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!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe speaks!

Despite the drubbings we've been handing director Tobe Hooper's post-1986 efforts, we truly do like the man. He is like that friend you have that you always want to see succeed. Anyway, Hooper was present this past Saturday at the Aero Theatre in L.A. for a double bill of THE FUNHOUSE and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Californians get all the best stuff - sun, surf, smog, Schwarzenegger (ha!), and a Tobe Hooper Q&A run by Mick Garris. A Youtube user was kind enough to upload some parts of it, so sit back and enjoy some stories.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: THE MANGLER (1995)

Dear Diary,

I have such a bad problem and I don’t know how to fix it. I saw Tobe Hooper’s THE MANGLER in the theater 15 years ago and didn’t like it at all. My problem is that over the ensuing years I decided to watch it again and see if it was really that bad. I am so embarrassed and wish I didn’t have such a terrible affliction. God I hope no one is reading this.


Life is all about second chances, right? Or is it about being smart enough to know you were right the first time? Regardless, I decided to revisit Tobe Hooper’s disappointing take on Stephen King’s short story about a possessed industrial laundry machine. See, that is how you can tell a devout horror fan from an average person – if they don’t openly laugh at the idea of a possessed laundry machine and instead say, “That sounds kind of interesting.” The only thing that could possibly be considered sillier than that would be a haunted icebox. Oh crap, this movie has got that too? Damn.

THE MANGLER takes place in Riker’s Valley, a Northeastern town and home to the Blue Ribbon Laundry owned by crippled Bill Gartley (Robert Englund). Housed in their huge factory is an equally huge Hadley-Watson no. 6 steam folder (aka The Mangler) that quickly proves its nickname by chewing up an old lady. Assigned to the case is bitter cop John Hunton (Ted Levine), who is outraged when the local magistrate deems the machine fit to run again after they check the safety bar for 5 seconds (“this inquest is closed”). When another accident involving the machine leaves a woman badly burned, Hunton and his mystic loving brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor) begin to investigate. They come to the conclusion that the Mangler is possessed and feel that Gartley is somehow behind this. They dig into the town’s dirty laundry (yeah, I said it) and uncover a series of accidents involving the wealthy elite, the machine and 16-year-old virgins. Naturally, this doesn’t bode well for Sherry (Vanessa Pike), Gartley’s orphaned niece who lives with him and – MY GOD – today is her 16th birthday!

I’ll be honest and admit I was looking forward to THE MANGLER. I got to see Hooper at a Fangoria convention in 1994 and he previewed it by (wisely) showing the fans the end sequence where the titular beast chops Mark in half. It was chaotic, well-shot and extremely bloody. The short clip whetted my appetite and made me declare Hooper looked to be “back in fine form” to my friends back at their tables (something that took years to live down in a post-Tobe Hooper’s NIGHT TERRORS world). “He’s picked up where TCM2 left off,” the stylish scene had me thinking. What the clip failed to showcase was stuff like Ted Levine’s acting, Robert Englund’s hyper-acting and the film’s whacked out storytelling (yes, outside of a killer laundry press). Hooper may have brought back TCM2’s visual style, but he hampered it down with SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION’s boneheaded-ness.

Like most Stephen King short story adaptations, the film suffers from trying to extend a 20-page narrative into a feature length film. In terms of lineage, “The Mangler” appeared in King’s NIGHT SHIFT anthology. In terms of film heritage, it is closest to GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990), another NIGHT SHIFT story about a factory horrors expanded to feature length (quick trivia: both stories originally appeared in the men’s magazine Cavalier in the early 70s). But the makers of GRAVEYARD had no illusions of greatness, getting in and getting the fuck out in 89 minutes. Hooper and co-screenwriter Stephen Brooks (co-producer Harry Alan Towers also added to the script as Peter Welbeck) bloat the film to an astonishing, needlessly complex and unnecessary 1 hour and 44 minutes. A film about a demonic laundry machine should never be this convoluted. And, for the love of the cinematic Gods, no film should feature a sinister icebox that suffocates little boys, spews blue fog and emits lightning. This scene is so random and out there that Hunton – in an odd bit of convergence with the audiences – mumbles “what the fuck was that?”

And now we get to the mumbling! Making matters all the more worse is some of the acting. Ted Levine, fresh off his memorable serial killer turn in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), is the oddest choice for a hero given his speech impediment. He mumbles so much dialog here that you will be clicking the subtitles button on your remote. At least he gives a subdued performance, which can’t be said for lead villain Robert Englund. This is the fourth time Englund worked with Hooper and he is so completely over-the-top, coming off like a psychotic FDR mixed with Col. Sanders. I’m shocked the sets were still standing given all the scenery chewing he does. It is actually funny because the film becomes so predictable when he is on screen. Person gets mangled --> camera cranes up to Englund overseeing it --> he cuts some lame joke. In the annals of Englund overacting, this might be the top.

