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, 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).

Monday, June 28, 2010

The "Never Got Made" File #19: Look Out! Here comes the SPIDER-MAN movie...or maybe not!

Born from the minds of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the early 1960s, Spider-Man was a teenage superhero that resonated with the comic book demographic right away. Naturally, Hollywood came calling soon after. Spider-Man was quickly turned into a cartoon series that ran three years (1967-70) and is most notable for its well-known “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can” theme song.

Live-action Spidey debuted in 1974 in the recurring “Spidey Super Stories” on the children’s variety show THE ELECTRIC COMPANY. This proved to be a popular segment and gave way to the television series THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, which began with a television pilot in September 1977 that saw theatrical release overseas as a feature. The series premiered the following year in April 1978 and ran for a total of 13 episodes. Hot on the heels of the US version, the Japanese also produced a live-action series (Supaida-Man) that debuted in May 1978. This series featured a young Japanese motor cycle racer becoming the titular superhero after receiving a special bracelet from an alien in a crashed UFO. Naturally, Spider-Man fought huge monsters, ninjas, samurais and controlled a large robot. The series lasted less than a year but managed to pack in an impressive 41 episodes into its run. You can now watch it online with subtitles at

With superhero fever at an all-time high (thanks in part to the success 1978 SUPERMAN film adaptation), it seemed like only a matter of time before Spider-Man would reach the big screen in a proper theatrical feature. Enterprising film producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus secured the feature film rights in the early 1980s for their Cannon Films company. Originally, Cannon ran trade ads in Variety in 1985 with director Tobe Hooper attached to direct the film and television veteran Leslie Stevens (THE OUTER LIMITS; BUCK ROGERS) penning the script. According to a Cinefantastique article on the unproduced film, "Stevens substituted a new origin for the superhero involving an evil scientist name Dr. Zork, a maker of mutants who pits his monsterous creations against Spidey. In this case, Peter Parker was a lowly Zork employee who became a spider-man because of an experimental mishap." In addition, character co-creator Stan Lee produced his own treatment for the film, which he described as "pure, quintessential Spider-Man." Writers Ted Newsom and John Brancato were given the assignment of turning this treatment into a script for Tobe Hooper.

But by late 1985, Hooper was off the project and director Joseph Zito, who helmed Cannon’s successful MISSING IN ACTION and INVASION U.S.A., stepped in as director. Interestingly, Zito included a scene in MISSING where Chuck Norris' character awakens from a Vietnam nightmare to find the cartoon series Spider-Man playing on the television. When Joseph Zito entered the project, he brought in his own writer, Barney Cohen to polish Newsom and Brancato’s script (check the comment section below for more info on this). The plot, according to Zito, focused on Spider-Man battling Dr. Otto Octavius, better known as Doctor Octopus. The script (dated Nov. 24, 1985) can be read online at this link and is interesting in how some of it mirrors the eventual SPIDER-MAN 2 from Sam Raimi, which featured the same villain.

Zito scouted studios in both Italy and England to house the production. Zito also hired Mentor Huebner and Marvel Comics artist Nikita Knatz to help storyboard the film. Special effects tests were done to capture Spider-Man's movement and Doctor Octopus's tentacles. While no actors were officially cast, Zito considered stuntman Scott Leva for the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Leva had made public appearances as Spider-Man for Marvel Comics in the 1980s. Zito also expressed interest in having Bob Hoskins play the villain Doctor Octopus. In addition, Zito mentions that Stan Lee himself was hoping to land the role of Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson. In total, Cannon spent $1.5 million in pre-production costs on the un-produced Zito version.

Despite investing $1.5 million in pre-production, the producers shutdown the project in 1986. According to the article, "Cannon found itself in dire financial trouble last year, bailed out by Warner Bros to the tune of $75 million. The risk of losing $15 million stopped being acceptable." Ironically, Golan and Globus turned their attention to producing the more expensive (and eventual box office bomb) SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. In the interim, Cannon Films temporarily lost the option rights to the Spider-Man series when they failed to make a timely payment to Marvel Comics. As a result, "New World Pictures, which owned Marvel [at the time] and the film rights to its line of superheroes appears to have jumped at the opportunity presented by this unfortunate gaffe." New World Pictures never made the film either.

