Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Dr. Jones I Presume?: MARK OF THE SCORPION (1986)

Just like Indiana Jones travels the globe in search of objects of art that people have rarely seen, our job here is to do the same. Ok, so these days, travelling is, uhhh, minimal, but still we dig in obscure places for hand crafted things that are stunning to behold, at least in one way or another. I'm sure not all of Indy's adventures have led him to incredible finds that warp men's minds (and faces). There have to be plenty where he scratched around in the dirt and came away with the jawbone of an ass. Much like we did here. Actually, a jawbone of an ass was something that was useful to someone at some time. MARK OF THE SCORPION (aka KISS OF THE COBRA and BETTER KISS A COBRA) could only be described that way because it brought the filmmakers some money by producing the cheapest hunk of junk possible and pawning it off on unsuspecting distributors hungry for product to stuff onto video store shelves complete with box art that is nothing more than a nest of lies.

Set in "West Sahara" in 1936, we are told of a group of soldiers, known as The Scorpions because of their scorpion tattoos, are rounded up and imprisoned for robbing the military and providing arms to the Berbers. So I guess what they are saying is that The Scorpions were mercenaries assisting the Berber rebellion against the Spanish occupation and the eventual combined forces of the Spanish and French armies that put down the rebellion in 1934. Too bad they didn't actually say that because most viewers in 1986 probably had no idea what the hell they were talking about because they would have had to actually dig out an encyclopedia and look up the history of Western Sahara.

Our hero, Phil Stone (Andy J. Forest) - yes, that's his name - descends on a rope into a small hole filled with human bones, gold treasures and snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? Because RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), that's why. Oh, and also Egyptian statues. Even though the Egyptian empire was literally on the other side of the continent. But whatever, adventure! After searching the burial site (by which I mean, just kind of glancing around his general vicinity), Phil climbs up to find he is surrounded by angry Arabs who accuse him of profaning their tombs! You know what this means, right? Yeah, we got a fight! After a quick scuffle that puts Phil ahead, he is quickly knocked unconscious because one dude has a bullwhip. So this means that he'll grab the whip and use it in the rest of the movie, right? Nah, too much effort. The Arabs search him and find no treasures that whitey has profaned, so they just decide to give up and leave. Unbeknownst to them, our brave hero was playing possum and had secretly stashed a golden ring in his mouth. Because Phil is an archaeologist and therefore respecter of antiquity, he immediately goes to sell it to an Arab friend in the middle of the desert who is busy having a hand chopped off of some schmuck who dared to rob a tomb. Seeing that this plan might be unwise, Phil instead just tries to bum a loan. The Arab tells him "My religion says that loans are impure," to which Phil replies "I don't agree with your faith." Zing! The Arab decides gifts are ok, and gives him the necklace that was stolen by the profaner! His faith definitely is strange.

After lying in bed with his married squeeze Maria (Italian porn star Milly D'Abbraccio), he flees the jealous husband by leaping out of a closed window. Savor this moment like a 1934 Chateau Lafite Rothschild because this is pretty much the only action you are going to get in this somnia-inducing cash-grab. Because we have established that he needs money to get on a boat (he has been carrying a random picture of a cruise liner in his pocket for years), he decides to bet the ring, necklace and all of his cash on the Gom Jabbar test. Ok, so it's basically a bet on whether him or some other idiot can put their hand in a box that contains a "cobra", which looks a lot like a European Grass Snake*, and not die. Phil wins, but is instantly arrested by the military police for "killing that man". 
*(thanks to the amazing herpedude Mike Howlett)

Turns out this was an astoundingly elaborate set-up, assisted by Maria(!), to get him back in the local prison camp where Warden Fontaine (Paul Muller) wants Phil to find Cleopatra's treasure. This treasure, which he believes is not only here, nearly 2000 years and 3000 miles away from where Cleopatra sat on her asp, but is actually somewhere in the prison camp! WHAT?! Ok, ok, deep breaths, willing suspension of disbelief, willing suspension of disbelief. Phil, who may be the laziest, slowest and most unemotional hero I've ever seen, at least is no dummy. To this he replies "Do you still believe in Santa Claus?" Yeah, that's tellin' him, Phil!

Phil hooks up with another Scorpion prisoner (who the writer couldn't be bothered to name) to help him out in his hunt. At the same time, the camp's Sargent Kemal (Mohamed Attifi) is suspicious of Phil's constant visits with Fontaine. His master plan to find out what is going on? Kill Phil. Yep, that's his plan. To be fair, the guy is a prison guard in a desert prison camp, so clearly he's about as sharp as a sack of wet camels. The reason Fontaine thinks that the cache is nearby is because he has a medallion that a prisoner found in "The Pit"; a hole in the ground that Fontaine likes to drop surprisingly well-fed looking prisoners into. To accomplish the goal of hunting for treasure in The Pit, Phil says he needs 24 hours of freedom. Fontaine agrees to this, but poisons him with cyanic acid, which he says is fatal in 12 hours. I'm not a chemist, so I don't know, but considering the level of bullshit this movie has shovelled on viewers already, I'm a bit skeptical.

While driving away from the prison, Phil manages to get beaten up by Maria's husband without leaving the Jeep and is unconscious for 6 hours! So that means shit is going to get into gear, right? Nope! Instead Phil casually drives out to see his hand-chopping buddy in the middle of the desert who gives him a history lesson about an earthquake that happened in the region during the reign of Cleopatra. I'm not sure what baffles me more: the fact that an ancient history expert is hanging out in the middle of the desert hacking off hands or the fact that we are expected to believe that an earthquake caused all of Cleopatra's treasure to horizontally move 3000 miles! After some incredibly dull car trouble, Phil heads back to jail where his unnamed Scorpion buddy looking at the marks from his encounter with Maria's husband says "who did that to you?" to which Phil replies "some guy." Did I mention Phil has a wit like a razor?
Scorp dude: "Promise me one thing; should the time ever come, Kemal is mine."
Phil: "Um-hm."

