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!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Obscure Oddities: DEATH COLLECTOR (1988)

One of the side effects of being a Video Junkie is that you always have more movies than you can watch. It is sad, but an inevitable truth. Currently I have somewhere in the range of 500 unwatched DVDs and I’m sure just as many VHS titles. This endless supply of orbital medicine gives me plenty of opportunity to play Video Junkie’s Video Roulette. This basically involves randomly selecting an evening’s night of great entertainment (or torture) out of a box while an Asian guy yells, “Mao!” at me. Video Roulette has led me down some strange paths before, but what I grabbed last night was really odd. Not to be confused with the Joe Pesci/NJ mob flick of the same name that haunts dollar bins everywhere, DEATH COLLECTOR is truly a one of a kind flick.

In the near future, the town of Hartford City is controlled by a ruthless guy named Hawk (Loren Blackwell). The law is represented by the Holt brothers, Jack and Wade. Jack (Frank Stewart) is the serious one who wants to carry on the family tradition, whereas Wade (Daniel Chapman) has dreams of being a singing cowboy. Problems erupt when Wade awkwardly seduces Hawk’s squeeze Annie (Ruth Collins) and Jack is fatally shot in the chaos. “Here’s a life insurance policy for $10,000. It’s all I got,” says Jack as he lies dying (really!). But little brother Wade has revenge on his mind and heads to Hawk’s corporate headquarters for, uh, revenge. He isn't very good at it apparently because he confronts Hawk, but his gun is out of bullets. D’oh!

For his trouble, Wade has his knee crushed with a sledgehammer and is then sentenced to 50 years in a prison work camp. You can tell it is the future by the prisoner’s outfits. Wade manages to hit several prison clichés (hard labor, the hot box, black friend Bucky) in five minutes before the prison is shut down five years into his run. I’m not kidding, the warden gets a phone call and all he says is, “What? Shut the prison down? Okay.” He is then on the PA system telling all the prisoners they are free. How did this happen? Seems the outside world has changed a lot according to Mr. Exposition Prison Guard. The banks have bankrupted the world with “a few changes of a decimal points” (hmmmm, sounds familiar) and Hawk has seized control by privatizing everything. And everyone in Hartford City now loooooves Hawk because he offers insurance premiums whereby you get $1 million dollars if you live in his city and hit age 35. No one seems to notice nobody has ever collected on it. But recently released Wade just wants what is his and goes goes to Hawk to cash in his brother’s insurance policy. Naturally, Hawk refuses so Wade (along with pal Bucky and love interest Annie) must become the death collector. Oh, I get it!

What...the...hell? I'm not sure how films like this exist. Shot entirely in Connecticut, DEATH COLLECTOR plays out like someone saw Walter Hill's STREETS OF FIRE and said, "I can do that" with a budget of $50,000. Seriously, like Hill’s film or Alan Rudolph’s TROUBLE IN MIND (1985), this takes place in some kind of futuristic retro land. Folks walk through rock quarries (the future!) in cowboy hats and boots, yet everyone drives around in 1950s cars. You can’t fault this low budget production for not having ambition. And director Tom Gniazdowski (aka Tom Garrett) ain't done yet. No, he adds bizarre little quirks like main villain Hawk being obsessed with bowling. How obsessed? He kills a guy who makes him 5 minutes late to the lanes. There is an entire scene in the bowling alley where Hawk is giving Annie some advice on how to throw the ball. Naturally, she sucks at it and it allows for some risible dialogue where Hawk says, “You did it, babe. You became the ball. And you ended up right in the gutter where you belong.” And this isn’t even the oddest line from scripter John McLaughlin. Later in the film Annie is talking to Wade about killing Hawk and says, “Don't try setting him on fire either. I found out the hard way, he's just not flammable.” To quote the great Jack Burton, “I don’t even know what the hell that means!”

I'm not sure this is even a good movie, but it was oddly compelling and had me hooked for an entire viewing (and if you know me, that is quite a feat). Of course, there are the low budget aspects that make it entertaining too. One thing I loved was during Wade’s first performance, two audience members shown are an old guy and a beefcake shirtless dude playing cards. After Wade spends 5 years in prison, he heads back to the same bar and guess who is in the background? The old guy and the buff dude! That must have been one hell of a card game…or sloppy filmmaking.

This is one of those kind of movies where the lead guy need a shotgun and there just happens to be one on the wall. I also love that in the future that Double Dragon and After Burner are still popular in arcades. And there is a country-esque guitar theme that is played ad nausem that you will be humming it by film’s end. Lead Chapman looks kind of like really skinny Dolph Lundgren and sings his own songs with some challenging lyrics ("You make the breakfast...I make the bed") in this one. He was also featured in PHILADELPHIA (1993) as a guy who tells his story in a clinic (where he looked much worse) and he passed away from AIDS in 1994. Ruth Collins is good as the bimbo love interest, but doesn’t do any nudity. I only mention this because she was more than happy to pop her top in DOOM ASYLUM (1987). Also look for splatterpunk authors Skipp and Spector in a one scene cameo. Like I said, all of this makes the film hypnotic and kept me watching the screen from beginning to end. The film was originally released on the RaeDon home video label. But you can find it easily in vol. 1 of Media Blasters RareFlix sets alongside the entertaining THE DISTURBANCE (1990) and POSED FOR MURDER (1989).