Cannon would eventually get back in Marvel’s good graces and lined up a Spider-Man film again in 1988 for director Albert Pyun (THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER). Pyun told Cinefantastique “we’re working with Stan Lee and Marvel on SPIDER-MAN” and that a Christmas 1989 release was planned. The film was to be shot at Dino De Laurentiis’ studios in Wilmington, North Carolina. Amazingly, all of this was to be done by Pyun while also directing back-to-back the promised MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 2, DELTA FORCE 2 and SUPERMAN V!  Cannon was so sure this was happening that they even logged SPIDER-MAN in Variety's "Future Films" section with an exact production start date of October 24, 1988:

Small article in a Cannon advert section in Variety talking about the film in 1988 (click for readable, full sized scan):

It obviously didn't happen.  Not to be deterred, they listed it again a few months later with a March 1989 start date; note the switch from screenwriter Don Michael Paul to Ethan Wiley in the interim.  Gee, I wonder why this project isn't getting off the ground?

Not surprisingly, the production was eventually postponed and didn't meet the Xmas 1989 deadline.  Cannon was still stoking the fire though by running a “1990 – The Year of Spider-Man” banner on every one of their ads in Variety the following year. The film never materialized.

German blurb from CINEMA magazine announcing the film circa 1990:

1991 Cannon ad in Variety for the project; notice new credited screenwriters Neil Ruttenberg (DEATHSTALKER II) and Joseph Goldman (HOT CHILI):

Interestingly, the rights fell into the hands of Carolco in the mid-90s and some dude named James Cameron (who?) was attached to direct it. They even ran simple ads announcing it in Variety. Cameron never got a chance to make it and word on the street is he hasn’t amounted to anything since it fell apart.

Disclaimer: A majority of this piece was originally from an entry I did that was added to Wikipedia in May 2007. It was subsequently removed/merged/altered by the fine folks there into the SPIDER-MAN films history. So, no, I did not rip off Wikipedia. And all photos/scans come from our personal collection.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Gweilo Dojo: RAW FORCE (1982)

The deadly three penetrate the secret chambers of an evil island empire! A fortress without walls, protected by an invincible army that needs no ordinary weapons! Not quite the first martial arts film not produced by a major Hollywood studio! This is ENTER THE DR – Wait! No, this is RAW FORCE! 

There is no arguing the impact of a little movie Warner Brother’s released in 1973 with a white-hot (pun intended) Chinese film star by the name of Bruce Lee. I know it’s been a few years, but you may have heard of him. Interestingly it was one of those films that hit at the right time and turned America into a feeding frenzy of martial arts mania. Granted it didn't exactly flop around the rest of the planet, but while other western countries were digging it, the US indy film makers of the ‘70s and early ‘80s were nothing short of obsessed. Almost a full decade later ENTER THE DRAGON’s effect can be felt with this low-budget knock-off that decides to take the AIRPLANE! (1980) approach and throws everything at the wall hoping most of it sticks. Writer-director Edward D. Murphy borrows the setting of ENTER THE DRAGON, but piles on the exploitation concepts with a shovel. A really big shovel. Not so much a shovel, as a Caterpillar earthmover.

On an island somewhere in the South China Seas, some  goofy-looking slavers (the leader, Speer [Ralph Lombardi] resembles Hitler with a facial tic) and some creepy monks (headed up by Vic Diaz) are making a dubious exchange: a group of kidnapped pinay girls are stripped, thrown into a cage and weighed with baskets of uncut jade, which the slavers are then given as payment for the girls. Well, all except for one girl who is deemed too skinny. As the monks gather around laughing at her, adding insult to injury, a white-guy samurai-zombie jumps from the bushes and cuts her down with his katana! And we're off and running! Meanwhile The Star of Los Angeles, a cruise ship run by cranky Captain Dodds (Cameron Mitchel who occasionally seems to forget that he's in a movie) and Hazel, the kvetchy owner (Hope Holiday), is taking an equally eccentric group of tourists to China with a stop-over at the very same island. In spite of the fact that the island is considered “a closely guarded secret”, is steeped in local legend about undead warriors, cannibal monks and an unwritten law that trespassers will be killed, there is a cheerful travel brochure on the sights to be seen on the island and the fact that the Japanese Imperial Army decided not to mess with the island at all during WWII. Man, if those crazy bastards didn’t want a piece of that place, you know it ain't going to be like a weekend bender in Tijuana. “The boys from the Burbank karate club” a group of martial artists, Taylor (John Dresden), Schwartz (John Locke) and O’Malley (Geoffrey Binney) are eager to get to the island and test their might, but are quickly roped into doing a on-board exhibition with the ship’s cook, Chin (Rey King doing his best Bruce Lee impersonation), much to the non-amusement of the ships other passengers who you can hear complaining in the background (“somebody might get hurt!” and “do that somewhere else!”). Hot blonde Cookie (Jillian Kesner) also joins in, though she fails to mention that she is a Los Angeles SWAT team member and kicks mucho butt in a bikini. What's not to like?

