Monday, April 29, 2013

Cyber Monday: The PROJECT SHADOWCHASER series (1992-1996)

A few weeks back we looked at how the CYBORG COP series proved to be a moneymaker for the direct-to-video company Nu Image, filling their coffers with enough dough to keep the company running.  Running tandem to that series was another cyborg-driven series with the PROJECT SHADOWCHASER films. Produced alongside director John Eyres’ company EGM Films International, the PROJECT SHADOWCHASER series seemed to pop up on video shelves every other year with another box featuring the blonde crew cut sporting Frank Zagarino staring at me.  I’m not sure why I never rented these back in the day, but, like the CYBORG COP films, I’m glad I waited nearly 20 years as they are just the kind of stuff I dig now.  And I got to see them all back-to-back this year, which really allows you to appreciate the “what the hell” directions in which the filmmakers took the series.  Yes, my directive is to cover the PROJECT SHADOWCHASER series.


A creeping sense of déjà vu will immediately overcome you in the opening minutes of this flick as a terrorist group overtakes a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles in some unknown future date. Yes, it is totally like SKYSCRAPER (1996) starring Anna Nicole Smith!  I kid, I kid.  It is DIE HARD (1988) but with a twist as Romulus (Frank Zagarino), the gang’s leader, is actually a government funded cyborg created by Kinderman (Joss Ackland).  Take that, Alan Rickman!  Their main target is Sarah (Meg Foster), who just happens to be the daughter of the President of the United States of America, and they want $50 million dollars for her safe release. The F.B.I. is on the case and investigator Trevanian (Paul Koslo) decides the best course of action is to get the building’s architect out of suspended animation prison.  Yes, because reading blueprints is tough business. Unfortunately, the stoner computer guy at the prison defrosts the wrong guy and they get Desilva (Martin Kove), a former football player who was frozen for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight.  Not wanting to pass up an early cryo-parole, Desilva doesn’t let the Feds know his true self until he is in the thick of it as he is the lone survivor of the military team sent in to save the girl.  Always the rule breaker, he disobeys orders to stand down and attempts a Hail Mary to save the girl with hopes of getting a pardon for his efforts.  Because being frozen sucks.

Director John Eyres really upped his game with this, his third feature. Previous to becoming a full time shadowchaser, Eyres directed the horror-thriller GOODNIGHT, GOD BLESS (1987) and the mafia flick SLOW BURN (1989).  So coming out of left field with the TERMINATOR meets DIE HARD mix was definitely something unexpected from him.  To be fair, this has an emphasis more on the latter than the former when it comes to imitation.  In fact, folks expecting some metallic exoskeleton will be very disappointed in the amount of robotic action on display.  Basically, there is none.  Sure, we are told that Romulus is a cyborg but we never see any evidence of that outside of some sparks flying off him when he is shot and his inability to die.  The whole set up is pretty by-the-numbers (Joss Acklund turns out to be the bad guy…shocker!), but there is a sense of fun throughout the proceedings. Kove is good in his lead role as the wise cracking NFLer and Foster appropriately plays the damsel in distress.  VHS cover boy Zagarino is obviously the star though although I’m not sure what it says about one’s acting when you are repeatedly cast as an emotionless robot. Regardless, it is a fun 90 minutes with an emphasis on action and explosions.


Well, the first PROJECT SHADOWCHASER must have done some direct-to-video business as director John Eyres – after helming the sci-fi flick MONOLITH (1993) for Shapiro Glickenhaus – soon found himself staring through the viewfinder at Frank Zagarino’s bleach blonde crew cut again.  Thankfully, Eyres adhered to the “sequels should be bigger and better” policy and delivered the best entry in the series.  You know he means business as the colon is now missing.  Why does that sound weird?