Finally we get into a little action as Phil and Scorp Bro get the prison to riot while they sneak scuba tanks (which weren't invented for another seven years) into The Pit. After travelling through a waterfilled tunnel, they find themselves in some dangerous caves. Why are they dangerous? Phil and Scorp Bro have this exchange to explain:
Phil: "Hold on, with Cleopatra you can't be too careful."
Scorp: "What does that mean?"
Phil: "She was an expert in traps!"
After finding a chest, the cave starts to crumble and Phil shouts "Run!" Just kidding! Phil, blasé as ever, says "The old girl sure knew her traps." Yeah, everybody knows that.

Once back on the surface (Phil planted some dynamite and blows out the entire side of a mountain to escape the crumbling cave), Phil and Scorp Bro open the chest, to find a scroll and some bits of treasure. Phil who has clearly had his brains blown out along with the cliffside, says is worth $2 million! I think Phil needs to find an alternate line of work. Just then Phil's anti-profaner buddy shows up with an army of rifle-toting Berbers. Uh oh, shit's about to get real, right? Ha! You wish! The scroll is just a note left by a grave robber saying that he stole all the treasure, thanks! Phil's Arab buddy decides to take the scroll from the profaners and says he's going to sell it at auction (WHAT?!) and Phil can keep whatever treasure he found. So much for this dude's faith, sheesh.

This white-knuckle adventure comes to a close with Phil and Maria on a ship and Maria telling him that she is going to spend all of his money in America and "didn't you say you'd kiss a cobra? Now you're going to marry one." And again... WHAT?! Are we supposed to cheer at this point? I guess it's just a way to explain the title MEGLIO BACIARE UN COBRA (BETTER TO KISS A COBRA), but man, if my married hook-up got me framed and sent to a desert prison camp, the only ring she'd get from me is a lifepreserver after I throw her off the bow of the ship.

I always talk about us scraping the bottom of the barrel, but damn this one left me with splinters under my nails. In addition to being lethargically paced and stunningly bereft of action and adventure in an action-adventure movie, American actor Andy J. Forest is quite possibly the worst possible pick for an action hero. Or really any role. Inexplicably, he made a small career for himself in Italian exploitation movies, several with Umberto Lenzi. He moves like a sloth on lithium and manages to look incredibly bored even when he's being punched in the face. Though, maybe the movie was as exciting to make as it was to watch. Making this even worse (or maybe better) is the fact that the English dubber clearly didn't think much of Andy either and gives him a voice that sounds like that of a lazy child, which I have to say is a perfect choice. We also have Milly D'Abbraccio popping up occasionally, but strangely doesn't show an inch of skin even in the bedroom sequence. I realize Italians have a much more open and accepting attitude towards adult stars, and maybe they thought this would bring some folks into theaters, but if that were the case, why is there no nudity? Seems a little odd. We also have veteran actor Paul Muller who, while no stranger to schlock, must have wondered how he had sunk from Jess Franco to this.

Also, I know the filmmakers in those days rarely had anything to do with the artwork, but somebody has to take the blame for it! There are a couple of variations, but none tell the ugly truth. There is no blond woman, in blue outfits or not; there are no shotguns; our hero doesn't have brown hair; our hero doesn't have muscles, and never wears an outfit as shown; there is no scene of a person dressed like Indiana Jones repelling with a rope down a giant statue of Amenhotep; and while we're at it, there is no sun with a city surrounding it and the words "New York Video" on it. Unsurprisingly this has never been released to optical media and as such has an incredibly poor VHS transfer that crops off a huge amount of the image on the left and right sides of the screen, like many Italian genre films on home video, without even bothering to pan & scan. Additionally the image is fuzzy and blown out, adding insult to injury. Since it has zero exploitation value, it's no surprise that it's become so hard to come by, but considering what some of the shovelware that boutique blu-ray labels are mega-hyping and over-charging for these days, hell, we may just see this arrive in a 4K UHD remaster. Consider this fair warning.

Friday, June 30, 2023

Dr. Jones I Presume: THE RETURN OF INDIANA JOAN (1989)

Hard to believe it has been almost thirteen years since we began the important archaeological task of covering Indiana Jones rip-offs. We promised to be thorough and explore every cinematic crypt to find any and everything that had a tinge of Dr. Jones. That included the often scorned world of adult entertainment. Pivotal to that quest (at least in terms of blog views) was the elusive INDIANA JOAN AND THE BLACK HOLE OF MAMMOO (1984). Not only was it the first of the X-rated Indiana Jones parodies, but it was part of an alleged trilogy from director Vince Benedetti. The two sequels remained even more elusive, but we always had top men on the lookout for them. In a stroke (haha) of good fortune, the intervening years saw the first sequel surface and we felt it was necessary to get the first online review out to the masses. So grab your, uh, whips and prepare for THE RETURN OF INDIANA JOAN!

