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“Get Your Toothbrush and Whatever!”--The Sci-Fi & Horror Spectacular Returns!
by Peter Sobczynski

If you are in Chicago and have a hankering to see a bunch of classic science-fiction/horror films this weekend on the big screen where they belong, prepare yourself for the majesty of “Sci-Fi & Horror Spectacular 4.”

Flying serpents, giant ants, space vampires, bore worms, Yuppies--these are just some of the terrifying creatures that you will encounter at “Sci-Fi & Horror Spectacular 4,” a mini-marathon consisting of seven classic genre films preceded by a half-hour of trailers, memorabilia vendors and a live appearance from a genuine Master of Horror. Hosted by local filmmaker Rusty Nails and held at Chicago’s famed Music Box Theater(3733 N. Southport) on April 10th, this is 14 hours of thrills, chills and suspense (not to mention some naked bits here and there) all for the bargain price of $20 for advanced tickets and $24 at the door on the day of the event. If you are a fan of this particular type of filmmaking, you don’t need me to tell you what a big deal this is. If you are a newcomer, let me assure you that any one of the movies listed below is ten times more entertaining than the likes of “Avatar” or “Clash of the Titans” and even better, you don’t have to wear a pair of stupid glasses.

Advanced tickets for “Sci-Fi & Horror Spectacular 4” can be purchased at the Music Box Theatre (3733 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL), After Hours Movie Rentals (915 Foster Street, Evanston, IL)Laurie's Planet of Sound (4639 N. Lincoln, Chicago IL) and at

THEM (1954): One of the first major genre films involving a monster born of atomic testing and one of the best, this stars James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon and James Arness as a group of people frantically trying to stop a nest of giant mutated ants (the result of atomic testing in the New Mexico desert) before they can destroy the world. They get most of them, two queens escape and wreak havoc on a Navy ship and the L.A. drainage system in two of the niftier action set-pieces of the time. Although Warner Brothers clearly lost confidence in it just before it went into production (it was originally meant to be in color and in 3-D until both were scrapped at the last second), this remains a hugely effective entertainment and some of its elements (such as the sight of the little girl in the desert in the opening and the drain climax) are still pretty creepy. (12 PM)

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965): Having already made a name for himself with such notable horror classics as “Black Sunday” and “Black Sabbath,” Italian director Mario Bava took to the stars for this cult favorite in which two spacecraft head for a remote planet to answer a distress call and are overtaken by a mysterious force that drives the crew members to try to kill each other. While the crew of one succumbs to the force and is killed off entirely, the other manages to survive but discovers that they have been lured there by a race of creatures in need of fresh bodies to utilize in order to escape their dying world. Clearly a key influence on “Alien,” this film may seem on the surface to be a wild change of pace for Bava but it shares several key elements with his more straightforward horror films, specifically the wild visual style and the wilder plot twists and turns culminating in a last-second reveal that makes the finale of “Twitch of the Death Nerve“ almost seem staid by comparison. (2:00 PM)

DARK STAR (1974): In this hilarious satire that helped launch two careers, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon expanded upon a short film that they made at USC to tell the story of a trio of astronauts (and the cryogenically frozen body of their dead captain, who can still be consulted for advice) on an extended mission to destroy unstable planets in order to clear the way for interstellar development. After all the years in space, the crew is pretty much stir-crazy (or just plain crazy) but that turns out to be the least of their problems when they are forced to confront an asteroid storm, an alien intruder (and yes, it would be impolite to point out that it looks suspiciously like a beach ball) and a powerful bomb that grows sentient, contemplates the meaning of life and becomes convinced that it is God. While undeniably crude and amateurish in spots, the film still works today both as an inspired spoof of “2001” and for the myriad ways in which it would go on to influence the careers of Carpenter (who experiments with some of the stylistic tricks that he would later expand upon) and O’Bannon (who essentially spun off the alien subplot into his screenplay for “Alien”). (3:30 PM)