Monday, July 5, 2010

Prison Prescription: THE CHAIR (1988) and DEATH HOUSE (1988)

Maybe it was something in the L.A. water, but horror movies set in prison became all the rage in the late 80s. The market was flooded with titles such as DEATH ROW DINER (1988), DESTROYER (1988), PRISON (1988), SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK (1988), and TERROR AT ALCATRAZ (1986). Even slasher flicks like THE HORROR SHOW (1989) and SHOCKER (1989) couldn’t resist throwing in some ol’ electric chair excitement. I’m shocked 80s Hollywood never got us a horror prison movie set underwater! Two of the lesser entries in this subgenre are THE CHAIR (1988) and DEATH HOUSE (1988).

Warden Edward Dwyer (Paul Benedict, the doorman from THE JEFFERSONS) re-opens a dilapidated prison with the help some trustee inmates (including Brad Greenquist and Stephen Geoffreys). Along for the ride are psychologist Dr. Langer (James Coco) and his assistant Lisa (Trini Alvarado), who try to help the prisoners with some 80s "I'm okay, you're okay" therapy. Of course, this prison has - I hope you have already guessed - a history and there is a ghost out for revenge. Seems some rowdy prisoners executed the former warden several years before and Dwyer, a guard at the time, failed to intervene. Naturally, this means lots of innocent (and presumed innocent) folks get chopped and zapped before the warden gets his comeuppance.

Believe it or not, this is one of the few flicks produced by Angelika Films, a production company from the folks who founded NYC's famous Angelika Film Center (same logo and everything). For a group known for having its finger on the indie film pulse, they sure didn't know crap about making a viable commercial product. Actually, husband and wife industrial filmmakers Waldermar Korzenioswsky and Carolyn Swartz are mostly to blame here as they never make it horrific enough, unless you count their terrible attempts at comedy and the ill-fitting piano score and opening jazz tune. Just what the hell was the film supposed to be? And how can you waste such a good location and actors? The film ends with an on screen dedication reading "For Jimmy" as lead Coco died during filming. Poor Jimmy (in both regards).

The many stages of THE CHAIR grief:

THE CHAIR is one of those classic examples of my growth period as a teen when I learned that movies aren’t necessarily as good as the stills run in Fangoria to promote the film. I remember being impressed by the blue-hued pics of the first warden being fried with his skin bubbling as a result. Then you have Stephen Geoffreys in the mix. “Damn, that’s Evil Ed,” thought my fourteen year old brain, “He is gonna be awesome as a wacko prisoner. And James Coco, he is a respectable actor, right?” So with visions of Renny Harlin’s PRISON dancing in my head, I expected a dark prison ghost revenge tale. What I got instead was sentenced to my own video execution with a film that can’t decide if it is a comedy, drama, or horror film.

If heightened expectations were one of the reasons for my disappointment in THE CHAIR, they may be the sole reason for why my head hangs in my hands after watching John Saxon’s DEATH HOUSE. Originally profiled in Gorezone magazine, this one got built up in my brain by a certain mindset that was forever exorcised from my mind after I saw Bruce Campbell direct movies. “John Saxon is directing!?! He has worked with masters of horror like Wes Craven and Bob Clark. And tons of Italians! Surely he must have picked up something from them over the years,” rationalized my naïve 80s brain once again. And the plot sounded awesome: the Government was trying out an experimental serum on prisoners that makes them go berserk. “Wow, it will be like RE-ANIMATOR in prison,” said Will’s optimistic mind. Well, I had to wait much longer to catch this bad boy (20 years) and the only common ground it shares with Stuart Gordon’s classic is that it is in focus.

Framed by mafia boss Vic Moretti (Anthony Franciosa), Derek Keillor (Dennis Cole) ends up on death row, right alongside the mob boss' brother Frankie (Frank Sarcinello Jr.). But this is the least of Derek's problems as rogue government agent (and mob stoolie) Col. Burgess (John Saxon) is using the prison as a testing ground for a new experimental super-virus. Soon Keillor’s sole prison friend is executed and he turns into a rage filled zombie that causes a prison riot to break out. This doesn’t fare well for visiting TV reporter Tanya (Tane McClure), who just happens to also be a former biochemist (really!). And wouldn’t you know it, today just happens to be the day Warden Hagan (Alex Courtney) brought his family to visit.

This is the only flick Saxon directed during his storied career. Sure, it is low budget, but that can't excuse the stilted staging, shooting gaffes, or clumsy exposition in the first 15 minutes. Seriously, the first 15 minutes are filled with so much stuff going on that you might need a chalk board to keep track of it all. Try to follow me: Derek is a Vietnam vet who stays with an old combat buddy (SUPERFLY’s Ron O’Neal) before getting a job as Moretti’s mob chauffer. He falls for mob trophy wife Genelle (Dana Lis) by a fast glance in the rearview mirror and they are (even faster) getting it on. Derek also foils a dirty deal gone bad in a back alley, even though he just “wants to stay out of it.” Moretti then kills Genelle in the hot tub (but not before lathering her breasts) and frames Derek for the murder. He goes on trial (voiceover time!) and is sentenced to death. This all happens in the first 15 minutes! To his credit, Saxon did make it slightly gory and he works in a hilarious nude scene (our lead actually falls asleep during a prison riot only to fantasize about a female scientist-turned-reporter). Cole, who looks like a more rugged Jan-Michael Vincent, is decent as the stoic lead and Franciosa - sporting a really bad rug - gives it his all as the cliché mob boss.