We jump right into the action as the opening credits show an unseen guy smoking a cigar in a limo talks about “the Cobra technology” being housed at the Raikon nuclear facility.  Can you guess where our cyborg terrorist buddy is heading?  That’s right, a shipment of crates arrives at the base and soon Frank Zagarino (who isn’t even given a name this go around; I’ll just call him Shadowchaser) is back in business on Christmas Day no less.  A perfect day to strike since all the scientists will be at home with their families, right?  Wrong! This is a dedicated bunch as everyone is collecting that handsome Government holiday pay while working and having a Christmas party at Nakatomi Towers…uh, I mean Raikon. Seems head boss Laurie (Beth Toussaint) was working hard to make sure Cobra is on schedule.  Hell, even Frank the janitor (Bryan Genesse) is working overtime.  Fried circuits are soon the least of his problems as Laurie fires him for some stupid detail like drinking on the job and insubordination (“Nice ass”).  Worst…Christmas…ever.  And it is about to get even worse as Frank soon has to contended with being the hero by saving Laurie and her son Ricky from the terrorists and our boy Shadowchaser.  And the terrorists, meanwhile, are trying to steal Cobra, which Laurie describes as “a weapon so powerful it would make all conventional nuclear devices obsolete.”  The nuclear device hipsters are totally going to be into those things now.

If you were hoping for some continuity between the first film and the follow up, all that is dashed pretty early on.  Its never explained how Romulus survived being blown to pieces at the end of part one and is back online in this film.  Director Eyres is letting the audience fill in the blanks, as if he is saying, “Hey, it’s Shadowchaser! Someone had to have other cyborgs lying around.”  And to be honest, the lack of continuity would only have bothered me if this were a poorly made film.  But Eyres ain’t joking around with his follow up. He’s not only going back to the same old DIE HARD rip off routine, but he is kicking it up a few notches.  If you do end up seeing this film, make sure to get the DVD (on a double feature with part 3) because it presents the uncut version of the film.  Like most early 90s action filmmakers, Eyres was getting his John Woo on big time and fills the plethora of shootouts with some bloody squibs. Even a guy dressed at Santa gets blasted!  Oh, and he seems to have a newfound HUGE explosion fetish. Matching Eyres upping of his game is Zagarino as the renegade robot.  This time around this dude is totally unhinged.  Seriously, for an emotionless robot, he seems to be having a mental breakdown as he goes from serious to cackling in a heart byte (ah, boo yourself).  Sadly, once again we get no actual robot stuff from our film about a robot. Genesse gets the everyman John McClane duties this go around and he is just as good, if not better, as Martin Kove in the first film.  You have to love his delivery of some of his quips, like when Laurie tells the authorities outside she is trapped in the building with the janitor and he grumbles, “Head of maintenance.”  If you ever find yourself accosted on the street by someone who randomly asks you “what is the best PROJECT SHADOWCHASER film” just tell them this one.


I know what you’re thinking – “How on Earth did I missed PROJECT SHADOWCHASER parts 3 through 2999?”  Well, don’t worry.  It is just that the producers got a little creative with the title in this third entry in the series.  The money must have been flowing after the second one, but weren’t not sure if it was from video sales or some money laundering. Either way, the third PROJECT SHADOWCHASER debuted just over a year after the last one.

The film opens with the passengers on the spaceship Siberia being attacked by some off screen menace.  They run around the ship (factory interiors, yay!) while some unseen thing zaps them with lasers.  25 years later, the communications ship Comstat 5 is heading towards Mars with its small crew.  They quickly find out they are on a collision course with the derelict Siberia, which they barely dodge.  Good news, right?  Well, not really as the Siberia, which is showing no signs of human life onboard, mysteriously turns around and gives it another shot.  This time it rams the space station pretty good, even impaling a female Comstat 5 with an antenna point.  As cinematic outer space laws dictate, if you find an abandoned ship, you must go onboard and see what is on that ship.  They actually have a reason as the Siberia is pushing the two conjoined ships towards Mars’ atmosphere and they want to shut the engines off before they become toast.  The Comstat 5 crew finds the frozen captain of the Siberia (who just happens to be the father of one of their female members) and then the Professor of the group fills them in on the history of the Siberia.  Apparently they found some precious metal ore on Juno 5 that was, naturally, going to solve the world’s fuel problems and make whoever found it wealthy.  Of course, this gets the token Crazy White Guy dreaming and scheming of being rich.  However, the worst of their problems is that lurking in the shadows is that thing that killed the crew members in the first place years ago. Yes, it’s my boy Shadowchaser!