The film opens in the most dangerous jungle of all: the urban jungle! Yes, we get camcorder shots of vintage 1980s New York City over the opening credits. Special tip of the hat to Benedetti for including a marquee shot of a theater showing the Michael Caine Sherlock Holmes comedy WITHOUT A CLUE (1988) to pinpoint the exact year of filming. If you have a fetish for shots of shoes on the sidewalk or business men in trench coats, this footage is totally for you. Anyway, we cut into an office where the now-blonde Indiana Joan (Porsche Lynn, replacing MAMMOO’s Barbie Dahl) is getting it on with her boss, Diamond Jim (Rick Savage). It starts with a prolonged sequence where he sucks on her nylon covered feet, which is about as erotic as you’d expect from late-80s video photography of Savage (see pic). As things start to get hot-and-heavy, Joan accidentally switches on the intercom and the moaning and groaning turns on Jim’s secretary. Lucky for her a random dude shows up and we soon have dueling sex scenes. This actually results in a clever (for porn, anyway) shot-in-shot video effect showing the eavesdroppers on the screen. Yes, SESAME STREET level, but kind of groundbreaking for a shot-on-video adult feature. 

Finally around the 24-minute mark, we get the first indication of a plot. Just as things are reaching their climax, Jim tells Joan he has an assignment for her. “This is a big one! Look, I know it is short notice, but the museum called this morning and…” he says right before the film smash cuts to the other sex scene. Holy crap! Did I just blue balled on a plot point? When we finally get back to Joan, she says, “How could I say no with that big thing inside of me? But you could just send that new girl you just hired? Should I buzz her in?” What the heck is going on here? Not only do we not know what Indiana Joan’s quest is, but she is actively trying to talk herself out of a job. “You leave tonight,” he counters. “Catch the first train to Morocco. Then it’s on to Egypt. They’ve got an orthodontal dig going on there.” (insert sound of a VHS tape being rewound) Wait a sec…did this mofo in New York just say to catch the first train to Morocco? Yes, he did. What is the going train rate from New York to North Africa? And, excuse me, what the holy hell is an “orthodontal” dig? To quote Jack Burton, “I don’t even know what the hell that means!” Okay, this can’t get any more confusing can it? “Yes!” screams director Benedetti. 

We then cut to outer space (yes, outer space!) where Captain Kurt (Randy Paul) is guiding his ship with his number one Aurora (Stormi, if that is your real name). In the film’s lone intentional joke, Aurora announces over the ship’s PA system, “Please man…or lady your flight stations, whatever your preference.” Benedetti, take a bow in order to miss the rotten vegetables being thrown at you. Before they can make their way to their destination, the Captain receives a message from planet Earth that there is a passenger to beam up. When Aurora asks who it is, we get this classic exchange:

Captain: Beats me although I heard she’s female.

Aurora: Wow, an earthling female? We haven’t seen one of those in eons. Should be terrific.

The earthling female in question beams aboard and it is Indiana Joan dressed in nothing but leather bra and panties and with a whip. Flight surgeon Kim (Siobhan -- gesundheit! -- Hunter) shows up to inspect the new arrival and soon we have a full blown four-way happening on the transporter (a black 1980s bed). Emphasis on the blown here as Kim’s preferred method of foreplay is using straws to blow on Joan. I’d make a straw joke here, but they all suck. After everyone has reached the final frontier, Joan is beamed back to Earth. Surely this bizarre plot tangent will figure later into the film, right? “Nope!” screams director Benedetti. 

Jump back to Earth (!) and we see Carter (David Morris) telling Anna (Melissa Murray) he has to break his dinner date with her because Indiana Joan has a job for him. We still don’t know what it is, but we get a hint when Carter mentions it is a “treasure hunt” before he and Anna go on their own treasure hunt on the couch. We then cut to some travelog footage of Egypt and camels before we see an Egyptian Prince Toto (Joe Simmons) inside his royal chamber using a mortar and pestle while his servant girl lights some candles. Denim-clad Joan and Carter traipse through the jungle, which is probably the woods behind the production studio in New York. Authenticity is established when they spot the entrance and behind them is clearly a chain link fence. 

The duo climb down the rope into the soundstage…er, authentic Egyptian tomb and Joan exclaims, “There’s the secret scepter. We’ve got to seize it.” By God, Jim, we finally get the plot at the 59-minute mark! Up until this point we had no idea what Indiana Joan was after. Now we will surely find out why this scepter is secret, right? “Fat chance!” cackles director Benedetti. Okay, let’s speed this up: Joan and Carter are immediately captured and she is forced into a three-way with the Prince and his servant; Joan is thrown into a cell with Carter but entices the guard to come in for another three-way; Joan and Carter escape and snag the scepter after which he says, “There’s a secret passage way out this way.” THE END!

Well, Indiana Joan indeed returned. You have to admire that at some point in 1988 that producer-director Benedetti read that Spielberg and Lucas were filming a third Indiana Jones film for release in 1989 and said, “Okay, we’re getting the band back together.” Of course, you have to revoke any admiration when you see the final product. It seems the only returning elements here are lots of flesh and a bumbling Benedetti. Despite having ten more features under his belt since the first Indiana Joan feature, Benedetti still struggles to make a decent film. One of my complaints about the first film is that the cover had Indiana Joan whip-in-hand, ready for action only to not give her a whip at all. Well, the new Joan gets a whip that is shown prominently in two scenes…and never gets used! Doubly disappointing when the lead is now the attractive Porsche Lynn. This laziness carries over to the script (if there was one). Seriously, you can’t make any Indiana Jones jokes or references? Nobody was smart enough to whip up some puns? Lack of comedy combined with haphazard editing and mangled audio (you can actually hear Benedetti giving direction at certain points) and you have a miserable experience. Yes, more depressing than realizing you are reviewing an adult flick and looking for plot. I’m not asking for high art from an Indiana Jones porn parody, but seriously can you imagine what a Chuck Vincent Indiana Jones spoof from this era would have looked like? (That sound you hear is tears streaming down Tom’s cheeks.)