Other passengers include Lloyd the lush (Carl Anthony), who when catching O’Malley trying to pick up his wife (Jennifer Holmes), brushes it off handing him a “martooney” and saying “when we get together, the way to get by is pull out the booze and let’s get high!” Of course, he’s not worried about it since he has plans on hitting the famous Palace of 1001 Pleasures once in China. An allegedly Chinese cathouse with a full bar that is staffed exclusively by Philippine girls providing an excuse for more rampant nudity. Oh, and an excuse for the slavers to attack Lloyd and O’Malley after getting wind of the planned tourist trip to the island. Why do they care when the island means certain death to everyone including the greatest martial arts warriors? Because it will ruin everything! That’s the best explanation we get and quite frankly, that works for me.

From there it’s parties, bar-brawls and more slaver attacks. Any, and I mean, *any* excuse for some girl to show off her assets is explored interspersed with some off-the-wall characters. After the bar brawl, we get a birthday party for the most uber-Poindexter ever to grace a boat. What could we do to make this party craaaazy?! Why not have a scene with a drunk and topless Camille Keaton being fumbled with in the bathroom? Hey, have the prematurely bald, chia-pet looking bartender smash ice-blocks with his head, then serve the ice (eeeewww)! Get the Long Island male stripper guy (who looks like Tom Savini’s evil twin) to pull a drunk girl’s top open! What the hell, let’s throw in a scene where a hot chick picks up on a guy who turns out to be a Jesus freak and maybe another in which another hot chick totally offends the birthday boy by explaining what “fetish” means! You can say a lot of things about this flick, but can’t accuse them of making the film predictable!

Along similar lines Edward Murphy also has to be commended on bringing the term “plot exposition” to a whole new level. To provide some back story on the island, he has Taylor lay in bed delivering the dialog while his soon-to-be “special friend” is lathering herself up in a hot, steamy shower. The camera is clearly enjoying the view while Taylor’s voice is heard in the background. You know, come to think of it, I think “Hamlet” could have used a scene like that. Hamlet could be soliloquizing about poor Yorick while Ophelia slowly strips and... wait! Dammit! Joe D'Amato beat me to it again! This is why I am not a rich man.

There’s also tons of great dialogue, some of which is throw-away stuff in the background. During one scene you can hear the ship’s PA system warn the passengers against drinking the water on the mainland so as to avoid the bubonic plague. Another great bit is when Lloyd is trying to get some action on the side and the girl says “What if your wife shows up?”, to which Lloyd replies “I’m telling you, she won’t! We’re only going to be five minutes!” I need one of those noise-making key-chains so that I can press a button and hear “wah-wah-waaaaaaaah” whenever the need arises.

Of course eventually the ship is attacked by slavers and set on fire in what would be the cheapest display of pyrotechnics I’d ever seen, if I hadn’t seen CHILL (2007), forcing the passengers on to the island where they get to learn first-hand about the zombie warriors, cannibal monks and hungry piranhas! The action scenes here are good for what they are. If you are expecting the authentic Asian stuff, you are on the wrong voyage amigo. It’s goofy, cheesy white-guy stuff that makes James Ryan’s slow-ass moves in KILL OR BE KILLED (1980) seem like technical precision. On the other hand, if you enjoy this sort of thing, this is a freakin' classic of epic proportions. If I have one gripe, it seems like a missed opportunity not to have the monks actually shown eating human flesh. Everything else is in there including a bloody piranha attack using that stock footage of real piranhas that everyone seems to have.

In spite of the fact that the film ends wrapping up all loose ends, the final shot plays out with a bold “To Be Continued…” across the screen. Sadly, Edward Murphy never made a sequel to RAW FORCE (the mind boggles as to what that would have been like), but he did write and direct one more movie during his career. Maybe not quite on the same level as RAW FORCE, but damned entertaining in its own right, Murphy’s follow-up film HEATED VENGEANCE (1985) is a Vietnam War film that has the uniqueness of vision to see Michael J. Pollard as one of the best and the brightest.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Adrenaline Shot: BARE KNUCKLES (1977)