Hey, remember a few paragraphs ago where I said this isn’t the kind of series where the viewer shouldn’t get highly invested in continuity?  Well, this entry proves that beyond any doubt as returning director Eyres decided to boldly go where many have gone before. Throwing your characters into space is usually something reserved for when a series has hit the skids (see the HELLRAISER, FRIDAY THE 13th, and LEPRECHAUN series), but the SHADOWCHASER folks didn’t give a damn. Not only were they going to send their loyal viewers a few centuries into the future, but they (again) weren’t going to explain a damn thing to you.  Once again, they figure the regular dosage of a blonde crew cut sporting robot was enough to satiate folks.  I seriously wonder if there was some die hard PROJECT SHADOWCHASER fan out there going, “Oh damn, I can’t wait to see where they send Shadowchaser the Cyborg next!”  Unfortunately, that person, who may or may not exist, was probably gravely disappointed as series regular Frank Zagarino is barely in this film for the first hour. Yes, the face on the VHS cover used to lure people in doesn’t even appear in a majority of the film.

Instead, we basically get another tired reworking of ALIENS (1986) with a little bit of THE THING (1982) thrown in.  I’d want to say they just grabbed some random sci-fi script and shoehorned the Shadowchaser cyborg into it, but screenwriter Nick Davis also wrote PROJECT SHADOWCHASER II.  Then again, can you demand too much from a script where a guy in a wheelchair is named Wheels?  Maybe director Eyres just fancied making a flick set in space? Or maybe they were trying to cash in on the big budget STARSHIP TROOPERS, which Hollywood was predicting would be the biggest film that year (it wasn’t).  Either way, this third film ends up being a very confused entry in the series.  It is a shame too as, up to this point this is probably the slickest made film of the bunch. Once again, a solid cast of B-movie vets (including Sam Bottoms and Christopher Atkins) is brought in to play victims to Zagarino’s cybernetic surfer dude.  This entry also is the only one to feature someone else from the series as Ricco Ross, who has a small supporting role in part one, plays one of the crew members here.  And we get a cute dog too!

If this sequel does anything right, it is that during the last half hour of mayhem we finally get to see what the inside of the cyborg looks like.  Yes, three films in and we are privy to what makes Shadowchaser tick.  Now don’t go getting all excited and expecting some grand TERMINATOR like exoskeleton.  We just get a messy facial appliance, but at least Eyres finally let us know he actually is a robot.  For a while there I was just starting to think he was just an insane bodybuilder whose skin was resistant to bullets.  So put your Shadowchaser conspiracy theories aside – he’s real and he’s a robot.  Now how he got into space a thousand years later is anyone’s guess.  “Details, details,” cries Eyres.


Hey, are you still reading?  I’m sorry.  Anyway, remember a few paragraphs back when I reminded you that a few paragraphs back that this series isn’t one for continuity?  Well, hold onto your hats.  PROJECT SHADOWCHASER IV was actually announced with that title in a full page ad in Variety on March 1, 1995, months before the third part debuted. Yup, EGM Films International and Nu Image were confident fans would keep coming back for more Zagarino that they could just keep pumping these films out like a factory.  It would take an act of the Movie Gods to make them stop.  So, yeah, about that…

