Friday, November 2, 2012

Halloween Havoc: WATCHERS 3 & 4 (1994/1998)

WATCHERS III (1994): Here we are with the second WATCHERS sequel and after the half-assed Part II, this entry may be seriously strapped for cash, but I have to say, it is a hell of a lot more fun. Again, it's not a sequel, but (in another modern euphemism) a "re-imagining" of the source material. This time out it seems like first time screenwriter Michael Palmer (whose only other writing credit is the following year's missed opportunity CARNOSAUR 2) was given very few directives and had fun writing it. Just like CARNOSAUR 2 pillaged ALIENS for inspiration, WATCHERS III is a mash-up of DIRTY HALF-DOZEN and PREDATOR, but unlike CAROSAUR 2, it actually manages to be fun.

A secret ops chopper dumps a couple of "medical aid" crates over a section of war-torn South America and subsequently gets shot down by the enemy (who are never identified). The crates bust open and, yes, a golden retriever and a (new!) psychotic and deranged monster leap out into the jungle, clearly pleased to find that they don't have to escape from a burning lab this time. While the dog finds a native boy to pointlessly pair up with (contractual obligation?), the monster (created by BASKET CASE's Gabe Bartalos) decides to slaughter everyone in the area, including our own secret ops guys. Seeing as how this situation would be a paperwork nightmare, the top brass decides that the best way to quickly and quietly take care of this clandestine kerfuffle is to release a half-a-dozen ex-military badasses from Levenworth, including chess-playing, ball-buster Ferguson (Wings Hauser) who will lead the mission. How the military obtains their release and offers them pardons on the down low is never even hinted at, but it doesn't matter, they are angry, disenfranchised soldiers with high-power firearms and there's a monster that needs killing. Oo-rah!

Of course once our misfit brigade (or in this case, squad) is on the ground, they suddenly realize that they are not fighting an army, but something far worse... their commander back at the base! While the first two films tried to keep their  on-screen bloodshed to a minimum to avoid alienating the mainstream crowd, director Jeremy Stanford, (whose third and final DTV feature was 2006s TRANTASIA, a film about transgendered Vegas showgirls - no, I did not just make that up), and writer Palmer have no delusions about who the target audience is for this outing and give us plenty of gasoline explosions, tough-guy dialogue, machine-gunning of vegetation and gory monster mayhem. In true exploitation fashion, they decide to crank up a few of the finer points. PREDATOR gave us the scene where the soldiers find bodies in trees stripped of skin, whereas WATCHERS III gives us a scene where they find bodies in trees torn to pieces with entrails slopping over branches. That works for me! Not to mention the fact that they are smart enough to include one of my favorite "trappings" of the sub-genre: the deadly jungle trap. Generally these involve lots of wooden spikes attached to a log, a boulder, or a lattice, springing out of nowhere to impale a disposable cast member. A jungle movie without a jungle trap is no movie at all in my book.

There are some nice riffs on the established obligatory scenes set in place by the first films (and presumably the novel which I haven't read in 20 years). One of the main staples of the series is a scene in which our hero discovers Einstein's powers of intelligent thought and desperately tries to convince others of this fact. Here it is pretty damn amusing given the fact that in this case it is Wings Hauser in the middle of the Peruvian jungle ranting manically to a bunch of convicts about a golden retriever that can write in English with a stick. For some reason, they ain't buyin' it. Also, while the monster is supposed to be a kindred spirit of Frankenstein's monster; a sympathetic creature created against its will, confused and struggling with its own identity (so, a teenager), Stanford and Palmer are content with down-playing the schmaltz and heady intents and even toss out the beast's obsession with poking out eyes. It's just a flesh-ripping, tooth-gnashing terror that likes killing folks and hell, isn't that what it's all about anyway?

WATCHERS REBORN (1998):  During the life cycle of a given series, there's always a point at which the producers say "oh, the hell with it" and hand the reigns over to an effects guy who desperately wants to direct. For Fox's THE FLY series, it was early on when they handed THE FLY II (1989) to the talented Chris Walas who promptly killed it. Both the franchise and his career. On the flip side of the coin the HELLRAISER series reached that point with the fourth entry, Kevin Yagher's HELLRAISER IV: BLOODLINE (1996), which is notorious for the fact that the film was taken out of his hands and massively reedited and reshot before it was released. So is the case with WATCHERS REBORN. The "hell with it" mentality, I mean. Not the reshooting bit.