Writer-producer-director-actor Don Edmonds had quite a career before passing away in May 2009. He started off acting as a child on stage and parlayed that into film and television work in the 1950s and 60s. Exploitation fans, however, know him best for his efforts behind the camera beginning in the early 70s. Edmonds got off the ground running with T&A efforts like WILD HONEY (1972) featuring VJ fave Uschi Digard and the nurse-ploitation entry TENDER LOVING CARE (1973). Lightning struck with his next film where Edmonds was wise enough to slip the bountiful bust of Dyanne Thorne in a tight Nazi uniform for ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1975), still one of the most well known Naziploitation titles. A true iconoclast, Edmonds followed ILSA with the G-rated SOUTHERN DOUBLE CROSS (1976) and ILSA, HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHIEKS (1976) before delivering my favorite film of his, BARE KNUCKLES (1977).

The film focuses on Zachary Kane (Robert Viharo), a bounty hunter who is tracking down a serial killer running around L.A. in a leather bondage mask and hissing like a cat. The murderer recently struck in front of a dozen witnesses who refused to call the police (shades of the real-life Kitty Genovese murder) and Kane is on the case for the big reward. For some reason Kane is the luckiest investigator ever because he happens to be walking in the very apartment building where cops are interviewing the roommate of witness Barbara Darrow (Gloria Hendry). He hires old friend Black (John Daniels) to help track her down. Meanwhile, it is quickly revealed (so much for suspense) that the killer is karate-obsessed spoiled momma's boy Richard Devlin (Michael Heit). In another fit of luck, it appears Kane's latest squeeze Jennifer Randall (Sherry Jackson) - who Kane picked up outside a Pizza Hut - has an in with the rich Devlin family and can get them into a cocktail party. Of course, it all goes wrong as Devlin becomes fixated and is soon stalking her.

BARE KNUCKLES seems to have come from a mind hell bent on exploiting every available genre. But I’m not talking about the cold, calculating focus groups of Hollywood today. I’m talking about Edmonds probably looking at a box office chart and going, “Horror sells. Kung fu sells. Vigilante films sell. Car chases are big. Blaxploitation is hot. I’m going to make a movie with all of those elements!” BARE KNUCKLES throws everything into this flick and, naturally, you get one wild cinematic ride. Hell, you even get a visit to a gay bar that makes the scene in BUSTING (1974) look positively subtle by comparison. Naturally, the scene devolves into a brawl.

And, in that regard, the film definitely lives up to its title. There are some freakin’ brutal, almost sadistic fights on display. For example, Kane and Black (isn’t that a drink?) locate Barbara hiding out in a rundown tenement building where she is shacking up with some Black Panthers types. After they torture Kane for a bit, they decide to kill him but Black comes to the rescue and heads get thumped. Obviously the real locations and authentic looking actors help out a lot here. Of course, not everything is hard ass, even if it tries to be. For example, the bits of Devlin performing karate are a sight to behold. He throws down moves that would make Chris Mitchum shake his head and say, "This guy is a total amateur." And the comedy value is doubled by the screeching and hocking he does. Don’t believe me? Check it out:

Regardless of the momentary bits of unintentional comedy, it still works because of the violence and, hell, it is the 1970s. The last 15 minutes also has a really well done car and motorcycle chase all over L.A. that ends in the L.A. river basin. This was back in the day when a car chase meant you got real guys screeching real tires in real car all over the asphalt for real. None of this green screen work or, even worse, computer generated cars you see today! Even better is the fact that director of photography extraordinaire Dean Cundy knew exactly where to place the camera for the greatest impact. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

An Acute Case of Sequelitis: SCANNER COP (1994)

Much like the megalomaniacal Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Pierre David returns to prove to the world that David Cronenberg was on the wrong track with SCANNERS (1981), and that it is he who holds the true vision! This time doing it from the comfort of his very own director’s chair... possibly with a small white-furred animal on his lap that he strokes while quietly chuckling with evil glee.

Presumably due to the lukewarm reviews of his cherished SCANNERS II (1991) and SCANNERS III (1992) sequels, executive producer extraordinaire Pierre David decided to drop his beloved executive producer credit and trade it in for a producer-director credit. Typically an executive producer handles some of the financing end of the filmmaking process, often it is a screen credit simply given to investors, and rarely do they get involved in all of the creative aspects of making the movie, though they definitely can have some say in it (casting choices such as the significant other are always popular). David clearly took his executive producer title to a whole new level, notoriously butting heads with Cronenberg on the production of SCANNERS and the direction that the film should take. After obtaining the rights to SCANNERS, Pierre David decided he would do SCANNERS right and created two sequels that were successful on the video market, but ummmm... not exactly overwhelmed with praise. This just wouldn't do! As the saying goes, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