If I have to give this film any credit, it is that it contains the most out of this world (and out of nowhere) sex scene. The film’s dalliance with sci-fi is so shoehorned in that I can only imagine Benedetti walked into Adventure Studios in New York, saw a leftover sci-fi set and thought, “Okay, we can work with this.” This is the king of “most random sex scenes,” which says a lot in the world of porno. To paraphrase James Karen in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985): “Oh, kid, I have seen random sex scenes come and I have seen random sex scenes go. But the randomest sex scene I ever saw just had to cap it all. Did you see that movie THE RETURN OF INDIANA JOAN?” To the director’s credit, he beat George Lucas to the inclusion of aliens by nearly 20 years. Unless Lucas drew inspiration from this film. Hmmm, Georgie, you got some ‘splain to do! The film ends with the promise of a third film titled INDIANA JOAN IN THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE. Actually a brilliant title, but whether or not it exists is a source of question as the Internet Adult Film Database only lists one person (Porsche Lynn) starring in it and has no scene breakdowns or cover images.This suggests it happened in thought only, which is probably best for my sanity.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

December to Dismember: SCARY LITTLE FUCKERS (2015), NIGHT OF THE KRAMPUS (2013), SUGARPLUM (2017)

 Hey, remember when you were a kid and about a week after Christmas your mom would throw a present in front of you and say, “I just found this.” This is the cyber-version of that. We can’t tell you the number of times we clicked on a cool looking poster on Amazon Prime, only to be disappointed the attached film is a two-minute short. Yes, we're looking at you CHRISTMAS PRESENCE (2017) and STIRRING (2018). However, to prove we are not total micro-phobes, we end the year looking at some Christmas horror shorts.


Clearly drawing its inspiration from GREMLINS (1984), SCARY LITTLE FUCKERS opens with a drunk father stumbling into a curiosity shop looking for a gift for his 15-year-old son. “I have some kites in the back,” says the zit-marked owner, to which the dad replies, “I didn't say he was retarded. I said he was fifteen.” Ha! Okay, so it’s going to be one of those kinds of films. Instead of a tethered treat, the dad focuses on a pair of unseen creatures held in cages. The owner says they are rare creatures called Fookahs and relents on giving them to the father but with the warning they can never be put in the same cage together. At home his son Kyle (Josh Fontaine) is still despondent over his mother’s suicide last year, but invites over Peggy (Anna Rizzo) to see the Fookahs. Naturally, she immediately demands to see what happens when you put them together and soon scary little Fookahs are running amok in the house.

Running a scant 23-minutes, this short by Nathan Suher declares its maturity level in the opening crawl with the credit “...and Monica Saviolakis as Lesbian Dr. Anne.” Why on Earth would I care if she was Haha. This horror-comedy moves at a pretty fast clip and keeps the goofy jokes coming fast and furious. I liked Fontaine as the obviously-not-fifteen son and Rich Tretheway is funny as the lascivious drunk dad. One gag even got a genuine laugh out of me as the father and son head into a fallout shelter and it is the exact same living room we saw earlier. “I wanted it to feel like home,” says the dad. Clever bit and clever filmmaking cheat. The Fookahs are goofy little creatures, looking kind of like Krites from the CRITTERS films crossed with that hairy monster sidekick from THE DARK CRYSTAL. The production values are pretty solid and the flick actually ends right when things get interesting as dad and son emerge from the shelter with plenty of guns to take on the beasts. I actually kind of wish the filmmakers had expanded this into a feature film. The end credits promise the Fookahs will return, but as of Christmas 2020 these mutherfooking Fookahs have laid dormant. - William Wilson


Like so many other things in cinematic life, if you love it, then somebody else loves it and like as not, that someone else is a hamfisted idiot. If you enjoy science fiction, J.J. Abrams has repeatedly crushed your insignificant little soul. At the other end of the spectrum, if you like Krampus, there are so many hacks willing to destroy your dark Christmas dreams. Or at least completely use the character as a marketing tool, relegated to a throw-away role while the videomakers focus on what they consider to be the more interesting elements.

Rue Morgan (Khristian Fulmer) is an undead 1930's guy (I'm guessing based on his outfit), who has been cursed to be a graveyard caretaker for all eternity to keep an eye out for supernatural occurrences (other than his own, I'm assuming). Aside from the (I presume) general manager and romantic interest, Claire Renfield (Erin Lilley), not to be confused with Claire Redfield, Rue's BFF is a skeleton torso with attached skull by the name of Herbie West who wears hats and cracks wise while strapped to Rue's back. This is an awful lot of set-up and an awful lot of surmise on the viewer's part, because as it turns out this is actually a sequel to a short from writer-director Thomas Smith, titled THE NIGHT SHIFT (2009), which was in 2011 expanded to a longer short with the same title. I am also assuming that "Thomas Smith" is his government issued witness relocation name, so that nobody in Hollywood will ever be able to find him.

This time out, our supernatural guardians are investigating the disappearance of neighborhood children who have all gone missing on Christmas. Never mind that Krampus Night is December 5th. After poking around houses and interviewing a little girl who was not at all perturbed about witnessing Krampus coming down the chimney and shoving her brother Bobby into a sack, they realize that there is a Swedish Krampus worshiping cult (well, one dude) in the neighborhood who is summoning Krampus with a ritual "Alpine summoning goblet" (a Spirit store skull bowl). This all leads to Rue brawling with a hoodie-wearing cultist, who couldn't afford a robe, I guess, who summons Krampus (in Swedish!) which leads to Rue brawling with Krampus. Uhh, you guys know that the Alps are not in Sweden, right?