In the end, DEATH HOUSE is a total mess that is still an oddly watchable mess. According to director Fred Olen Ray, Saxon fell behind schedule rather quickly and he was brought on to help move the project along. Perhaps sensing the film needed some extra umph, Olen Ray’s Retromedia released this on DVD as ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE with the title addition not even trying to look like it wasn’t meant to be there. As for my childhood delusions, I finally got my “RE-ANIMATOR in prison” with BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR (2003). Guess what? It sucked. But that didn’t stop my stumbling brain from thinking at the time, “Damn, RE-ANIMATOR in a prison? This is gonna be awesome!”

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Exterminators of the Carpocalypse: WHEELS OF FIRE (1984)

After Filipino legend Cirio H. Santiago’s first post-apocalypse epic STRYKER (1983) did bang-up box-office of about 1.7 million in the US (which is easily 20 times the film’s budget), Santiago decided to stryke again (sorry, they can’t all be gems) with the quasi-sequel-ish, semi-remake-ish, “big” budget WHEELS OF FIRE!

Utilizing some of the same costumes and err… sets (can rock quarries and sand-dunes be construed as sets?), this time Santiago goes balls-freakin-out with the suped-up cars, post-nuke motorcycles (one has plastic devil forks mounted on the front - sweeeeet) and serious military hardware. You know you are in for a bigger event when the credits are splashy, loud and sport a fantastic, adrenaline-pumping, Brian May-inspired score by none-other than genre fave Christopher Young (back when he was just "Chris")!

A leather-clad wasteland wanderer driving a matte-black muscle-car named Trace (Gary Watkins, who bears a rather freakishly uncanny resemblance to Gerard Butler) decides to visit a nomad group so he can visit his sister Arlie (1982 Playboy Playmate Lynda Wiesmeier). Arlie has shacked up with another two-bit loser, Bo, who has bet her car keys in a steel pipe fight in the circled square. When he is about to be killed by the ringer that he eventually fights, Trace steps in a lays down a whuppin’ saving sis’ car. This pisses off the local wasteland chapter of a badass gang and the next thing you know, the tires are burnin', the engines are roarin' and the chase is on!

Headed up by the villainous Scourge (Joe Mari Avellana of CAGED FURY [1983] and BLOODFIST [1989], doing his best James Earl Jones impersonation), black cars tear up the roads, motorcycles jump off of dunes, and cars blow up for no reason after they fly off cliffs, and this is all in the first 15 minutes! At one point Trace plays possum and Scourge’s aviator-wearing, cigar-chewing henchman, Skag, yells at the rest of the gang “we got him where we want him, let’s go assholes!” only to find themselves running straight into Trace’s vehicle-mounted flamethrower! Meanwhile, Arlie and Bo decide this is the perfect time to start making out like a couple of high-schooler's on a prom date and are promptly captured by Scourge’s men. Bo shows that big brother was right about sis' crappy taste in men and without missing a beat yelps that Skag should take the girl and the car and let him join the gang. Skag agrees, but on the condition that he "survives the initiation". Suddenly, Bo’s pants are down and he’s being chased through the desert, dragged behind a jeep and finally left for dead. Damn man, what happened to the pledge paddle?

Arlie isn’t treated much better as the bikers rip-off her top and tie her to the hood of their car, in a scene surprisingly similar to the infamous sequence in the Australian film FAIR GAME (1986). Scourge is pleased with his catch and remarks that she is a “good looking piece” to which Arlie retorts “too good for you, greasball! I'm not dogfood!” Trace, like his name implies, spends an extraordinary amount of time finding people. At this point he finds Bo, still tied to the jeep, in time for Bo to tell them where the thugs took his sister before a very displeased Trace puts several bullets in him. Whether it's because he was putting him out of his misery or just because he was a duchebag is unclear. From here you’d think this would be a simple fetch and retrieve mission, right? Wrong amigo! Trace runs into a girl who has a hawk for a pet, a girl who hears what people think, subteranian, albino cannibals, a commune of “True Believers” who are way too cheerful to live, the cheapest rocket-ship ever, a corporate army, the dwarf from STRYKER, and more explosions!

Probably my favorite unintentionally amusing moment occurs when, after much bickering (“sexual tension” ala The Lockhorns) between Trace and hawk-girl Stinger (Laura Banks), they trip and fall on a sand dune and are supposed to fall over and roll down the hill together in storybook romance style. Unfortunately they fall, but fail to catapult themselves over the lip of the dune and Watkins has to stand up and pull Banks over the edge at which point they still don’t tumble, so they have to throw themselves down the dune where they finally come to a stop and Trace rips open her top cueing the romantic transparency shot complete with strings in the background! Nobody, I mean, nobody does post-apocalyptic romance like Cirio H. Santiago.

While the US Vestron version of the film seems to be complete, it does seem to be missing some graphic violence. The credits list "prosthetics", "make up" and "special effects" crew-members, but there are less than a handful of appliances used in the film. While STRYKER featured an array of cheap, grizzly demises, here all of the violence cuts away rather quickly, some of it is heard on the soundtrack while a cut-away is seen on screen. This is the usual MO of a censor at work. It's not damning evidence, but it does seem odd that Santiago ramped up the level of action and nudity exponentially, but cut back on the blood. That's just not adding up, but until I can find something with extra footage, it's going to have to do.