The film opens in Africa 2960 years ago. Yes, 2960 years ago because screenwriter B.J. Nelson loves his specifics.  Anyway, the prologue has some dancing African tribe welcoming a UFO that appears to be a 80s rock concert light show.  Out of the spaceship step some aliens and – wait for it – a bunch of Frank Zagarinos!  They give the shaman leader of the tribe half of some amulet and when he connects it with his half, it allows the aliens to make an elixir for their people.  Yes, always store your life saving elixir on another planet.  They then split but their craft is struck by lightning and explodes, leaving some Zagarinos on Earth in some glass cases. Cut to the present day where Michael Cavanaugh (Todd Jensen) and his wife Corinne (Jennifer MacDonald), two archaeologists, are working on a dig in Africa.  They bicker endlessly, thanks mostly to the fact that they are running out of money and their son Joey is comatose in the hospital.  Is this PROJECT SHADOWCHASER the soap opera version?  Anyway, they discover half of this amulet and this thrills their boss Professor Morton (Brian O’Shaughnessy), who asks to have it scanned and sent over via email.  Somehow this process awakens alien Sirius (Zagarino) buried deep in the ground and he becomes an alien-man on a mission.  Yes, he is awakened by an email sent via dial up. AOHell!  This is bad news for the Cavanaughs as he starts stalking them and shouting, “I want Orion’s Key!”  Even worse, Morton turns out to not be a nice guy and has some goons after them as well because this key allows the owner to create some kind of “fountain of youth” elixir.  Will they survive and what will happen to poor Joey?

Oh jeez, where do I start?  PROJECT SHADOWCHASER IV offers a lot of firsts for this series.  It is the first one not directed by John Eyres.  Instead, the reigns are handed over to South African Mark Roper, who was the first assistant director on the second one.  It is also the first in the series to actually embrace the South African shooting locations, instead of trying to be Anytown USA or space. Most importantly, it is the first to feature Frank Zagarino as the hero.  Yup, ol’ Shadowchaser is the good guy this time around.  Well, it is revealed about an hour in after he stalks around looking all angry.  But are we even sure this is the same Shadowchaser? He is of alien origin, but when he now sports yellow eyes and any time he moves his head you get machine-like sounds.  I’m so confused…just like the filmmakers, no doubt.

It is safe to say something funny happened to the screenplay on the journey from script to screen.  Outside of Zagarino looking exactly the same, this really isn’t a PROJECT SHADOWCHASER movie in the classic sense.  I like to think writer B.J. Nelson, who graced the world with SCANNERS II and SCANNERS III, was walking into the Nu Image office with the world’s most amazing PROJECT SHADOWCHASER IV script in his hands when he bumped into an intern carrying a dozen generic scripts and they somehow all got mixed together.  I would really have loved to have been a fly on the wall to see how they got to this point.  I mean did someone sit up and say, “But the fans want, no, demand more marital drama!” Did Zagarino lay down the law and say he would only return if they made him the hero?  Or did Nu Image just say screw it and go nuts? The film’s schizophrenic nature is summed up perfectly by the fact it came out under various titles, none of them being PROJECT SHADOWCHASER IV.  In the US, it hit video shelves as ALIEN CHASER (with a guy trying to look like Zagarino, but not Zagarino on the box) and overseas you could find it as ORION’S KEY or THE GATES OF TIME.  

It is a shame they went so off the rails here because in some ways this is one of the best SHADOWCHASER films.  It is really well made and the locations in South Africa are fantastic.  I just am sad it doesn’t fall into the wonky lineage of the earlier films.  Or wait, maybe it does? Maybe Sirius is the original prototype for the Shadowchaser project.  Maybe his frozen body is discovered by the US government in the tomb he lays down in the end of this and then they begin the project.  Then they clone him so they can mass produce them, which would explain his reappearance in parts two and three.  Oh no, did I just do up some PROJECT SHADOWCHASER fan fiction?  I think its time for me to hang it up.

2 Reactions:

  1. Might just have to check these out now, great reviews!

  2. The double DVD is OOP and insanely sad these movies are mostly forgotten.


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