Holy shit! The lab is on fire... again! Damn, you'd think they'd implement better safety features. Once again, the prized experiments flee the disaster, but this time our angry, psychotic monster-thing decides to tear the place up a bit first, then move on to the local zoo, where he vents his frustration on some animals - hey, hey, not like that. He just kills them, presumably because he's mad about being neither man nor beast. Since the zoo killings are not able to be kept quiet (like the exploding research facility), local homicide detectives, Murphy (a subdued Mark Hamill) and Brody (a hilariously mis-cast Gary Collins), find themselves puzzling over the violent deaths of the animals and a security guard (who has his eye removed in graphic detail). The coroner (Lou Rawls) is no help as he does not feel it is his job to establish the cause of death.

Also at the crime scene is the project lead, Grace (Lisa Wilcox), masquerading as the zoo doctor, and of course Einstein, who later goes home with Brody and tries to warn him of the danger of a giant, hairy, pissed off, genetically modified killing machine that is about to rip his guts out, by tearing the word "danger" out of a magazine. Thanks buddy, that's a great help. I thought this dog was supposed to be smart? He could have just pulled up a review of WATCHERS III on the internet. Of course that could lead to confusion as well, as Brody might think that Wings Hauser was after him.

While Murphy agonizes over the death of his partner, Special Agent Lem Johnson (vein-poping Stephen Macht, this time around) is running a covert cover-up op that basically consists of kicking Hamill's ass, killing witnesses in broad daylight and leaving the messes for the local authorities to clean up. After a near miss with the monster, Johnson has one of the best lines in the movie when he chews out his staff, yelling "don't tell me we're going on a duck hunt, when the woods are full of bears!" Kind of a batshit crazy thing to say, but you have to admit, it's a fair point.

Nursing both wounds, Murphy takes the dog back home with a bucket of fried chicken and gravy and here we have the best "revelation" scene in the series. In an attempt to communicate with Murphy, Einstein dips his paw in the gravy and spells out his name on a newspaper. I am not positive, but I'm reasonably certain, this is the only time in history that the name "Einstein" has been written out using a roux-based sauce.

This revelation leads to the teaming of the project lead, Grace, who comes clean on the experiment, while Murphy opens up and talks about how he watched his wife and daughter die in a fire and was powerless to save them. Grace then admits to certain flaws in the design of her creature and the possibility that some brain-surgery to remove lesions may have had some unpleasant side effects. Uh huh, "design flaws". At one point Murphy and Grace get into it on this and have the following exchange:
Murphy: "I don't need a lecture on compassion from a woman that's been genetically engineering the ultimate killing machine!"
Grace: "And in wartime, would you rather have the outsider fighting in hand-to-hand combat, or your own son?"
Oooooh snaps! Shit got real, yo! Yep, screenwriter Sean Dash (who also penned the 1995 Sam Jones, Matthais Huges, Eric Lee epic ENTER THE SHOOTFIGHTER), decides that not only is he going to write the most plot-intensive entry in the series, but he's going to throw in some emotional complexity including a scene in which the creature clearly only wants to be loved and basically says so. This will either tug at your heart-strings or if you are cynical bastards like us, it'll make you laugh your ass off.

Directed by one of my favorite FX guys in the business, John Carl Buechler (who personally gave me a burning look of pure hatred when I mispronounced his name at a Fango show back in '91), in my opinion this is easily the best in the series. It is a nice looking production with plenty of locations, better than average acting and plenty of throw-away gore gags. There is a lot of genuine fun to be had (Hamill shockingly refuses to ham it up), but there are also moments of hilarious quirkiness. For example, after being run off the road by the beast who is fended off by slapping his hand, Grace decides she will only confide in Murphy if he will blow up her truck and lie to the cops about the reason she was attacked. Sure, sounds like a deal! Another great bit is when a psychotically cheerful, dog-loving liquor store owner (Kane Hodder) is completely unimpressed by a mess of black-suited guys with heavy firepower jumping out of their blacked out Lincolns that are blocking his parking lot. Even better is the fact that after jumping out of the cars with their hardware one of Lem's rather aged agents balks about shooting witnesses. Lem reprimands him, "they're both privy to the fact that a government experiment has backfired and is killing civilians. That kind of information is not fit for public consumption." Uhhh, Lem? You just yelled that in the middle of a public area. For some inexplicable reason, there is a small sub-plot about a couple who are running a bar, being pushed around by the mob. For another inexplicable reason, the Outsider decides to save them. Plus, it's kind of funny seeing Luke Skywalker finally get some action from someone who isn't his sister.

In spite of the fact that this is yet another rehash - err, I mean a re-adaptation of the source material - the film uses clips from the previous three entries during the opening credits. Why this is, I have no idea. Maybe it's for those who haven't watched the entire series over consecutive nights so that they can have their memory refreshed and fully appreciate how much fun this one is.

Oh, and just in case you ever meet the man, a word of advice. It's pronounced "BEEK-ler".

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