There are a couple of things that stand out in WHEELS OF FIRE, two of them belong to Lynda Wiesmeier who spends roughly 99.5% of her screen time topless and screaming, topless and struggling, or topless and spewing more trash talk than a possessed Linda Blair. When grabbed by Scourge’s goons she yells “Get your hands off of me you miserable faggots!” (considering what happened to her loser boyfriend, that, I guess, is not really much of a slur) and when they bring her to Scourge she screams “don’t touch me you miserable jerk-offs!” Combined with her rampant, jiggling nekkidity, Wiesmeier pretty much steals the show. Of course there are some people who have gotten astride their high-horses and condemned the film as “misogynist”. Presumably because Arlie is given nothing to do other than be manhandled, show off her mesmerizing set of… uh… “genetics” and cuss like a sailor. Pretentious, but that hasn't stopped some half-assed critics who, I'm guessing, expect everyone in genre films to be respectful of one another. It's interesting that Jack Hill and Johnathan Demme's trend-setting women's prison films such as THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972) and CHAINED HEAT (1983) are given not only a pass, but a pat on the back for making movies about “strong women”, however, if a foreigner makes a film where an attractive western woman gets roughed up, the same cracker-barrel psychologists start screaming “misogyny” in a crowded room. Here Wiesmeier is simply an icon used to demonstrate the evilness of Scourge and his gang, in the exact same way the bad guys in DEATH WISH (1974) were shown to be deserving of their ultimate fate by raping and killing Paul Kersey's wife and daughter. In fact, I'd say if you were one of those people really looking for misogyny, there are much easier targets than this one. Not only is the rape implied and not shown, but both men and women are raped. Even more importantly, out of the five lead actors, three of them are female. Two of the three female leads are shown to be strong, capable and intelligent and all of them perform straight-up heroic acts. So much for being a misogynistic film!

Just because a film has misogynistic characters in it, doesn't make it a misogynistic film. If that were a legitimate train of logic then Walt Disney would be a misogynist (though I'm not saying he wasn't). How so? In SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959) the sorceress Maleficent hates the princess Aurora and tries to kill her, therefore she is a misogynistic character. As we now know, misogynistic character equals misogynistic film. The film was made by Walt Disney and this leads us, ipso facto, to the unmistakable conclusion that Walt Disney was a misogynist. Seriously, if you can’t find amusement from Alrie’s foul-mouthed hollering every time one of the bad guys so much as looks at her with lines like “hand’s off me, filthy pig! Stinkin’ fuckin’ goon!” and find her rather tame torment abhorrently misogynistic then obviously you need to stop watching genre films and go settle down with A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT or FIELD OF DREAMS. Though I might warn you, there is a little of bit of testy verbal conflict in FIELD OF DREAMS, so make sure there are no children in the room.

For those of you who are still reading... there are so many kids thinking up elaborate drinking games for lame TV shows with intricate rules and posting them on the net, I figured we should have an old school drinking game posted here.

- Take 2 Shots: Anytime Scorge’s henchman Skag yells “come on!”
- Take 1 Shot: Every time Lynda Wiesmeier is shown topless.
- Take 1 Shot: Every time there is an explosion.

What do you mean, “is that it?”! Damn man, this is an old school drinking game! Follow this and you’ll be hammered long before the end credits roll.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Spy Who Flubbed Me: CALL HIM MR. SHATTER (1974)

Looking to expand beyond their UK borders, Hammer Film Productions signed a co-production deal in the early 1970s with Asian powerhouse studio Shaw Brothers. While the deal was for three pictures, only two resulted from this merger. The first was THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974), an attempt to merge Hammer’s popular Dracula saga with some Far East mysticism. A co-production in every sense of the word, the film saw Roy Ward Baker directing side-by-side with Shaw legend Chang Cheh (only Baker receives credit) and Hammer veteran Peter Cushing taking blows right next to Shaw superstar David Chiang. The second cinematic team up resulted in CALL HIM MR. SHATTER, an action-adventure attempt that abandons horror to move into James Bond espionage territory and exploit the Hong Kong locales.

SHATTER opens with scenes of riots in an unnamed African country (someone got a hold of some stock footage). Gen. Ansabi M’Goya (Yemi Ajibade), the country’s ruler, is shown arriving at a fancy hotel to get it on with his token white lady. While preparing for the lovin’, they are interrupted by a masked man who kills M’Goya with a fancy camera-gun hybrid. The masked man is Shatter (Stuart Whitman), an international hitman who quickly bolts to Hong Kong to collect his pay. Unfortunately, his contact Hans Leber (Anton Diffring), a powerful mafia connected bank head, refuses to pay up, even after given the photographic proof of the assassination.

