In Ariel Vromen’s new killer-for-hire docudrama The Iceman, Michael Shannon portrays notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski, a Polish hitman for the mob who murdered 100 men before his shocking arrest in 1986. Built as a character study and loosely based on a true story, the film struggles at times, toeing the line between reality and creative license, a decision that transforms the drama into melodrama. A spotlight on Kuklinski and his life is more than warranted, however, and Shannon’s performance elevates the material above its pieced together details and questionable editing.
Kuklinski himself, in a now famous prison interview, never actually tells the real story, bouncing back and forth between sociopath and loving husband. The Iceman is forced to do the same, making the Polish hitman an anti-hero who only cares about his family. Oh, he’s definitely certifiable, killing almost at will, but we’re not worried about him getting into trouble so much as we’re scared he’ll get found out.
Winona Ryder plays Kuklinski’s wife Deborah, who feigns ignorance when her husband’s mysterious nine to five life is brought up. It’s a fairly thankless role and Ryder, although perfectly suitable, never looks completely comfortable in her skin as a housewife and mother in 1970’s New Jersey. It’s their relationship that should be the heart of the film but the screen time is limited to mostly cliched arguments and posturing even though both actors do all they can in those moments. The question of whether or not the real Deborah actually knew what her husband was up to is still unknown which undermines the final reel of The Iceman as everything closes in around Kuklinski.
The most compelling storyline involves Kuklinkski’s side work with Robert “Freezy” Pronge (Chris Evans) as they banter and work together as freelance killers. Pronge and Kuklinski have an unspoken understanding, both living a charade where their family has no idea who and what they really are. Ray Liotta (Killing Them Softly) as real life Roy Demeo is also a standout but Demeo feels like a caricature at times rather than a character who probably has enough material for his own movie. David Schwimmer as Demeo’s right hand man doesn’t feel as misplaced as you might think and Robert Davi (Maniac Cop 3) puts in a memorable cameo as well.
Since this is not an accurate retelling of the events that transpired - the real story may never be known - Vromen and company have the luxury of going back and forth between biopic and pure fiction. This certainly keeps you guessing, but it undermines the dramatic moments because it feels more like a detective story at times than a film about the actions of one man and how it devastated his family. What’s true and what’s not isn’t important, so the supposed real-life events feel less important as well. The creative license taken causes you not to feel the stakes as much but it never goes over the top enough to rise out of some of the usual tropes and beats of the gangster film. Oddly engaging and weirdly romantic, The Iceman is certainly entertaining, it’s just a little confusing and doesn’t really add anything new into the mix. But then again, does it have to? It is just a gangster film, after all.
Cannibalism has been examined thoroughly onscreen over the years (Cannibal Holocaust, C.H.U.D., Motel Hell, Ravenous) but has been largely ignored in history books. Leave it to the bold New Zealand horror-comedy Fresh Meat to shine a spotlight on that country’s own ties to ceremonial flesh eating, completely unafraid of addressing a taboo subject. Of course, this brand of splatstick mania is an offshoot of Ozploitation with ties to Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, Meet The Feebles), so it’s a horror export made to appeal to international markets that already dig this sort of thing. Fresh Meat isn’t a history lesson, it just isn’t afraid to use history as a backdrop. Don’t worry though, there are plenty of blood and guts flying around in the foreground.
Director Danny Mulheron sets up a home invasion story with a twist: the perpetrators have no idea they’ve just walked into the house of a family with a taste for meat, human meat. However, there’s a second hiccup in the initial setup and it’s what I like to call Fresh Meat’s sitcom twist. Their daughter Rina Crane (Hanna Tevita) has become a lesbian while away at an all-girls college … and she has no idea that they’re, ya know, CANNIBALS. Some of the fun comes from who will find out the truth first, Rina’s Dad Hemi (played energetically by Temuera Morrison) and mom Margaret (Nicole Kawana), or Rina herself.
Once a desperate gang of dangerously foolish thugs known as the Tans seek refuge with the family, the clock starts ticking (loudly, I might add) down to the moment where the tables finally turn. As the family is tied up and begins interacting with their captors, some of the developments are intriguing but aren’t quite compelling enough on their own. Most interesting is the budding attraction growing between daughter Rina and one of the Tan gang - the fiery, long-legged Gigi (Kate Elliot). Gigi is most definitely a reason to watch, looking like the lead of a Russ Meyer picture if he preferred more … athletic women. The sexual tension between them is inherently watchable but it’s not enough to maintain the momentum gained from an earlier scene involving a prison break that ends badly for the Tan gang.
Luckily, it’s not long before someone stumbles directly on top of the Crane’s new family tradition, causing mom and dad to come clean to Rina. Towards the end the cops even get involved, but are they sure they know which people to protect? Temuera Morrison becomes more and more unhinged as Remi grows convinced that the flesh he consumes has the potential to make him immortal. Fans of the actor can just imagine a bloodier, crazier version of his character in Lee Tamahori’s kiwi classic Once Were Warriors
The few surprises and standout performance of Elliot and Morrison coupled with the connection to the past make Fresh Meat worth recommending but it relies a little too heavily on a situational premise that overshadows the most interesting characters at times. When a movie is selling fun you just happen to notice the moments where it’s not even more. Don’t expect fine dining but Fresh Meat is still a good dinner and a movie option, just remember to eat dinner first.
