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!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: I'M DANGEROUS TONIGHT (1990)

Looking to penetrate the market beyond game show programming, the USA Network started looking toward original movies in 1990. Perhaps influenced by their successful NIGHT FLIGHT and USA UP ALL NIGHT programs, the product they used as a springboard in the summer of 1990 were fixed in the horror/exploitation genre. Titles included Frank Darabont’s feature debut BURIED ALIVE (May 1990); the killer car feature WHEELS OF TERROR (July 1990); the ludicrous HITLER’S DAUGHTER (Sept. 1990); and NIGHTMARE ON THE 13th FLOOR (Oct. 1990). Debuted smack dab in the middle of these titles was Tobe Hooper’s return to feature length television, I’M DANGEROUS TONIGHT (Aug. 1990).

The film opens with an ancient Aztec sacrificial alter being delivered to Dr. Jonas Wilson (William Berger) at the Tiverton College Museum. It was used for rituals involving the killing of “20,000 victims at a time” (says the overly knowledgeable delivery man) and Dr. Wilson quickly opens it to find a mummified body wrapped in a red cloak inside. He removes the cloak and immediately goes mad from touching it. You know what this means: the lowly security guard – who is required by cinema law to be watching a sporting event (boxing this time) – gets killed!

We are then introduced to Amy O’Neil (Mädchen Amick), a parentless college student who is bit of a pushover. How much so? In the first five minutes she is on screen we see her agree to read a 1,200 page book for her study partner Eddie (Corey Parker); agree to find props for a play; agree to sew her cousin Gloria (Daisy Hall) a dress; agree to take care of her ailing grandmother (Natalie Schafer); and believe her cheating aunt when she tells her she is getting no inheritance. Before you can scream Cinderella, Amy is at an estate sale of Dr. Wilson’s property and picks out a trunk for the play. Inside she finds the red cloak and, when she touches it, has flashes of Dr. Wilson killing his wife. Rule #1 when buying fabric: avoid the stuff that makes you see past murders! Amy quickly sees the effects of the cloak when Eddie puts it on while rehearsing Romeo & Juliet and becomes a badass fencer. Despite all the “red” flags, she still opts to turn material into a dress that she wears to the Easter dance, where she seduces Gloria’s man as this red dress has unleashed her inner whore.

Amy gets home safely after she comes to her senses when the dress came off, but is confronted by mute grandma who can somehow sense the evil in the material. They struggle over the dress and Gram dies after her wheelchair takes a flight off the steps. A bummer for the family but not enough to stop Gloria from asking to borrow the dress the next day after the funeral (yes, in movies funerals always happen the next day). Amy says she threw in out, but snooping Gloria finds it hidden in the closet and puts it on to visit her footballer beau. Naturally, she becomes a psycho and she strangles him in the shower and cuts off his penis (off screen). “You’re about to get sacked Mr. Superstar Quarterback,” she says before doing him in, showing Aztec spirits have no love for the game. Gloria then tries to run Eddie and Amy off the road in a 4X4, but flips the car and dies in the ensuing fire.

The next day Amy gets two visits from the exposition department. First, Prof. Buchanan (Anthony Perkins) pops up as she is jogging in the woods and inquires about the purchase she made. He then tells her all about the cloak and how it can bring forth the wearer’s deepest nature. So if you are sexually repressed, you may become “a whore” as Amy so delicately puts it. Later, Lt. Ackman (R. Lee Ermey) visits her because he is suspicious of the two deaths happening so close together. He finds Amy’s story of a possessed dress outlandish, but there are now reports of a woman in a red dress killing drug dealers in the days since her cousin’s death. Amy investigates further and finds out that assistant coroner Wanda Thatcher (Dee Wallace-Stone) took the dress, which regenerated after the fire, from her cousin’s body. And this dress really brings out the worst in Wanda as she craves cocaine, booze, and ice cream! So Amy must now try to stop Wanda while proving to the police her story is real.

“From Tobe Hooper, the director of POLTERGEIST, a new force in fear” 
“The director of POLTERGEIST brings you a new kind of terror.” 
Having experienced the biggest flop of his career, director Tobe Hooper bounced back with this average horror story. Adapted from a Cornell Woolrich short story originally published in 1937, I’M DANGEROUS TONIGHT has very little to do with the source material outside of an evil dress. The Woolrich story was a pulpy gangster story that jumped from Paris to the America, whereas this is more of fairy tale story. To be honest, this would make a pretty good TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode or hour length film. The film seems to end at the 50 minute mark but then continues on with the Wanda storyline. In fact, this reminds me a lot of Sam Raimi's recent DRAG ME TO HELL.

Hooper’s direction is very workmanlike, rarely offering the visual flair that set his previous TV feature (SALEM’S LOT) apart from other made-for-TV movies. There are even a few bits that are downright embarrassing. For example, Amy’s entrance into the dance is hilarious as everyone rubber necks at her and Gloria even jumps in front of her boyfriend as if to protect him. And wait until you get a load of the music and white guys dancing. Later, Hooper offers one of the most unintentionally funny bits of his career when Amick has a tug of war with her wheelchair bound grandmother over the dress. The prospect of Hooper working with Perkins is certainly intriguing, but Perkins dials it down in terms of his trademark oddball performances and is only in the thing for a total of maybe 15 minutes.