But Slaughter, er, Shatter ain’t no dummy and has a bargaining chip up his sleeve as he snagged M’Goya’s attaché case containing a list of mob drug processing facilities in the world. Of course, this makes him a marked man by both the mob and the UK government represented by cool Paul Rattwood (Peter Cushing, in his final Hammer film). After getting his ass beat in a back alley, Shatter is rescued by bartender Tai Pah (Ti Lung) and his lady Mai-Mee (Lily Li). Shatter discovers that Tai Pah is also a kung fu master (stereotype much?) and, before you can say YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, he is getting it on with Mai-Mee. Obviously this bothers Tai Pah, but he still accepts Shatter’s offer to be his head-kicking muscle, especially since it means getting half of the cool million Shatter plans to squeeze out of the mob.

SHATTER has all the elements required for an international espionage flick. You have assassination; double crosses; exotic locales; wanted documents; public negotiations; murder; chases; the “a stiff drink will solve my problems” ethic; and hot lovin’! The production obviously benefits from the location filming in Hong Kong and they aren’t afraid to get deep into those claustrophobic alleyways. Also, since it is a co-production with the Shaw Brothers, you get a bit more bang for your buck (or more dropkick for your Hong Kong dollar, if you willlll). They just do things differently there. For example, when someone tries to kill Shatter by launching an RPG into his hotel room, the filmmakers make sure to have a naked Chinese man in the room next door blasted out of his door. Why? Because they can do it, that’s why! And you have to love the two dummies that get thrown off a skyscraper during the film’s climax (see pic).

In addition, you get Peter Cushing as a stuffy UK government type who has to give the mother of all exposition speeches. I bet he got the script and was like, “Damn, I have to make all that sound good?” Naturally, it is a credit to his abilities that he does it and doesn’t have a heart attack in the process. There was a bit of behind-the-scenes drama as well as director Monte Hellman was replaced at some point during the production. Hammer exec Michael Carreras took over and receives sole on screen credit. Original helmer Hellman and Whitman both supplied an audio commentary on the film’s Roan laserdisc. According to reports on that commentary, Hellman says that 80% of the finished film is his work and Whitman admits to be a little more than shattered after hard nights out drinking in Hong Kong. Hey, he is just a method actor! I guess that explains why Ti Lung does all of the heavy hitting, eh?

And Ti Lung is definitely one of the reasons to see the film. Discovered by Shaw mega-star Jimmy Wang Yu, Ti Lung made his film debut in Chang Cheh’s Wang Yu sequel RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1968). Lung quickly became one of Cheh’s favorites and starred in a mind-boggling 20+ films in the 6 years between his introduction and SHATTER. Obviously the Shaws were hoping to bring their two stars (Lung and 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES’ David Chiang were their biggest stars following Jimmy Wang Yu’s ugly departure from the company) to the international market. Unfortunately, they do Lung a bit of a disservice as the filmmakers get him to mimic Bruce Lee’s fighting style. Having trained in Wing Chun, Lung has no problem physically imitating Lee’s style but it doesn’t help him stand apart. For example, Lung doesn’t get a single scene to show off his fancy sword skills that made him popular in Shaw Brothers productions in the first place. His highlight in this film is a random martial arts tournament in a nightclub where he fights several foes (including Lo Wei) of different styles. This is also one of the few scenes where Whitman gets to throw down and, uh, lets just say he is better holding a gun to people’s necks.

Regardless of Whitman's lack of martial arts prowess, CALL HIM MR. SHATTER is a good time. If you are looking for some Bondian action with some martial arts mayhem, you can't go wrong here.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Kung Fu Treachery: BLOODFIGHT (1989)

Like most kids growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was obsessed with martial arts movies. Kung fu, karate, tae kwon do, Chris Mitchum Fu…if you threw a kick, I was probably there watching it on video. This is why the fact that I bypassed BLOODFIGHT (aka FINAL FIGHT) on video all the time is truly bizarre. I remember seeing the Imperial VHS release with Bolo Yeung on the cover in stores. Perhaps I was just feeling elitist and didn’t want to support a BLOODSPORT knock off? Or maybe I was still reeling from the effects of Albert Pyun’s BLOODMATCH? In any case, I never watched the film until recently, thanks to the recommendation of my friend Dave aka “Bolo, Jr.”

Masahiro Kai (Yasuaki Kurata) won the World Championship of Free Fighting back in the late 1970s and can’t seem to get past his glory days, so much so that his drunken wife leaves him and he doesn’t notice. Always on the lookout for new students, he spots local gweilo tough guy John (Stuart Smith) and invites him to his gym. “Wow, I want to master that!” screams John when he watches Kai’s old footage (see pic). But John can’t break that rebel streak and he and his gang (the kind only HK movies can deliver) attack a young girl at a noodle shop and Ryu Tenmei (Simon Yam) comes to the rescue.

Masahiro is so impressed with Ryu, who was taught martial arts by his deceased father, that he asks him to join his school. Maybe this is why your school is failing, Masahiro? Because you only scout talent in back alley brawls? Anyway, Ryu refuses because he is on a basketball scholarship (bwhahahahaha!) at the local university, so Masahiro resorts to stalking Ryu. Really! Cut to a “cute” montage of Masahiro showing up everywhere Ryu goes, including public bathrooms. Creepy! Eventually John’s gang beats Ryu to a pulp so he literally crawls to Sensi Masahiro and begs him to take him on as a pupil. So what does Masahiro do? He refuses! Why you little tease! Cut to “cute” montage of Ryu showing up everywhere Masahiro goes, including public bathrooms.