A young boy, Samuel (Daniel Quinn), is living in squalor with his scanner dad in a rented room. Their ephemerol pills have run out (ummm… what happened to the patch?) and the old man is flippin’ out. Apparently now when scanners go without their pills for a couple days they lose it completely and start hallucinating that baby faces are popping out of their foreheads! Yeah, sure, what the hell? I’ll buy that. Anyway, the cops show up and after a brief display of scanner power, dad gets blown away with a shotgun by the landlord who was unhappy with the volume of noise coming from the room. Remind me not to rent there! The kid, not too terribly distraught over the death of his loony pops, is rather casually adopted by Harrigan (Richard Grove), one of the cops who responded to the scene. After seeing the sadistic experiments being performed on patients at the local nuthouse, Harrigan decides not to leave him there and simply takes the kid home and keeps him, which would seem wildly unethical, if not totally illegal. I could have sworn that cops are supposed to take kids to the local Child Welfare Service, but hey, it’s Canada, anything could happen and honestly, where’s the fun in being cop if you can't kidnap children every now and then?

Flash forward 15 years later and Samuel is sportin' his LAPD blues (inspite of the fact that the city scape looks nothing like Los Angeles) and being given his first assignment on the police force. His presumably now legal, foster father Officer Harrigan is now Chief Harrigan, or actually since this is Canada posing as Los Angeles, he is Commander Harrigan. Uh huh, you Canadians can't fool me! The celebration is short-lived as we find that the police are smack in the middle of a wave of baffling cop killings. Apparently normal schmoes with clean rap sheets are spontaneously killing cops without provocation in random locations around the city. As we find out early on, the killers are being brainwashed and hallucinating that the officers are something from their deepest, darkest fears. For a simple newspaper vendor, his deepest fear is apparently a blinged-out rapper. A hospital intern’s deepest fear manifests itself as a zombie that looks a lot like John Carl Buechler. To each his own, I suppose. Hmmm... I guess this means that if I was brainwashed I would bludgeon a cop like a baby seal because I hallucinated that he looked like Glen Beck.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the evil masterminds behind the plot are Dr. Karl Glock (Richard Lynch), a medical man who had his license revoked for conducting drug-related “brain experiments” with teenagers at his cabin in the mountains (is that what we are calling it these days?). While performing a sting operation on the cabin, Harrigan’s partner is shot dead by Glock, so now Harrigan wants to nail that son of a bitch, while Glock wants revenge for having part of his skull shot off by Harrigan! Glock’s partner in this strangely circuitous revenge scheme is a phony psychic named Zena (Hilary Shepard) who is amusingly described by Brion James during his 15-second cameo as “an odd, yet attractive, brunette”. While Glock relaxes in his leather chair, Zena runs around kidnapping people in broad daylight, inconspicuous in her sexy black pleather outfits and goth make-up, utilizing her former talents as a department store perfume girl by spraying victims in the face with some sort of knockout drug. For some reason, this spray doesn't affect her at all, as we assume that she must have built up an immunity to it.

Pierre David approaches his subject matter with such sincerity that you’d think he was making a sequel to THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962). As much as I hate self-referential films that don’t take the genre seriously, this takes itself very seriously while keeping its genre elements at arm’s length. There will be no wallowing in exploitation staples here, no, no! It's almost like he's going for a PG-13 rating. David doles out the goods in little bits and pieces and keeps the whole “scanning” thing down to a minimum with the occasional whammy being put on people but generally stopping short of causing any sort of mayhem, much less combustion. Even then he typically only uses it for positive problem solving, such as stopping a car theft or the scene where Samuel clutches a computer monitor and scans a computer police sketch program to make the composite of Glock’s mug faster, infuriating the sketch artist admin in the process. One wonders why, if this is so easy to do, when Samuel needs the elevator during a mad dash to stop a brainwashed killer, why he doesn’t just use his scanner powers to interface with the elevator and bring it rapidly down to his level? There’s nothing more snicker-inducing than watching someone with earth-shattering telekinetic powers impatiently waiting for the lift. John Carl Buechler provides the FX work, which is mainly the hallucinatory monsters (except, possibly, for the rapper). That is not to say that there is no bloodshed, but it’s basically limited to one scene near the end where in order for his spirit to escape from hell, Samuel must make someone’s spirit-head explode. Seriously, why was this never made into the greatest video game ever?

