looked pretty much fine after ROAR, having a very successful career as an actress and a model. The richer you are, the better the doctors apparently.

Future SPEED and TWISTER director, Jan De Bont, took a job as cinematographer of ROAR. He’s the reason why the film looks pretty damn good. Unfortunately during production, De Bont had a terrifying encounter with the animals, leaving him scalped to the point where he required over 200 stitches to reattach his scalp back to his skull. And the dude still returned to the set and finished the movie! Give this man all the awards… and some therapy to help with his obvious insanity and trauma!

Lead actors and then-married couple, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren, had such bad experiences on the set that parts of their body were attacked by the animals. This led to infections that gangrened, requiring immediate hospitalization. Marshall’s infection came from an early scene where lions bit his hand all the way through, infecting his entire arm. He also got dragged down the stairs by the leg at one point - also eventually getting infected. Hedren’s infection was courtesy of a broken ankle when a pissed off elephant grabbed her foot with its trunk. You can actually see the moment where the elephant breaks the ankle on the film, which is wild.

Other crew members suffered similar fates due to the uncontrollable environment, including some bitten with almost fatal puncture wounds. One person even lost their ear because of filming. The main issue is that ROAR was a non-unionized project, meaning there were no mandatory protocols for safety or animal handling on the set. The crew kept changing because they were able to quit without hurting their careers. And without a script to follow due to the untrained animals, no one really got a sense on where things began and where things ended. And you can tell by watching the final product.

The lack of an union also, unfortunately, led to some of the animals getting hurt or even killed during filming. The film claims that no animals were harmed, but it’s been pretty much documented that at least three of the lions, including one of the credited ones [Robbie], was shot by the local sheriff’s department since they were considered dangerous. I also believe that there was also a flood during filming, which caused some of the lions to flee into the wild to who knows where. It’s really tragic, considering that this film shouldn’t have been made period and these lions should have been handled better. You’d think the Humane Society or some animal organization would have put a stop to this back in 1981, but i guess not.

And of course, the main casualty for the actors/family involved was the divorce between Marshall and Hedren because of ROAR. Hedren, realizing that her daughter was almost killed by lions, realized that she couldn’t put her in any more danger and wanted out of the marriage. Considering Marshall did everything in his power to finance ROAR through money from being part of the crew for THE EXORCIST, making deals with foreign investors who backed out when they realized what the money were being used for, and outside jobs, being married to a man who had no issue putting his wife, two sons, and step-daughter in real danger was probably not the best idea. And since ROAR bombed at the box office and wasn’t officially released to home video until a few years ago, it probably wasn’t really worth the drama. What a mess.

I guess the good news coming out of all this is that people can finally see what the hype was all about and experience ROAR for themselves. And Hedren, realizing the trouble she had been a part of making ROAR, decided to dedicate the rest of her life creating a preserve where the surviving animals [as well as new ones] could be protected and loved in a safe environment. I believe she still owns the animal preserve and makes sure nothing like ROAR ever happens again. Hedren also didn’t murder her husband, which is something I can’t surely say about other people who preserve big, wild cats. But that’s another story for another time.

What can be said about ROAR? It’s not much of a film in terms of a narrative or anything technically special. The film has no real story, no real style, and the acting isn’t even acting - unless you consider actors trying to survive wild lions “acting”. But the film is an experience and a half, especially when you research the behind-the-scenes fiasco for multiple years that led to ROAR’s existence. As someone who has anxiety issues, watching real animals swipe, slash and bite scared and nervous actors didn’t help, as the film is filled with constant tension knowing actual danger is playing on my screen. And that’s the real reason to watch ROAR - it’s a car crash you can’t look away from. For those who enjoyed this year’s Tiger King on Netflix, ROAR will definitely be up your alley. And watch any documentary or behind-the-scenes videos because they’ll only add to the viewing experience. ROAR is a mess, but a captivating one that fans of the genre should watch at least once. 