I have to say, there is a lot to nitpick here, with stuff like getting the legends a little wrong, not informing audiences that this is a sequel, the real villain being some random dude, and a sharp decline in jokes during the last act. That said I kind of enjoyed the first 10 minutes or so when the jokes were rolling in at a steady pace and Herbie, our semi-skeleton, was cracking wise. Unfortunately as soon as our duo leave Herbie in the car and start wandering around (err, I mean, searching for clues), and subsequently freeing kids, getting into fights, the 30 minute short starts feeling like a half-baked amateur production. I mean, it is - it was an Indiegogo campaign that only made 16% of it's goal, but still, a little bit more effort would have paid off.

Even with the flaws, I fell into its groove in the first third, before getting kicked out with what seems to be a real lack of interest in the titular subject. Sure they didn't have the money for a Michael Dougherty Krampus costume, but even so, the modified gorilla suit with what looks like a '60s housecoat, is pretty underwhelming, particularly if you've ever seen pics of real Krampus holiday costumes from the Alpine regions. Adding insult to injury, Krampus is just a stooge that gets his ass kicked by a NEWSIES extra and is basically a servant of a suburban hoodie guy. Not very threatening. Honestly, if it had been about Satanists, who actually wore hooded robes, numbered in the multiples (instead of one), and maybe were setting up a human sacrifice or something, even though that would have been more cliched, it would have been more fun and they could have made jokes about the genre. To paraphrase Willie Nelson; Momma's, don't let your babies grow up to be Krampus fans. - Thomas Sueyres


Remember that saying about saving the best for last? Well, this is 2020 and that means we are living in Opposite Land. Getting hoodwinked right off the bat, this 47-minute movie is actually an anthology of five different chapters, although three chapters are just the same segment broken up. Yeah, it’s that kind of film. “A Curious Gift” is the first chapter and focuses on Harry (Josiah Liciaga) and Marv (Samuel David Sosa) spending Christmas Eve with their wives, the sisters Claire and Ali. Doing some last minute shopping, Harry and Marv head into an occult store to get something for Harry’s mom (“My mom’s into this type of shit,” he later says). They meet Madame Zena and she offers Harry a burlap sack with the following super realistic dialogue.

Zena: “Have a look. But be warned, what you see is real and what it cautions against should be respected.”
Harry: “Who the hell are you?”
Zena: “Madame Zena.”
Harry: “I’ll take it!”

Once at home, the guys open the bag to find a tiny skeletal Sugar Plum Fairy statue. It comes to life after Harry gets blood on it and kills Ali and Claire. The second chapter “Dark Creations” inexplicably jumps to 1988 as we see Buford, his sister Maggie and her boyfriend James around a campfire. Buford tells the story of the origin of the Sugar Plum Fairies, which took place a long time ago in the European town of Olden located in an “elusive region called the North” (actual line). He tells of how Krampus attacked the village and St. Nicholas showed up to save them. He is described as follows: “a Viking-like man stood at the edge of the village, garbed in a lavishly dark set of armor and draped with the hides and furs of some ancient and unknown beast. The man’s face was hidden behind the oversized cloak and all that could be seen was a long, ashy beard pouring out from beneath the hood.” Okay, mental exercise time: Close your eyes and imagine what that bad ass would look like and then come back to this review. You’re back? Okay, now prepare yourself how they presented this in the film. Ready? Have a look: 

(insert THE PRICE AS RIGHT loser horn here) Yup, that is bad ass Ol’ Saint Nick according to this film and he gets into a totally non-epic battle with Krampus that ends with the horned beast creating the demonic Sugar Plum Fairy totems. Jeez, shouldn’t this story have been first? Anyway, chapter three is “Dead Before Christmas” and returns us to Harry’s house where he and Marv are killed by the Sugar Plum Fairy, which is now a chick with horns and big teeth. The fourth story is “Not the Loon Squad” and is the shortest. No joke, it is just three rednecks in the woods talking about how they are hunting a fairy. They read a scroll that says they have to kill it before dawn. One guy says, "Let’s just not let her get the drop on us." That is legit the whole story. Oh, it is also randomly set in December 2001. WTF??? The film returns to Harry’s house for the final chapter “Milk & Cookies” as the Sugar Plum Fairy walks through the house before she is stabbed by Santa Claus. The four dead folks wake up at the table and have a drink with Santa.THE END!

MY GAWD!? Where do I even start with this film? I hate to bash an indie filmmaker for actually making something and I feel bad being the first IMDb review, but good lord this was brutal. I guess calling it a film is being generous. Writer-director-editor-producer Brandon Tobatto jokes in the opening credits that the film was “chopped” (aka edited) by him. A more apt term could not be found. SUGARPLUM is a total mess both in terms of editing and storytelling. Why in the hell is the origin story of the fairies the second segment? Why is it set in 1988? Why did you break up one solid segment? Why does the animated Krampus/St. Nick story look like it was drawn by a 5-year-old? Why are Harry and Marv constantly talking about the former house owner having an Easter fetish? Actually, I know the answer for that as, according to the IMDb, Tobatto apparently weaves several of his films together in something called the Looniverse. I’m sure the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shaking in its boots. Matching the scattershot storytelling are the bad acting and out-of-focus shots that make this an all out attack on all five senses. Yes, even touch because you will be slapping yourself for watching this. It is easily the worst thing I’ve seen this year. If you know my viewing habits, that says a lot. If 2020 is the year that threw the entire world a swift and hard kick to the nutsack, ending with this nutcracker as my final viewing is pretty appropriate. - William Wilson

Monday, December 28, 2020

December to Dismember: THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS (2019)

[by William S. Wilson] 

As we close out our Christmas 2020 reviews, I’m actually coming to a film I was looking forward to. THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a sequel to ONCE UPON A TIME AT CHRISTMAS (2017), which I reviewed a few years back. The story of a sadistic Santa Claus and his missus terrorizing a small town, the original was a combination of naughty and nice. I praised director Paul Tanter for his direction and lead Simon Phillips for his scarred Santa. Unfortunately, it was a slick film built around a script dumber than a stocking full of coal. The sequel - originally announced with the title TWICE UPON A TIME AT CHRISTMAS - arrives a couple years later and guess what? It is twice as good technically and twice as dumb storywise. Hold on to yer Santa hats, this is gonna be a good one.

The film opens with a “four years ago” card as we see the killer Santa/Nicholas Conway (Phillips) and Mrs. Claus/Michelle Weaver (Sayla de Goede) pull off their fiery escape from a mental hospital referenced in the first film. Cut to present day New York City where one of the survivors of the first film, Courtney (Keegan Chambers), has spent the last year hanging out in the city. Her father Jim Beaudin (Michael Coughlan) shows up and begs for her to come back home. On his way back to Woodridge, Jim gets distracted by a malfunctioning radio just as Santa stands in the middle of the road with his axe. Damn, psycho Santa has great timing! Naturally, Jim crashes his car and gets stalked in the woods. Before Santa offs Jim, he states that nothing brings a family back together more than a funeral. Ah, so Santa plans to flush out his estranged daughter Jennifer by killing those sorta-close to her. Genius? Cut to the next day as local law enforcement are examining the scene. They figure it was a drunk driving accident, but that changes when FBI agent Natalie Parker (Kate Schroder) arrives on the scene. She feels it is the work of Santa/Conway and gets her suspicions confirmed when she finds the word “naughty” written in the snow in blood. Somehow every other cop on the scene managed to miss this despite obvious footprints leading to this area.

We now catch up with the sullen Jennifer (Shannon Cotter), who is in witness protection. Her mom breaks the news to her that her best friend’s dad died via this howler: “Jim Beaudin was killed in a car accident. You know what the roads are like around here and he did like to drink.” Jennifer rightly refuses to attend a funeral related to her hometown Christmas massacre, so her mother guilt shames her by saying, “When your stepfather died the same day as Courtney’s boyfriend, Courtney still showed up to Frank’s funeral. Maybe this isn’t about what you want or what you can do?” Yes, your psychotic ex is still on the loose, so let’s attend a very public event. Thanks, mom. Meanwhile, Santa and Mrs. Claus visit Dr. Monica Mudd (Jennifer Willis), the psychiatrist who treated them in the asylum. During their torture of Dr. Mudd, she screams that her daughter Becky (Anne-Carolyne Binette) will be home soon. The film immediately cuts to Becky walking into a bedroom and having a flashlight blind her. Since this film doesn’t take place in a world where humans act normal, her response to this is immediately start a striptease. What!? After getting topless (yay!) she sees her boyfriend dead and Santa bites her throat after demanding she use the safe word “bite me.” Uh, yeah.

So Jennifer and her mom are leaving for the funeral. However, their plan of paying respect gets sidelined by the FBI when agent Jack Zimmerman (Marc Gammal) shows up to warn about Santa showing up and we get the following amazing exchange.

Jack: “Lucy McCay?”
Mom: “Who are you?”
Jack: “I’m Agent Jack Zimmerman, FBI.”
Mom: “How the hell did you get in here?”
Jack: “We have access. It’s a safe house.”

Yep, pretty sure FBI protocol involves surprising people in witness protection with agents they never met and not calling them in advance or anything. The FBI was right as Mrs. Claus shows up at the funeral where she is caught and the agents begin a multi-car chase as Santa pulls away in a Mustang after being spotted. Just kidding, they send one car after him. When the car is finally stopped, they find out it is Dr. Mudd at the wheel with “nice” carved in her head. Damn, hoodwinked by Santa! This results in my favorite exchange of the film, which I like to imagine is how it would sound if I met the filmmakers.

Zimmerman/me: “It doesn’t make sense.”
Parker/filmmakers: “Yes, it does!”

Meanwhile, back at the church, it is completely empty and Santa kills the priest because we see a flashback of him molesting Mrs. Claus at the hospital. Whoa, whoa, whoa...hold on now. I can accept all this random craziness and overly complex plotting. But a priest who is into sexually molesting grown women? C’mon, Tanter, I can only suspend my disbelief so far.

Back at the local FBI headquarters, Parker decides to interrogate Mrs. Claus. This results in another moment that had me howling as Mrs. Claus is shown in her cell still in her Christmas outfit. Yes, in a cell wearing a leather choker, studded leather belt, and laced up stiletto heel boots. **sigh** 

She reveals that “daddy has a new plan” and he’s making a list. Parker begins her investigation and she first visits Sheriff Mitchell (Barry Kennedy). Yes, the sheriff from the first film who couldn’t properly identify a pear. I love this dude. He’s retired now to spend more time drinking, but Parker thinks he might have some insight into Santa’s current spree. She also visits the burned asylum, where a former orderly who now guards the place mentions he used to work with Jim Beaudin there and they used to beat the patients. Because, you know, that is what people reveal when you first meet them. Just like the first film, viewers will have guessed the motivation of the killers long before the lead characters do. Meanwhile, Santa stays busy by visiting Sheriff Mitchell (he poisoned his alcohol five minutes before showing up) and busts Mrs. Claus out of a FBI caravan (more on that in a bit). Oh, hey, remember Jennifer and Courtney? The filmmakers apparently did at this point as they are reintroduced and make a plan to catch Jennifer’s killer Santa father in a trap worthy of his own design. You know, super complicated and relying on random things coming together all at once.