On the plus side, there is some good acting. Amick is very good and attractive, even if she is forced to do the standard Hollywood “hot girl in sweater with her hair pulled back = nerd” routine. The cigar smoking, food obsessed cop character played by R. Lee Ermey is a hoot. Also, Dee Wallace-Stone is unrecognizable as the femme fatale, mostly because she isn’t a crying suburban mother. I’m glad Hooper gave her the chance to play against type here as the raven haired killer. So while it may not be vintage Hooper (1974-86), I’M DANGEROUS TONIGHT is watchable Hooper especially when you consider SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION before it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Revenge of 3-D: SILENT MADNESS (1984)

Released on the tail-end of the 80’s 3D boom and bust and shortly after A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) and FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984), SILENT MADNESS was doomed to fail from the onset. As much as I’d love to wax prosaic about this being a diamond in the rough, over-shadowed by the plethora of 1984’s mega-hits and minor classics, that just isn’t the case. Even if it didn’t have to contend with a bumper-crop of trend-setting genre films this little drive-in flick only manages to be entertaining in fits and spurts and really doesn’t warrant much more than a passing nod for simply being an '80s 3D slasher film. Of course when you put it like that, it sounds pretty awesome. I promise you, it’s not.

The Cresthaven mental asylum in New York is suffering from overcrowding and in an effort to alleviate the burden, five patients are released back into society. Due to a computer glitch, instead of releasing harmless idiot John Howard, the infamous sorority murderer, Howard Johns (Solly Marx), is let loose to pick up where he left off. Yes, the real horrors that concern the filmmakers here are bureaucracy and technology.
Before you can say “kikikiki… mamamama” a couple of campers are quickly dispatched by Johns via sledgehammer (that smashes through the screen as he attacks the camper’s van) and axe. Before you get all excited I should point out that these kills, like almost all of the attacks in the film, happen off screen. Though, in fairness, director Simon Nuchtern (who went on to direct the slightly less mediocre SAVAGE DAWN in ’85), features a totally and completely gratuitous topless shot of the female camper changing t-shirts before promptly being attacked. C’mon, you know the rules... never change your shirt! In addition to the campers, Johns randomly grabs a spiffily-attired skater chick in the middle of a crowded college campus and quickly shoves her head in a vice (did he kidnap her right outside of a shop class?) where she screams until a trickle of blood rolls down her forehead. Simon, you had a serial killer put someone's head in a vice and I don't even get a some cheap-ass gore effects? You and I are going to have words.

Back at Cresthaven, plucky Dr. Joan Gillmore (Belinda Montgomery) finds herself thinking that maybe the wrong man got released, but of course no one believes her. Even more damning is the fact that the arrogant Dr. Krueger (Roderick Cook) has a secret ward in which he is conducting seemingly unethical experiments, and he is trying to cover up the mistake. Dr. Joan decides to investigate Krueger’s mysterious “Ward L” and finds that he is keeping patients on life-support in body-bags and Johns’ bed is empty! Gasp! This sequence would seem like a launching pad for a cool little Michael Crichton-esque subplot with some deranged science experiment attempting to create an army of super-deranged killers! Uhhhhh... yeah, you'd think that and you’d just be setting yourself up for disappointment because nothing even close to that is going to happen. Actually this is the first and last you'll hear of it. Simon, you are really pissing me off now. Anyway, Krueger’s two sleazy maniacal attendants try to intimidate the doc like a couple of highschool bullies by chestbumping her and worse, using really bad sexual innuendo! After the horrified Dr. Joan makes her escape, one laughs maniacally for what seems like an eternity. I can understand the audience, but did the editor fall asleep here?

A sorority house outside of Manhattan was the site of a mass murder in the ‘50s. Now, most of the girls have left for spring break (Yay! We can save money on extras!), and the handful that remain are planning their vacations. After the girls start talking about all the “fun” one of the girls is going to have in Ft. Lauterdale she pretends to strip (showing off only her bra), the housemother (Viveca Lindfors) flips out screaming that she is a “whore” and generally goes all nutty-batshit-psycho. Hmmm… now why would that be? Hmmm... Since they are all getting ready for vacation, we get treated to a riveting scene that utilizes the magic of 3D to its fullest extent. The mock-tease girl goes down to the basement and pulls some luggage off a shelf, rummages around and places some luggage back on the shelf! Granted it doesn’t beat the bent reed in JAWS 3D, but if there is anything I desperately want to see pop out of the screen in 3D, its luggage! This is also a perfect time for the killer to strike again, as he grabs the girl and holds her face up to a steam-release valve and we cut away. Yep, not even a cheesy red-latex and tissue-paper burn effect. Nothing but some “steam” and a scream. I am so over this movie.

Meanwhile Dr. Joan finds herself stonewalled by the local Coors-drinking sheriff, played with customary strangeness by Sydney Lassick, who is the first person I think of when I think “sheriff” and “Coors”. Wacky, neurotic neighbor, yes. Redneck sheriff... not so much. The doc is also talked into pulling a Nancy Drew by the local allegedly-dreamy newspaper editor Mark (David Greenan). Going under-cover as sorority alum from another chapter, Dr. Joan snoops, pries and generally acts about as obvious as freakin’ possible without raising even a flicker of suspicion. No one thinks anything of it, not even the housemother who tells her tale of the fateful day when Johns, then the janitor is sexually teased by the sisters to the point where he decides to uhhhh… “nail” them all… hey, hey! What are you thinking? …With the nailgun that all sorority janitors kept on them in the ‘50s! How do we know it’s the ‘50s? Because it’s in black and white! Duh! It sure as hell ain't because of the period authentic hair.

Since Dr. Joan and her new flame Mark are stirring up too much trouble (by going on candle-lit dinner dates), Dr. Krueger decides to send his sleazy attendants after them and collect Johns in the process. While the attendants fantasize about inserting things in Dr. Joan’s dorsal orifice, the sorority sisters discover all their cars have slashed tires and the phone lines have been cut. This is absolutely no cause for alarm however, as it is no doubt the frat boys playing a prank… not the sorority serial killer who Dr. Joan has been telling everyone is on the loose and who she actually ran into in the house’s basement earlier in the film!

