Thursday, August 22, 2013

Schlockbusted #5: "Battlefield Death Tales" Review

Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s it seems like a great deal of my favorite movies and television shows were in an anthology format, showcasing multiple stories rather than one single narrative. On TV you had shows like the 80’s Twilight Zone, the 90’s Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, and Amazing Stories, and on screen you had the Darkside movie, Body Bags, and the Creepshow franchise. If you can even call it a genre, it’s one that seemed to go out of style for a bit, but in recent years has made something of a come back, mostly in movies like Grindhouse, The ABCs of Death, and what I hope is now the annual found footage VHS series. As they are becoming more prevalent, they are also becoming more esoteric. One movie available on Netflix I plan on watching and reviewing here pretty soon is called Barrio Tales and features three horror shorts based on aspects of Spanish and Mexican culture, sort of a Hispanic version of Tales from the Hood. I guess it was only a matter of time before they got around to anthologizing my favorite kind of movie, though after watching the collection of Nazisploitation shorts in Battlefield Death Tales, I kinda wish they’d taken a little more time to get it right before throwing out such an enticing, but ultimately disappointing offering.

Battlefield Death Tales, or Nazi Zombie Battleground, or Nazi Zombie Death Tales depending on what region you’re in, is a trilogy of short films predicated on the tried and true formula of Nazis + Something Weird = Awesome. Apparently it’s the second in a franchise of anthology films from the same set of directors, following a movie I have not seen called Bordello Death Tales, and while I have to respect the aim of even keeping the anthology horror format alive, especially with the low budget independent spirit on display here, I can’t exactly get behind the approach this film takes to this material. That formula I mentioned should only be the starting point for a movie, not the logline itself, and while there are a few interesting touches in each segment of Death Tales, each of them can be easily boiled down to Nazis/Zombies, Nazis/Ghosts, and Nazis/Demons respectively. There is little more than the initial juxtaposition to make any of the shorts stand out, and the most I can say for it is that they resisted the temptation to just do Zombies in all three of them (though I notice a startling lack of Nazi-Cyborgs). Not to mention, when I say this is low budget, I don’t mean the kind of low budget that leads to creativity and ingenuity, but rather the kind that just makes the whole movie look like something anyone with a camera phone can do with their friends over a long weekend.

The first story is called Medal of Horror, and it’s the Zombie one, which again is pretty much all I have to say about it. There are actually a number of interesting ideas that individually might have worked independent of the zombie element, like a soldier specializing in writing condolence letters faking his own death, a solder sent on a suicide mission by a vindictive general with a personal vendetta, and a solider grappling with the decision of when to take his suicide pill as his day gets worse and worse. The problem is, none of these really come together, and by the end the zombies just seem like an afterthought, like they were wedged into a completely different story after the fact. I almost wanted this to be a more serious drama with these same elements without the zombies at all, and that’s exactly the last impression a movie like this should leave its audience with. And the zombies aren’t even done well. There’s no consistency concerning what the zombies are or how they work; some are fast, some are slow, some appear to behave exactly like humans except for their need to eat flesh, etc. The largest chunk of this sequence is a comedic fight between a kamikaze pilot zombie and I think the Red Baron, but it comes out of nowhere and makes very little sense in the grand scheme of things.

The next segment is called Harriet’s War, and it’s easily the best of the three, though even then it’s pretty flawed. This is the Nazi-Ghost story, following a creature covered in bloody swastikas carved into its skin that attacks people in the woods at night, and the plucky supernatural detective on the case. This one largely survives thanks to the charisma of its main character, the titular Harriet, and if it were written a little better, I can easily see this as the pilot for a series about paranormal investigators seeking out strange insidious things at the height of World War II. It only suffers, coincidentally enough, from the anthology format that forces what could have easily been a full length story or at least an hour long television episode into a series of far too quick beats where by the end, the resolution to the mystery seems to come out of nowhere. The revelation of what the creature actually is feels like it could have been and should have been set up more than it is, especially considering a rather unique twist on the nature of the real villain that isn’t given nearly enough time to play itself out. This one definitely needed more room to breathe and a slightly firmer grasp on dialogue, but the characters were strong enough that I almost want to see it continue in some other form.

The final installment is the Nazi Demon story, Devils of the Blitz, a twist on the old war stories of Angels aiding soldiers on the battlefield that posits the question of what happens when the demons start getting the same idea. This had the potential to be one of the best in this series on the concept alone, but ends up being the worst thanks to its overall poor execution and a laughable collection of monsters that even this low budget apologist couldn’t forgive. They’re basically hand puppets reminiscent of the Ghoulies, but somehow even less threatening, always popping up to conveniently bite one of the select areas on the human body that leads to instant death in movies, then disappear back to (presumably) Hell. Not only are the monsters ridiculous and too goofy to take seriously, the story surrounding them is listless and often times nonsensical. We start with a soldier torn apart by one of the creatures, left in traction in a hospital, then switch to another set of completely different people with some personal issues I couldn’t glean, most I’d guess stemming from the fact that the father (or possibly grandfather) is a dick who stubbornly insists on opening the basement door that everyone else knows has a monster behind it. In the end, somebody kills one of the demons, and then the guy in traction comes back suddenly with a chainsaw for like a second. It’s terrible and comes to nothing.

Man, I wanted this thing to be good. This is the kind of movie that you don’t see all that often, one that in structure and premise seems perfectly coded to one’s specific tastes. This was a movie that seemed tailor made for me, but its just done so badly that not only do I have the memory of suffering through a shitty movie and the time wasted, but also the pain of so much missed potential. I’m most likely never going to see something as niche as a Nazisploitation anthology movie ever again, so this will never be redeemed. Battlefield Death Tales was a noble endeavor, but it comes across as if the people involved were not nearly as excited about making these films as I was when I heard they had made them. Each segment, including the one I marginally enjoyed, is marked by apathy, one step beyond simply not having the budget to do something great or the creativity to turn a small budget into something great. These people don’t seem to care about what they are doing. I know that’s really harsh, but I love this kinda shit, and when I see someone playing in this area and not bothering to try, it’s insulting, particularly because it is such an obscure genre with so few modern examples even with the renewed focus in recent years. It’s not that hard to do justice to something as shallow and silly as a Nazisploitation movie, which makes it even more depressing when so many filmmakers can’t.

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