All of this is doubly depressing because Hooper turns in a really handsome production. Shot in South Africa, he creates a slick looking film with some impressive camera shots. Even if he apes his TCM corpse/flashbulb edits early in the film, you can respect that he is trying. Even the Mangler itself, designed by Hooper’s son William, is a sight to behold and an impressive piece of production design. Unfortunately, all of this is still wrapped up in a feebleminded flick about a killer industrial size laundry machine. Oh how I wish these production values were on a subtle horror flick with Hooper at the helm. Sadly, this was the last Hooper film to see a major release in theater. It opened in 17th place the weekend it came out, bringing in a measly $933,809 ($5 of that is mine!). Two direct-to-video sequels hit a few years later with THE MANGLER 2, where the title refers to a computer virus (wah?), and THE MANGLER REBORN, where a guy buys the remains of the machine from this film. Hey, that sounds kind of interesting. I’ll have to check that out *grabs diary*.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

No Reservations: FLESHBURN (1984)

I remember this coming out back in the day and being mesmerized by it’s amazing poster promising a wealth of exploitation value: cracked earth, firearms, nude women in bondage, Rambo-esque Indian domination and “a new kind of revenge from the author of DEATH WISH”! Whoa!! Tipper Gore notwithstanding, who wouldn’t want to see that? That’s gotta rock… right? I mean, you have Sonny Landham playing a Vietnam veteran who escapes from a mental asylum so he can kidnap the doctors who testified against him in court, set them loose in the middle of the desert and hunt them down, Indian style. Seriously, how could that not be awesome? Trust me, it’s not.

When it comes to drive-in exploitation flicks, there's a lot of stuff I dig, but one genre I am always down for is the Indian Revenge flick. Who better to root for takin’ it to the man than a Native American? While many minority groups have legitimate complaints of past oppression, bragging rights go to the folks who had their entire country taken away, were massacred in droves and were forced on to tiny parcels of land to commit suicide literally or via drug and alcohol abuse. Preachy, pretentious bullshit movies like BILLY JACK (1971) and it's horrendous sequels (yeah, I said it, they stink on ice) spend time patting themselves on the back for being socially conscious and avoid the raw catharsis of the good stuff like JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975) and THUNDER WARRIOR (1985). Admittedly these films owe their existence to BILLY JACK, but take the theme out of the realm of shrill and naive soapboxing and get into a more visceral area that can strike a chord on an emotional level.

Based on the Brian Garfield novel "Fear in a Handful of Dust" (the title taken from a T.S. Elliot poem), director George Gage, who hadn’t landed a gig since helming the 1978 trainwreck, SKATEBOARD: THE MOVIE, and his wife manage to turn what was probably a mediocre ‘70s beach novel into a tedious, ham-handed, unwatchable mess.

Indian Calvin Duggai (Sonny Landham) escapes from a mental asylum after having a ‘Nam flashback in which his CO demands that he fire a grenade launcher during a firefight. After hijacking a truck and rifle from a hunter, he visits each of the doctors who are all engaged in some sort of ridiculous conversation revealing that they have deep-seated personality flaws and social issues, and kidnaps them mid-breakdown. The first doctor, Jay (Robert Chimento), is the epitome of insecurity and self doubt complete with comb-over. While his wife, Shirley (Karen Carlson), is tryin’ to get some action while wearing a revealing swimsuit, Jay is more interested in his love affair with Jack and Pepsi. He also must be nurturing an OCD affliction as all of the Pepsi cans in his back yard and kitchen are facing the same way… directly at the audience. Weird, huh? While Jay and wife are discussing that the news report that Calvin escaped the asylum, guess who’s coming to dinner? Yep, Calvin casually walks in the kitchen door in complete post-modern Indian garb (big belt buckle, holster, blue jeans, plaid shirt and cowboy hat decorated with feathers). I guess he must have robbed a costume shop on the way over. He ties them up and throws them in the back of the truck and heads out to find his next victim.

His next victim is Sam (Steve Kanaly), a seemingly well adjusted guy who is kidnapped after having this isolated conversation (which is the only scene in which the ranger appears in):
Ranger Smyley: “Hey, that’s a nice old dog you got there, she got a name?”
Sam: “Oh, I dunno… I guess she used to.”
Ranger Smyley: “You know someone told me you were a doctor once, a psychiatrist. What’d you treat? Deaf people? Hahahahahaha!!”
Sam (to dog): “What's that ol' Smyley know anyhow, huh?”
What?! I haven’t witnessed a stranger conversation involving a dog since Joe D’Amato’s THE CRAWLERS (1990). Why do conversations with dogs always turn out totally bizarre in movies? Like David Berkowitz, my conversations with dogs are perfectly logical.

Again, Calvin just pops up out of nowhere, shoves a gun in Sam’s face and when asked “how did you find me?”, Calvin simply replies “it wasn’t hard” and we are off to the next victim! Our final victim is the most issue-plagued of the lot, Earl (Macon McCalman), a famous, but totally insecure, alcoholic, fat, bald guy who is also gay. If you are gay, that means you are extra wacko, apparently. Calvin and his peashooter barge in on Earl while he is guzzling a nice cabernet after cocktails and is babbling to himself in a mirror.
In a bizarre flashback in which characters are allegedly developed, Sam and Shirley run into each other at a swank ‘80s cocktail party where Jay flies into a jealous rage. Sam’s wife innocently asks “what was that all about?” to which Sam replies while snatching the glass out of her hand, “you’ve had too much to drink, we’re leaving!” Phew! Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to butcher the living shit out of a novel.

Calvin, now loaded up with bound and gagged quacks, takes them all out into the middle of the desert and dumps them telling them that they locked him up in the hospital according to the white man’s law, so now he is leaving them in the desert to “live by Indian laws” (which translates to: “so you can die while I hunt you down with Indian magic, suckers!”). When hurling Shirley out of the truck Calvin yells “barren women are filled with hate!” Ummmm, what? If I had to guess, I’d say this was another element from the novel that the Gage’s left in but forgot to connect to anything else. It’s as if they highlighted passages that they liked and didn’t realize that this wasn’t a book club meeting and most people watching the film wouldn’t have a freakin’ clue what the hell they were talking about.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should, because in the opening scrawl we are told Calvin’s backstory about how after arguing with four friends over Indian magic, he was imprisoned in a mental asylum for kidnapping them all and leaving them in the desert to die! Wtf? So basically it’s like watching a sequel that is rehashing the plot of the original, except there was no original and… dammit, that’s just fucking lame, man!