The other thing that really keeps this from being as classic as the first three wildly different films is the fact that the top names, Richard Lynch and Brion James, are not given a whole hell of a lot to do. Sadly James is in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role and Lynch pretty much just sits around in a leather executives chair in a dark room laughing menacingly at police statements about how the killings are “unconnected” and such. On the other hand, there are some amazing moments of oddness that keep this flick consistently entertaining. Some examples:
- Scanners can now “speed read”, allowing Samuel to fly through a stack of criminal files while searching for the, at that point, unknown villain.
- Getting shot in the shoulder will land you in the local ICU, in critical condition, complete with an oxygen mask.
- If you need to commandeer a car in a hurry, it’s preferable to stand there and scan the owner, forcing them to hand you the keys, rather than just grabbing them and jumping in the car.
- Police detectives gather together and smoke cigars to neutralize offensive odors while investigating a crime scene with a decaying corpse.
- While scanners can put the whammy on computers, they can’t scan someone who has a metal plate in their head, but they can cause the skin over the plate to melt!

While this never soars to the apex of absurdity reached by SCANNERS III and, of course, still doesn’t hold a freakin’ candle to the original, David’s directorial effort is still reasonably entertaining. David would give up the director’s chair for his favorite position of “backseat driver” for the next and final installment, SCANNER COP II (1995).

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Monstrous Mayhem: THE REJUVENATOR (1988)

If, like me, you haunted video store aisles in the late 80s and early 90s, chances are you’ve seen this video box art before. And chances are you probably never rented it. Unavailable on DVD, I finally tracked down a VHS copy of this and am happy to report it is a nice entry in the 80s “mad science creates gooey rubber monster” subgenre.

Dr. Gregory Ashton (John MacKay) is working on some groundbreaking and top secret age reversing serum with his test subjects only being rats so far. All this changes when aging Hollywood actress Ruth Warren (Jessica Dublin), Ashton’s only benefactor who is funding his experiments, demands that he try the serum out on her. The results are surprisingly effective as Ruth transforms into a younger version of herself (Vivian Lanko) overnight. She is hot enough that the frumpy doctor even gets to sleep with her. To keep things under wraps, Ruth passes herself off as her niece named Elizabeth. But – as all good science-gone-awry movies recognize – Ruth/Elizabeth experiences complications when the elixir wears off as she morphs into a bulbous headed mutant that starts to crave Ashton’s secret ingredient: human brains! I hate it when that happens!

A nice variation on the Fountain of Youth and Dorian Gray themes, THE REJUVENATOR isn’t critical fodder or Oscar bait. It exists for one reason only – to showcase gooey transformation effects. And while you won’t be confusing this with Cronenberg’s THE FLY any time soon, it is still a decent way to spend 90 minutes (if you have low standards like me). This was director Brian Thomas Jones’ first film and you have to admire that he knows he ain’t making art. He rightly showcases lots of delicious Ed French make up. French was sort of a NYC staple in the early 80s, getting his start on films like NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN (1981), SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) and the Tim Kincaid flicks. If you saw his name on the credits, you knew you were going to get slime, bladder effects and some blood. This is no exception as there are quite a few transformation bits and even some surprising gore (a decapitation; an orderly being punched through the gut; and an assistant getting the top of her head lopped off). Interesting that the film’s original title was REJUVENATRIX, and I suspect it was changed to cash in on RE-ANIMATOR (1985).

The acting is surprisingly decent too. MacKay, with his British politician look, is not the most handsome guy they could have cast, but he is good in the role. He must still be thanking Jones for scripting that sex scene with the attractive Lanko. Lanko plays both the young Ruth/Elizabeth and the monster and one has to admire the fact that she let them put that big broccoli bulb on her head and spray all sorts of goo out of it. Maybe it was all too much for her as she only had one small role after this and then was gone from the scene. Also amusing is Marcus Powell, who plays the required role of the superior threatening to pull the plug. He is like David Gale-lite and essayed nearly the exact same role in the great slime classic METAMORPHOSIS: THE ALIEN FACTOR (1990) a few years later. Of course, the film’s big highlight is a visit to a 80s rock club. Young Ruth/Elizabeth is on the prowl for some handsome hunk to hump and what better place to find him than in a venue showcasing the all-female hair band Poison Dollys? No doubt you will be humming “Nice Boy” and “Turn Out the Lights” once you hear them.

Anyway, if you enjoy getting your latex spewing goo freak on every once and a while, by all means check out THE REJUVENATOR. Will it change your life? No. But it will let you see stuff like this: