Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Havoc: WATCHERS 1 & 2 (1988/1990)

Back in the 1980s a funny-lookin' spud named Stephen King was... well, King. He was everywhere, you couldn't run, you couldn't hide, and even if you were completely were completely illiterate, you knew who he was because his nine-digit book sales pushed him so far out past the late-night nerd discussions of Ramsey Campbell, Jack Ketchum, and Skipp & Spector that people who not only didn't read horror novels, didn't read books and normally didn't watch horror movies at all, knew who Stephen King was. Because of the beautiful machinations of our capitalist society, what happens after they make an assload of money? They are flattered by imitators.

With his first novel, "Star Quest", published in 1968, calling him an imitator is kind of flippant, but it is interesting how his work read very similar to Mr. King's in the '80s and '90s and almost rivaled him in book sales. According to Mr. Koontz, he has sold 400 million books as of 2012, which is an interesting number as Mr. King has estimated his book sales at 350 million as of 2006 - kind of sounds like someone has a case of paperback envy. Either way, a few movies naturally came out of it, the only one to be a significant hit was WATCHERS. While it was a box office flop, when it hit video a year later it found it's audience and spawned three reasonably decent sequels. Mr. Koontz says he will never actually write a sequel to his most popular work, because "That novel was about change: about the difficulty of changing ourselves for the better, of letting go of our world view even when we recognize that it’s false; about the way that an encounter with the right person can suddenly change us forever when, as a solitary pursuit, change had seemed impossible". Ummm... yeah. That's exactly what I was going to say! Perhaps this is why the WATCHERS sequels are all simply re-adaptions of the book, or as some would say in modern lingo, a string of reboots... or maybe it was just easier.

WATCHERS (1988): You know the plot: a secret government contracted research facility goes kablooey and out of the flames run their prized experiment - a hyper-intelligent golden retriever that is psychically linked to a deranged killing machine that looks kind of like an orangutan. A pissed off orangutan. A psychotic and pissed off orangutan. This movie is like a drunk walking home at 2am. The balancing act between vomiting and euphoria is an almost literal metaphor of the two lead actors. On the one hand you have squeaky-voiced Corey Haim (during his Phyllis Diller hair phase) and the always-brilliant-even-when-the-script-gives-him-nothing-to-do Michael Ironside, who I firmly believe trumps Crown Royal as Canada's greatest export. The balance is a delicate one with Haim hamming it up, straining to deliver the most simplistic of dialogue while desperately trying to be cuter than his golden retriever co-star.

Just when the cuteness starts tickling the back of your throat and you are about to heave up those nuclear meltdown chicken wings that your equally drunken friends dared you to order, Michael Ironside's Lem pops back in and smooths everything out as a smiling psycho (what do you mean "again"?) with a badge whose mission is to terminate the project and anyone who knows about it. Terminating witnesses? Oh yes, that's a job for Ironside. The best bit of dialogue is when the Fed agent Cliff (Blu Mankuma) asks Lem about the monster: "How smart is it?" to which Lem's reply is, "How smart is a crazy person?" Huh? What, the hell are you talking about, man? Like every nutter on the street is Hannibal Lechter? There are plenty of rock stupid people who are nuttier than chinese chicken salad. Some of them are even outside of politics (shudder).

John Hess (who went on to direct the disappointing ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION in '91) does a fine job directing what appears to be a larger than average budget for a Roger Corman film. Even in the flush late-'80s, this is a pretty slick-looking effort with some nice production values. Joel Goldsmith, son of Jerry, provides an unmemorable, though occasionally annoying score that no doubt made dad proud. Interestingly, even though here in the US we were obsessed with King and, to a lesser extent, Koontz, the film was only given a limited release by Universal and didn't even break a million at the box office. Once it hit video, though, it was a blockbuster. As soon as it went sell-through, copies of that tape could be found everywhere. Presumably due to the cute, slobbering animal in the film (I meant the dog), the movie broke into the mainstream and even people who normally wouldn't bother with some rubber-suited monster movie, rabidly gobbled up this one. I'm guessing a lot of people watched it after making it home from the bar, at which point they may realize that Dean Koontz and G. Gordon Liddy were not only separated at birth, but provided the inspiration for WATCHERS. Could it be Koontz and Liddy were part of a top secret government research program in which a smart apple is linked to a total whackjob. Seriously, look at the pics and tell me which one is Koontz and which one is Liddy? See? Yeah, it all makes perfect sense now doesn't it?


WATCHERS II (1990): Ok, so after a couple years of renting the hell out of millions of copies of VHS tapes, being run constantly on cable and generally boosting the sales of Koontz' novels exponentially, Corman finally got off his butt to make a sequel. I don't know what he was waiting for, taking two whole years and all. All kidding aside, after seeing how low-rent they went with this one, you really will wonder why it took so long to get out. So we have a low-budget sequel... we need someone cheap... Hey! Let's get Marc Singer! Oh, this is going to be rough, isn't it?

When the feds (the incomparable Mary Warnov) cut the funding of a secret bio-weapons research facility, the director gets even by paying some bleeding heart (but none too bright) animal rights activists to set all the animals free, giving him the cover he needs to torch the place and kidnap his prized experiments: a psychically linked retriever and a mentally unbalanced killing machine that looks surprisingly like the alien killing machine from Corman's THE TERROR WITHIN (1989). Wait a second, it is the same monster! I don't know why I'm surprised by this. Like Rog has never reused anything from his movies.

Anyway, enter one Paul Ferguson, a marine who is handcuffed to a jeep in which two MPs are taking him to a presumably nearby brig via a road in the middle of freakin' nowhere in the dead of night. So he's a bad guy, I hear you cry? No, no, he only punched a superior officer and it was because of the totally understandable reason that "he was an asshole". Awwww, ok, so now we have some sort of creepy cute factor going on again. He's a lovable fuck up. You know what he needs? A dog. After narrowly avoiding running over the escaped dog, the beast jumps out from behind a hill, and kills the MPs. Before the beast can lay a claw on him, Paul and the dog are driving hell-bent for his ex-wife's house where he learns that the cops think he is responsible for the corpses. Apparently Ducky went on vacation and the NSCI team are able to see through his subtle ploy of making the soldiers appear as though they were mauled by giant claws, by using rocks and twigs.

Paul hits the road with dog in tow leaving a trail of corpses in his wake, including a promiscuous teenage couple who didn't realize that they were in a horror movie and being horny is a capitol offense. Along the way, he discovers that the dog is named Einstein, but seems unsure why, in spite of the fact that the dog can understand the English language and manages to get him to hook up with the lead scientist (Tracy Scoggins) via a rather elaborate game of charades. This time out the villain is pretty much the monster, though the crazy doctor that created it runs a bit of interference The best scene in the film is, hands down, an odd sequence in which the monster, dressed in jedi robes, decides to attack a convenience store run by a sikh in a wheelchair. After busting up a crippled ethnic minority, he proceeds to trash the place and chug some Budweiser (how much do you get for having your star monster drink the product?). Damn, this guy is like a date-rape away from being an '80s frat boy!

While the title does indeed say "II", implying that this would be a continuation of the story from the first film, it's actually a "reboot" (in the modern vernacular). I'm not sure why you'd want to start the story all over again, but they do and it's a reasonably serviceable film. Director Thierry Notz, who (surprise, surprise) made Corman a couple of bucks with THE TERROR WITHIN, doesn't make the film any better or worse than it actually is. It's not as awful as it could have been (though I've seen Singer in enough skimpy outfits, I could have done without the tidy-whitey scene), but it's not as good as it could have been either. Sort of like THE TERROR WITHIN, come to think of it.

Who will survive and what will be left of their budget? WATCHERS 3 & 4... Next!

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