After this point, it’s just a handful of people bitching at each other in the middle of the desert for an hour plus. Sam falls back on his training as a forest ranger (which is vaguely referred to) to help everyone survive while they complain, throw tantrums and have emotional crises. For example the gay doctor who always claimed that religion was a mental crutch becomes a born-again Christian while suffering from a broken leg and hiding in a hole in the desert. Ugh! Make it stop! Occasionally we cut to Calvin putting on face paint or engaging in embarrassingly made-up looking “Indian rituals”, but mostly it’s the four leads bitching up a storm.

Some folks have pointed out that the film (and the book it was based on) is rather insulting to Indians by portraying the only one in the film as a superstitious loon who was rightfully imprisoned, while the white people are educated and come out on top. Granted Calvin is not a glamor role, but none of the characters in this movie are at all well-adjusted or even close to being likable. Yes, the white man does come out on top, but the audience sure as hell ain't rooting for them. Hell, even though Calvin was a total nutcase and completely in the wrong, I was pullin’ for him to off at least one of those whiny effete bastards before the end of the flick. Yes, in the end the doctors win and nobody dies, but by the time that happens, I promise, you won’t give two shits for anyone involved and will be praying, not for ROLLING THUNDER, but instead, for rolling credits.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Obscure Oddities: Romano Scavolini's DOG TAGS (1988)

Vietnam got its second cinematic wind in the mid-80s. Be it the overblown heroics in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD pt. II (1985) or the Oscar hog PLATOON (1986), the Ten Thousand Day War was big business and, naturally, it didn’t take the Italians long to jump on that bandwagon. They strapped on their full metal jackets and headed to the Philippines to crank out flicks like STRIKE COMMANDO (1987) and LEATHERNECKS (1988). None of these titles, however, could match the madness and all-around-weirdness of Romano Scavolini’s Vietnam entry DOG TAGS (1988).

The film unfolds like a play with titles interspersed throughout. Prologue: a NYC reporter heads to Vietnam to follow up on a wild story a radio operator told him about a downed helicopter and its unusual cargo. There he meets a man who tells him the story he witnessed as boy. Act One – The Facts: commandos Cecil (Clive Wood) and Jack (Peter Elich) rescue some P.O.W.s and head to the rendezvous point but are told the chopper won’t be coming and they have a second mission to locate the downed chopper 10 miles away. Quick aside, has anyone ever been picked up by a chopper at the scheduled time in a Vietnam flick?

Act Two – The Getaway: the men lose all of the prisoners they helped escape except one guy (Baird Stafford), who gets a serious leg injury. They locate the chopper and find the document containers, which actually house a stolen cache of gold. All three men decide to make a break for it and steal the gold (they must have seen KELLY’S HEROES) and kidnap an old man, his daughter and her son to help them make it. Act Three – The Chase: the renegade soldiers have been tracked by Capt. Newport (Mike Monty, contractually bound to be in all Italian ‘Nam flicks) and he hires some mercenaries at a titty bar to get the gold back. It all goes to hell in a huge firefight that sees everyone but our two leads die. They yank off their dog tags and throw them on the ground. Epilogue: the reporter is amazed at the story and the young man shows a small gold bar to prove his story is real.

Seems like pretty standard ‘Nam stuff, right? Well, don’t let my straightforward synopsis fool you. This is one weird flick. Scavolini got his rep from the notoriously sleazy slasher NIGHTMARE (aka NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN; 1981) and brings the trash factor over to the Vietnam genre. The film is really bloody, featuring the horrific end result of some booby traps. Also, there is a graphic leg amputation scene where one of the guys doing the cutting has to stop as he vomits on the leg. After that, there is a scene where the now legless guy writhes in pain and the female hostage figures the best thing to do is give him a handjob. WHAT!?! It is truly a bizarre scene as she gets him off while her father sits crying and the son listens to one of the soldiers talk about a ghost house. Actually, that scene pretty much encapsulates the entire film as Scavolini wants to have his cake and eat it too. There are scenes where he is focusing on the horrors of war like when a guy has to kill a enemy woman or the black soldier (Italian staple Jim Gaines) who loses his mind, saluting everyone while going, “Yessssss, sirrrrrrr!” And then you get scenes like the abandoned fortress they seek refuge in blowing sky high (with some truly scary looking pyrotechnics). He truly can’t decide if he wants to make PLATOON or RAMBO, so he tries to make both.

Of course, exploitation aspirations can’t excuse the horrible narrative lapses Scavolini indulges in. First off, how did the kid know what happened before the soldiers took his family hostage? I guess one could excuse that by saying one of the leads told him. However, how the hell would he have knowledge of what happened after the soldiers left his family? The film is filled with this kind of bizarre logic. Another great bit is the commandoes being tracked. One would think they would be smart enough to remove the HUUUGE tracking device from their bag once they decided to split? “Maybe they didn’t know it was there,” you ask. Well, Scavolini actually dubs in a line of Cecil saying, “Damn, I forgot to take out that tracking device.” WHAT!?!