FLASH GORDON (1980): In the wake of the massive success of “Star Wars,” producer Dino De Laurentis decided to jump on the bandwagon by bringing the legendary comic strip hero back to the big screen in an expensive new feature film. Although the resulting film would prove to be a dud with audiences when it was released, probably in no small part to the unbelievably wooden performance from Sam Jones in the title role (perhaps the only actor around who could actually suffer in comparison to Klinton Spilsbury), it would eventually become a cult favorite thanks to its bizarrely campy tone, a weirdo visual style that makes De Laurentis’ “Barbarella” look like “Solaris” by comparison, cheerfully over-the-top performances from the likes of Topol, Brian Blessed and Max von Sydow (as Ming the Merciless) and appearances from Ornella Muti and Mariangela Melato that have been single-handedly ushering young boys into early puberty for nearly thirty years now. Oh yeah, I almost forgot the amazing musical score by Queen--a wonderfully bombastic work that, like the rest of the movie, will split your eardrums, fry your brain cells and leave you sitting there with a goofy grin. (5:15 PM)

Q--THE WINGED SERPENT (1982): In the wake of being fired from his first studio picture, the Armand Assante version of “I, the Jury,” after only a couple of days of principal photography, B-movie maven Larry Cohen (the genius behind such classics as “Black Caesar,” “It’s Alive” and “God Told Me To”) quickly put together this monster movie homage about a giant Aztec flying monster terrorizing New York City and the small-time crook (Michael Moriarty) who discovers the location of the creature’s lair and tries to use that information to finally make a big score. Not only did he wind up beating “I, the Jury” into theaters by a couple of weeks, he wound up making what remains the most consistently entertaining work of his entire career. While many of Cohen’s other films tend to feature brilliant initial ideas that tend to peter out a bit towards the end, this one keeps humming along thanks to its combination of a witty screenplay, plenty of cheerfully gory moments, neat performances from Moriarty (whose Method turn is one for the ages) and a supporting cast including David Carradine, Candy Clark and Richard Roundtree and a hellacious final battle between the beast and a S.W.A.T. team atop the Chrysler Building. Cohen will be on hand to introduce the screening and take part in a Q&A session afterwards. (7:30 PM)

LIFEFORCE (1985): After making scads of money off of low-budget junk featuring the likes of Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris and Boogaloo Shrimp, Cannon Films decided to make a move into the world of big-budget filmmaking by hiring Tobe Hooper, then riding high on the success of “Poltergeist,” to direct this expensive sci-fi/horror epic about a group of space explorers who come across an alien ship in the head of Halley’s Comet containing three apparently dead humans. Of course, it turns out that they are space vampires who suck their victims of their “lifeforce” and turn them into crazed zombies and when they are brought back to Earth and accidentally unleashed, they wreak havoc on London and threaten to destroy the world. While the studio was presumably hoping for Hooper to deliver something along the line of what people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were cranking out at the time, he instead gave them one of the wildest genre films of the entire decade--a manic work featuring a central villain (Mathilda May) presented in such a way that pretty much precluded the film being shown on commercial television in a version even close to its original form, a lead performance from Steve Railsback so decidedly unhinged that it makes his work as Charles Manson look almost meek and mild by comparison, the sight of Patrick Stewart with hair and a grandly apocalyptic finale that will cause even the hardiest jaws to drop out of sheer astonishment. Needless to say, the film tanked and essentially helped to destroy both Cannon Films and Hooper’s career as a studio player but I can’t help but adore every single freaky frame of it and I suspect that it will go over like gangbusters here. (10:00 PM)

THEY LIVE (1988): In the wake of several big-budget box-office disappointments (including such future cult classics as “The Thing” and “Big Trouble in Little China”), John Carpenter returned to his low-budget roots but instead of rebuilding his career with a string of “Halloween” knockoffs, he offered up this astonishing blend of science-fiction, action and pungent political satire with this audacious Reagan-era tale of a homeless man (former wrestler Roddy Piper) who discovers to his horror that not only are there aliens living among us as part of a plan to take over the world, they are posing as platinum-card-carrying Yuppie scum and their true faces are only revealed by looking at them through a pair of special sunglasses. Filled with sardonic humor and strong action set-pieces (including a now-legendary extended fistfight between Piper and co-star Keith David) and anchored by a surprisingly effective performance from Piper, this is one of the key films of Carpenter’s career and is arguably the last unquestioned masterpiece that he has made to date. (12:00 AM)

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originally posted: 04/08/10 08:40:07
last updated: 04/08/10 09:23:30
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