There’s a menacing, playful undertone present from the instant Errors Of The Human Body begins, a quality that keeps you interested in the slower moments of the film where deeper ideas are being explored. Although there are some graphic scenes peppered throughout, Errors is theatre of the mind. The horror comes from the ideas and their implications, it’s only then that we see the physical torment wrought by the unethical implementation of cutting, bleeding edge science gone mad.
From a script by Shane Danielson and director Eron Sheean, Errors stars Michael Eklund (The Divide) as tortured geneticist Geoffrey Burton, a broken but hopeful man still reeling from the death of his tumor-ridden toddler whom he was unable to save. (That’s real torture, forget being tied to a chair). Burton is called upon to join a team already in the midst of genetic experimentation at a German research lab in Dresden, a town that already has a dark past after famously being fire-bombed in WWII. The Laboratory is actually the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. Geoff is reunited with his former intern Rebekka (Karoline Herfurth) on a hush-hush project involving the regeneration of human tissue, the goal being to one day harvest body parts.
Geoff is also introduced to scientist Jarek Novak, played by Tomas Lemarquis, whose bald dome and piercing blue-eyed stare are immediately off-putting. From the instant the two meet - they literally run into each other violently - the central conflict is set in motion. Novak is a memorable antagonist with a destructive, almost punk attitude that’s in direct contrast to Geoff’s quiet, brooding demeanor. Geoff’s suspicions mount when he finds out that Novak isn’t exactly playing above board. This road of mistrust, whether justified or not, sends him spiraling towards a dangerous, potentially tragic outcome as the film nears its climax.
Geoff begins to do research at home with an unfortunate lab rat and as the research slowly becomes reality, the physical horrors shown in the more graphic scenes actually compound the emotional weight that’s already been established. Through dreams and flashbacks, the anguish of Geoff’s past is on display along with the terror foreshadowing his future.
Once the big revelation unfolds after a tense confrontation between Geoff and the ego-fuelled Novak, Errors could have gone one of two ways, and it doesn’t make the mistake of turning into a mutant monster movie in the third act - and it very easily could have. In fact, I might have been looking forward to it. But the emotional payoff was probably more impactful than any possibility of creature feature mayhem.
In fact, it’s the emotional resonance of Errors and how it connects to the themes of regret and overreaching good intentions that make it a stand out. Errors isn’t really body horror, it’s a science-gone-wrong cautionary tale that’s more Shakespeare than Cronenberg. At the conclusion, there’s certainly closure but that peace turns out to be its own personal form of hell.
If Frankenstein’s Army were treated as an event film and there was actually a market for it, a first-person shooter game would exist featuring the marvelous zombot monstrosities as they lumbered and click-clacked towards the virtual you with their blades wielded. Collector cards might even be printed of each ungodly creation: the beetle-armed stormtrooper Machete, the Locomotive Medic, and Ivan Zombie would probably be the most popular among kids. There’s also a reanimated cyborg corpse that settles the argument of what RD-D2 would have looked like as an undead Nazi.
Seeing as we might be waiting awhile for the non-existent video game to become a bestseller, luckily director Richard Raaphorst and writer Chris W. Mitchell (Mary Shelley, too) have sewn together a found footage funhouse horror film that, at times, feels so interactive and engaging you’ll swear you’re holding a controller. Although there are bound to be dozens of other secret Nazi labs that have yet to be uncovered (sequel!), the band of Russian soldiers introduced are nearing the end of World War II when they stumble upon an underground bunker where the Nazis have been conducting unthinkable experiments based on the journal of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (yes, that Victor Frankenstein).
The camera remains on as Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), the grunt ordered to shoot footage for a potential propaganda film, captures everything from the group’s initial discovery to the chilling last gasp. Eventually, Viktor (Karel Roden), a descendant of the original mad scientist, assumes control, documenting his unthinkable research. Viktor’s goal is to end the war - one of his solutions is to combine the brains of a communist and a fascist in the hopes of making diplomatic inroads - and Roden plays him as a mad nobleman that’s lost in a world of his own creation, a little like J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner.
Roden gives an unhinged performance that makes the proceedings immeasurably more entertaining, but it’s his heinous, electrically-charged undead underlings that truly steal the show. From the mind of director Raaphorst himself, each character design is forged on a demented assembly line and they each have a personality all their own. They’re still individuals, but they exist only because of Dr. Frankenstein’s vision. Towards the end, as every creature from the factory bombards the ragtag group, the proceedings tilt towards the ridiculous; but instead of becoming silly, it actually raises the intensity and the fun meter needle hits the red.
Point-of-view sequences that usually don’t work for an extended amount of time are much more exhilarating in Frankenstein’s Army because of the manic energy and inescapable feeling that there’s probably something even worse than the attacking Propellor Head Zombie coming around the next corner. Yes, the POV style is a gimmick, but Raaphorst and company know it’s still all about what you put inside the frame. You can’t just shake the camera around a lot.
The small army that worked on Frankenstein’s Army have definitely proved the found-footage conceit still has life in it as long as you’re inventive and not afraid to put the most insane thing you can think of on screen.