Regardless of these errors, the film is highly watchable and almost hypnotic. The cast is very good with special notice going to Stafford, who was the memorable psycho in NIGHTMARE. In addition, there are some amazing locations in the film and some nice production work. The helicopter in the waterfall is very cool looking and the leads have to use this scary looking bamboo bridge. In fact, there are tons of scary looking situations in this flick. The aforementioned exploding village is crazy with the actors appearing to really be scared of the huge explosions. Even the poor little kid is running around with huge fireballs nipping at his heels. The final firefight is also crazy and includes one shot where Monty doesn’t look too happy when a rocket explodes into the helicopter he is sitting in. Of course, would you expect any less from Italians doing low budget war flicks in the Philippines? Landis would be proud.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe gets equalized!

America loves them some vigilantes. Be it Charles Bronson’s fictional Paul Kersey or real life NYC subway shooter Bernhard Goetz, the public is fascinated by characters who take the law into their own hands when the authorities prove ineffective. So it should be no surprise that a TV show featuring these qualities would have been popular, hence the CBS series THE EQUALIZER.

Getting off to a rocky debut in 1985, THE EQUALIZER slowly built a following with solid-but-not-blockbuster ratings over four seasons (this was back when Hollywood didn’t cancel a series after two bad episodes and – gasp – let it try to find an audience). Audiences tuned in weekly to check out the adventures of Robert McCall, a British ex-secret agent atoning for his past sins by helping out the needy public. “Need help? Call The Equalizer,” read the nondescript ads he ran in papers. Lucky for him, he got honest, hard working folks calling him for help in dealing with generally stereotypical villains. No problem was too tough for the 55-year-old to solve in 45 minutes (well, sometimes it took him two episodes). It was like MURDER, SHE WROTE with fists. Essaying the lead role was Edward Woodward, who previously worked as a secret agent on CALLAN in England during the 60s and 70s. Woodward was the perfect fit for the guy who used his wits and fists to bring social justice and the role garnered him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in 1987 and Emmy nominations for each year of the series.

Director Tobe Hooper signed up to direct the episode “No Place Like Home” for the show’s third season. Following a montage of New York City’s homeless, the episode focuses on Bill and Wanda Whitaker (Michael Rooker and Kelly Curtis, respectively), a down on their luck couple who have just been evicted from their apartment. “We’ll manage,” says Bill right before their van, the new family home, is stolen. With their son Billy (Matthew Stamm) and child on the way, they traipse on over to social services. While mom and dad sign up for assistance, Billy seeks it in a different way as he spots The Equalizer’s ad in a paper and calls the number.

The family is set up in the fleabag Alexandria Hotel, which you know is bad news because bums roam the halls and graffiti reads “the end of the line” (subtle, Tobe). They quickly discover the law of the land as a sleazy enforcer says he will give them $500 to get out so he can house another family to scam an extra $3,000 from the city. Bill opts out and gets a beating for his stubbornness. Of course, this is the perfect time for The Equalizer to show up and do some equalizing. Now let me say, if you are getting whooped by a guy thirty years your senior, chances are thug life ain’t for you. McCall agrees to help the family and brings in some his accomplices. There is Jimmy (Mark Margolis), who digs up legal info, and watchdog Mickey (Keith Szarabajka), who thinks all folks on skid row are lazy (do you think he will learn a lesson?). Their research finds the slumlord owner is one Amar (Michael Lerner) and they set in motion a plan to oust him from his criminal, exploitation enterprise.
I remember catching THE EQUALIZER sporadically with my folks when I was a kid and I’m sure most episodes unfold like this one with everything wrapping up nicely and quickly. I’ll admit that it is somewhat surprising to see what is basically escapist television deal with such a strong topic head on, especially in the “greed is good” 1980s. Hooper lets you know right off the bat this will be a bummer with a opening montage that showcases real homeless folks all over NYC (with required gospel song to double the impact). His disdain for Yuppies displayed in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 re-appears with a guy worrying Rooker might back into his BMW a few minutes in. The hotel scenes might be a bit over the top, but they serve the purpose of getting audiences to see the main character’s plight. There is also some frank dialog by some kids when Billy see a woman send her child to school and then pull off her coat to reveal hooker’s clothes. “She’s a whore turning tricks,” said a young black kid who talks to Billy. A large chunk of the episode also deals with Billy’s anger at his dad for being “a loser” as he calls it. The Equalizer sets the kid straight in a pretty stern talk that probably wouldn’t fly with the precious snowflakes on TV today.

The shows obviously benefits from the New York City location filming and Hooper captures the city well. Also, this is Hooper's first official stab at a straight drama, so it is interesting in that regard. He has stacked the cast to play opposite the excellent Woodward with some great character actors and promising new faces. You have Michael Lerner, who flows in and out of a ridiculous accent ("In mah country, vee verk hard-ah"), as the slumlord and Ed Lauter even shows up for one scene as a dick (“I was born without a social conscience”). Hooper also saw great promise in Michael Rooker and cast him in his first seen leading role. Keep in mind that while his breakout performance in HENRY: PORTAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was already in the can at this point, the film was released until 1990; so good job to Tobe for noticing Rooker in advance. Also, you have Kelly Curtis, Tony’s daughter and Jamie Lee’s sister, in one of her earliest lead roles. She wouldn’t be as successful as sis, but would go on to star in Michele Soavi’s THE SECT a few years later.

While a pretty good episode and technically proficient, it is interesting to observe how far Hooper had fallen in his career. Just a few years earlier he was working with budgets up to $25 million and now he was doing television episodes. Granted, the stuff he was doing at the time (this and AMAZING STORIES) was on the higher end, but I’d love to hear how he ended up in the position. In one interview I read with Hooper, he did mention that the topic of homelessness and social justice of this episode did appeal to him. Unfortunately, this career detour ended up keeping him away from the big leagues permanently. And it only got worse after this as he did the pilot for FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES. Here at VJ we like to theorize that the meeting for that went like this.
Exec: “We’re making hand over fist money off of Freddy and we’d love for you to do his origin story on the debut episode of our Freddy TV show.”
Tobe: “A chance to work on a successful franchise and deliver a dark back story? Sign me up!” *signs contract*
Exec: “Okay, great. Here is the script and budget outline.”
Tobe: “Oh shit…” *chomps cigar in half*

Monday, August 9, 2010

Revenge of 3-D: REVENGE OF THE SHOGUN WOMEN (1977)

Phew! Chang Mei-Chun, what the hell happened? After the solidly entertaining and totally action packed DYNASTY (1977) this is what you give us? Damn, you sure know how to hurt a guy. Of course since info on these movies is scarce at best, I would have to guess at what happened, but I don’t think I’d be far from the mark to think that Chang pulled a Corman and had the 3D cameras, Pai Ying, Chin Kang and a few other cast members for a couple extra days, and banged out this quick, sloppy, no-budget potboiler.

The movie starts off promisingly enough with flaming arrows flying out of the screen as a group of masked bandits descend upon a small town. After killing all of the men, they hunt down the women, who are hiding, in order to fulfill their bestial lust by tearing off their clothes and spasmodically jerking like they are being tasered. In one rather Freudian instance, a bandit suspects that one of the nubile maidens is hiding in a rice bale and thrusts his spear in to the bale and the camera angle is the view within the bale so that the spear thrusts right into the audience. Cue opening credits where the raped women, robbed of their virginity, are sent to a monastery to live out the rest of their lives in service to Buddha. Sheesh, talk about adding insult to injury! It’s worth noting that some unscrupulous sellers are offering the TV print of US 21st Century Releasing version of the film, which is missing the entire six-minute opening sequence and starts with the final shot of the bandit raid, then cuts to the opening credits and the girls getting their heads shaved in the monastery.

Meanwhile back in the village, a love sick subplot unfolds about the Liu Chen who is being courted by the not-so-heroic Dr. Cheung much to the jealousy of the local artist, Chu. While Chu is waxing poetic about his unrequited love, Liu Chen falls unconscious with an ailment that Dr. Cheung proclaims can only be cured by performing acupuncture on her breasts. Daaaaamn, I gotta remember that one! I wonder if the hotties will buy that from a white guy? Oh, and this scene has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the film and is never referred to again. More non-sequitur scenes follow with the lamest carnival ever (witness the astounding Pipe-Smoking Man, in the miracle of 3D!), monks training with staves; villagers training with spears, and monks training staves, in 3D. Yeah, I know, I said that twice. That’s because Chang, desperately trying to pad out his running time lets scenes run waaaay too long with long silent gaps during dialog scenes and lots of cut-aways to the chicks with sticks (which of course are thrust in your face every second). Even worse, many of the shots are repeated. I know, Corman did that too, but Corman made sure that there was something interesting in the film to hang his hat on, even if it just was the leading actress's nipples.

The bandits decide Dr. Cheung’s wedding to Liu Chen is the perfect time to return and raid the village again! Of course this is a plot by Chu to throw in with the bandits in order for him to get Liu Chen for himself. Like she’s going to fall for him now! The hell with betraying the village, he trashed her wedding! During the matrimonial milieu the village elder has all of the women, and Dr. Cheung, gather together and head out to the monastery leaving their husbands to fight the bandits. When two of the women start bitching about Dr. Cheung getting a pass, the elder quiets their concerns “Dr. Cheung can’t fight! He’d be quite useless here!” Ouch! Yeah, you can forget all that Wong Fei Hung shit right now, cause this doctor has no problem high-tailing it out of town with his braid between his legs!

Meanwhile the head nun (what the hell is a “Mother Superior” in Buddhism?) decides that no action will be taken against the bandits and the women (and doctor) cannot even take refuge in the monastery! Very noble of you Sister. What is the reasoning behind this? Because it is not the way of the Buddha! What?! Damn man, this is totally contrary to every kung fu flick I’ve ever seen. The Shaw Brother's lied to me, I want a refund! Because of this informal edict, two of the nuns get all gussied up in flashy blue ninja-slash-harem girl outfits and raid the bandits while the bandits are raiding the town. In the middle of an attack, the bandit leader rips off one of their masks to find out that she was one of his rape victims in a previous attack, causing her to be sent to the convent to be trained to fight bandits! Oh the poetic irony… or just a lame contrivance. Your choice. They then stop fighting and verbally taunt each other for what seems like an eternity, before the girls trampoline back to the convent.

The bandits arrive in the village square to find it completely deserted, the bandit leader (Pai Ying), shrugs and muses “they must have all hidden.” Before being ambushed by the villagers, leading to numerous weapons being thrust repeatedly into the audience. After the village elder throws a grenade at the bandit leader, the bandits are hell bent on getting the formula and that means that Liu Chen, the elder’s daughter, is a marked woman. The bandits arrive at the monastery and the nuns are forced to throw-down against the bandits in what is easily the only worthwhile moment of the film. Too bad all on your enthusiasm will be bludgeoned into submission by the time the bandit leader starts attacking nuns with his hair braid. If you are a Pai Ying fan (and why would you not be?), there are some great moments to be found here as he decimates nuns and villagers with his lethal moves and killer braid. Plus his violent scalping demise is highly entertaining, though again, completely missing from the 21st Century TV print.