Like I mentioned in my intro, I was actually looking forward to this one. I was intrigued to see where they took the characters and how the talented production team responded to criticism  thrown at the first film. I guess they didn’t read them. You know when you haven’t seen an old friend in a while and when you catch up you realize they haven’t changed at all? That is what it is like returning to the Tanter universe. I’ll be honest - these films drive me crazy. The entire production team busts their ass to make a good looking movie and I’ll admit it looks great with Tanter knowing when to effectively use slo-mo, drone shots and some clever transitions. But all of that is brought down by a screenplay so dumb that you start to question your sanity. Now the first film was overly complex and relied on too many coincidences, but it worked it with its own weird logic. This script, credited to Tanter and Phillips, presents scenarios that barely seem like human actions. For example, early on Parker mentions that our villains have rocketed on to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. First, it is hilarious to me these two have been trotting around for a year in the same outfits in the general area and not been spotted. Second, there is a scene that had me dying in regard to this. The FBI is transporting Mrs. Claus to a hospital as she claimed she swallowed some razor blades (don’t ask). On the way Santa has created a roadblock with a stalled car. When he emerges from the vehicle with his signature outfit and burned visage with metal teeth, the FBI agent in the first car radios to Parker, “Dispatch, we’ve got a pedestrian in the road.” WHAT!? You don’t recognize a serial killer Santa responsible for thirty murders on your top ten list? Wait, it gets better. When asked to describe the pedestrian, the FBI agent responds, “Describe?” WHAT!?!? Oh man, I am dying.

The whole film is filled with scenarios nuttier than a fruitcake. Another example: toward the end our evil duo end up attacking the executive board at Biocorp Security (spoiler: Their list of naughty and nice victims consists of people who worked at the asylum). No joke, the bloody killer Santa wielding an axe shows up at the meeting and throws the severed penis of a victim on the table. The CEO gags and then says, "This is a private meeting” and “I’m going to have to ask you to leave” before calling for security. This is not a comedy and is supposed to be serious. How do scenarios like this happen? Did the producers ask to read the script and Tanter and Phillips are like, “Nah, nah. We got this.” To make matters even more confusing, they recast the heroic female leads and don’t make any overt connection that this is a follow up by giving it an even more awkward title. I actually had a friend who had no idea this was a sequel, which probably left him even more confused. You have to really know the Tanter-verse to keep it all straight, which is great for me as I now know the third film is coming soon. In keeping with the throat-choking title tradition, it is currently titled (takes deep breath) ONE CHRISTMAS NIGHT IN A TOY STORE. I look forward to experiencing its beautiful sheen and boundless stupidity.

Friday, December 25, 2020

December to Dismember: DEATHCEMBER (2019)

 Love advent calendars? Love horror anthologies? Have absolutely no ability to pay attention past the two minute mark without being distracted by something shiny? Well, have I got the movie for you! At some point in the past couple of decades, after folks seemed to give up on found-footage movies, for some reason the Uber-ADD Horror Anthology became a thing. Now, not only was a three story anthology with a wrap-around laboriously a patience-straining endurance test, but severely limited the amount of stories you could stuff in. Why not have people make, or rather salvage, very short films and cram them all together with minimal to non-existent framing devices? "Genius!" said the public, who promptly ran off to watch an Asylum movie. And the modern horror anthology was born.

Taking their cue from the ABCS OF DEATH (2012), which the producers thank in the credits, DEATHCEMBER gives us a whopping 26 short films, two of which are used to break up the 20 minute credit sequence. If you do the math, that give us about 5 minutes per short, with some being even shorter to allow others to be a little longer. That is not much time to pack a story, dialogue and characters into a movie, but who needs all that crap anyway, get on with it!

Because we do not have time to waste on a wrap-around segment, after the opening credits that blatantly rip-off Danny Elfman's TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1989) theme, instead we get a PS3-level CGI rendering of a room in a mansion that has a lot of random stuff laying around. 24 pieces of random stuff, to be precise. A pair of shoes, a kitchen knife, a gas mask, a stuffed deer head, etc, all linked to a story. The camera zooms in on the item and then a number pops up and an advent door opens to zoom in on the opening of the story. So frantically ADD is this that I'm surprised anyone had the patience to sit through the advent door openings and they weren't scrapped all together.

Starting out with a German short, titled A DOOR TOO FAR, about a teenaged boy (Fynn Kempf) who is obsessed with tearing open advent calendars and stuffing his face with chocolate. After demolishing the one at home, he heads to a bodega (this is Germany, I guess you can buy those at any corner market) and starts tearing through the ones on the shelves. An older man (Heinz Harth) admonishes him and he hurls an insult and storms out. As he leaves, he is cursed by the old man to become an advent chocolate which is eaten by a little girl (as evidenced by his screams in a voice-over). The end. Oh man, they have to get better right? I can sense Rod Serling rolling over in his grave. What am I saying? Writer-director Dominic Saxl is more likely borrowing inspiration from a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequel.

We also get ALL SALES FATAL with Tiffany Shepis as an enraged "Karen" trying to return something to a snotty store clerk (Ryan Fisher) even though she doesn't have a receipt. This devolves into a profane, bloody fight that (spoiler!) ends with both bleeding out on the floor and Shepis' character finding the receipt (end spoiler). I'm not sure why cheap horror movies always portray people who work retail as being catty and obnoxious. It's like the filmmakers feel like they are superior to not only the entitled customers, but also the lowly retail worker. I've worked with the public and most retail and restaurant workers have to smile through so much shit from rude customers and horrible bosses that it would make your average pussweeb hipster videomaker curl up in a fetal position after 10 minutes. Err, but I digress...