3 Howls Outta 4


Into the Dark: Culture Shock (2019)

Gigi Saul Guerrero

Martha Higareda - Marisol
Richard Cabral - Santo
Barbara Crampton - Betty
Felipe de Lara - Oscar Molina
Creed Bratton - Attwood
Shawn Ashmore - Thomas

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Science Fiction

Running Time: 91 Minutes

This thriller follows a young Mexican woman (Martha Higareda) in pursuit of the American Dream, who crosses illegally into the United States, only to find herself in an American nightmare.

Since I'm pretty much ending the Lunar Cycle posts for the time being, I figured it was time that even the Hulu Into the Dark reviews would get their own posts. And besides the post for GOOD BOY, which was an Animal Summer 2020 themed review to begin with, I’m kind of glad that CULTURE SHOCK gets its own spotlight since I consider it the best Into the Dark installment that I’ve watched so far since I started last October. Is it perfect? No. But it does have something important to say, even if it loses it’s way somewhat by the film’s end.

CULTURE SHOCK is one of the more relevant entries in the anthology’s history so far, as it deals with xenophobia, illegal immigration, and a look at the American Dream and how real it is to achieve it. I know a lot of people are tired of politics and how it has divided a lot of us unfortunately, but it’s still a topic that should be discussed if done in the proper, open-minded way. The last few years, especially, have put a spotlight on the immigration debate and what’s the right way to handle the situation. 

So I appreciated CULTURE SHOCK in tackling the topic from an immigrant’s point of view. While not a horror film in terms of jump scares, I’m sure it’s a terrifying situation for anyone put in that position, wondering if America will help them achieve their dreams or just disillusion them to the point where regrets will be felt. The film takes the topic and approaches it as a STEPFORD WIVES and GET OUT sort of tale, taking away one’s former identity and culture and turning it into the “American Way” where people have to act a certain and dress a certain way in order to fit in. The world of CULTURE SHOCK tells us that the American Dream is one of conformity, where one misstep will give you the wrong kind of attention and make you feel treated as an outcast. We live our lives in a pattern. We wake up, drink coffee, go to work. come home, eat dinner, watch television and then go to sleep to repeat the cycle all over again. Only those who break that rhythm manage to get ahead of the others. But only the white folk in this movie seem to have the power, with jobs in politics and education, while the illegal immigrants are the workers who build the towns and help set up the Fourth of July celebration. The main character, Marisol, realizes that her old life in Mexico would grant her the same opportunities that it would in America. She’s the only character who sees the class and color difference in this American utopia created for the film. That’s makes her a threat to be eliminated.

I think the best part of CULTURE SHOCK is that it doesn’t let the political angle overshadow the story itself. Yes, it’s the driving force of the film, but the filmmakers never hammer you in the head with it. The film is subtle and slowly unveils the message and what’s really going on with Marisol and the rest of the Mexicans who were captured at the border who are suddenly acting like pod people. It takes that common idea of people thinking immigrants needing to learn the language and embracing the new culture and norms of the country they’ve tried so hard to enter into, wondering what the point is if they don’t bother. We watch this PLEASANTVILLE scenario where people have assimilated by dressing the same, greeting each other the same, and even eating pizza and hamburgers like gluttons the same. Instead of freedom, it just feels like a programmed assembly line of what some believe America to be. It’s so manufactured, it’s accepted because it’s the easiest way to conform with the least drama.

And it wouldn’t be an Into the Dark feature without some sort of horror/sci-fi tinged aspect. There’s a reason why all these immigrants are all acting the same way, as they’re stuck in an experimental simulation in some underground bunker at the U.S.-Mexico border by a xenophobic scientist believing he’s solving the issue of illegal immigration. So there are moments where it feels like GROUNDHOG DAY, where days repeat for Marisol with different scenarios playing out depending on what she does. And we see occasional glitches and even a force field that makes Marisol realize she’s living in a bubble rather than the real world. It shows that even when a world is perfect [maybe too perfect], there’s still something missing. A lot of people believe that style is everything, but a lot of us prefer to have that substance along with it. The American Dream is a great idea, but if you have to act like everyone else to achieve it, is it worth it?

The film isn’t perfect though. While the first act is interesting with its setup to leave Mexico for a better life in America at the border and the second act is inviting with its false Americana portrayal, the more science fiction third act doesn’t feel as thrilling or as satisfying as it should really. The escape from the lab seems a bit too easy, as it feels clumsy and a bit forced because Into the Dark is a horror anthology and horror aspects need to be implemented to fit the series. It’s definitely ambitious though, with some decent action and character moments. And I really liked the last couple of minutes of CULTURE SHOCK. But considering what Marisol and the others went through, I was expecting more of a punch. It’s fine for what it is, but the first two acts are so strong, the final act kind of pales in comparison and feels old-hat. I found the political stuff more interesting than the horror aspect, but maybe someone else will feel differently.

What doesn’t feel old-hat is Gigi Saul Guerrero’s direction. As a co-screenwriter for the film, Guerrero knows actually where she wants to take CULTURE SHOCK, expressing her opinion of the whole immigration and American Dream issues that have taken over society for the last few years in a big way. Her direction is very confident and very subtle as well, never showing off too much to be flashy, but leading the audience in a visual direction that feels natural and captivating enough to keep us invested. 

I think what I liked the most about Guerrero’s direction is how each act looks and feels different from the other. The first act in Mexico has this sepia tone that shows how drab Marisol believes her life there is. It’s also shot hand-held style, which added a bit of grittiness to this part of the film, which added to the tense situation of hiring people to help Marisol out of the country and towards the border where the characters not only have to deal with Border Police, but the Mexican Cartel as well messing things up for them. The second act is the more Technicolor portion of Marisol’s “American Dream”, with bright colors and this creepy characterization of what Apple Pie America was portrayed for many decades in the media until the late 1960s changed all that. Instead of being hand-held, the shots are all static and filmed like an old TV family sitcom. The third act is back to the hand-held, gritty style but with a splash of color here and there. It also has some decent gore moments with people getting stabbed to death and even a bullet to the head moment. It’s also shot with a quicker pace to accentuate the tension of the lab escape and having the characters decide whether going to America is still the plan or not. I definitely want to see more of Guerrero’s stuff because she definitely has a vision and a voice that we could use more in any genre.

The acting is really great as well - probably the best acting I’ve seen in the first season of Into the Dark. Martha Higareda carries the film with super confidence as Marisol, our eyes and ears to this whole ordeal.  She plays every emotional beat naturally and believably. Marisol deals with a lot of traumatic stuff during the entire film and Higareda handles it really well. She also has this strength from the start that just grows. It’s really nice to see and it helps us root for her. It helps that she’s aided by a wonderful supporting cast - including horror legend Barbara Crampton playing a Stepford Wife type with cold, stunning eyes, Shawn Ashmore playing the Mayor of the American utopia with an underlying edge that slowly gets revealed and American Crime’s Richard Cabral as a bad boy immigrant who befriends Marisol and helps her to escape the entire situation. All actors are committed and I bought the entire thing.

I’ve been kind of on a roll with these Into the Dark installments lately, as CULTURE SHOCK may be the best of the lot that I’ve seen so far. While more of a political allegory than a standard horror/sci-fi movie, the themes presented here about illegal immigration, and this idea of the “American Dream” and how it may not be achievable by everyone who lives in America, are presented in a subtle, interesting way that had me invested from beginning to end. The use of taking elements from other films, like PLEASANTVILLE, GET OUT and THE STEPFORD WIVES, adds to this theme that sometimes a dream is just that and reality hits us in the face so hard that we start to realize that things aren’t usually what they seem at all. And CULTURE SHOCK works that well, thanks to director and co-writer Gigi Saul Guerrero’s voice and vision. The actors - especially Martha Higareda, Barbara Crampton, Shawn Ashmore and Richard Cabral - carry the film strongly on their shoulders and help elevate a controversial theme and make it accessible and understandable to those on both sides of the issue. The final act brings the film down a bit due to the horror and science fiction aspects feeling a bit forced [it’s an Into the Dark installment, after all]. But overall, CULTURE SHOCK is a really good socio-political thriller that has something to say for an audience with a hopefully open mind.

3 Howls Outta 4

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