Chang Mei-Chun, not content with simply having spears, staves, axes, limbs, horses, arrows, feet and rocks thrown into the camera, busts out the old tree-in-the-foreground trick so that a twig sticks right in the audience’s face during a scene where people are just standing around. And there are lots of those! Where DYNASTY has become one of my favorite non-Shaw Brother’s old-school martial arts films with the 3D experience actually enhancing the entertainment value that is already present, REVENGE is a perfect example of how not to make a 3D film. The painfully low-budget would not be a problem if the action scenes weren’t so small, poorly choreographed and feature looped screams that sound like they were taken off of a Haloween “Sounds of Horror” LP. There are way too many uninteresting dialogue scenes all of which are padded to the point of madness and the 3D gimmicks, while just as plentiful as in DYNASTY, here are unimaginative and repetitive. There is actually a point early on where you will get really tired of seeing someone stick a sword into the camera. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, this movie sports the worst $10 casiotone soundtrack ever. It’s clearly a stock soundtrack and while most low-rent Hong Kong films of the ‘70s and ‘80s used library tracks, this one seems more suited for an Andy Milligan film than a rousing action picture. If you are the completeist type, you may want to hunt this down, but like DYNASTY, beware of cut versions and if you've never seen a 3D movie, the poster lies like a dog.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's TV Terrors pt. 3

The importance of THE X-FILES in terms of modern television should never be understated. Check any fall schedule after the show’s breakout seasons and you will find channels littered with paranormal investigation infused knockoffs like POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY, THE VISITOR, FREAKYLINKS, HAUNTED and THE BERNIE MAC SHOW (just making sure you are paying attention). ABC was so desperate for a sci-fi themed cop show that they turned the Van Damme vehicle TIMECOP into a show for one ill-fated season in 1997. Hell, X-FILES creator Chris Carter even delivered not one but two riffs (MILLENIUM and HARSH REALM) on his own show. Investigating the paranormal was big business, which was made even bigger thanks to the surprise box office hits THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE SIXTH SENSE in 1999. So before you could whisper “I see dead people,” you knew a show centering on clairvoyant paranormal investigators was coming. THE OTHERS was that show, popping up as a mid-season replacement on NBC in Feb. 2000.

Produced by Spielberg’s DreamWorks Television, THE OTHERS was created by screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (we reviewed their early sci-fi effort MINDWARP here) and co-written by X-FILES writers Glen Morgan and James Wong (around the same time they found out killing kids in intricate accidents in the FINAL DESTINATION was also big business). So THE X-FILES had Agents Mulder and Scully? Well, if we triple that number our show should be three times as great, right? So thinks Hollywood and THE OTHERS features six psychics investigating cases. We have Ellen (Missy Crider), the girl into black arts; Albert, the cranky old blind guy who can “see”; Warren (Kevin J. O’Connor), the nervous wreck; Mark (Gabriel Macht), the hunky doctor who can feel other’s pain; Elmer (Bill Cobbs), the requisite old black man/sage; and Marian (Julianne Nicholson), the young college student just experiencing her powers and unsure if she wants to join the group. Keeping them all in check is Prof. Miles Ballard (John Billingsley), who sets up their various jaunts across the country.

Tobe Hooper stepped onto the show to direct “Souls on Board,” the fourth episode of the season. The entire group is heading to a conference in Arizona, but Prof. Ballard has ulterior motives. He booked this specific flight because of the reports of paranormal activity that has been occurring on it, thanks to the recycling of salvageable parts from a crashed plane. Naturally, the group feels betrayed having to deal with this extra credit, but it doesn’t take long before everyone is feeling the vibes. Marian immediately starts getting that feeling as she sees a ghostly hand on the plane’s window. She soon finds herself in contact with Capt. Garcia, the dead pilot of the plane that crashed, and scrawls out a note reading “Number two engine hot. Data fictitious” and gets it to the pilot. Before you can seize up like John Lithgow, the plane is in trouble and seemingly recreating the doomed path of the earlier flight.

Officially Hooper’s first work of the 2000s, this episode finds him delivering the goods in the required format and again offering technical precision. With 90% of the action taking place inside an airplane, there is limited space to present the scares but Hooper makes it work. The camera is always ghostly gliding down the aisles and there is a very effective scare in the bathroom where faces emerge from the walls (why ghosts seem intent on scaring the shit out of the girl they are trying to contact is beyond me). Hooper also opens the episode with an amazing single take shot that follows the pilot’s hands on the controls of the plane and then slowly changes to crash investigators looking the wrecked equipment while listening to the flight recorder. On the downside, the end is pretty cheesy and there is a virtual repeat of the “crossing over” dialog bit from POLTERGEIST. No doubt this should be accredited to episode writer Daniel Arkin, but Hooper creates a sense of déjà vu by playing it out in the same hushed tones. I haven’t seen the rest of the series, but fans of the show consistently rank this as one of the top episodes.

