Monday, September 23, 2013

Cyber Monday: LEGION OF THE NIGHT (1995)

When I say “Michigan” and “low budget horror,” the first thing that probably comes to your mind is Sam Raimi. For better or worse, Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD (1981) proved to be an inspiration for fledgling filmmakers everywhere with its inventive camerawork and over-the-top gore.  One such filmmaker probably inspired by Raimi’s horror opus was Matt Jaissle.  If you were around the horror scene in the early ‘90s, you couldn’t escape ads in magazines for Jaissle’s Michigan lensed debut feature BACK FROM HELL (1993) or his sophomore effort LEGION OF THE NIGHT (1995). Unfortunately, his work falls closer to the films of Tim Kincaid (ROBOT HOLOCAUST [1986], MUTANT HUNT [1987]) than the aforementioned Raimi.  This is doubly disappointing because LEGION OF THE NIGHT actually has several things going for it but fails to use them to its advantage.

The film opens with a group of badass looking killers dressed all in black leaving a house filled with dead bodies.  The ninja-looking dudes hop into a van driven by Russell (Ron Asheton), who drives them back to a warehouse-turned-laboratory.  Once there we meet Dr. Bloom (Bill Hinzman, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s cemetery ghoul and FLESHEATER [1988] hero) and the two men discuss the progress of their experiments and how they want to get out from under the grip of Mafioso Francis Vansemie (Jeff Rector, hungry again for more scenery after STREET SOLDIERS [1991]).  Damn, speak of the devil, Francis shows up and states that he also wants to sever their connection.  Of course, being a mob guy, this means having his goons shoot up anything and everything in the lab.

James Hetfield, Mob Enforcer:

Later arriving on the scene is Taylor Bloom (Tim Lovelace, later lucky enough to be in AXE GIANT [2013]), a recently discharged military man who has shown up here in Detroit to look for his missing scientist father. He breaks into the lab and soon stumbles upon Russell, who not only survived the shooting but apparently insists on always wearing the same clothes.  The doc’s former assistant gives Taylor the lowdown on what really happened to his dad.  No, he’s not missing, he’s dead.  And the reason is because ol’ pop had developed a group of cyborgs that he called C.Z.A.s (Cybernetic Zombie Assassins, duh).  Wow, dad sure had a way with acronyms.  “I thought he was working on some kind of synthetic cheese spread,” says Taylor.  Nope, the only thing cheesy in this situation is this set up.  It appears when dad’s grant ran out he turned to the local mob run by Francis for some completion funds.  However, when the mob got wind of his experiments, they decided to use the mad scientist’s creations to get rid of the local competition.  Jeez, imagine the havoc that would have been wreaked if he had made synthetic cheese.  Or would that be havoc that would have reeked?

Taylor's "I no want picnic" mad face
Naturally, Taylor decides the best course of action is to report this all to the police and let the proper authorities handle it. Yeah right!  He teams up with Russell and, before you can scream “It’s alive!” the duo are resurrecting the C.Z.A. group for revenge.  Complications arise when Heather (Heather Fine, refusing to live up to her last name), Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, shows up and wants to have picnics and stuff (really!).  Doesn’t she know that a man bent on revenge has no time for such things?  Taylor and Russell’s hard work soon pays off as they have C.Z.A. group online and kicking ass. They take on Francis and his men during a cocaine deal (done in an abandoned building, naturally) and everyone is soon filled with holes.  Poor Francis even gets blow to bits by a ninja star grenade.  So revenge has been achieved and the movie is over right?  Nope, we’re only at the 40 minute mark. As expected, the C.Z.A.s pull a Sarah Palin and go rogue.  Even worse, a pair of other mad scientists running around Detroit (don’t they have anything better to do in that city?) have scooped up Francis’ remains and decide to resurrect him.  Damn it, more problems for Taylor.  If only dad had stayed in the synthetic cheese field.

If you are a fan of low budget cinema, LEGION OF THE NIGHT is something you should really only see once.  So what does that say about me that I watched it twice?  Honestly, the film has quite a few things going for it.  Shot on 16mm Arriflex cameras, the film has a slick look.  At this time, they could have totally opted for video and didn’t so I applaud them for that.  Also, the filmmakers spare no expense setting up gun shots and bloody squibs.  The look of the C.Z.A. group is suitable creepy, a military sniper meets ninja style that is very cool.  Unfortunately, the good is blown away by the bad and the ugly.  First off, the script by Jaissle is terrible.  It is basically UNIVERSAL SOLIDER (1992) with a dash of PULP FICTION (1994), John Woo, and the love affair from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). The scene where Taylor and Heather reunite is so awful.  They do their standard moaning about who left who a la RAIDERS and then he goes, “Bitch!” and she replies, “Bastard!”  Then they walk up to each other, embrace and then kiss passionately.  Ouch.

Conditions under which I was forced to watch this again:

Being derivative is one thing, but you can at least still be competent. The screenplay comes off as something that was written in one pass and never fully developed.  For example, Jaissle can’t be bothered to have Russell give any expository dialogue about how he and Dr. Bloom got the bodies they use for their C.Z.A. creations.  Even little stuff falls to the wayside like the fact we never learn Heather’s name until 10 minutes after her introduction.  You can’t have Taylor say her name when he first sees her?  Most annoyingly, the film comes off like someone who wrote something trying to be or sound cool.  And, as we all know, the ends up coming off as authentic as an 18-year-old kid today wearing a Circle Jerks shirt and moaning about missing the good ol’ days of punk. Complicating matters is some really stiff acting. It says something about your film when Bill F’N Hinzman is the best actor of the lot.  And Jaissle makes some downright odd directorial choices, like having Francis return as part cyborg and giving him a voice that sounds like he inhaled helium before every take.  The most offensive choice is putting a picture of a car flipping through an explosion on the back of the VHS box when nothing like that happens in the film. How dare you!  It is truly a shame as, like I said, the film really did have some great stuff going for it but just ends up being a case of potential unreached.  It is neither good nor bad, but I wouldn’t wish LEGION OF THE NIGHT on my worst enemy.  I save ROBOT NINJA (1989) for that.

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