At least these first stories are somewhat Christmas related, as we delve deeper into the sack of film-school projects, we get items that are vaguely seasonal or just not even close except for a line of dialogue indicating the holiday in question. X-MAS ON FIRE has a non-chronologically told, RESERVOIR DOGS inspired (CITY ON FIRE inspired), story of a jewelry store heist gone violently wrong. The Christmas connection here is that the criminals are all wearing Santa suits "to blend in" (an intentional joke in the short). This vague connection is actually closer to a Christmas story than many of the others. JOY TO THE GIRLS tells of three beautiful young girls (Haydée Lysander, Claudia Bouza, Laura Ballester) who send a Christmas party invitation at a hotel room to a young man (Jose Corpas). Upon arriving, they drug him, tie him up, stab him in the throat and drink his blood. There aren't even any Christmas decorations in sight.

In the completely opaque, but rather enjoyable, AURORA segment, we are given strange science fiction outing about a lone woman (Nabi Tang) on a distant planet in the year 2389, where her job is to oversee some large, mechanical vents that hang over the ocean. Some sort of contamination occurs and eventually kills her. Oh yeah, this happens on December 25th. If this description sounds vague, it's because the movie is. Serbian director Lazar Bodroža, creates a weird little slice of Philip K. Dick inspired science fiction that I actually enjoyed, but that is more of a mood-piece than anything else and really doesn't even qualify as Christmas horror in any way.

Also missing the Christmas boat is Lucky McKee's THEY ONCE HAD HORSES, which is a black and white western in which two cowboys (Sean Bridgers, Justin Stone) sit around a campfire after being attacked by something that was definitely not a bear. Both are wounded and waiting for the thing to find them and kill them. Yep, that's it. To be fair, one of the cowboy's gives a harmonica to the other and says "Merry Christmas". So there is your Christmas connection.

Leave it to the Germans to say "fuckit, let's disco!" Andreas Marschall's PIG is about a group of women who have been traumatized by men and form a group that abuse each other in training to go out and torture and kill the men who have betrayed them. They find one (Detlef Bothe) in a disco and after putting a pig mask over his head, drugging and restraining him, stab him in the crotch with a hair pin. Finally when when his ex (Julita Witt) makes a big entrance to finish the job with a sharpened tape measure (?!), she realizes (spoiler) that they got the wrong man. They kill him anyway. The end. Hooray Christmas horror! Or not.

That is not to say that everything is wide of the mark. With a 26 super-shorts, something is going to have to score some points.

One of my two favorites in this exhausting milieu is Juergen Kling's claymation short titled CRAPPY CHRISTMAS: OPERATION CHRISTMAS CHILD. A Gumby-esque kid, who lives alone, finds a Christmas present in the snow outside of his home. Unfortunately for him, this is merely a lure to bring him out of his home so that the evil monk from the church over the hill, can snatch him up and throw him in a dungeon cell with the skeleton of another child. Sound nasty? Just wait. After being brought out of his cell, he finds that his purpose is to be repeatedly sodomized by a viagra-popping bishop and a sadistic priest while staring at Christian idolatry. (Spoilers ahead) Fortunately he is visited by Krampus, who leaves him a grab bag of stuff to help him escape (some not so useful, like walnuts), which he does in a spectacularly bloody way. Not only is this filled with bright and colorful Christmas cheer that quickly becomes extremely subversive, but the quality of the production is top-notch. Granted it's not old-school Aardman (they would have stop-motion animated a hundred individual snowflakes falling to the ground and melting), but aside from that unfair comparison, this is real, traditional, painstaking work, the likes of which, I honestly never thought we'd see in these modern times of CGI stop-motion.

My other favorite is the FALLOUT-esque CRACKER, from John Cook Lynch. Set on the moon colony Lunar Falls in what appears to be the 1950s, a very nervous and unhappy family sit around the Christmas dinner table. The father has a box of Christmas crackers (British pull-apart party favors that contain a joke) which he is trying to convince his 20-something daughters will be fun. The intent is fun, but it is played out with edgy suspense and high-drama while the news report plays on the TV in the background. (Major spoiler) One after another they pull the crackers and read the jokes until they get to mother, who pulls the cracker and her head explodes like a ripe melon. The newscaster announces that since the colony has been cut off from earth for so long, they have had to mandate an annual culling of the population, as done with the official Lunar Falls Christmas crackers. (End Spoilers) From the acting and music, to the simple, yet effective set and special effects, this short is slick, well written, and is tonally pitch perfect. It also has digital cinematography that emulates the three-strip technicolor process of the '50s to tie it all together. I hope, as soon as we return to normal times, this will lead Lynch to a feature project.

I should probably mention that among the indy entries there are some high profile names. Ruggero Deodato, who has been primarily been working in Italian TV over the past 30 years (including WE ARE ANGELS [1997]), shows up with a short that is well directed, but looks rather bland and color leeched. The story of a Christmas prank gone seriously wrong shows a little of his streak of almost Spanish-esque cruelty, but is a little disappointing coming from one of the old masters of Italian exploitation cinema.

Beloved genre favorite Barbara Crampton shows up in another not-really-Christmas story (it's just in the title, THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE) about a woman (Clarke Wolfe) who has lost her baby. Set in a fairytale period setting, a woman in black (Crampton) asks if she would do anything to have her baby brought back from the dead. (Spoiler) The woman digs up the baby's coffin and cries with joy to find her baby alive. The woman in black takes the baby and we see the mother is dead. (/Spoiler) It's nicely shot and played, and I guess it's a nice diversion from some of the less atmospheric entries, but if you are in it because you are excited to see Crampton, it's like getting a chocolate Santa only to find out that it's hollow on the inside. It's kind of tasty, but it leaves you wanting more.

This is kind of an apt metaphor for the entire movie. Stuff moves by so fast that even if it is good, it's easy to forget that it even existed when you get 15 deep, much less 26 deep. There is fun to be had here, but it's such an big sack of random ADD stuff that unless you are really into super-shallow, disposable cinema, it's a bit unsatisfying.