The impact of THE X-FILES on modern television, however, pales in comparison to the granddaddy of all fantastical TV, Rod Serling’s original THE TWILIGHT ZONE. This science fiction anthology series has seen imitations virtually every year since in debuted just over 50 years ago. One of the plethora of TZ wannabes was Fox’s 2001 show NIGHT VISIONS, which sought to mimic the original’s success right down to the narrator introducing each episode. And who better to act as the new millennium’s faux Serling than former Black Flag front man Henry Rollins. Wait…what??? Yup, looking to get down with the sci-fi geeks, the tattooed singer stiffly introduces each segment. Rollins is known for his lively spoken word performances, but that enthusiasm fails crossover here. It is funny though hearing him say poorly written crap like, “Nothing lasts forever, kids. Try not to forget that.” The only thing more awkward would be some exec thinking Forest Whitaker would make a good host for a second revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Oh, shit, they did that too? F’n Hollywood!

Anyway, Tobe Hooper signed up for two segments on this anthology series, although the IMDb would lead you to believe he only did one as he isn’t credited on “The Maze” page. He is credited for it though with the NIGHT VISIONS TV edit SHADOW REALM. Confused? Good. “The Maze” centers on college student Susan Thornhill (Thora Birch). Painfully shy, Susan steps into a college hedge maze to avoid a guy who likes her. The problem is she steps in there in 2001 and steps out in 2003. Faced with a deserted campus, Susan wanders around with no one in sight. She does encounter other people when she finds a dead cook in the cafeteria and a college professor (Amanda Plummer, looking more like dad Chris every day) teaching a class to dead students. Still confused, she makes her way to the library and runs into the guy who likes her. He informs her that a big asteroid is heading toward earth and DOOMSDAY IS AT HAND! Susan figures that if they run back through the maze, they will end up in 2001, but the boy is stabbed by the psycho professor. They make it to the maze, but only Susan makes it back to the normal 2001. Do you think she has learned her lesson? Hell yeah, she takes the guy up on his offer of a date and love is born. Thank you for my life lesson, super magical maze!

Hooper’s second segment was “Cargo” and aired in the episode a week after his first one. This one is even more straightforward and simple. Seaman Mark Stevens (Jamie Kennedy, reteaming with Hooper after PERVERSIONS OF SCIENCE) discovers a cargo container full of Russian immigrants. The leader of the group (Joanna Pacula) pleads for his help to get them out because there is something inside there that is killing and eating them. Mark consults with Capt. Branscom (Philip Baker Hall) without actually telling him of his discovery. The captain’s words inspire Mark to attempt to free the trapped stowaways, but it turns out to have dire consequences. See, the folks inside the container are actually Russian monsters called Vlokoslat (trust me, I’m spelling that wrong) that “Czars terrorized serfs with and the Russian mob use as assassins.” And our benevolent captain has – surprise, surprise – been paid to transport them to New York. With the secret out, Mark ends up becoming their latest meal.

This is pretty uninspiring stuff, but you really can’t expect too much from a 22-minute episode of a 21rst century TWILIGHT ZONE rip off hosted by Henry Rollins. Chances are you will guess the twists of both episodes long before they are revealed, thanks to a lifetime of anthology programming priming audiences to stay ahead of the game. Both parts are fine from a technical standpoint, echoing Hooper’s earlier work on TALES FROM THE CRYPT. “The Maze” is the better of the two as Hooper is able to establish a very foreboding tone as Susan walks across the empty campus. The well established mood is, however, let down by the flimsy reasoning and the sappy “love is what really matters” ending. In the case of “Cargo,” the story’s twist is pretty obvious as you only have 3 main characters in the entire thing. Again, Hooper does create a nice atmosphere for the piece and even includes a couple of gory bits (for network TV anyway). The finale also sees Hooper giving a visual nod to his own SALEM’S LOT as the monsters have the creepy, glowing yellow eyes.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sci-Fried Theater: HANDS OF STEEL (1986)

In the alumnus of Italian genre film masters of the ‘70s and ‘80s there are many directors that are fondly remembered for their horror movies, crime films, or gialli. While many dabbled with varying degrees of success in other genres, nobody did it as successfully as Sergio Martino. Now I’m not going to sit here and say that the man never mined pyrite out of the celluloid mountains, but generally speaking he could go from low-budget to no-budget and sci-fi to action to horror without missing a beat. Even when faced with what appears to be the budgetary equivalent of the trade-in value of a ’76 Ford Pinto, Martino can whip something out of his ass to make a damned entertaining movie. Such is the case with HANDS OF STEEL.

Set in the not-too-distant future, that looks a lot like Detroit, it seems that in the future our only hope for the future is a politician who says there is no future. And he’s blind and in a wheelchair! No, no, I’m not going to make any jokes about certain political parties being short-sighted and lame, that’s way too easy. Interestingly even though the entire country, as we find out later, is totally behind this Arthur Mosley guy (who’s campaign is supposedly about “hope and change” but his slogan is “you have no future”) his political machine is run by guys in hospital scrubs out of a fleabag hotel room (hospital scrubs, they're the future!). Martino covers himself here by having a lengthy conversation between the cop who is heading up the politician’s security and Mosley’s campaign manager where they mention that the fleabag hotel was chosen as a staging area because of Mosley’s “stubborn idealism”. While setting up the character (which will be mostly forgotten after the first 20 minutes) one of Mosley’s assistants actually finds Mosley sleeping while listening to an audio tape of one of his own speeches. Two things; if your political candidate puts himself to sleep with his own speeches, I don’t think that the opposition has much to worry about, and cassette tapes? They’re the future!