Eventually Ryu is able to convince Masahiro to take him on and his training is good enough that he enters the World Championship of Free Fighting and breezes through to the finals where he faces the intimidating Chong Lee (Bolo Yeung). Chong Lee is a bit of a rebel as well since he is shown getting drunk backstage before his fight and eventually kills Ryu during the match. Whoops! This sends Masahiro on a bender that lasts two years (!) before WCFF rep John O’Brien (John Ladalski) shows up to offer the sloshed sensei a chance at revenge in a Killer vs. Victim’s Teacher showdown. Damn, is this the first time a master is avenging the death of his pupil? Anyway, Masahiro trains his ass off with John to get ready for the big fight. I wonder who wins and if there will be an amazing comeback?

Well, my 15-year-old Spidey video senses were correct at the time in that this is a BLOODSPORT knock off of the highest order. Hell, it is also set in Hong Kong and features the same tournament format and villain! You’ve heard of Bruceploitation? Well, this is Bolosploitation. BLOODSPORT was a surprise international hit and you can bet Kurata, whose production company produced this, had charismatic BLOODSPORT villain Bolo on the phone within minutes. This was made the very next year and the filmmakers make no bones about wanting to draw a comparison as they name the villain Chong Lee (he is named Chong Li in the Van Damme movie). But see Chong Lee has a cobra tattooed on his forehead here, so it is totally different.

If the knock off factor isn’t enough to amuse you, then you have the rest of the film. Shot on location in Hong Kong, the Japanese production suffers the same fate as most low budget productions of the HK era. I knew I was in for a good time during the opening training montage that shows the four fighters getting ready for their fights. Cut to a wide shot of the dressing room and they are all about two feet from each other (see pic). Also, where do they find these white folks? Seriously, it must be a requirement that if you are a white dude looking to act in an Asian production that you must have all the acting subtlety of Mantan Moreland. Stuart Smith, who is amusingly billed incorrectly as Stuart Smita, is a sight to behold. His acting is so over-the-top that it is highly amusing. To be fair, veteran white dude Ladalski is pretty good in his supporting role.

You also get a street gang that only Asian films can deliver. Tooling around the city in a Jeep with skulls and “Fuck You!” spray-painted on it, this gang is a riot. You know you are in trouble when the guy with the multi-colored pompadour is the least funny. One guy dresses in all red with a red Mohawk and carries around a chicken foot. The big gag is he gets knocked into a rooster, looks at it and goes, “Huh?” The bald guy (see pic) looks like Don Rickles with cancer and makes Smith look like Sir Laurence Olivier. Did I mention he has a back pocket torn off his jeans to reveal his bare ass with the words “Hands off” written on his skin? No joke, these guys make the gangs in Jackie Chan’s RUMBLE IN THE BRONX seem utterly realistic. Finally, you have everyone in the cast speaking English, or at least trying to. I commend Kurata for aiming high, yet it scores so low with lines pronounced like, “I have the scales to protact ewe” and “Ewe only wanta wee veng.” I also got a big kick out of a sign in the dressing room reading “Not Smoking” on it. It is funny because 1) it is not correct and 2) that a group holding an underground death tournament would take the time to make a sign like this. And how would you open a underground fighting tournament? Why with some chick body builder, two dude body builders and some girls doing aerobics on stage, of course!

So learn your lessons from me. Don't be a fool and stay in school. And when you see BLOODFIGHT, you know it is alright! Check it out. Tell them Chong Lee sent ya.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Prison Prescription: UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (2010)

As a series, I can’t think of a trilogy with a more bent trajectory. Walter Hill’s UNDISPUTED (2002) is another one of Hill’s staple “tough men in even tougher situations” and contains some of the same genes as his directorial debut, the bare-knuckle fighting Charles Bronson vehicle HARD TIMES (1975). Using the real life incarceration of boxing phenom Mike Tyson as a launching pad, Hill and frequent co-collaborator David Giler crafted a script about pro boxer George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames) being sent to prison for a rape and being challenged by resident prison boxing champ Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes). The film performed so-so at the box office in August 2002, but proved to be very popular on home video.

It was successful enough that producers Millenium and Nu Image films felt a direct-to-video sequel – the new rage in the home video market – would be worth the effort. Placed in the hands of DTV action staple Isaac Florentine, UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (2006) re-cast Chambers with Michael Jai White and, needing to justify their Bulgarian locations, has the Iceman framed while overseas and sentenced to do time in a hard-ass penitentiary. Naturally, the corrupt officials sense money to be made off their famous charge and pit him against resident Russian prison champ Boyka (Scott Adkins). The filmmakers have Chambers lose horribly so that – playing to White’s strengths – he must learn to incorporate martial arts into his repertoire in order to crush Boyka. All of this brings us to UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (2010).

When the first sequel ended, Chambers was free from prison fighting and his soulless Russian opponent Boyka was nursing a crushed knee. Here, Boyka (Adkins again) returns as the lead in this film and is first shown disheveled, hobbled and living a solitary existence mopping floors. Secretly training to rehab his injured knee, Boyka demands a shot against current prison champ Psycho (original!) and, after dispatching of him very quickly, is invited alongside his “handler” Gaga (Mark Ivanir) to an 8-man prison fighting tournament in the Republic of Georgia with the grand prize being freedom for the winner. These top fighters have been culled from various countries by mob factions. Of course, this is again one of these prison fighting tournaments that is ridiculously being advertised with posters and aired live in betting houses throughout Europe. Naturally, the crooked warden has his favorite in Colombian Quinones (Marko Zaror), who gets preferential treatment as he reads Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca while the other entrants do hard manual labor. And, as all good MMA movies recognize, Quinones is receiving illegal supplemental help. Why you cheatin' bastard! The deck is definitely stacked against the other seven combatants, so much so that their handlers bet against them. But Boyka, who has bonded with US prisoner Turbo (Mykel Jenkins), has other plans because, as he so eloquently puts it, “I am most complete fighter.”

“He's totally behind me, isn't he?”

That is pretty much it for the plot and this actually makes mixed martial arts tournament classics like ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) or BLOODSPORT (1988) look completely profound by comparison. But director Isaac Florentine realizes that the only thing better than a MMA tournament is a MMA tournament movie set in prison! This has all the required elements for a prison flick and a marital arts tournament flick. You get male bonding; the hole; crooked officials; sadistic “screws”; the sage old prisoner; steroids; improvisational work outs; a training montage; the “honor in fighting” routine; gambling; mutual respect; fickle inmate spectators; leg breaking; blood splattering; incredible comebacks against the odds; and tons of adrenaline-pumping fights. The only thing missing is a scene where a hot young woman spectator sitting with a rich old (preferably Asian) man is splashing by the blood of the participants…and loves it! Given the prison setting, it might be kind of hard but I’m sure Florentine spent nights anguishing on how to somehow work it in.

Florentine took a step back technically as a director with NINJA (2009) where he foolishly tried to emulate big Hollywood films with flashy camera moves and, worst of all, computer-generated blood. Thankfully, he returns to form here and remembers what makes his films so enjoyable (well choreographed fights). Florentine is still in love with his crash zooms but wisely keeps them out of the fights for the most part. And the fights are the real reason to see this. Florentine assembles a group of diverse talents from all over the globe including Lateef Crowder (who is known for the amazing Capoeira fight with Tony Jaa in THE PROTECTOR [aka TOM YUM GOONG]) and Marko Zaror (emerging martial arts star from Brazil with the features KILTRO and MANDRILL). A real stand out acting wise is Mykel Jenkins as the American in the tournament who bonds with Boyka. And, of course, you have to talk about lead Scott Adkins. Adkins might be one of the best marital artists in films today and gets to stretch his acting chops again, something NINJA denied him. As the title implies, the UNDISPUTED II villain does a 180 here and it is handled better than you would expect. He doesn’t become a softie by any means as he maintains his over-the-top gruffness, but they do allow the character enough moments to successfully transfer to commendable protagonist.

So if you are looking for some great martial arts action to kill 90 minutes, you can't go wrong with UNDISPUTED III. It is a throwback to the 80s and 90s Van Damme era where plots were simple and the fights were tough. No CGI enhanced bullshit or editing that is so haywire you can't even tell who is throwing a punch. It just might be the best prison movie featuring a Russian badass with a knee problem you see all year!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Carpocalypse Now: STRYKER (1983)

Like so many other people back in the day I was totally and absolutely floored by a series of films by an Aussie by the name of George Miller and some dude who never did anything else named… I think, Mel something. A nightmare vision of the civilized world falling into ruin with smatterings of populated areas between vast wastelands populated by blood-thirsty outlaws driving suped-up muscle cars. Unlike most mainstream filmgoers that thrilled to MAD MAX (1979), THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981) and MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985), I saw no reason to stop there. I was one of those alleged degenerates that happily would sit through every single Italian, Filipino, American and even Kiwi post-apocalyptic action flick no matter how much Siskel and Ebert disapproved. I was the guy who lamented Patrick Swaze's demise because it finally crushed my hopes of ever seeing STEEL DAWN 2. Some of the films have gone on to be classics in their own right, such as Enzo G. Castellari’s brilliant epic 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982) or even better, my all-time favorite Sergio Martino’s 2010: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983). Still others have either fallen through the cracks or have become cult hits in the true definition of the word.

One of the Philippine’s most prolific directors is Cirio H. Santiago. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 films (that we Westerners know of) under his belt, Santiago began making films at his father’s studio, Premier Productions, in 1955. In the early ‘70s Santiago made trend-setting English language exploitation pictures ranging from black action, nudies, women’s prison, Vietnam war, martial arts, biker pics and more. His work attracted the keen eye of Roger Corman who starting with the seminal women’s prison film THE BIG DOLL HOUSE in 1971, has co-produced over 30 films with Santigo, a partnership that continues to this day. In 1983, a few short years after the world-wide success of THE ROAD WARRIOR, Santiago tried his hand at the first of several post-apocalyptic movies with STRYKER.

Starting with stock footage of ye olde mushroom cloud, a narrator tells us that the war to end civilization as we know it was simply an accident by someone who history has forgotten. Seems like Santiago was more than just a filmmaker as he taps straight into what would probably be the very real truth about a post holocaust environment: the scarcest commodity is water and “whoever controls the water, controls the world”. Though I'm not sure why anyone would actually want to be the ruler of a desert planet populated by random handfuls of scavengers, but I guess that's beside the point. While Mr. Rockatansky waged war for a tank of juice, Santiago shows a solid knowledge of real-world economics and makes water the chief resource of the future long before the issue became front-page news.

Out on the desert highways a girl, Delha (Andrea Savio), on a raked out trike is being chased by a bunch of leather-clad ruffians in (and on) a matte-black muscle car. After catching her they demand to know where her water is, but before they get an answer a wanderer named Stryker (Steve Sandor) and a competitor named Bandit (William Ostrander) blow the bad guys away and make a mad dash for the water. Delha escapes in Stryker's car only to be nabbed by the bad guys again after the car runs out of gas. As it turns out Stryker wants to help the girl out of his memories of his dead wife (or Common Wastelaw Partner) and Bandit needs to bring her back to the head of a camp run by Trun (Ken Metcalfe of countless ‘70s and ‘80s Philippine trash epics), who happens to be Stryker’s only slightly megalomaniacal brother. Delha needs to get to Trun to tell him that his old partner, her father, has found an underground oasis and has built a commune around it. Apparently they had a deal that whoever found water, he would let the other one know. So Stryker and Bandit team up to raid the gang’s hideout and save the girl, thus saving the world, or at least themselves. Maybe taking a cue from Steve Barkett's THE AFTERMATH (1982), the hooligan's hideout happens to be a medieval castle (though it does not belong to Ted Mikels), which is the center of power for the evil, hook-handed ruler of the wasteland, Kardis (Mike Lane).

Kardis, looking like an experimental crossbreeding of Ming the Merciless and Sid Haig, is totally evil because a) he’s got a hook for a hand, b) he dresses in flamboyant black and red, and c) he pronounces all of his syllables. This shows a clear comprehension of the Rules of Exploitation Cinema. Good guys are working men who drop some of their consonants or at the very least drawl when they talk. Bad guys have had diction lessons and are probably foreign educated. Bastards! Of course Stryker and Kardis have history, which is told in flashback, where Kardis murders Stryker’s woman while he is chained to a wall. Naturally Stryker breaks loose, fights off guards and while escaping grabs a sword and turns Kardis into a mono mano man. What's funny is that while the flashback in monochrome, the shot of Kardis' hand being lopped off and blood squirting from the stump is in full color! Santiago knows on which side his bread is buttered, making up for a lack of budget with some bloody effects littered through out the film.

Santiago gets to do his version of the famous climactic tanker scene from THE ROAD WARRIOR here, though on a slightly more modest budget and then it’s only to cause a diversion so Stryker and Bandit can gain access to the castle in order to rescue Delha who is busy being ravaged by her captors. Once free from the castle they head to the camp to find out that Trun has been captured by Kardis' men. Kardis' men are mean. To let the audience know just how mean they are, they bury Trun up to his neck in the sand and when he begs for water, they give him some... though it's been *ahem* previously used. After that action flies back and forth as someone gets captured and has to be rescued until everyone winds up at the commune oasis and it’s all out war. During the slow pursuit of Delha through the desert, Stryker and Bandit run across a group of dwarfs dressed in tattered brown monk robes that talk with high-pitched squeaky voices (do they sell droids by any chance?). Stryker being a man of few words shows what a helluva guy he is by giving them some of the water he just stole. Of course, at the end of the film the dwarves are glad to return Stryker’s favor by helping them defend the “commune” from the raider’s attack. At one point the dwarfs actually pull out a freakin’ M-80 machine gun so that Stryker can bust out all Rambo on the bad guys. Ummm... these guys are wandering around the desert with a freakin' normally turret-mounted machine gun that weighs more than two of them combined?

This was clearly made on a shoestring budget, even by Santiago's standards. I’m guessing it was one of those films that they weren’t sure they could sell and once they did sell it the budget for the next one (1985’s semi-sequel WHEELS OF FIRE) went up considerably. Here Santiago can only afford two nice muscle cars, the rest are jeeps and holy crap! Are those tanks? Man, what did he have to do for the military to be able to borrow those? Most of the vehicles are amusingly given a “crazy wasteland” appearance by painting them flat black and then hitting them with some brown spray paint! Spray paint. It’s the future.

Veteran TV actor Steve Sandor is (probably wisely) given about a handful of lines and most of them are chuckle-inducing platitudes such as the one when Trun demands that Stryker tell him why he decided to leave his camp and become a wanderer. Stryker allows a dramatic pause and says “everybody’s got their own highway to hell. You got yours. I got mine.” Damn, man, I just asked a simple question! No need to get all So-crates Johnson on me! William Ostrander is pretty much worthless as Bandit, though his scenes where he falls for a chick warrior who snaked her armor from the local football team are pretty damned amusing. You see Bandit wears a head-band and she wears a headband… can you hear the strings swelling under the moonlight? No joke, the scene is played out with swelling music and moonlight. Ahhh, romance in the post-apocalypse wasteland.

I saw STRYKER when it hit video back in ’84-ish and it made a pretty big impression on me, in spite of the extra-low budget, leading to a minor obsession with MAD MAX rip-offs. Sure it’s not going to go toe-to-toe with the Italian stuff, but what does? Even if you are not wracked with nostalgia over Andrea Savio’s wasteland Daisy Duke's, there’s some good fun to be had here and may even lead you into some of Santiago’s other post-apocalyptic outings including EQUALIZER 2000 and FUTURE HUNTERS (both 1986).