There are a couple of memorable moments at the end of the film, one is that a sorority girl is stabbed while playing a version of “Dragon’s Lair” that for some reason only plays Dirk’s death-scenes over and over, another is the fact that the basement of the sorority house is a massive labyrinth of corridors, hallways and human sized air-conditioning ducts that it almost seems like they shot it in an abandoned factory… no, no, of course they wouldn’t do that. That would be silly. I’m sure it’s just the basement of the Tardis. The main defining moment in the end is a scene that is missing from some prints of the film. A bound and gagged Dr. Joan is placed on an electric drill-press (what sorority house doesn’t have one of these in their basement?) as bait in a trap to kill one of the attendants. When the attendant who is trying to rape her tells the other to turn on the lights, whammo! The press powers up and drills right through his skull. As simple as the gag is (the head is seen only from the back and is clearly a dummy head with a toupee), if the film had more moments like these instead of using cut aways and perspective shots (one person is stabbed with a crowbar and it is clearly stuck in the wall under his arm-pit), it might be slightly more entertaining. Interestingly, while the film was butchered of every drop of blood (of which there are very few), intimidation of women and even the coarse language in cert-era UK, some of the US versions actually omit this scene while leaving the rest of the film intact.

No matter how you slice it, this movie fails on pretty much every level. Unfortunately it doesn’t epic fail. The stable of TV actors are decent enough, the script’s dialogue doesn’t veer into absurdity, the 3D effects are minimal and worst of all, for a sleazy, low-rent slasher film, it just doesn’t deliver the goods that you’d expect. Unless there is some super-obscure uncut version that nobody knows about, it’s easy to see why nobody is petitioning Shout! Factory for a Blu-Ray special edition.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's going nowhere, man!

The early 1990s saw a bunch of corporate incest as companies merged at an alarming rate (yay monopolies!). Paramount somehow ended up in bed with boating and television station owners (really!) Chris-Craft Industries and the end result was the United Paramount Network (UPN) announced in 1994. Around the same time, mega-studio Paramount had been bought by mega-media conglomerate Viacom, resulting in me getting a mega-headache. Long story short: UPN debuted in January 1995 with major backing and promised an alternative to the big 3 networks a la Fox. Inauspiciously crammed among titles such as PLATYPUS MAN and MOESHA was the conspiracy tinged thriller NOWHERE MAN in August 1995.

Created by Lawrence Hertzog, NOWHERE MAN was greenlit for a first season of 25 episodes. The show was basically a heavy global conspiracy thriller with obvious influences from THE PRISONER (1967-68), THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1959) and THE FUGITIVE (ABC series 1963-67; 1993 film). Hell, the ads run in newspapers promoting the 90-minute debut went so far as to claim it was “a thriller in the tradition of THE FUGITIVE” (no doubt they meant the Harrison Ford box office hit). Hired to set the stage for the entire series in the first two episodes was director Tobe Hooper, who was probably filming them as his THE MANGLER bombed in theaters in March 1995.

NOWHERE MAN’s pilot “Absolute Zero” centers on photo-journalist Thomas Veil (Bruce Greenwood) and opens as he is having an exhibition of his war photographs from South America. The centerpiece is a picture called “Hidden Agenda,” which shows American soldiers executing four masked men by hanging. Uneasy being in the spotlight, Veil and his wife Alyson (Megan Gallagher) skip out to a local restaurant. Thomas excuses himself to go to the bathroom, but when he comes back to the table his wife is no longer there. In fact, a new couple is seated and eating. To make matters worse, the manager informs Veil he has no idea who he is. Thinking he is the victim of a practical joke, Thomas returns home only to find his locks changed. When Alyson answers, he is shocked to find her standing next to her shotgun toting new husband. Seeking refuge from this confusion, Veil heads to his studio to find the locks changed there too. He sneaks in only to find “Hidden Agenda” missing and his wife’s new man in his own self portrait.

Hoping to gets answers as to what is going happening, Veil hides in his wife’s car the next day and confronts her. She breaks down and says, “They told me if I said anything they’d kill you” but when a cop stops them, she says he is crazy and that she has no idea who he is. Thomas is quickly whisked away to the Callaway Psychiatric Hospital where he is under the care of Dr. Bellamy. The doctor believes Tom is suffering from paranoid delusions, but promises to help establish the truth. Once inside, Tom meets fellow patient Eddie (Ted Levine, fresh off Hooper’s THE MANGLER) who believes Tom’s story and tells him to ask the doctor about Dave Powers. The doctor has other plans though as he takes Veil out on a day trip to his studio. Once there, Veil doesn’t recognize the woman working there, but finds it curious that the doctor seems intent on seeing Veil’s hidden negatives as proof he isn’t crazy. Veil pretends they are not where he hid them as he slowly starts to realize this might be why his life was wiped away.

Back in the mental hospital, Veil discovers Eddie in his bed acting like a child. His medical file says he received a pre-frontal lobotomy. The name on the file reads Dave “Eddie” Powers. Realizing he has to escape before he gets the same fate, Veil subdues his guard and puts a needle full of joy juice in the doc’s gut as he forces him to walk him out. Veil returns to his studio with the doctor and procures the film negatives he had hidden in a vent. Using his photography equipment, Veil creates a new identity for himself using the captive doc’s license. Veil begins questioning the doctor, who is just about to give up who is behind all of this when some machine gun toting baddies kill him dead. Veil escapes the burning studio with his life and heads home to Iowa to visit his estranged mother and find someone who remembers him. Unfortunately, mother had a stroke 6 days ago and is bedridden. When a cop and priest show up, Veil pleads with mother to confirm his identity but all she can muster is “my son is dead” (thanks mom!). Looking more deranged than ever, Veil escapes one last time before literally finding himself at a crossroads, suspicious of everyone but determined to uncover this conspiracy that has stolen his life.

As you can probably guess from that write up, NOWHERE MAN was a very complex and sometimes convoluted show. But that was part of the appeal. The viewer was asked to – gasp! – pay attention and think about what is going on. It is this twisting and intelligent script that is exactly what Hooper needed at the time, resulting in what I felt has been his most solid work post-Cannon years. Honestly, it was refreshing to see Hooper step away from the fantastic genre (he earlier did an episode of THE EQUALIZER in 1988) and this show offered him the perfect avenue to showcase a Hitchcockian sensibility. The entire series relies on this set up and Hooper pulls it off perfectly. The first ten minutes drop you right into the action and the entire episode has you constantly questioning if Thomas Veil is crazy or legitimately had his life erased. Technically, Hooper is very strong as well. The camera work is smooth, the lighting evocative and he establishes some nice running motifs like breaking glass (important for the rest of the show). He also sneaks in a creepy nightmare where Veil sees his wife’s face blanked out. The premiere episode also ends with one of Hooper’s trademark slow crane pull away shots that he also ended THE FUNHOUSE (1981) and POLTERGEIST (1982) with.

In addition to the pilot episode, Hooper also did directorial duty on the second episode “Turnabout.” I won’t be reviewing this one in depth, but it is solid as well. The plot features Veil being taken in by a group who thinks he is Dr. Bellamy. He stays at a seminary that is really a brainwashing facility and asks to see the file on Thomas Veil. The director promises it if he can crack the case of Ellen Combs (Mimi Craven, former wife of Wes). Sensing an opportunity to investigate, Veil accepts the task and hears the woman tell how her life was erased, a story very similar to his own. Once again, events in the series are not to be trusted and there are some nice surprises in this episode, which also helped established Veil’s nomadic nature for the rest of the season. The mystery played out over the 25 episodes and it definitely kept audiences guessing (and offered one of the biggest mindfucks on TV ever).

Sadly, cult appeal means very little when it comes to the global corporate conspiracy and, like lead character Thomas Veil, NOWHERE MAN found itself erased as if it never existed after one season. Worst of all, the first season ended with a cliffhanger and tons of unanswered questions! UPN replaced the show with…I kid you not…HOMEBOYS IN OUTER SPACE (1996). Take that thinking man’s show! Thankfully, a DVD release of the entire series surfaced from CBS/Paramount Home Entertainment (ow, my head again!). Still no word on the HOMEBOYS set.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sci-Fried Theater: THE HUMANOID (1979)

Long, long ago in a decade far, far away, there was… STAR WARS (1977). The director was some guy who made some little films nobody ever heard of, like HERBIE (1966) and AMERICAN GRAFITI (1973), then decided to rehash old  sci-fi serials and turn them into an epic space opera with genre-changing results. It goes without saying that STAR WARS was a huge influence on science fiction movies for decades to come, but while many movies aped bits and pieces here and there, few actually went full tilt into full-blown rip-off as was the case with other mega-hits, such as JAWS (1975). For one, to rip-off JAWS all you needed was some water, some victims and a cheap rubber monster. Hell, you didn’t even need the water, as evidenced by Russell Mulcahey’s excellent landlocked reworking RAZORBACK (1984). With STAR WARS you couldn’t get away with doing a full-blown rip-off on a shoestring budget. You needed lots of sets, costumes, weapons, starship battles, robots and possibly aliens as well. Antonio Margheriti’s TREASURE ISLAND IN SPACE (1984) and STARCHASER: THE LEGEND OF ORIN (1985) would have never been born without the existence of STAR WARS, but to see a true rip-off we need only look to master pilferer Aldo Lado, who was the man responsible for the LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT knock-off set on a train, titled THE LAST TRAIN OF THE NIGHT (1975, aka THE SECOND HOUSE ON THE LEFT, LAST HOUSE PART II, etc). After the success of Luigi Cozzi’s star-studded STARCRASH (1978), Aldo Lado adopted the nom de plume “George B. Lewis” (which sounds nothing like George Lucas), and with second unit director Enzo Castellari created one of the most blatant STAR WARS rip-offs ever. If only they had picked a better title! Seriously, how are you supposed to cash-in on the STAR WARS craze if you don't have “Star” in the title? Crazy.

In a nutshell, the evil Lord Graal (Ivan Rassamov) has escaped from a prison colony and clad in a giant black firefighter’s helmet with a face-cage, customary black cape and quilted outfit, sets out to get revenge on his brother, Great Brother. Man, with a sibling named “Great Brother” it’s no wonder he’s angry! Graal joins forces with Lady Agatha (Barbara Bach), an ice queen who presumably spends most of her time doing her spectacularly futuristic coiffed hair (I can see Lord Graal banging on her galactic bathroom door, “Honey, our reservations are for 7:30! How much longer are you going to be in there?”). Lady Agatha pretty much melts in the presense of Graal’s big, smooth helmet, which is probably due to the fact that she spends most of her time with Kraspin (Arthur Kennedy), an evil scientist that uses an acrylic iron maiden (everything in the future is acrylic) to suck the life essence out of naked women to keep Agatha lookin’ hotter than her name implies. Lord Graal and Lady Agatha need a plan to conquer the planet of Metropolis, formerly known as “Earth”, and Kraspin has just the one: steal the fabled kapitron and turn the people of Metropolis into an army of super-soldiers! What could go wrong? The kapitron is kept under guard in a desert city in which everyone drives around in brown open-cockpit hovercraft vehicles. Where’s uncle owen? When Graal’s black clad stormtrooper mini-me’s blow the Metropolis fighters out of the sky, he barks, “those pilots were sheep, not fighters! My brother’s army has grown bloated with peace!” War: less filling and it won’t slow you down.