After an attempted assassination, the would-be killer, and his spiffy digital watch with black rubber calculator function keys (it’s the future!), flees the scene through what appears to be an abandoned bus terminal, but we are told it is an “electrical conduit”. The politico, Arthur Mosley, is taken to the hospital where they discover that in spite of being karate chopped in the neck, his spleen has been damaged! The police have black and white photos (it’s the future!) of the car that the “killer” drove off in, but they can’t seem to figure out how he managed to escape or what he looked like. Says the campaign manager guy with whom the police detective is discussing his escape-via-conduit theory, “how could he have made it through alive?” to which the cop replies “that’s what I’m trying to figure out!” What I am trying to figure out is why the cops keep calling the guy a “killer” when he hasn't actually killed anyone! Oh and while we’re at it, why does a freakin' cyborg need a digital watch anyway? Or a nap. Or a digital watch alarm to wake him from said nap! Yeah, I said cyborg. Ah, stop it. It's not a spoiler... you can see it on the damn poster.

As it turns out, the “killer’s” name is Paco Quernak (Daniel Greene) and now he’s taken it on the lam, to seemingly no place in particular. After driving all night through acid rain, that actually eats holes in the roof of his car, he trades it in for a new-used car at an auto lot in the middle of the Arizona desert where the old coot running the place calls him a “jackass” and says his car has “the value of a bucket of rust”. He drives a few miles in it before it dies (it’s a Ford after all) and he needs to ditch it. Since he doesn’t want to leave anything for someone to trace back to him, he runs the car off of a cliff where it tumbles to huge wide-open plain and bursts into flames sending a pillar of smoke into the sky. Nice job Paco, nobody will notice that. Oh, and you left your receipt in the car with your real identity on it (which the police conveniently find half burned). I guess all them cybernetic do-hickey’s got installed below his neck.

Since it is the future everything is retrofitted with dryer tubing. Yep, dryer tubing… it’s the future! Since Martino can’t afford elaborate sets or even matte paintings, he throws all his set-dressing cash into dryer tubing. It’s everywhere! Cars, hotel rooms, science labs and even the hick bar in the middle of nowhere that Paco ends up hoofing it too. Once there he discusses his situation with the owner, Linda (Janet Agren), who’s protests are quickly defeated by his superior logic:
Paco: “I need a place to stay for a few days.”
Linda: “Sure, and in exchange you help me out around here until you cut my throat and take off with the few bucks I’ve got in the till.”
Paco: “I could have done that already.”
Linda: “Ok.”

Of course this just sets the stage for a showdown between some ornery, arm-rasslin’ truckers and our cyborg Paco. Oh yeah, Paco is being hunted by The Foundation, headed up by John Saxon, an evil corporation that turned him into a cyborg (via scientist played by Donald O’Brien) in order to use him for a political assassin… and now he’s brawling with extras from OVER THE TOP. Makes perfect sense! While Linda tries to avoid confrontation between her none-too-bright and overly aggressive boyfriend Raul (George Eastman) by having Paco get a couple of cases of Guinness out of the back (wait, Guinness in a trucker bar? What?), Raul and company finally get under his skin by saying things like “he’s about as strong as a wet fart!” and “when I get through with you, you’re going to have to wipe your ass with your nose!” I mean, who could stand that sort of abuse without snapping? Let the testosterone flow!

Meanwhile the cops are still trying to figure out what the hell happened with Mosley. Since Mosley is blind, he didn’t see his assailant, so the cops go to their futuristic computer program that can give a two-dimensional outline of the weapon. Pretty sweet, huh? While the computer operator and the cop are totally baffled by this image, the program can even analyze the image and suggest what fits the profile! A miracle of modern technology! Here the outline is obviously of a fist, so the computer suggests things like “ashtray” and “crowbar”. It’s comforting to know that unlike in say, THE TERMINATOR (1984), in the future computers are still just as dumb as the people who program them.

The film culminates with non-stop action as The Foundation and the cops figure out where Paco is (by way of a strip club of course). Paco dispatches his rivals with machine-like efficiency, smashing motorcycle helmets, crushing heads and gouging eyes. At one point he is attacked by an evil female cyborg (clearly inspired by Pris in 1982’s BLADE RUNNER) in a scene that is strangely echoed in Albert Pyun’s 1991 cyborg epic NEMESIS. Paco manages to rip the head off of his evil cyborg attacker and throw it on the floor where it lies and taunts him with machinery sticking out of her severed neck. In Pyun’s film, some thugs machine gun a female cyborg in half and her truncated body with mechanical parts spilling out like entrails continues to berate her assailants (or rather Tim Thomerson). Both scenes take place in dilapidated hotel rooms and are loaded with firepower which makes them feel similar. Whether it’s coincidence or not, I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Pyun caught HANDS OF STEEL at the drive-in back in the day and thought that it needed a bit of cyborg nippleage.

As much as I enjoy this movie, every time I watch it, it’s always tinged with a few sobering thoughts. Martino regular Claudio Cassinelli, who plays one of The Foundation’s mercenaries, was killed during a helicopter accident while making the film. Some feel that the film should be banned or boycotted because of this which I think is foolish. Nobody wanted him to die, it was a tragic accident and boycotting the film would make the work and his death in vain. Cassinelli starred in so many genre classics and semi-classics from Martino’s own MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978) and ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) to Fulci’s ROME 2072: THE NEW GLADIATORS (1984) and MURDER-ROCK: THE DANCING DEATH (1984). It would have been great to hear what he had to say on making these films and his thoughts on the way they are received today. Sadly we can't, and I don't see any reason why we should not to enjoy the work he left behind.