While the main goal is to snag the kapitron, Kraspin wants a worker named Barbara Gibson (nice girls don’t get futuristic names?), played sans underwear by Corrine Cleary, killed in the process because she ruined years of his work and got him sent to a space asylum (man, if that isn’t a premise for a new Hammer Frankenstein flick, I don’t know what is)! Barbara manages to escape the massacre because her pupil, a young Asian boy named TomTom (who does not give driving directions as you might think) has hypnotized her through a vidphone call, forcing her to leave and causing a guard to remark “looks like she’s been hitting the ‘Alpha Wave’ pills!” Yeah, you know those alpha wave pills, whoooo! They say not to take them with anti-grav juice, but I call it more of a serving suggestion, if you know what I mean! Eh?

Kraspin claims kapitron can turn the men of metropolis into “an army of rowbuts” and to test out the proof of concept and make double sure that kapitron is the most dangerous weapon in the galaxy, Kraspin uses long-lost space pilot Golob (Richard Keil), a gentle giant with a beard and a robodog named Kit who he feeds “silicon tranquilizers”, as a guinea pig by launching a rocket loaded with kapitron at him. After the explosion Golob’s beard disappears and he has become a monster! This is expressed by having Kiel raise his arms, make claw-hands and growl a lot while wearing platform shoes. You know anyone who wears platform shoes is evil, right? To prove that he has superhuman powers, Kraspin sends out a balsawood – err, I mean hovercraft troopcarrier with which the now Evil Golob dispatches in short order. Kraspin, cackling with delight says “he’s rather irritated, isn’t he?” All they have to do now is slap a sensor on his forehead and drop him off in front of the city (apparently in the future there is no way to detect ships landing on your planet) and watch the mayhem from afar!

Once inside the city, Golob runs amuck throwing men around like dummies… oh, wait, they are dummies, in the appropriately matte-pained city. There are some great moments here such as the scene in which Kraspin watching the action from a monitor sees Barbara and commands Golob to “get her!” That’s your whole plan, wasn’t it, Ray? We also get the revelation that the kid TomTom wields some sort of mystic powers (predating the adolescent jedi plot-lines of the recent STAR WARS sequels) and reads books that are futuristic because they are long and thin and bound with string. Wait, there are books in the future? And string? What?? In addition to reading “books”, Barbara and TomTom also enjoy playing video games on their big screen TV. Apparently, while we are now able to travel at faster than light-speeds throughout the galaxy and beyond, we still have black and white televisions and the best video game we have is a hybrid of Pong and Chess. And hey, it's multi-player, as two people are playing it! w00t, indeed!

One of the other characters is a Han Solo wannabe, Nick (Leonard Mann), who’s ship looks just enough like the Millennium Falcon to avoid prosecution. Nick is waxes sardonic, sporting some great lines like “kid you gotta be out of your gravity zone!” Plus he gets to hop in a spinning chair that is hooked up to an exterior laser cannon outside of hexagonal windows to blow away enemy fighters (sound familiar?). Graal’s ships decide that they are going to shoot at Nick and company with a “hyper-galactic stellar ray”, which I'm not sure is a bad thing or not. During the dog-fight, one of the stormtrooper pilots says “those six idiots couldn’t blow up an old trash can!” Wait, there are trash cans in the future? What??

While they feel free to pillage STAR WARS at will, strangely, they decide against using swords of light and instead, we find out (during a decidedly gweilo martial-arts showdown in the climax) that Graal can flip a switch on his chest and shoot blue lasers from his finger-tips! One of the great things about THE HUMANOID is that it sports a pretty sizable budget allowing for plenty of great low-rent locations in addition to the aforementioned finger lasers! Yes, you need a budget to do that. If you don't think so, you really haven’t rummaged as far down near the bottom of the cinematic barrel as you may think you have.

Landscapes are cribbed right out of the STAR WARS playbook, the sets and costumes are on par with most American indy sci-fi of the time, possibly even better in the case of the costumes, with the exception of Kiel, who looks like a reject from RIDERS OF THE STORM (1986). The special effects used for the laser weapons and spaceship battles are surprisingly well done and while the models are nowhere near as detailed as say BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980), the space scenes are pretty impressive for a what they are. Plus we get a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. What more could you want? Yeah, yeah, lightsabers, I know. In spite of that, I still have the irresistible urge to quote lines from HARDWARE WARS (1978) while watching the film. Why this movie hasn’t obtained more of a cult status is beyond me. Well, I have one idea… it doesn’t have Caroline Munroe in a bikini... Dammit.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's TV Terrors Video

I've had a few folks ask me about Hooper's HAUNTED LIVES: TRUE GHOST STORIES (aka REAL GHOSTS II) so I figured I would upload the first story from it. This is about the haunted Toys R Us story in Sunnyvale, California. Make sure to take note of how Hooper mimics his own POLTERGEIST from just under a decade before this. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe goes Sci-Fi

Following his work on BODY BAGS, director Tobe Hooper returned to the big screen in March 1995 with THE MANGLER, an adaptation of Stephen King’s short story about a possessed industrial sized laundry machine. No, really. I saw it in the theater but remember very little about it except that lead Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) sounded like he had marbles in his mouth and Robert Englund overacted (shocker!). No doubt this calls for a future revisit.

About the time THE MANGLER was hitting video shelves, Hooper’s small screen effort NOWHERE MAN (reviews to come) was debuting on UPN. He directed the first two episodes and this was a pretty interesting show about a photographer (Bruce Greenwood) who finds his life erased after he displays photos of a classified wartime execution. With shades of THE FUGITIVE, he finds himself on the run while trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it all. The show, unfortunately, only lasted one season and left audiences with the mystery unresolved. Regardless, Hooper proved he could offer professional if workmanlike efforts on the small screen. It is then that Hooper jumped back into the sci-fi realm. He proved he could handle the genre with LIFEFORCE (1985) and INVADERS FROM MARS (1986), but took a huge step back with his AMAZING STORIES episode. Thankfully, his work in DARK SKIES, PERVERSIONS OF SCIENCE and TAKEN are more like the former.

Conspiracy would play a large role in Hooper’s next television project, the pilot episode for the alien invasion series DARK SKIES (1996). Fox had seen their THE X-FILES (1993) become a ratings hit and, naturally, every broadcast company wanted in on that action. NBC unveiled this series in the fall of 1996. DARK SKIES focuses on John Loengard (Eric Close) and his fiancée Kimberly Sayers (Megan Fox), an idealistic young couple moving to Washington D.C. in 1961. John begins working as an assistant for Sen. Charles Pratt (John Jackson) and, looking to score brownie points, takes up the effort to investigate various budget projects. One such plan on the chopping block is Project Blue Book, a military investigation into the existence of UFOs. John digs into his work only to get visited by some mysterious and violent Men In Black who tell him to stop his inquiry.

Naturally this results in John digging even deeper into what is going on (cue investigation montage) and he finds out the group is led by Capt. Frank Bach (J.T. Walsh). Bach finds John’s persistence annoying but admirable and – as always is the case in Hollywood – offers him a job on his high level team, Majestic 12 (MJ12). Within minutes of joining the group, John finds out extra-terrestrials are real as Bach displays the frozen corpse of an alien from the fabled Roswell crash. Being part of this elite unit has its perks as John suddenly has a big office and the scorn of his Senator boss, who is being blackmailed to allow John to do as he pleases. Before you can start whistling THE X-FILES theme, John is off on his first investigation – a huge crop circle formation in Idaho in the field of a farmer (G.D. Spradlin), who turns out to be inhabited by an alien himself and tries to kill John.

The farmer is taken back to the lab where a tentacle alien shoots from his mouth (shades of THE HIDDEN). This is something the scientists have dubbed a Ganglien, a parasitic intelligence that seems to control both aliens and humans alike by attaching to their brain. Juggling his two separate lives, John struggles to tell Kimberly about his real job. Bach warns against this, stating that even President Kennedy isn’t aware of the true nature of MJ12. This shocks the do-gooder in John and he begins to believe his untrustworthy chief is, well, untrustworthy. Of course, Kimberly finds out soon enough when she is abducted by aliens and has a Ganglien implanted in her head. John and Kimberly manage to get it out of her before both of them decide it is their patriotic duty to inform the President of the true nature of the alien invasion and this deep reaching conspiracy. Cue our leads being on the run from government baddies for the rest of the season.

Judging from the pilot, DARK SKIES is a pretty good show. Hooper’s work is relatively nondescript but he acquits himself well with a few solid scenes (the crop circle chase; Kimberly’s abduction, which echoes the SALEM’S LOT window scene). The cast is very good as well with Close, who reminds me of C. Thomas Howell, as an appealing lead and J.T. Walsh doing his patented government prick routine. One thing I like about it is how they work in lots of real life UFO lore. You get character appearances by famed abductees Betty and Barney Hill and references to Rosewell, Blue Book and MJ12. In addition, they work in tons of historical stuff into the conspiracy including the release of Soviet captured US test pilot Gary Powers and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I’m sure at some point Bobby Kennedy got his too. Series creator Bryce Zabel had big plans for the show with each of five seasons highlighting a decade of the fight against the aliens (keep this in mind when we talk Spielberg’s TAKEN miniseries). The show, however, was cancelled so audiences only got to see the 1960s.

Aliens factored into Hooper’s next TV project as he jumped into HBO’s short-lived PERVERSIONS OF SCIENCE (1997). With the successful TALES FROM THE CRYPT ending its runs on the channel, the producers felt they could create a sci-fi equivalent by adapting William Gaines’ “Weird Science” and “Weird Fantasy” comics. Lightning didn’t strike twice though, probably from an obvious attempt to beef up the erotic factor (notice the boob outline in the title). The producers also felt that the host character should be a buxom CGI seductress who would spit out some of the worst sexual double entendres in the history of TV. Even worse, this character named Chrome ended up being rendered to look like RoboCop with tits (see pic). What could possibly go right?

Hooper’s half hour segment entitled “Panic” is a riff on the hysteria started by Orson Welles with his famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. Carson Walls (Chris Sarandon) is preparing to unleash his radio program on the unsuspecting public on Halloween. At the same time, two college kids (Jason Lee and Jamie Kennedy) are getting ready for a Halloween party where they will go dressed as aliens. Think you know where this one is going? One would suspect they get mistaken for aliens by frenzied folks and chased around. And that would be wrong. The script by Andrew Kevin Walker actually pulls a few clever twists on the audience in the regard. The two young men are actually aliens from Mars and kill everyone in the party when they think an invasion has begun without their knowledge. Hail Mars! They then travel to the New Jersey field where the program says the battle is going down, only to find the place empty. There they are confronted by two rednecks (Harvey Korman and Edie McClurg) who take them back to their house at shotgun point. There the rednecks reveal themselves to be aliens from Jupiter and Walls shows up to reveal his radio show was actually a ploy to flush out and kill the Martians. Hail Jupiter!

This is actually a fun little episode that I totally enjoyed. Hooper seems to be really into creating a comic book look with some great Dutch angles and effective lighting. He even gets in some of his trademark low framing/wide angle lens shots. On the downside, there is that aforementioned “we’re on risqué cable” factor so the script tries to shoehorn as much profanity as possible and some really odd sexual innuendo. For example, the redneck aliens have an S&M dungeon in their basement complete with a gimp in a box. And Korman says he wants a “close encounter of the lubricated kind.” Uh, why? These totally distract from the rest of what is a good episode. I haven’t seen the rest of the series yet but I can imagine there will be a lot of groaning. Not from the sex stuff, but from me rolling my eyes.

It seems all of this alien work was just preparing ol’ Tobe for his biggest work in years. No, not that abortion CROCODILE (2000) he managed to puke up, but the gig of directing the pilot episode of the Steven Spielberg produced miniseries TAKEN that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in December 2002 (before they changed their name to the STD sounding SyFy). TAKEN was a mammoth 14-hour, $40 million dollar undertaking created by Leslie Bohem (whose first credit was THE HORROR SHOW). Now tell me if this sounds familiar: this sprawling series incorporates real history, UFO lore and follows these events over a period of several decades. Yup, it is the exact same premise as DARK SKIES but with the saving grace of “Steven Spielberg presents…” in front of it. Ah, Hollywood!

TAKEN’s pilot “Beyond the Sky” sets the stage with three storylines that run the course of the series. The show opens in August 1944 with Captain Russell Keys (Steve Burton) piloting his bomber in a firefight with German aircraft. The men suddenly see a series of blue spheres jump into the fray. Frozen in amazement, their ship is hit by enemy fire with Keys mortally wounded. Their aircraft is going down before it disappears in a blaze of blue light. Cut to June 1945 and Keys has returned home to the States. He doesn’t exactly remember how he and his men survived; all he remembers is waking up in a field in France. Storyline #2 takes place in Roswell, New Mexico during July 1947. Capt. Owen Crawford (Joel Gretsch) is one of the men called out to the crash site on “Mac” Brazell’s ranch but he quickly receives word from his superior Col. Thomas Campbell (Michael Moriarty) that this was nothing but a weather balloon. Crawford can’t dispel that myth when some hikers find an intact crashed flying disc with four dead alien bodies nearby. Seeing this as an opportunity to exploit, the ruthless Crawford begins using his knowledge of this top secret project to his advantage as he tries to find the fifth living alien. This leads us to storyline #3 as Texas waitress Sally (Catherine Dent) discovers a strange man hiding inside her shed one night. With her husband away on business, she bring the man, John (Eric Close of DARK SKIES), into her home. John says that he doesn’t know how he got there and is a farmer. Before you can say, “E.T. phone home,” Sally is warming up to her intergalactic boarder and soon carrying his/its child. Sally, yous got some splainin’ to do!

Given the big name before the title and budget, you can pretty much guess this is an A+ production. I think it is also easy to say this is Hooper’s best technical work in years. Hooper gets to shine through with a few great moments. The staging of the Roswell crash is impressive. Hooper also ups the scare levels and the Nazi nightmares that Keys keeps having that turn out to be his flashbacks inside the alien spacecraft are really well done. Tobe also has a great bit toward the end where John leaves and keeps the shot only on Sally’s face as he illuminates and disappears. It is too bad all of this is in such tight constraints of an innocuous Spielberg TV show for basic cable. There is nothing more cringe inducing than the voice over by Dakota Fanning as yet unborn child who serves as the narrator. It is such a saccharine touch (that almost sounds like it wasn’t originally supposed to be there) that probably gave Spielberg a boner. There is also some really bad dialog throughout the 2-hour pilot. As evidence, I offer you the second thing John says to Sally:
“Your husband doesn’t appreciate that kindness in you. He doesn’t see your sadness either. But you’ve stopped wanting him to. I think you’re right. Sometimes you don’t share with an uncaring person.”
Woo boy! I mean, I can understand him being an alien that can read minds but does he really have to speak like Dr. Phil? Rough stuff. It really makes me laugh at how similar TAKEN is to DARK SKIES. I almost want to think that Hooper was aware of this too and the casting of SKIES leading man Close – who is actually really good here – might suggest this. Still, this is a pretty good showing by Hooper. He manages to juggle three complex storylines and actually kept me wondering where this thing will go (although I’m not sure I will make that journey).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

An Acute Case of Sequelitis: SCANNER COP II (1995)

The mid-‘90s was an odd time of transition in pop-culture. Even though countless metal bands in the ‘80s promised us that rock and roll will never die, rock was dead. Guitars were unplugged and everyone got a haircut. Dark, dark times. Similarly in the world of exploitation cinema some serious dynamic shifts were taking place beneath the surface. Horror was so ‘80s and even action movies foundered at the box office resulting in attempts at parody, such as the disastrously misunderstood THE LAST ACTION HERO (1993). Schwarzenegger actually went on to borrow many of the parodied clichés and deploy them with a straight face in the disastrously understood COLLATERAL DAMAGE (2002).

Taking a cue from the boom of the made-for-video horror films of the late ‘80s, independent producers, such as PM Entertainment, took their action flicks away from theaters and went straight to video. Often these producers would use all that saved distribution cash for incredible car stunts (back in the days when they used real cars) and action set-pieces inspired by the wave of Asian films that were making the rounds on the gray market. It makes sense in this context that Pierre David, looking for that hook on which to hang his hat, used all of the above to make a tidy bundle off of his SCANNERS license. It’s action, it’s horror, it’s made for video! The thing that David knew and used to his advantage was that he knew that while his sequels may be video features on this continent, overseas they play theatrically. This may have also been his downfall as he tries too hard to pander to the Euro mainstream instead of the teenagers (mentally or physically) that would inevitably make the film successful.

A sheriff pulls in a rather clean and well-dressed drifter (Patrick Kilpatrick) in a remote area that I’m guessing is supposed to be near Los Angeles, even though the sign (of which the first letter is cut off) says *aviston Sheriff Station. The sheriff (Clayton Moore) calls the local doctor (Allan Kolman) and together they discover that the guy is a scanner! Of course this does not bode well for them since he is a bad scanner, we know this because he is very dramatic and dressed in a black duster… oh the ‘90s! For some reason our bad scanner, named Karl Volkin (Eastern bloc names are eeeeevil!), scans the sheriff to force him to set down his gun so that Volkin could pick it up and shoot the sheriff in the leg. When the sheriff continues to come after Volkin with a shotgun, Volkin scans him causing the sheriff to fall unconscious. Ummm… ok, so scanners used to make people’s heads explode or turn guns on themselves, now they just pass out? Pierre, c'mon man, you’re killin’ me!

Meanwhile, the premise of SCANNER COP is recapped in a news broadcast for no apparent reason while our scanner cop himself, Sam Staziak (Daniel Quinn), meets with Carrie (Khrystyne Haje), a dating service rep who also locates lost relatives. In a discussion with her well-used co-worker Carrie says “he’s not coming here for a date, he’s looking for his mother!” to which her co-worker quips, “basically, they all are.” Yes, that’s it, behold SCANNER COP II: THE QUEST FOR MOM! Phew! While working a hostage situation with his scanner skillz, two beat cops discuss Staziak’s new medication, a version of ephemerol that now lets you use your scanner powers, but not go batshit looney! This is a real boon to Staziak as he not only can apprehend villains peacefully, but apparently can now use his mad mental power to burn off people’s ears, create the illusion that he is a different person, deactivate explosive devices and even, no joke, animate the dead!

Volkin, we discover is off on a path of revenge, hunting down Staziak because he was the officer who busted him during an attempted rape and robbery. Says Volkin, “I’m gonna kill you… kill you so bad!” So I’m thinking “there is no way he just said ‘kill you so bad’!” then they repeat the line in present day as he is remembering the event while sulking in a bathtub! Suffering from some sort of telepathetic penis envy, Volkin is insane with rage that someone out scanned him (and made him shoot his brother), so he runs around killing everyone he runs across with his eeeevil scanner powers. Just like those movies in which an alleged Scottish dude mumbles something about there being “only one” over a series of sequels, Volkin's scanner powers allow him to suck out the life-force out of his good scanner victims, leaving shriveled husks in his wake in sequences that seem to be cribbed straight out of 1993s “Mortal Kombat II”. The way Volkin finds these good scanners is via Carrie’s personal services agency. Vexed by the Compaq computer system's security, Volkin must scan Carrie, forcing her to access the data files for him. Wait. Why can't he just scan the computer himself and bypass the security? Volkin seems to have his limbs painted on, because he uses his scanner powers for eeeeeeverything. He can’t even check into a sleazy, skid-row hotel without using his scanner powers to get the manager to give him a room key, he scans a woman doing her laundry in a laundromat (seriously, is nothing sacred?) and he scans a guy getting him to give up the phone in a phonebooth so he can make an important call. How does this guy eat? Does he go to a restaurant and scan the waitstaff into cutting up his food and feeding him?

Granted Staziak is not a hell of a lot better as he uses his scanner powers on the hospitalized and unconscious Carrie to discover Volkin’s identity via a pad of paper and pencil! While scanning her she convulses violently and her vital sign monitor explodes. Staziak is thrown out of the room by an orderly, leaving the doctor expressing his bafflement by saying “How’d he do this?!”, to which the nurse defensively replies “I’m just a nurse!” If there is one thing Pierre David consistently shows his love for, it’s mind-liquefyingly ridiculous hospital scenes. Why? I don’t know, I’m just a writer!

Robert Forster, during his direct-to-video career revival, checks in as Staziak’s captain, Jack Bitters, delivering mildly amusing lines such as when Staziak is trying to figure out how he’s going to tackle Volkin, Bitters states “he’s your people, how do you call it?” I can’t wait for the remake which will have that scene followed by a lawsuit and protests of discrimination from the scanner community.

The final confrontation takes place with an incredible scanner battle on top of Air Force One as it is screaming over Mount Rushmore that sends a scanner ripple effect out across the capitol causing politician’s heads to explode mid-filibuster and… oh no, wait. That’s not true at all. The climactic battle takes place in the boiler room of a retirement home where Volkin has tracked down Staziak’s mother and is going to turn her against him… No, really. That’s what happens.

Ah Pierre, limited only by your imagination and budget.

For some reason Pierre, having proved his point, seemed happy to let someone else take the reigns as director this time out and resume his favorite position of power, the back seat. This entry is one of the best remembered by most people and it is well shot with great lighting and effective music, but watching it now, the terminal flaw is that it tries too hard to be a serious film eschewing gratuitous car stunts, nudity, and random noggin-nuking, while at the same time being patently absurd. You get a priceless scene in which a surprisingly rational and well spoken mental patient complains that the person in the cell next to him is being too loud, while Volkin makes noises that sound exactly like Mel Blanc doing the Tasmanian Devil (you see... he’s “crazy”). Then you get kidney-punched by bits like when Volkin kills a modern artist, slaps a big-ass shit-eatin’ grin on his mug and says “I may not know about art, but I know what I like!” Oh duuuude, party foul! Who do you think you are? Robert Englund?

Pierre David lay dormant for a long time after this, but information has surfaced that… oh come on, like you couldn’t guess… yes, apparently the time is right for another SCANNERS film! Pierre David will finally get his wish and correct the mistakes, in his mind, that the original SCANNERS made almost three decades ago. A SCANNERS remake is in production as we speak and is scheduled to hit theaters in 2011. After 15 years of waiting, I’ve got my fingers crossed for a disaster of epic proportions.